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Minnie Miñoso Was Very, Very Good To Us

We were children just learning the game. Going to the ballpark thrilled us with the greenest grass we'd ever seen along with scents of hot dogs and beer and peanuts. The lights turned night into day, and the huge scoreboard kept us apprised of what was happening in stadiums far away as we sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" with the organ providing the background.

And then the gifted Miñoso came into our lives and quickly captured our hearts.

Because we were kids, layer upon layer of impressions hadn't as yet accumulated, so those early ones tend to stick in our memories with far more glue than many of those that have followed. Because he played the game like no one else, the image of Minnie Miñoso, crouched at the plate, just inches off the inside corner, and then lining a fastball into the gap and sliding into third with a triple can readily be retrieved with clarity and joy. The vision has the ability to surface more easily these days than, for instance, the location of my car keys.

The incomparable Orestes Saturnino Arrieta Armas Miñoso finally got what he fervently desired before he died in 2015: election to the Hall of Fame last Sunday. Because he wasn't recognized when he still was with us, spreading goodwill and happiness throughout Chicagoland, the announcement was not without rancor. An elite player in the 1950s, whose big league career was delayed because of the color of his skin, Minnie was overlooked time and time again. Unfortunately, the majority of the meatheads who voted had never seen Minnie play. Had they experienced that opportunity, he would have joined the Hall long ago.

He was electric because he never stopped moving, whether it be the aforementioned triple, a category in which he led the American League three times, or a routine grounder to short.

At one time or another he was the league leader in nine offensive departments - he also won three Gold Gloves - including caught stealing six times. You think that stopped Miñoso from running? No way. He also led the league three times in successful steals and kept pushing the envelope with his liberties on the basepaths.

However, the statistics, All-Star selections (nine, including two with the New York Cubans of the Negro National League), the drive to play every day both in the major leagues and in winter ball in his native Cuba, and his indefatigable spirit tell only a sliver of the story.

I remember being at the Chicago History Museum (nee Chicago Historical Society) a number of years ago when Minnie and the great Ernie Banks were being interviewed on stage by WBEZ's Steve Edwards. Banks emphasized that Miñoso set the standard as far as being a Black baseball player in Chicago in the '50s. He deferred to Minnie as the first Black player on either side of town when Miñoso debuted in 1951. Banks made his appearance at the end of the 1953 season and, of course, unlike Miñoso became a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer in 1977.

Apparently Banks and Miñoso were friends. Even without interleague play, and, silly me, zero chance of the teams meeting in a World Series, the two icons communicated about being Black in a sea of whiteness as they were young men playing a sport each loved.

Banks disclosed the immense respect he had for Miñoso being a trailblazer in the city where they played a combined 31 seasons.

In Baseball's Been Very, Very Good to Me: The Minnie Miñoso Story, the best video compilation that exists of the persona and life of Miñoso, produced by my lifelong friend Tom Weinberg, we learn that Minnie would drive teammates including Venezuelan shortstop Chico Carrasquel to their South Side residence at the Piccadilly Hotel in Hyde Park. Then Miñoso would continue on to Englewood where he apparently stayed with an African-American family. Carrasquel, a Spanish speaker of European descent, was welcome to make his Chicago home at the Piccadilly because he was white, while Miñoso, despite being the most popular White Sox, was persona non grata.

By his own admission, Miñoso spoke only Spanish when he left Cuba in 1946. Once he arrived in Chicago via a trade with Cleveland five years later, Miñoso displayed as much courage and daring when dealing with the public and media as he did on the diamond. Unlike many of today's Latin players, some of whom assuredly speak English more proficiently than Miñoso did when he arrived here, Minnie was not reluctant to being interviewed without an interpreter.

"The first three or four times I interviewed Minnie, I can honestly say I don't think I could understand one complete sentence," disclosed Chicago icon Jack Brickhouse, who described both Cubs and Sox games on WGN for many years. "But he was so sincere, and so serious about it all, and I'm saying to myself, 'This is on camera. I hope he's not advocating the overthrow of the government by force. I hope he's not using profanity. I just hope everything's all right.' But now [in the 1990s], of course, Minnie speaks very well."

