By Howard Goldin
One of the legends of baseball history passed away on March 1. The Cuban native was an important pioneer in the sport he loved. His outstanding ability, hard work and winning personality opened the door of opportunity for great baseball players who otherwise would have been barred from organized baseball only because their skin was dark and they were Latinos. He overcame barriers that even Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby did not have to contend with as his native tongue was not English and he was not born in the United States.
Those old enough to remember seeing the Cuban Comet play, were impressed by his ability and his passionate effort. Those who have scrutinized baseball statistics of the 1950’s and 1960’s realize he was one of the best of that era. Anyone who ever met the baseball legend and had the opportunity to speak with him, as I fortunately did, could easily discern the decency, kindness and humaneness which he treated each person.
Miñoso played 12 of his big league years in Chicago. He chose to remain a resident of the area and became an ambassador of the Chicago White Sox. Thus, the personable gentleman remained a popular figure to those born long after his playing days ended. President Barack Obama, a White Sox rooter, issued the following statement after Miñoso’s passing, “Minnie may have been passed over for the Baseball Hall of Fame during his lifetime, but for me and for generations of black and Latino young people, Minnie’s quintessentially American story embodies far more than a plaque ever could.”
As a regular visitor to the ballpark, Miñoso was known, liked and respected by the current White Sox players. He was particularly important to his fellow countrymen. Alexei Ramirez remembered him with special respect, “Everybody has to respect his legacy because he did so much for the Latin players, for the Cubans, for everybody because when he arrived here it was a tough time because of racism and discrimination. He wrote a huge legacy for us.”
Cuban born catcher Adrian Nieto recollected advice given to him and Jose Abreu recently, “I’ll never forget the piece of advice he gave me and [Jose] Abreu. ‘Just think you’re the best but don’t say it or walk around like you think you are.’”
An article that I wrote prior to the Golden Era ballot for the Baseball HOF was voted on in December is printed below. I hope it provides some idea of Miñoso’s importance in baseball history.
Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso Deserves Enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown
New York—The majority of people reading this article probably never saw “Minnie” Miñoso play baseball. Many may have never heard his name. Saturnino Orestes “Minnie” Armas Miñoso Arrieta was a great baseball player. He was the only professional player to suit up and enter a ballgame in each of seven consecutive decades. He was one of only two players, along with Nick Altrock, to appear in a major league game in each of five decades.
While the above facts may seem only to be matters of trivia, they reflect Miñoso’s love of the sport of baseball and his dedication to it. At a press conference held by the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame, to which Miñoso had been elected, on September 1, 2011, the star player and humble gentleman said the following, “I don’t know how to express how I feel. Coming to the United States to play baseball was great. Without baseball, I don’t think I would be able to live because it’s in my blood. I gave 100 % not for the money; it was for the fans. I’m proud that I came here to play baseball. God bless the United States. God bless baseball.”
Minoso’s years in the majors when in his 20’s and 30’s were anything but trivial. Baseball and America were very different in the 1940’s than they are today. After starring with the famed Marianao club in his native land in 1945-6, Miñoso left his native Cuba to play baseball in the United States. At that time, he was barred from playing in organized baseball because the color of his skin was dark. Thus, he joined the New York Cubans, a team in the Negro League. He played his home games at the Dyckman Oval in upper Manhattan, the Polo Grounds and at Yankee Stadium, but he lived on Lennox Ave. because choices of residence were restricted.
He made an immediate impact as the third baseman and lead-off hitter for the New York Cubans. His efforts and ability led to success for the Cubans as they won the Negro National League pennant in 1947 and defeated the Cleveland Buckeyes in the Negro League World Series. He also earned personal recognition for his outstanding play. Miñoso was selected as the starting third baseman in the 1947 and 1948 Negro League East-West All-Star games.
In 1948, after three seasons in the Negro League, when Miñoso was in his mid-20’s, he signed a minor league contract. After a short stint in the minors, he made his major league debut with the Cleveland Indians on April 19, 1949. He played nine games that season and did not return to the majors until the start of the 1951 season.
On April 30th of 1951, Miñoso was traded to the Chicago White Sox, where he played in 12 of his 17 big league seasons. The young man demonstrated his ability as a major leaguer in his rookie year, 1951. He batted .326, scored 112 runs, drove in 76 and led the American League in triples (14) and stolen bases (31). The very impressive stats were not enough to convince the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) as Miñoso finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Gil McDougald of the New York Yankees, even though Miñoso’s numbers were clearly superior. The Sporting News did give the Chicago left-fielder its Rookie of the Year Award.
