SAN FRANCISCO -- Monte Irvin commanded and reciprocated a brand of respect that towered above his considerable baseball achievements.
Irvin, who died Monday at 96, didn't make his Major League debut until he was 30, his progress delayed by the sport's institutional racism. Once he broke into the bigs with the New York Giants in July 1949, the grace he displayed off the field matched the grace he sustained on it. Obviously, Irvin endured unfair treatment simply by being black. But he chose to cling to the opportunities that awaited him rather than the chances he lost.
Irvin's contemporaries, contacted Tuesday, spoke primarily of the man, not the Hall of Fame ballplayer.
"He always had a smile on his face," said former infielder Joe Amalfitano, a teammate of Irvin's with the 1954 World Series-winning New York Giants. "What a great, great human being. I can still see him smiling."
"He was one of the nicest guys in the world," said Johnny Antonelli, a 21-game winner for the 1954 Giants.
Irvin's multifaceted impact -- as an All-Star in the Negro Leagues and Major Leagues, as Willie Mays' trusted mentor and as an ambassador for the game after his retirement from playing -- caused his death to provoke widespread reaction throughout baseball.
Commissioner Rob Manfred issued a statement praising Irvin: "Monte Irvin was a true leader during a transformational era for our game. ... He spent 17 years working under Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and long maintained a close association with the Giants franchise.
"Monte loved our game dearly, bridged eras of its history and touched many lives. Major League Baseball will be forever grateful to courageous individuals like Monte Irvin. On behalf of our 30 clubs, I extend my deepest condolences to his family, friends and fans."
Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, eloquently shared his thoughts on Irvin:
"One of the classiest men in baseball history, the former Newark Eagles superstar epitomized the caliber of player and man that called the Negro Leagues home. His pioneering role in helping usher in integration in Major League Baseball helped change the game and our country too. As a founding member of the NLBM, his guidance and insight will be missed, but we take great solace in knowing that his legacy, like his fellow Negro League brethrens, will play on forever at the NLBM."
Giants president Larry Baer echoed these sentiments. "He leaves behind an incredible legacy that will be carried forward by his family and Giants fans everywhere," Baer said in a statement.
The high esteem held for Irvin was evident on Twitter, where former Giants such as Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda and Rich Aurilia paid tribute. "Will miss my friend, Monte. Rest peacefully," Cepeda wrote.
Even a current player, Astros right-hander Pat Neshek, expressed appreciation. "I'll always remember how great he was to fans/collectors," Neshek tweeted. "Wish today's Hall of Famers would follow his example."
Sad hearing about Monte Irvin. Ill always remember how great he was to fans/collectors. Wish today's Hall of Famers would follow his example
Don Newcombe, the imposing right-hander who excelled in the Majors from 1949-60, recalled Irvin fondly in remarks released through the Dodgers.
"Monte Irvin was one of the greatest right-handed hitters in the National League in the early fifties," Newcombe said. "I also had him as my teammate in the Negro Leagues in 1945 with the Newark Eagles, and he was a great player at that time. He was also a veteran of World War II, which made us all very proud of him. ... I will miss him as a longtime friend and teammate and our condolences go out to his family."
Irvin's influence was embodied in Mays, whose conduct has remained forever spotless. Less-publicized yet illustrative examples exist of Irvin's intertwined perspective and class.
Amalfitano, a "bonus baby" who spent most of 1954 stuck at the end of the Giants' bench due to the era's contractual rules, recalled committing a baserunning blunder during one of his rare appearances. Afterwards, Giants manager Leo Durocher screamed at Amalfitano and concluded his tirade by bellowing, "If you ever get into a game and do that again, I'll send you so far they won't find you with a 3-cent stamp." Barely 20 years old, Amalfitano was crushed.
The next voice Amalfitano heard came in Irvin's soothing tones.
"Joe, remember, he's just trying to make a baseball player out of you," said Irvin, whose locker was next to Amalfitano's.
Amalfitano ultimately played 10 years in the Majors, coached for Durocher and has spent more than 60 years in the Majors in some capacity.
"He had a distinct, strong voice," Amalfitano said of Irvin. "He wasn't the kind of guy who talked just to be talking. He was a quiet force."