SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Monte Irvin will leave the pioneer status to Jackie Robinson, the first African-American major leaguer. Yet those who admired Irvin and played alongside him know how much he also did to break down the color barrier.
The 91-year-old Irvin, a Hall of Famer who became the first black player in Giants history when he signed with the club on July 8, 1949, had his No. 20 retired Saturday during an on-field ceremony at AT&T Park before the Giants hosted the Boston Red Sox.
“Now I feel like my life in baseball is complete,” Irvin told the sellout crowd.
It was unveiled high above left field at the Legends Suite next to the No. 24 of Willie Mays, the man Irvin roomed with early on and also mentored like a big brother.
Mays and fellow Giants Hall of Famers Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Gaylord Perry and Orlando Cepeda all were on hand for the festivities to honor Irvin, who is in a wheelchair but otherwise doing well.
“The time I first came up was very, very precious because of him,” Mays said.
Irvin even received a video message from commissioner Bud Selig on the main center-field scoreboard.
“It’s my pleasure, Monte, to congratulate you for the retiring of your No. 20 by the San Francisco Giants,” Selig said. “You have represented baseball on the field and off the field in remarkable fashion.”
He made history in 1951 when he joined Mays and Hank Thompson to form the first all-African-American outfield. That same season, the Haleberg, Ala., native batted .312 with 24 home runs and a league-leading 121 RBIs while helping the Giants rally to beat the rival Dodgers for the NL pennant.
Irvin becomes just the 11th player to have his jersey number retired by the Giants.
“Major League Baseball would not have been the same if not for Monte Irvin,” managing partner Bill Neukom said.
Inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1973, Irvin owned a career .293 average with 99 home runs and 443 RBIs in eight seasons in the majors, but his legacy was established long before that as a five-time All-Star in the Negro Leagues.
“I couldn’t aspire to become a major leaguer because the door was closed,” Irvin said. “After World War II, I knew there was a chance. We rooted for Jackie because we knew that was progress. … I was just happy he was successful because it made it easier for the rest of us who came after him.”
After retiring following the 1956 season, Irvin spent two years as a scout for the New York Mets and was a public relations specialist for the Commissioner’s Office under Bowie Kuhn. Irvin currently serves on the Veteran’s Committee for the Hall of Fame.
While Mays and the other Hall of Famers see each other for events at Cooperstown, Saturday was different. Mays said he recently had surgery — he wouldn’t elaborate — but wouldn’t have missed this event.
Irvin joked that it took the Giants long enough to hang up his number.
“To be with them in San Francisco is a delight,” he said of Mays and Co.
When Mays arrived in New York in 1951, he already had a relationship with Irvin. But once they were teammates, they became nearly inseparable — with Mays regularly having dinner at Irvin’s Orange, N.J., home, where Dee Irvin cooked Mays’ Southern favorites collard greens and cornbread.
“Monte was like my big brother,” Mays said. “I couldn’t go anywhere without him, especially on the road. He helped me to understand when playing ball in New York, you have to understand how to dress and where to go. … At 91, I’m looking for that (to get there). If you guys listen to Monte, he’s still pretty sharp. You can’t fool him.”
Cepeda’s father played against Irvin in Puerto Rico and Cepeda recalls fondly the day in 1944 when he went to the ballpark early to see the player his dad claimed was one of the best two in their country.
Irvin didn’t start because of a hurt arm, but hit a pinch-hit double in the seventh — as Cepeda remembers it — with one arm.
“It just happened on a lucky day,” Irvin said, chuckling.
“Monte was everybody’s idol in Puerto Rico,” Cepeda said. “On this day in 2010 in Puerto Rico, Monte’s name is still huge.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.