Monte Irvin, a groundbreaking 'gentleman' of baseball, dies at 96

Story highlights

  • Monte Irvin was regarded as one of the best hitters and all-around players in the Negro League
  • The New York Giants signed Irvin to a contract in 1949, making him one of the first African Americans to play in the majors
  • Willie Mays reacts to his death: "Monte Irvin was a great man. I will miss him."

(CNN)Baseball Hall of Fame outfielder Monte Irvin died Monday night in Houston. He was 96.

Regarded as one of the best hitters and all-around players in the Negro League, Irvin was a sensation for the Newark Eagles, making five All-Star teams. In 1946, he won his second batting title as he helped Newark win the Negro World Series.
Three years later, the New York Giants signed Irvin to a contract, making him one of the first African Americans to play in the majors.
He played a vital role in the Giants' World Series runs in 1951 and 1954.
Irvin tied a World Series record with a .458 series batting average and 11 hits in 1951 -- his best season when he hit .312 with 24 home runs and a league high 121 RBIs. Irvin played for the Giants for seven seasons, made the 1952 All-Star game and won the World Series in 1954. He also played a season for the Chicago Cubs.

'A true gentleman' and a mentor to Mays

"Monte was a true gentleman whose exceptional baseball talent was only surpassed by his character and kindness," San Francisco Giants President and CEO Laurence M. Baer said.
"He was a great ambassador for the game throughout his playing career and beyond. As the first Giant and one of the first African-American players to help integrate Major League Baseball, he served as a role model and mentor to so many who followed in his footsteps -- including Willie Mays."
Irvin played four seasons with Hall of Famer Willie Mays and was seen as a mentor to Mays.
"I lost someone I cared about and admired very, very much," Mays said, "Someone who was like a second father to me. Monte was a kind of guy that you had to be around to get to know. But once you became friends, he always had your back. You had a friend for life. Monte Irvin was a great left fielder. Monte Irvin was a great man. I will miss him."

War interrupts his career

During the prime of his baseball career, he was drafted into the Army and spent three years in military service with the Army Engineers in Europe during World War II. Before the war, Irvin had been the Negro League owner's choice to be the one to break the racial barrier. But while he was serving his country, Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey selected and signed Jackie Robinson instead.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert D. Manfred said, "Monte Irvin was a true leader during a transformational era for our game. A longtime member of the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues in his native New Jersey, the All-Star slugger made a seamless transition to the New York Giants in 1949.
"Monte loved our game dearly, bridged eras of its history and touched many lives. Major League Baseball will be forever grateful to courageous individuals like Monte Irvin. "
Irvin was inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 and has been inducted into nine Halls of Fame in United States, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Cuba.
"The National Pastime has lost a pioneer with the passing of Monte Irvin, and the Hall of Fame has lost a devoted family member and friend," said Jane Forbes Clark, chairman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
"Monte followed in the footsteps of Jackie Robinson as one of the men who integrated baseball, then proceeded from his exceptional playing days to working tirelessly for years in the Commissioner's office. His impact will always be felt on the game, and he will be missed in Cooperstown."
After retiring, Irvin scouted for the New York Mets and was the assistant to Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn from 1968 to 1984.