The wonder of Minnie

Minnie Miñoso died early Sunday, and some report that he was 89 years old. Others report him being 90. The Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians – two Major League teams where he spent most of his great baseball career – say he was 92. To the end, Minnie Miñoso was ageless.

It is tempting, one more time in his memory, to make the Baseball Hall of Fame case for Miñoso. Getting into the Hall mattered a great deal to him in his later years, and regrettably this happy man who brought so much joy to baseball fans faced disappointment after disappointment on that front. For complicated reasons of timing and the odd shape of his career, Miñoso was not really considered for the Hall of Fame until 25 years after his prime. He was placed on a special ballot put together by a Negro Leagues Committee in 2006, but Miñoso did not play very long in the Negro Leagues, and he was not one of the 17 people elected. He was on the Veterans Committee ballots in 2011 and ’14 but the system was flawed, and he fell three and four votes short.

On the outside, Miñoso accepted such rejections cheerfully – he was Minnie Miñoso, after all, and cheerfulness was his default position – but those close to him knew how much it hurt him. Miñoso was a fantastic baseball player who overcame absurd, nearly impossible odds. And it seemed to him in such moments that few people remembered.

The trouble with making Miñoso’s compelling Hall of Fame case again – something I have done with regularity for more than a decade – is that in some ways it makes you miss the wonder of Minnie Miñoso. Yes, he was one of the best players in the American League in the 1950s, my choice for the All-Decade outfield (along with Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams).

Yes, he could run (he led the league in triples and stolen bases three times), hit (he finished top five in batting five times – Ted Williams thought he was the best pure hitter in the league, save himself), get on base (his .389 career on-base percentage is higher than Mays, Aaron or Clemente), slug (top 10 in slugging six times) and field (three Gold Gloves even though the award was not created until he was in his 30s).

He was extremely productive (he drove in 100 runs four times and scored 100 runs four times), indestructible (he led the league in getting hit by pitches 10 times and yet played more or less every game) and, yes, ageless (he famously got an at-bat in five different decades). He finished top five in the MVP voting four times, and, in retrospect, probably should have won in 1954. Oh yeah, he was also the first black baseball player to play Major League Baseball in Chicago, and the first dark-skinned Latin American player to capture the American baseball stage.

All of these things are true, but there is not enough magic in them. And above all else Saturnino Orestes Armas Miñoso Arrieta was a magical player, the sort who marked a time, the sort who infused people with all sorts of gladness just by being alive.

He quit school as a boy and went to work in the sugarcane fields of Cuba. The work was backbreaking and bleak, and the only brightness he could find in his life was baseball. He created his own team filled with friends and others from around the neighborhood, and he would badger them to play, berate them when they showed up late, fine them when they missed one of his signs. No one ever loved the game more. He began as a catcher but in time he played every position. The story goes that before he approached the owner of the Ambrosia Candy baseball team in Havana, he noticed that the team’s third baseman was pretty lousy.

“What position do you play,” the man asked him.

“Third base,” Miñoso said, and he was quickly signed.

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It is here that we begin to lose track of Miñoso’s age. Miñoso would say that he first played for the Ambrosia Candy team in 1941. How old was he? Those who say he was born in November 1925 placed him at 15. Others, who set his birth year as 1922, had him at 18. Even Miñoso himself didn’t seem sure; he claimed both ages at different times in his life. Most Internet source have settled on 1925 – but to be honest, the 1922 timeline makes more sense. Miñoso had immediate success against hardened adults in the rough Cuban semi-pro leagues. It’s unclear whether a 15-year-old could have done that.

Anyway, in 1945, at either age 19 or 22, he was signed to play for Marianao, a professional team in Havana, and he was promptly named Cuban Professional League rookie of the year. That’s when he was scouted by a Negro Leagues executive named Alex Pompez (who was elected into the Hall of Fame by the Negro Leagues committee at least in part for signing Minnie Miñoso). Pompez paid Miñoso three hundred bucks a month to come play for the appropriately named New York Cubans of the Negro Leagues in 1946. He immediately became the Cubans’ leadoff hitter and, within a couple of years, its biggest star.

There are stories, perhaps apocryphal, that Branch Rickey tried to sign Miñoso for the Dodgers after the 1946 season. Miñoso himself would remember it that way, but he was loyal to Pompez. He played three years for the Cubans before being scouted by Abe Saperstein, owner of the Harlem Globetrotters and friend of Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck. In the end, Veeck bought Miñoso from the financially strapped Pompez for $15,000.

Miñoso was sent to Dayton where he played in 11 games and hit .525.

At the time, Miñoso was still a third baseman and the Indians already had Al Rosen, the best third baseman in the league. So that wasn’t going to work. Miñoso came up a brief spell in 1949, went just 3-for-20, and he was never called up in 1950, though he hit .339 with 70 extra-base hits in Class AAA San Diego. The next year, the Indians traded him to Chicago in a three-way deal that got them a lefty pitcher and American hero named Lou Brissie, who was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his service in the U.S. Army during World War II but who was also mostly done as a pitcher.

Miñoso hit a home run in his first at-bat with the White Sox, then for the season hit .326, led the league in stolen bases, triples and hit-by-pitches. He would do these sort of things for another decade, and he would do it all with flamboyance. Miñoso was unforgettable.

How old was he when he came to Chicago? Some say 25. Some say 28. It’s a big difference when trying to put his career into context. If he was 25, then what he did for the next 10 years – he hit .305/.395/.471 and averaged 100 runs and 98 RBIs per year along with his superb defense and great speed — was extraordinary. If he was 28 years old, then what he did was not extraordinary. It was impossible.

But, again, we can get caught up with making his Hall of Fame case. There are so many more important things. Miñoso was the first black Major League player in Chicago, he would never become too comfortable with English … and yet people of Chicago loved him instantly. He loved them back. In his rookie year, they held a special “Minnie Miñoso Day.” He became perhaps the most beloved player in White Sox history. They called him “Mr. White Sox,” in the same way that his friend and crosstown star Ernie Banks became known as “Mr. Cub.”

How did Minnie Miñoso do all that? How, in those racially and culturally divided times, does a black man with a thick accent, a player who spent some of his best years lost in the shadow, become one of the most adored and treasured athletes of his time and place?

Well, there are certain people you come across in life who make you so happy just by being who they are. Minnie Miñoso was such a man. He was so joyous, so smitten by the game of baseball, so thoroughly grateful that he got to spend his life playing it. He played game after game with genuine enthusiasm and awe. He lived like he could not believe the lucky streak he was on. That sort of wonder crosses all languages and all barriers.

I will tell you one personal story. I met Minnie Miñoso 15 years ago and ran into him numerous times through the years, mostly with our friend Buck O’Neil. Once, I asked him how he was able to keep his enthusiasm for the game for so many years. He shrugged and said, “It doesn’t feel like so many years to me.”

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