Claire: Irvin to get worthy, delayed just due
Giants' first African-American player to have number retired
Monte Irvin is 91 years old but his mind is as sharp as the skills he showed on the baseball diamond that earned him Hall of Fame recognition.
"I hate to fly anymore but I will make one more flight," Irvin said by telephone from Houston on Wednesday as he talked about his upcoming trip to San Francisco where he will be honored by the Giants.
One week from Saturday, June 26, the Giants will retire Irvin's No. 20 uniform in pre-game ceremonies at AT&T Park.
No ceremony could be more deserved, or more delayed. It has been 55 years since Irvin last wore a Giants uniform.
Irvin will be the 11th Giant to have his uniform number retired, joining Bill Terry (3), Mel Ott (4), Carl Hubbell (11), Willie Mays (24), Juan Marichal (27), Orlando Cepeda (30), Gaylord Perry (36), Willie McCovey (44), plus pitcher Christy Mathewson and manager John McGraw, who were members of the team in New York prior to uniform numbers being used.
"Mr. Irvin was the first African-American player to play for the Giants," said senior VP of communications Staci Slaughter. "He, with Willie Mays and Hank Thompson, constituted the first all-African-American outfield. Plus he had a storied career in the Negro Leagues. It's only appropriate we pay tribute to him."
"The decision by the Giants to retire my number was totally unexpected on my part," said Irvin. "I just thought the Giants had forgotten about me after all of these years.
"When I considered everything, I just couldn't turn down the trip because I will have a chance to see people like Mays, McCovey, Marichal, Cepeda and Perry."
Anyone who has had the honor of knowing Irvin would recognize he is an unforgettable person.
He was 30 years old when he joined the Giants in July of 1949, and he had been a star in the Negro Leagues in addition to serving three years in the military in World War II (1943-45).
He played seven seasons for the Giants and was a key figure in the team's National League championships in 1951 and 1954, the 1954 season marking the team's last World Series title as the Giants swept Cleveland in four games.
In 1951, at the age of 32 and in only his third Major League season, Irvin led the National League with 121 RBIs while hitting 24 home runs and posting a .312 batting average.
It was an indication of the talent that Irvin had shown in the days prior to reaching the Major Leagues. Irvin was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, primarily on the basis of his play in the Negro Leagues.
While Irvin indicated the flight to San Francisco may be his final one, he vividly recalled his first flight.
"It was in 1942 and I flew from St. Louis to Mexico City.
"I had just gotten married and we were on our honeymoon. I hit .397 and led the Mexican League with 20 home runs and was named the MVP of the league. It's when I realized I could compete with anyone at any level."
Irvin revealed that when he got out of the service in 1945 he signed a contract with the Dodgers.
"I had been selected by Branch Rickey to break the color barrier," said Irvin. "I had the talent and I was easy to get along with."
Irvin said that even though he had signed the contract with the Dodgers, he asked to return to play in the Negro Leagues "because I didn't want to go to the Major Leagues until I had my game back after three years in the service."
Irvin said a dispute developed over the contract between his Negro League team and the Dodgers, and he didn't get his opportunity in the Major Leagues until a deal was worked out with the Giants in 1949.
"Things have a way of working out and I'm just happy that I had the chance to play the game that I loved," he said.
Irvin said he now lives in a retirement home in Houston to be near his daughter and her family. "It's a very nice place and there is an exercise room and the food is good," he said. "My wheels aren't as good as they used to be but I get around alright with the help of a walker."
Irvin said that one person who encouraged him to make the trip to San Francisco was his old friend, Mays.
They first met in May of 1951 at the ballpark in Philadelphia when Mays joined the Giants for the first time at the age of 20.
"Leo Durocher was our manager and he brought Willie up to me and said, 'This is Willie Mays and he's your new roommate,'" Irvin recalled.
"You could see right away that this young man was a natural," said Irvin. "He had those real big hands, great power and speed and would catch everything hit in his direction.
"He's the best center fielder that ever lived, no question. It will be nice to see him again. It's been a long time since we first met."
And so Monte Irvin will board the flight from Houston and go back in time, greeting Mays and other old friends once again and spending time on a baseball field where stories and laughter will flow.
Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as executive vice president and general manager. He is the author of "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue." This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.