From the chronicled statements of his former colleagues in the Negro Leagues, Monte Irvin was the player many thought would be the best choice to break baseball’s color barrier. A star in the late 1930s and early 40s, Irvin was a multi-tooled player with the proper temperament to handle the difficulties that might come the way of such a pioneer. It turned out that Branch Rickey opted to sign Jackie Robinson instead but two years later, Irvin and Hank Thompson became the first African-American players to sign with the New York Giants.
Now, a photo of Irvin, taken a day before his major league debut, is reaching the auction block for the first time.
The 7 ¼” x 9” news photo, with the dated caption still attached to the back, is among the featured items in RMY Auctions’ August catalog. The posed image shows Irvin and Thompson shaking hands with Giants manager Leo Durocher on July 6, 1949 after the two players had signed their contracts with the club. Durocher fully supported the integration of the major leagues.
“When everyone got dressed, he had a five-minute meeting,” Irvin recalled to writer Peter Golenbock in the book In the Country of Brooklyn. “He said, ‘I think these two fellows can help us make some money and win the pennant and the World Series. I am going to say one thing. I don’t care what color you are. If you can play baseball you can play on this club. That’s all I am going to say about color.’ This was two years after Jackie. They had gotten used to seeing an Afro-American on the field. It wasn’t a picnic. We heard the names. But we didn’t have it as rough as he did.”
Irvin played a major role in the Giants’ famous pennant-winning season of 1951. He his .312 with 24 homers and 121 RBI, finishing third behind Roy Campanella and Stan Musial in MVP balloting. In the World Series, Irvin batted .458 and stole home in the first game of the World Series against the Yankees. He was 32 years old at the time and while he was one of the majors’ best players, fans missed seeing him in his prime, which was also interrupted by military service in World War II. “Monte was the best all-round player I have ever seen,” Campanella recalled. “As great as he was in 1951, he was twice that good 10 years earlier in the Negro Leagues.”
The photo is one of hundreds in RMY’s August Auction, which runs through August 21.