Haleburg, Alabama, Irvin grew up in Orange, New Jersey, one of five players who grew up in the Garden State to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. In high school, he starred in four sports and set a state record in the javelin throw. Monte Irvin attended Lincoln University and was a star football player.
Irvin was one of the first black players to be signed after baseball's color line was broken by Jackie Robinson in 1947. He fashioned a career of dual excellence both with the Eagles in the Negro leagues, where he was a teammate of Larry Doby, the first player to break the color barrier in the American League, and with the Giants in the National League. After hitting in the Negro leagues for high marks of .422 and .396 (1940–41), Irvin led the Mexican League with a .397 batting average and 20 home runs in 63 games, being rewarded with the Most Valuable Player award. After serving in the military in World War II (1943–45), he returned to the Eagles to lead his team to a league pennant. Irvin won his second batting championship hitting .401, and was instrumental in beating the Kansas City Monarchs in a seven-game Negro League World Series, batting .462 with three home runs. He was a five-time Negro League All-Star (1941, 1946–48, including two games in 1946).
He was approached in 1945 by Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey about being signed for the major leagues, but Irvin felt he was not ready to play at that level so soon after leaving the service. Newark Eagles business manager, Effa Manley, would not let Rickey sign Irvin without compensation. Rickey had already obtained Robinson without paying for his rights to his Negro league clubs. Said Irvin,
- "... from a purely business standpoint, Mrs. Manley felt that Branch Rickey was obligated to compensate her for my contract. That position probably delayed my entry into the major leagues ... Mrs. Manley told Rickey that he had taken Don Newcombe for no money but she wasn't going to let him take me without some compensation. Furthermore, if he tried to do it, she would sue and fight him in court ... Rickey contacted her to say he was no longer interested released me ... the Giants picked up my contract ...":p.277
In 1951, Irvin sparked the Giants' miraculous comeback to overtake the Dodgers in the pennant race, batting .312 with 24 homers and a league-best 121 runs batted in, en route to the World Series (he went 11–24 for .458). In the third game of the playoff between the Giants and Dodgers, Monte Irvin popped out in the bottom of the ninth inning before Bobby Thomson hit the historic home run. That year Irvin teamed with Hank Thompson and Willie Mays to form the first all-black outfield in the majors. Later, he finished third in the NL's MVP voting. In 1952 he was named to the NL All-Star team.
In his major league career, Irvin batted .293, with 99 home runs, 443 RBI, 366 runs scored, 731 hits, 97 doubles, 31 triples, and 28 stolen bases, with 351 walks for a .383 on-base percentage, and 1187 total bases for a .475 slugging average in 764 games played.
Monte Irvin was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, primarily on the basis of his play in the Negro leagues. Today, he serves on the Veterans Committee of the Hall of Fame and actively campaigns for recognition of deserving Negro league veterans.
On June 26, 2010, the San Francisco Giants officially retired his number 20 uniform. He was joined by fellow Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry and Orlando Cepeda in the pre-game ceremony. He later joined those same Giants Hall of Famers in throwing out the ceremonial first pitch of Game 1 of 2010 World Series.
Irvin is the oldest living African American to have played in the Major Leagues. He is also the oldest living member of a World Series-winning team, having played for the New York Giants in the 1954 World Series.