Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Monte Irvin, 1919-2016

Monte Irvin poses in spring training, 1952, the year
after he led the National League in RBIs.

It could have been Monte Irvin.

The overwhelming consensus among the people involved in the Negro Leagues in the 1940s was that Monte Irvin was the best candidate to break baseball's color barrier.

Effa Manley, the owner of the Newark Eagles, the team Irvin played for in segregated ball:

“Monte was the choice of all Negro National and American League club owners to serve as the No. 1 player to join a white major league team. We all agreed, in meeting, he was the best qualified by temperament, character, ability, sense of loyalty, morals, age, experiences and physique to represent us as the first black player to enter the white majors since the Walker brothers back in the 1880s.
“Of course, Branch Rickey lifted Jackie Robinson out of Negro ball and made him the first, and it turned out just fine.”

The choice of Jackie Robinson over Irvin remains intriguing. Both were college men; both served in the military during World War II; neither was a particularly young man when they got the call to white ball, although Robinson was a couple years younger. And Irvin did not, by all accounts, have Robinson's temper, which had to be a risk Rickey weighed carefully. Perhaps Rickey gauged Robinson's rage as a motivating force to keep persevering through the inevitable abuse.

This all comes up, of course, because Irvin died Monday night. He was 96. His death leaves Willie Mays and Hank Aaron as the sole surviving Hall of Famers who played in the Negro Leagues.

Look at Irvin's major league record, and you see a good but not necessarily great player. He had only three seasons in which he had 500 or more plate appearances. He also didn't get to play in the white majors until he was 30, so the statistical record is flawed. As Bill James wrote in explaining why he was unable to rank Irvin with any confidence among left fielders in baseball history, Irvin had one foot in one world and the other in another.

Irvin, I'm confident, was a helluva player in his day, but there wasn't much left to his prime when he joined the New York Giants. He had enough to carve out eight seasons and leave a legacy.

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