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The Mesmerizing Minnie Minoso

"Beisbol been berry berry good to me," was the creation of Saturday Night Live, but for Minnie Minoso, it was only partially correct.

Minoso, who died in the early morning hours Sunday, grew up outside Havana, and he very well might have followed his daddy into the sugar cane fields had it not been for baseball. His talent and drive lifted him off the island nation in order to play baseball in the major leagues. For that, Minnie always was grateful. He knew from whence he came.

Yet, like many other pioneer black players - Minoso was the ninth when he broke in with Cleveland on April 19, 1949 - he suffered the indignities like those who came before and after him. While his White Sox teammates shared a hotel during spring training in Tampa, Minnie sought housing with families in the black community. After coming to the White Sox as a rookie in 1951, he lived in homes on the South Side rather than with teammates at Hyde Park's Del Prado Hotel because he wasn't welcome.

Like other black players, he absorbed slurs and prejudice. He challenged pitchers by standing right on top of the plate, and the white guys didn't like it. Minnie led the league 10 different years in getting hit by pitches.

In arguably the best trade in Sox history, general manager Frank Lane brought Minoso to Chicago on April 30, 1951 in a three-team deal as Minoso became the first black player on a Chicago team. One of the players Lane traded was Gus Zernial, who wound up leading the American League in home runs and RBI that season. Nevertheless, Lane was a keen evaluator of talent and knew that Minoso was headed for stardom.

The name itself possessed the alliteration that no storyteller could create. Minnie Minoso. It seems like a fairy tale except this one was real. No Lego character or Power Ranger. The guy played left field for the White Sox. How cool was that.

The Minoso script began in what would be familiar style with his very first at-bat at Comiskey Park in a Sox uniform. Batting third, he hit a two-run homer off the Yankees' Vic Raschi, and so began a love affair that lasted until Minnie was found dead in his car on Sunday near Diversey and Ashland.

Minoso hit .326 that inaugural season with an OBP of .422. He led the American League in stolen bases and triples. Shoo-in for Rookie of the Year, right? Not so fast. He finished a close second to the Yankees' Gil McDougald, who hit 20 points lower and didn't lead the league in anything. In what defies explanation, Minoso finished fourth that year in voting for Most Valuable Player while McDougald was ninth. But McDougald played in New York, and he was white.

Only Hall-of-Famers Richie Ashburn and Sox teammate Nellie Fox had more hits in the 1950s than Minnie. Minnie hit over .300 nine times, drove in more than 100 run three times, led in triples and stolen bases three seasons each, and also won three Gold Gloves. He dearly wanted to be voted into the Hall of Fame but fell short of the required 12 votes from the Golden Era Committee, getting eight and nine the past two ballots. Baseball could have been nicer to him.

Adding to Minoso's tale was the mystery of exactly when he was born, and Minnie, predictably, never set the record straight. It was either 1925 or 1922, making him 89 or 92 when he passed. Whatever year one chooses, his final numbers would have been easily Hall-of-Fame worthy if his major league debut has been four or five years earlier.

Former White Sox owner Bill Veeck, a Hall-of-Famer himself, signed Minoso before the 1948 season, purchasing his contract from the New York Cubans of the Negro League. Bill already had three black players, Larry Doby, whose first game came 81 days after Jackie Robinson in 1947; first baseman Luke Easter; and the ageless, irrepressible Leroy (Satchel) Paige. Veeck was not shy about pushing the envelope but either he felt Minoso needed some seasoning or that three black players on the Indians' roster filled the quota at that time.

So Minnie tore up the Pacific Coast League for a couple of years before being traded to the Sox.

While the history, numbers and statistics tell a story, for those of us who were kids who saw Minoso play, the substance of Minnie was more about our initial introduction and eventual immersion into the game of baseball. Watching this guy was mesmerizing. He was a whirlwind of perpetual motion. He never did anything half-speed. Had I been having sex at that time of my life, Minnie legging out a triple with a couple of guys on base would have been equally satisfying. Check that. Call it a close second.

The Sox have had some exciting, memorable players like Aparicio, Fox, Dick Allen (briefly), Frank Thomas and Paul Konerko. However, none had quite the appeal, charisma, uniqueness or aura that Minoso possessed. He was all about dedication, energy and a love of the game reflected by the way he played it.

Even when he wasn't successful, he was exciting. When he swung and missed, broadcaster Bob Elson would report, "Minnie swung so hard he fell down," or "Minnie went around like a corkscrew."

If he got hit by a pitch, which was often, he frequently picked himself up and stole second just to show the opponent that he couldn't be intimidated. Yankee fireballer Bob Grim in 1955 hit Minoso in the head with a fastball, yet the papers reported that he "wasn't seriously hurt." This in the days when players used a flimsy liner inside their hats rather than a helmet.

Occasionally Minoso would wind up in the hospital, but a couple of days later he'd be back in left field. His face displayed the scars from the wars he fought on the diamond.

My friend Tom Weinberg, who produced the documentary Baseball's Been Very, Very Good to Me about Minoso, interviewed the man in the parking lot at U.S. Cellular Field a few years ago. Minnie was standing at what used to be home plate in the old Comiskey Park, bat in hand, looking north envisioning where the outfield walls once stood. I'm confident those green bricks were just as real to him then as they were decades before.

Minnie reminisced about Opening Day 1960, when after two years of exile in Cleveland and missing the 1959 pennant-winning team, Veeck brought him back to Chicago in the trade with Cleveland. Minoso came up with the bases loaded in the fourth inning against Kansas City and smashed a grand slam to put the defending American League champions ahead 9-2. However, the A's (not the Royals) had eventually tied the game at 9 when Minoso strode to the plate in the bottom of the ninth. He swatted a walk-off home run. You can't make up this stuff. It really happened.

Chicago remained Minoso's home in the 50-plus years since he playing days ended. He was a coach with the Sox for a number of seasons, and the team kept him on the payroll as a goodwill ambassador until the very end. He lived on the North Side not far from Wrigley Field, and he showed up at events to promote the game and the White Sox. When he was at The Cell he mingled with fans and seemed to enjoy the company.

His Cadillac's license plates read MINOSO9, and I'd see him driving down Lake Shore Drive. The final time was last summer near the Field Museum, and I noticed some scrapes and dents in the fenders making me think maybe Minnie might be wise to visit the DMV for a driver's test.

But he was never one to sit still, and driving home at 1 a.m. on Sunday when most people his age were safely tucked away in their jammies was fitting. He had been with people, at a birthday party, staying up late, and living life.

While Minnie often repeated that baseball was very, very good to him, the larger truth is that he was very, very good to us.

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Roger Wallenstein is our man on the White Sox. He welcomes your comments.

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