AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Baseball Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, a Negro League star who became one of the first black players in Major League Baseball and a mentor to Willie Mays, died on Monday at his home in Houston at age 96, MLB officials said on Tuesday.
Irvin made his debut with the New York Giants at age 30 in 1949, two years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“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,” Jane Forbes Clark, chairman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, said on the organization’s website.
An outfielder who could hit for power and average, Irvin played most of his eight big-league seasons with the Giants. In 1951, he took Mays, a rookie, under his wing. Mays went on to become one of baseball’s all-time greats.
Irvin helped the Giants stage one of baseball’s biggest comebacks in overtaking the Dodgers for the 1951 National League pennant, and played on the Giants’ 1954 World Series championship team.
He batted .293 with 99 home runs in the Major Leagues after a stellar career in the Negro League, where he had a career average of .354, according to Baseball Reference.
Irvin served for three years during World War Two, putting his baseball career on hold after he was drafted into the U.S. Army. His unit was deployed to the secondary line during the “Battle of the Bulge,” the Hall of Fame said.
Negro League owners had recommended to then-Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey that Irvin would be the perfect candidate to break the color barrier, MLB.com said. Rickey had trouble buying out Irvin’s minor league contract and eventually chose Robinson.
“Jackie Robinson is the real hero and the real pioneer. I was just so happy he was successful, and it made it much easier for all of us who came after him,” MLB.com quoted Irvin as saying in 2010.
After retiring, he became a scout for the New York Mets and spent 17 years as a public relations specialist for the baseball commissioner’s office.
Irvin was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, becoming the fourth Negro Leaguer elected following Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard.
“Today is a sad, sad day for me. I lost someone I cared about and admired very, very much; someone who was like a second father to me,” Mays was quoted as saying on the MLB.com website.
Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Peter Cooney