The reality of race complicated Miñoso's long wait for Hall of Fame induction. Cleveland owner Bill Veeck, who addressed Miñoso as Orestes and not Minnie in all the years they knew one another (Satchel Paige always was Leroy to Bill), signed Miñoso, a third baseman at the time, in 1949. Veeck was aggressive in signing Black players such as Larry Doby, Luke Easter, and Paige, although in 1949 there was no room for Miñoso since All-Star third baseman Ken Keltner had helped lead the team to its World Series triumph the previous season.

So Minnie was demoted to Triple-A San Diego, where he remained in 1950 after Veeck had sold the team. The new owners were fearful of having too many Black players, thinking their white fan base wouldn't be happy. So at age 24 or 25, depending on which year you accept as his birth date, Miñoso tore up the Pacific Coast League, slashing .339/.405/.945. He was more than Major League-ready. The only problem was his color.

After nine games with Cleveland in 1951, Miñoso, much to his surprise and consternation, was peddled to the Sox. His last appearance in an Indian uniform was a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns in which Miñoso went 5-for-8.

However, any remorse that Miñoso felt quickly was dispelled in a major way. The very first pitch Minnie saw in a Sox uniform, delivered by Vic Raschi of the Yankees, landed over the centerfield fence 415 feet away. And the legend was born.

Miñoso wound up hitting .326 in 1951, officially his rookie year. He led the American League with 31 steals, and getting hit by 16 pitches also was tops in the AL. Although Miñoso topped Yankee shortstop Gil McDougal in every offensive category except home runs (Minnie had 10; McDougal 14), McDougal was awarded Rookie of the Year honors. Upon reflection, being runner-up turned out to be a portent of the future in terms of the Hall of Fame vote. Call it racism or New York media bias, Miñoso easily was the top rookie in 1951.

That initial plate appearance for the White Sox couldn't have been scripted any better, nor could his return to the team in 1960 after he was traded back to Cleveland prior to the 1958 season in exchange for pitcher Early Wynn and outfielder Al Smith.

Wynn, another Hall of Famer, won 22 games and the Cy Young Award for the 1959 pennant-winning Sox before Veeck exchanged a slew of young prospects for veterans like Minnie in hopes of a repeat in 1960.

Once again, Miñoso put on another otherworldly performance on Opening Day, against the Kansas City A's at Comiskey Park as the Sox opened their defense of the AL crown. After reaching base his first two times at bat amid thunderous cheering from the crowd of almost 42,000, Minnie strode to the plate in the bottom of the fourth with the bases loaded. Once again his blast cleared the centerfield fence, giving the Sox a 9-2 lead.

The A's clawed back to tie the game at nine and almost took the lead in the top of the ninth when Miñoso, playing left field, threw out the go-ahead runner at the plate. And then. just as a movie script would have staged it, he hit the first pitch in the bottom of the ninth for a game-winning homer. Welcome back to the South Side, Minnie!

Miñoso played in all 154 games that 1960 season, which wasn't unusual even though his aggressive play resulted in nicks and bruises that send today players to the sidelines. Head protection was in its infancy in the '50s, and hitters used a somewhat flimsy horseshoe shaped insert in their hats rather than a batting helmet, which didn't appear until late in the decade.

Crowding the plate and refusing to be backed away, Miñoso was hit 195 times by pitches, good for 10th on the all-time list. He led the league nine times. No part of his body, including his head, went unscathed. But he kept on playing.

In 1971, when Minnie was at Comiskey Park for one of those old-timers games that have gone by the wayside, I interviewed the former Sox star in the clubhouse for a radio show I was hosting. I asked him about playing hurt, and he recalled a conversation with then-Sox manager Paul Richards, who wanted to rest Miñoso.

"I know you're the manager, Paul," Minnie claimed he said to his boss, "but I gotta play."

And play he did - with every ounce of his being, whether it was in Cuba, Comiskey Park or Mexico, where he competed until he was 47-years-old after his major league career ended.

A lasting impression I have of Miñoso occurred at Bill Veeck's funeral in early January 1986. Minnie wore his full Sox uniform to the church to honor his friend. Bill would have loved it, just as we all did. The gesture was fitting and proper, and so is his Hall of Fame election. The only difference is that one was timely and the other far too late.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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