• Statistics from the Negro Leagues are incomplete, and verified data is limited. But there is no doubt that Irvin was a standout with the Eagles, winning a batting title at age 22 in 1941, when the available numbers show him hitting .400 in 130 at-bats. The next year, he took his talents to the Mexican League, where he nearly won a Triple Crown, before the military came calling.
“I could do the five things pretty well before the war,” Irvin said in an oral history conducted on behalf of the Hall of Fame in 1988. “It was run, hit, field, throw and hit for power. There wasn’t too many people who could beat me playing.”
• Another place Irvin played before reaching the Majors was in Cuba, where he went for winter ball. There he met an aspiring pitcher by the name of Fidel Castro. The future leader of Cuba would work out with Irvin’s team, throwing batting practice.
“He could throw pretty hard, but his control was off,” Irvin recalled in an interview with the Hall of Fame.
• Irvin’s 1951 season with the Giants – his only MLB season with more than 512 plate appearances – provides a tantalizing clue about what he could have accomplished if given the chance earlier. At age 32, Irvin came to the plate 657 times and ranked fifth in the National League in batting (.312), fourth in OBP (.415), seventh in slugging (.514), sixth in OPS+ (147), third in triples (11), 10th in home runs (24) and first in RBIs (121). His 6.9 WAR, per Baseball Reference, ranked fifth. It was a superstar season for a “Miracle” Giants team that badly needed it. For his efforts, Irvin placed third in a competitive NL MVP race, behind Roy Campanella and Stan Musial.
“Monte was the best all-around player I have ever seen,” Campanella later said. “As great as he was in 1951, he was twice that good 10 years earlier in the Negro Leagues.”
• Speaking of 1951, Irvin played a major role in one of the most memorable pennant races of all-time. After losing on Aug. 11 that year, the Giants trailed the crosstown rival Dodgers by a whopping 13 games. But the Giants won 37 of their next 44 – Irvin batted .335/.423/.604 over that stretch, with nine homers and 37 RBIs – to tie the Dodgers at the end of the regular season. In the ensuing three-game tiebreaker series, Irvin homered to help win the first game, and doubled and scored off Don Newcombe to tie the decisive third game in the seventh inning. Two innings later, Irvin watched as Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” won the pennant for the Giants.
“We would not have made that huge comeback in 1951 and won the pennant at the end, if it weren’t for Monte,” Thomson later said.
• Irvin ultimately won a ring with the Giants in 1954, but the ‘51 World Series did not go their way, as they lost to the Yankees in six games. Yet Irvin had the best series of any player on either team. He cracked four hits and stole home in his World Series debut and finished the Fall Classic 11-for-24 (.458) with a 1.042 OPS. That remains tied for the 10th-highest batting average in a single World Series (minimum 20 at-bats).
• It wasn’t Irvin’s only great championship performance. In his first season back from the war, in 1946, he helped lead the Eagles to a seven-game Negro Leagues World Series victory over Satchel Paige’s Kansas City Monarchs. Irvin batted .462 with three homers and eight RBIs.
• Irvin’s rise with the Giants coincided with the arrival of a certain 20-year-old phenom. Willie Mays, the 1951 NL Rookie of the Year, was Irvin’s roommate, and the older Giant took him under his wing.
“In my time, when you were coming along, you had to have some kind of guidance, and Monte was like my brother,” Mays said. “I couldn’t go anywhere without him, especially on the road. I think he helped me to understand that when you play in New York, you have to understand where to go, how to dress and all that. Monte would bring me to his house in Orange, N.J., and his wife Dee would cook me greens and cornbread and all that kind of stuff.”
• Irvin only got to play eight seasons and 764 games in the Majors, but his production when he was on the field was impressive. Irvin generated a career line of .293/.383/.475, good for a 125 OPS+, or 25% better than the league average when adjusting for ballpark. That’s comparable to many other Hall of Fame outfielders at the same age (30-37), including Ken Griffey Jr. (124). But there’s no need to imagine Griffey’s big league career before he turned 30.