The Foundation recognizes Montford M. “Monte” Irvin this week for his honorable service in the United States Army during World War II. Irvin became one of the first African-Americans to play in the Major Leagues and was a pioneer in breaking the color barrier.
Irvin excelled athletically, earning all-state honors in the four sports he played in high school. He was also a four-time All-Star in the Negro League with the Newark Eagles.
In 1942, Irvin was drafted into the United States Army and was assigned to the GS Engineers, 1313th Battalion for three years. While serving with the 1313th Battalion, he was sent to England, and then France and Belgium after D-Day to build bridges and roads.
Sergeant Irvin was deployed to Reims, France in late 1944, as part of the secondary defense line in case the Germans broke through at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.
Irvin spoke of the adversity faced as a black Soldier. He stated that black Soldiers often faced rougher times in the Army because of the unfairness that they received from the white Soldiers. He said, “The black troops were treated better in Europe than they were in the US. They got a taste of freedom over there.” He also commented on the paradox of the war because they were fighting to free oppressed people in Europe, despite the groups of oppressed people in the United States.
As a result of his service, Irvin suffered from psychological trauma and tinnitus, which is ringing in the ears. These affected his return to baseball after his discharge, but they did not hinder him from becoming a successful baseball player.
In 1946, he returned to the Negro Leagues and led the Negro National League with a .346 batting average. Upon his return, he was approached by Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers to join their team, but Irvin felt he was unprepared to join the Major Leagues at that time. Had he accepted the offer from the Dodgers, he would have been the first black Major League Baseball player instead of Jackie Robinson.
He eventually got his opportunity to play in the Major Leagues in 1949 when he signed with the New York Giants. He went on to play with both the Giants and the Cubs, playing for eight years and finishing with a combined Negro and Major League lifetime batting average of .293. Unfortunately, Irvin was forced to retire in 1956 due to a back injury but continued as a scout for the Mets in 1967, and, in 1968, became the Assistant Director of Public Relations on the Baseball Commissioner’s staff.
Irvin was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973 by a special Negro Leagues Committee and is an inductee in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
Monte Irvin sacrificed some of his prime playing years to serve his country in the United States Army and had to overcome adversity and racial discrimination during his service. He is honored for his contributions in World War II and the legacy he left behind in both the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues.