Monford Merrill Irvin
a.k.a. Jimmy Nelson
Positions: cf, ss, 3b
Teams: Newark Eagles ('37-'42, '45-'48), military service ('43-'45), Mexican League ('42), minor leagues ('49-'50, '57), major leagues ('49-'56)
Height: 6'1'' Weight: 190
Born: February 25, 1919, Halesburg, Alabama
National Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee (1973)
Irvin was one of the few fortunate players whose age and ability allowed them to bridge the divide between the two once-separate worlds of baseball. A power hitter who also hit for high average, the right-handed slugger won two batting titles in the Negro National League. He captured the first in 1941 with a .395 average and, after returning from service during World War II, he hit .404 in 1946 to lead the Newark Eagles to the pennant. Irvin's post-season encore produced 3 home runs and a batting average of .462 to spearhead the Eagles' hard-fought victory over the Negro American League champion Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro World Series.
As a teenager Irvin overcame a near-fatal illness to preserve his career as an all-around high school athlete, earning a combined sixteen letters in four different sports (football, basketball, baseball, and track), while setting the New Jersey state record for the javelin. After graduation he earned a scholarship offer to the University of Michigan but had to decline the opportunity because he lacked the money for train fare. Instead he accepted a scholarship at Lincoln College in Oxford, Pennsylvania, and attended for two years until opting for a professional baseball career with the Newark Eagles. Irvin had already begun his baseball career with the Eagles, playing under the name Jimmy Nelson on weekends to protect his amateur standing, while in high school and college.
A versatile baseball player, he played both infield and outfield with the Eagles, often starting at third base or shortstop but eventually finding his niche in center field. In 1939 he hit .403 with good power, and followed with strong seasons of .377 and .400. The latter performance earned him his first trip to the East-West All Star game, where he contributed a double and a single to the East's 8-3 victory. The young slugger had really come into his own going into the 1942 season, and the Eagles fielded their strongest team ever. Newly married and coming off of a super season in 1941, the Eagles' favorite expected a modest raise, but dead-end negotiations with Effa Manley resulted in Irvin leaving the team early in the season to play in Mexico.
Irvin was hitting at a .531 clip with the Eagles when he jumped to Vera Cruz in the Mexican League and, although he missed almost a third of the Mexican season before he made the transition, he led the league in both batting (.397) and home runs (20), finished second in RBIs (79) in only 63 games, and won the MVP award. Then, during his baseball prime, his career was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army, spending three years in military service with the Army Engineers in Europe during World War II. After his discharge he returned to the Eagles at the end of the 1945 season, batting .222 in only 5 games. Then he had seasons of .404, .317, and .319 and appeared in 4 more East-West All Star games (2 games were played in 1946) in his last three years with the Eagles before entering organized baseball after the 1948 season.
After his three-year hiatus from baseball, Irvin felt a need for additional winter ball to work back into his prewar condition, and resumed play in the Latin American winter leagues. In Puerto Rico he had hit for averages of .245 and .297 before the war (1940-1942). averaging a home run every 39.5 at-bats and an extra-base hit every 5.9 at-bats during the latter season. After the war he hit for averages of .368 and .387 for the winter seasons for 1945-1947, and then played two seasons in the Cuban winter league, 1947-1949. Irvin played on championship teams in both countries, winning the title with the San Juan Senadores in Puerto Rico (1945-1946) and during his last year in Cuba (1948-1949). He posted a lifetime .355 batting average in Puerto Rico, and while playing two years in Cuba he registered a .265 lifetime average.
Before the war Irvin had been the Negro League owner's choice to be the player to break the color line, but while he was in the Army, Branch Rickey selected and signed Jackie Robinson. After his discharge, Irvin was still originally signed by the Dodgers, but Eagles' owner Effa Manley demanded compensation, and the Dodgers withdrew their claim, allowing the New York Giants to seize the opportunity to sign the star outfielder. Employing Alex Pompez, owner of the Negro Leagues' New York Cubans, as a scout, the Giants signed Irvin. The hard-hitting outfielder was assigned to Jersey City in the International League in 1949 and hit .373 until he was brought up to the Giants near the end of the season. Beginning the 1950 season at Jersey City, he quickly asserted his hitting capabilities, ripping the ball for a .510 average in only 18 games before he was sent to the parent club to stay, hitting .299 in his first full season and going on to a successful career in the major leagues.
His best season was in 1951, when he hit .312 with 24 home runs and a league high 121 RBIs. After breaking an ankle the following spring and missing most of the season, he rebounded in 1953 with a .329 average, 21 home runs, and 97 RBIs. An integral factor in the Giants' pennant-winning years of 1951 and 1954, Monte tied a World Series record in 1951 with 11 hits, producing a Series high .458 batting average, but his biggest thrill in baseball occurred in the first game, when he stole home against the Yankees' Allie Reynolds.
After seasons of .262 and .253 with the Giants in 1954-1955, he was farmed to Minneapolis late in the 1955 season, batting .352 for the remainder of the year. Promptly drafted by the Chicago Cubs, the hard hitting outfielder played his last major league season for the Cubs, hitting a respectable .271 and leaving a .293 lifetime batting average to show for eight years in the major leagues. This came after most of his prime years were spent in the Negro Leagues, where his lifetime average was .346. Irvin's accomplishments during his eleven year career in black baseball, combined with his major league record, were sufficient to merit his selection to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.
In 1957 he played 4 games with the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League, batting .300, but physical problems dictated that retirement was a more viable alternative to continuing as an active player. After ending his diamond career, Irvin scouted for the New York Mets and continued his work as the community relations director with Rheingold Brewery that he had begun in 1951, until 1968, when he was appointed assistant to the baseball commissioner, where he served until 1984. Irvin was chairman of the Hall of Fame's Special Committee on the Negro Leagues until it dissolved, and he now serves on the Hall of Fame's Veterans' Committee.
Baseball Career Highlights:
"I was the Mexican League batting champion in 1942 with a .397 average and the home run leader in Mexico with 25. Another thrilling memory was winning the 1946 Negro Leagues Championship and being Negro Leagues batting champion, hitting .441 that same year."
In 1949, Irvin went to the Majors as a member of the New York Giants. He played a critical role in the Giants' 1951 and 1954 World Series Championships. In 1951, Monte tied a World Series record with 11 hits and a .458 series high batting average. Irvin's baseball career concluded in 1956 with the Chicago Cubs.
After retiring, Irvin remained actively involved in baseball. In 1967, he scouted for the New York Mets and was the assistant to Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn from 1968-1984. In 1996, coauthored the book, Nice Guys Finish First, with Jim Riley.
Awards, Honors, Titles, Championships,
• New Jersey Penmanship Award - 1932
• Orange, New Jersey High School Letterman (16 times) -
• Lincoln University's All C2AA Running Back
• National Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee -1973
• Inducted Into 9 Halls of Fame in the U.S., Mexico, Cuba and
• Voted the "Greatest Athlete Ever in New Jersey" by the New
Jersey Sports Writers' Association
NLBM Legacy 2000 Players' Reunion Alumni Book, Kansas City Missouri: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Inc., 2000.
James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.