Monte Irvin, a Hall of Fame baseball player who starred in the segregated Negro leagues and, after the sport’s color barrier was broken, became an outstanding player with the New York Giants, where he mentored a young Willie Mays, died Jan. 11 at his home in Houston. He was 96.
His death was announced by the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which admitted Mr. Irvin in 1973. The cause was not disclosed.
In the early 1940s, Mr. Irvin was one of the Negro leagues’ best players, and many observers thought he would be the first African American to appear in a major-league uniform since the 1880s.
He had tryouts with some teams and said he was approached by Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who wanted to sign him to a contract. But Mr. Irvin missed three years of baseball while serving in the Army during World War II, and like many other great black players of the time, ended up waiting for his chance.
He was still playing with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League in 1947 when Jackie Robinson made baseball history with the Dodgers as the game’s first African American player of the 20th century.
By the time Mr. Irvin made the majors as an outfielder with the Giants in 1949, he was already 30 and, by his own admission, past his prime. Nevertheless, he had a stellar eight-year career and in 1951 led the Giants to the National League pennant.
That year, Mr. Irvin, Hank Thompson and Mays, then a 20-year-old rookie, formed the first all-black outfield in baseball history. Manager Leo Durocher asked Mr. Irvin to play a paternal role in helping Mays adapt to the big leagues.
“Monte was like my brother,” Mays told MLB.com in 2012. “I didn’t understand life in New York until I met Monte. He knew everything about what was going on, and he protected me dearly.”
Mr. Irvin also hit .312 in 1951, with 24 home runs and a league-leading 121 runs batted in and finished third in the Most Valuable Player voting.
“Monte was the best all-round player I have ever seen,” Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella said years later. “As great as he was in 1951, he was twice that good 10 years earlier in the Negro leagues.”
Mr. Irvin was a key player in one of the most remarkable pennant drives in history, as the Giants won 39 of their final 47 games, including a dramatic playoff victory over the Dodgers, highlighted by Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world” home run.
In the 1951 World Series against the New York Yankees, Mr. Irvin hit .458 and stole home in the first inning of Game 1, but the Giants nevertheless lost in six games.
After missing much of the 1952 season with a broken ankle, Mr. Irvin bounced back in 1953 to hit .329, his highest average in the majors. He helped the Giants win another pennant in 1954, followed by a four-game World Series sweep over the Cleveland Indians.
Mr. Irvin finished his career in 1956 with the Chicago Cubs, where he was a teammate of the young Ernie Banks, who died last year. Mr. Irvin finished his eight-year career in the majors with a .293 average, a .383 on-base percentage and 99 home runs.
When he was inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, in large part because of his achievements in the Negro leagues, he noted that most people never got to see him at his athletic peak.
“My only wish is that major-league fans could have seen me when I was at my best,” he said, “in the Negro leagues.”
Monford Merrill Irvin — his first name is sometimes spelled “Montford” — was born Feb. 25, 1919, in Haleburg, Ala. He was one of 13 children of sharecroppers.
He was a child when the family moved to Orange, N.J., where Mr. Irvin was an all-state high school athlete in football, basketball, baseball and track.
He attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania on an athletic scholarship but left to play professional baseball in the Negro leagues, plus one season in Mexico.
In those early years, Mr. Irvin played primarily shortstop and centerfield and appeared in several Negro Leagues all-star games. During World War II, he spent three years in an Army engineering unit in Europe.
After his baseball career, Mr. Irvin worked for the Rheingold beer company, then spent 17 years in the office of the commissioner of baseball as one of the sport’s first black executives. He organized a committee to recognize Negro-leagues players in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
His wife of 66 years, the former Dorinda “Dee” Otey, died in 2008. They had two daughters; complete information about survivors could not be confirmed.
In 2010, the San Francisco Giants retired Mr. Irvin’s No. 20. He accompanied the team to the White House after it won the 2014 World Series.
Mr. Irvin said he was not bitter, but in a 2004 interview with the Kansas City Star, he raised questions that society is still reckoning with: “Why did they think we could not play? That’s always been my question when I think back to the Negro leagues. The ball was the same size. The bats weighed the same. The fields were no smaller. Why did they think we could not play?”