On May 1, 1951, at Yankee Stadium, the Cuban outfielder became the first black player to wear a White Sox uniform. He not only played superior baseball but had the pressure of being a pioneer thrust upon him. He was the first black Latino in MLB. Thus, he had to overcome more than the unfair barrier of race, as he also had the barriers of language and nationality to hurdle.
During the next decade, Miñoso remained consistent and versatile in his high level of play. In his first 11 years in the majors, Miñoso placed second in the American League in hits (1,861), runs scored (1,078), extra base hits (579), stolen bases (193), triples (81), total bases (2,879) and times on base (2,806). He was fourth in on-base percentage (.395) and fifth in batting average (.305). He connected for double figure totals in home runs in each of the 11 years, and drove in 80 or more runs in eight of the seasons.
In his first three years in the big leagues, he led the AL in stolen bases and three times paced the league in triples. In 10 of the 11 seasons, Miñoso led the league in being hit by pitches. Did the color of his skin or his nationality cause him to be so frequent a target of pitchers or did he wisely use this as another means of reaching base successfully? He was also an American League leader in hits (1960), doubles (1957), sacrifice hits (1960 and 1961) and games played (1960).
There was recognition at that time of his excellence on the field as he was a nine-time All-Star (two games were played in 1959 and 1960) between the years, 1951-60. He was cited for his superior defensive abilities as a Gold Glove recipient three times. He only received the award in three years because the honor did not commence until 1957. Also, during the years from 1951-60, Miñoso finished in the top 10 of American League voting for the MVP five times (1951, 53-54, 57 and 60).
Miñoso’s superior performance during that era takes on even more luster when considering the high level of competition. His excellence was achieved in the post-integration and pre-expansion epoch of the late 1940’s and 1950’s, a period of years called by many observers “the golden age of baseball”.
After his career in the majors concluded, Miñoso played ball and managed in the Mexican League through 1973. He also played Winter Ball for many years in his native Cuba and in other Latin American nations during most of his big league career.
Not only did Miñoso prove to be superior to his contemporaries on the field, but his statistics fit in quite well with position players who have been installed in Cooperstown. According to the statistics published in the 2010 National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum Yearbook, Miñoso had a career major league batting average, .298, superior to 62 of the 161 position players already in the Hall.
Fans and players who saw Miñoso on the field understand that even the impressive statistics are not sufficient to describe the effort and skill displayed by the sterling player and the excitement he provided. Tany (Tony) Pérez, the Hall of Fame first baseman of the Big Red Machine said of his fellow countryman, “Every young player in Cuba wanted to be like “Minnie” Miñoso and I’m one of them.” Bill Stimers, 67, a lifelong Yankee fan and an exceptionally knowledgeable follower of baseball, remembers seeing “The Cuban Comet” play against the Yankees in Yankee Stadium, “I love Miñoso. He was a great player. He played with a lot of energy because he loved baseball, not to earn big money like the most of the ballplayers today. I hope he makes the HOF because he deserves that honor.”
In October of 2011, a new means of electing previously neglected candidates to the Hall of Fame, the Golden Era Ballot (1947-1972) was unveiled. Miñoso was one of the ten candidates on the first Golden Era Ballot. Only one of those eligible, Ron Santo was chosen by the Committee, one year after his death. Miñoso, like Santo deserves election during his lifetime. Santo did not improve his stats in the year after he passed. His belated election deprived him of the opportunity to celebrate the honor he earned. This injustice should not also be done to Miñoso, now in his tenth decade of life.
The second Golden Age Ballot will be voted upon in December 2014. Miñoso is again on the ballot. Miñoso has earned a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame and he deserves to receive this honor this year. In 2011, he received 9 of the 16 votes, but needed 12, two-thirds of those voting. He, along with several others like the long neglected Gil Hodges, who also received 9 votes in 2011, should be included with their contemporaries in the National Baseball HOF. Interestingly, two other natives of Cuba, Luis Tiant whose father was a teammate of Miñoso’s in Cuba, and Tony Oliva, who came to the majors as a beneficiary of Miñoso’s earlier great success, are also on the ballot.