What he did: Irvin came up Sunday night during Baseball by the Bay, a podcast I do for Seamheads.com with fellow Society for American Baseball Research member Paul Hirsch. Early in the show, Paul spoke of attending a San Francisco Giants game last weekend and watching the team be presented with rings for winning the 2010 World Series. Paul said four of the six living Hall of Famers who did their best work as Giants– Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, and Gaylord Perry– were honored at the event, with only Juan Marichal and Irvin not present. It got me thinking more about Irvin, one of the better What Ifs? in baseball history.
Irvin was among the first Negro League greats elected to Cooperstown and shined in a short big league career, debuting in 1949 at 30, two years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Playing until 1956, Irvin spent all but his final season with the Giants and peaked in 1951 when he led New York to the World Series, finished third in MVP voting, and mentored a rookie Mays. One can only wonder how much segregation limited Irvin’s lifetime stats. Other factors held him back, too, like a broken ankle in 1952 that limited his season and left him injury prone the rest of his career. In addition, the Giants’ vast home park, the Polo Grounds favored pitchers.
In a more recent era with better medical care off the field and more favorable conditions for hitters on it and of course no racial restrictions to play a full career, there’s no telling what Irvin might have done.
Era he might have thrived in: We’ll transport Irvin to the 1990s and the Texas Rangers, to a team that played in a veritable bandbox during one of the great ages in baseball history for hitters. The thought here is that Irvin would easily top 3,000 hits lifetime, provided he stayed healthy and that he’d rival Tony Gwynn as the best contact hitter of the ’90s.
Why: It may not be possible to accurately project stats from a 15 or 20-year big league career for Irvin, though a number of things hint at the success he might have achieved.
There’s Irvin’s 1951 season, where he hit .312 with 24 homers, 121 RBI, and an OPS+ of 147. Bobby Thomson hit eight more homers and had an OPS+ of 150, though the team was nothing special offensively, hitting .260. How the Giants scored 781 runs, won 98 regular season games, and lost in the World Series seems illogical, though players have admitted in recent years that the club stole hitting signals from opponents during its fabled pennant drive. It’s still noteworthy Irvin had a great year in a park where center field practically had its own time zone.
Interestingly, Irvin had almost identical batting average at home and on the road, though his slugging percentage was nearly 100 points higher outside the Polo Grounds. If we move him to Texas in 1996, his stats convert to 29 home runs, 158 RBI, and a .345 batting average. He’d get another shot at the postseason as well, as the Rangers won 90 games and the American League West and lost in the AL Division Series to the Yankees. Irvin would be another weapon for a Rangers club that featured MVP Juan Gonzalez and five other players with at least 80 RBI.
Irvin would have more going for him in this baseball generation than good teammates and a cushy ballpark, though. I must say that I admire anyone who could make a late go of it in the majors after starring for years in the harsh conditions of the Negro Leagues, where players endured poverty and very strenuous travel conditions. Perhaps there’s a certain nobility and sense of purpose that comes in suffering, though I’d like to think that playing in a time where his financial and health needs would be vastly more secured, Irvin would do ever greater.
Irvin turned 92 in February and reportedly didn’t travel to the Giants’ ceremony for health reasons. I’m pleased the team retired his number and honored him at its 50th anniversary of moving to San Francisco two years ago. One can wonder what might have been with Irvin, but that being said, there’s plenty to celebrate about the man.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.
Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, George Case, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays