Sunday, March 1, 2015

Minnie Miñoso, 1925-2015


Who is the greatest player not in the Baseball Hall of Fame? If you said Pete Rose, you need to get smacked: While he was one of the great team players in baseball history, his career OPS+ was just 118, he never topped 82 RBIs in a season, and the reason he is the only player to play at least 500 games at 5 different positions -- 1st base, 2nd base, 3rd base, left field and right field -- is because he wasn't very good at fielding any of them. (He won Gold Gloves in 1969 and '70, but those were rather dubious.)

It may be that the best all-around baseball player not in the Hall of Fame is an outfielder who played the bulk of his career for the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox. And, no, I don't mean Shoeless Joe Jackson. Come to think of it, Rocky Colavito would also qualify for that description (if you threw in the Detroit Tigers), but I don't mean him, either.

The best all-around baseball player not in the Hall of Fame may well be Minnie Miñoso. But now, he won't live to see his rightful election.

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Saturnino Orestes Armas Arrieta was born on November 29, 1925 in Perico, Cuba, near the capital of Havana. (Like a lot of Hispanic players, there is some dispute as to the year; 1922 has also been cited, but Baseball-Reference.com says 1925, so that's what I'm going with.) His father was his mother's 2nd husband; her 1st had been named Miñoso, and he later assumed the name so that he would have the same last name as his older half-brothers. He would later, in an American court, have his name legally changed to Orestes Miñoso.

He worked in Cuba's oppressively hot sugar cane fields like his father did. When he found out that, unlike some other sugar plantations, the one he was on didn't have a baseball team, he organized it himself. A righthanded hitter and thrower, he patterned himself after the greatest player Cuba had yet produced (and perhaps still has), Negro League star Martin DiHigo: He learned to play multiple positions, and to hit to the opposite field. Settling on mainly playing 3rd base, in 1946 he made his North American professional debut with the New York Cubans, a Negro League team that sometimes played home games at the Polo Grounds. One of their pitchers was a crafty lefty named Luis Tiant -- father of the twisty, mustachioed Boston Red Sox pitching legend.

The owner, a gangster from Cuba named Alex Pompez, had a working relationship with the New York Giants: The Cubans were the only Negro League team that was officially a farm team of a major league team; as a result, they were the only Negro League team that got compensated when a major league team raided its roster. The Kansas City Monarchs, the Newark Eagles, the Baltimore Elite Giants, and so on? They got nothing in exchange for Satchel Paige, Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, et al.

Prior to Miñoso, there had been a few Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans playing in Major League Baseball -- one of the 1st Cubans was Armando Marsans, who became Minnie's 1st professional manager in Cuba -- but they had all been obviously white, primarily of Spanish heritage rather than native Carib "Indians" or descendants of African slaves. (Southern politicians, especially after they seceded and formed the Confederate States of America, wanted to purchase Cuba from Spain, because of the slave labor and the vast sums of money to be made from Cuban sugar and fruit.) The saying was that they were "pure bars of Castilian soap."

Harlem Globetrotters founder-owner Abe Saperstein, a big baseball fan, is said to have recommended Miñoso to Indians owner Bill Veeck, who had integrated the American League with Larry Doby, and by this point had also signed Paige. 

On April 19, 1949, "Minnie" Miñoso -- I can find no reference as to where the nickname came from -- made his major league debut, with the Indians, against the St. Louis Browns, at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, becoming the 1st black Hispanic player in major league history. Wearing Number 18, he made one plate appearance, drawing a walk as a pinch-hitter in the 7th inning. The Browns lost, 5-1. He didn't play again until May 4, when he got his 1st hit off Alex Kellner of the Philadelphia Athletics, and the Indians won, 4-3. The next day, against the Boston Red Sox, he hit his 1st home run off Jack Kramer. (The pitcher, not the tennis player.)

But the Indians were loaded in the late Forties and all through the Fifties, and with All-Star Al Rosen entrenched at 3rd base, the Tribe really didn't have a place for Minnie. On April 30, 1951, they sent him to the White Sox in a 3-way trade involving some other interesting names. The ChiSox got Miñoso and Paul Lehner. The Indians got Lou Brissie, who reached the majors as a lefthanded pitcher despite a war wound that nearly cost him his right leg, and required that he wear a metal plate over the constantly-operated-on shin.  The A's got slugger Gus Zernial, pinch-hit expert Dave Philley (who would now be playing in "Philly," and would eventually play for the Phillies), Ray Murray and Sam Zoldak. (Have you ever seen another trade involving 2 players whose last name began with a Z -- in any sport?)

On May 1, 1951, Miñoso became the 1st black player in the history of Major League Baseball in Chicago. (The late Ernie Banks would become the Cubs' 1st black player 2 years later.) In his 1st at-bat for the South Siders, he hit a home run of Yankee pitcher Vic Raschi, driving in Lehner, with whom he was traded. Also hitting a home run in that game was a 19-year-old kid from Oklahoma, playing right field for the Yankees. It was his 1st in the majors. His name was Mickey Mantle. The Yankees won the game, 8-3, as Yogi Berra also homered.

Both Mantle and Miñoso were on their way to what should have been Hall of Fame careers. While Mantle's had the occasional sidetrack, he did get elected in his 1st year of eligibility. In that regard, Miñoso wasn't so lucky.

From then on, "the Cuban Comet" wore Number 9, and was mainly an outfielder, playing 1,509 of his 1,665 major league games (90.6 percent) in left field. The Gold Gloves weren't established until 1957, but he won them in 3 of the 1st 4 seasons in which they were presented -- the last one shortly before he turned 35.

From 1919 to 2005, the White Sox won just 1 Pennant -- and Minnie wasn't with them when they did. Indeed, they'd traded him back to the Indians on December 4, 1957, so not only did he miss that Pennant, he was on the team that finished 2nd! But, while he put up good numbers for the Indians, the ChiSox might not have won the Pennant if they hadn't made the trade: They sent Minnie and Fred Hatford for Al Smith (replacing Minnie in left field) and Early Wynn (who won 24 games at age 39, and won the Cy Young Award).

The White Sox traded to get him back in 1960, and in that season he became the last player to play in every game in a 154-game season. Before the 1962 season, they sent him to the St. Louis Cardinals, where he wore the same Number 9 that had been worn by Enos Slaughter, and would later be worn by Roger Maris, Joe Torre and Terry Pendleton before being retired for Slaughter. But he crashed into an outfield wall, fracturing his skull and his wrist, and ending his time as a productive player.

He spent 1963 with the Washington Senators, and returned to the White Sox in 1964, making 38 plate apperances, mainly as a pinch-hitter, at age 38, as the Sox finished just 1 game behind the Yankees.

Miñoso was a 7-time All-Star, His lifetime batting average was .298, with 8 seasons of .300 or better, topping out at .326 in 1951 his rookie season, when he finished 2nd in the American League Rookie of the Year voting to the Yankees' Gil McDougald. (Mantle didn't come close.) His OPS+ was 130 -- meaning he was 30 percent better at producing runs than the average batter of his time. Despite playing most of his career in Comiskey Park and Cleveland Municipal Stadium, great pitcher's parks, he hit 186 home runs, topping 20 4 times, peaking at 24 in 1958. Until 1974, his 135 home runs in a White Sox uniform were a team record. He had 4 100+ RBI seasons, peaking at 116 in 1954.

He led the AL in stolen bases in 1951, '52 and '53; in triples in 1951, '54 and '56; in total bases in 1954; in doubles in 1957; in hits in 1960; in sacrifice flies in 1960 and '61; and in hit-by-pitches 10 times. He was hit by 188 pitches, an AL record until it was broken by Don Baylor in 1985.

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The Miñoso legend was just getting warmed up. He went to Mexico, both managing and playing 1st base. batting .360 in 1965 and .348 in 1966. The Mexican League, today, is classified as Triple-A, and was probably of the same quality then, so Minnie may well have still been able to hit in the majors. Alas, there was no designated hitter in those days. He continued to play in Mexico until 1973, when he was nearly 48 (or 51, depending on whose records you believe). Mexican fans called him El Charro Negro -- "The Black Cowboy."

Bill Veeck, who'd been the owner of the Indians who'd signed Miñoso and of the White Sox who traded to get him back in 1960, was owner of the White Sox again, and hired him as a base coach. Veeck even activated him, and on September 12, 1976, Miñoso got a hit off California Angels pitcher Sid Monge. He was advertised as the oldest player ever to get a hit in a big-league game: 53 years old. In fact, he was 50, and the 3rd-oldest.


(Don't worry: While he did wear the awful Pale Hose uniforms of the Second Veeck Era, he didn't actually play in the shorts, which were only worn for 3 games, before September call-ups made his place on the roster justifiable.)

In 1980, Veeck had him activated one more time, at age 54. This made him the 3rd-oldest player in major league history, behind Paige (59) and Nick Altrock (also an occasionally-reactivated coach, 57) -- and the only player besides Altrock ever to appear in major league games in 5 different decades. He made his last appearance on October 5, 1980, at Comiskey Park, in a game in which the White Sox beat the Angels, 5-3. As with his big-league debut, 41 years earlier, he pinch-hit in the 7th inning. He grounded to 3rd off Dave Schuler.

On September 30, 1990, the last game was played at Comiskey Park, and Miñoso -- by this point known as "Mr. White Sox," just as Ernie Banks was "Mr. Cub" -- presented the White Sox lineup card. In 1993 and again in 2003, Mike Veeck, Bill's son and the owner of the revived St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League, signed him to make 1-day appearances, so that he could play professional baseball in a 6th and a 7th decade -- in the latter, drawing a walk and reaching base at age 77.

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Minnie married twice, and had 4 children. In 1983, the White Sox retired his Number 9. In 2004, a statue in his honor was dedicated at U.S. Cellular Field (formerly named the new Comiskey Park). 

He first appeared on the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) Hall of Fame ballot in 1970, and didn't get enough support to stay on it. Last playing in 1980, he was restored to the ballot in 1986 (getting in the official waiting period of 5 full years), but never made it, and in 2000 his BBWAA eligibility expired. He was eligible in the Veterans Committee votes of 2011 and 2014, but didn't not get enough votes either time.

Baseball-Reference has a Hall of Fame Monitor, on which a score of 100 indicates a "Likely HOFer." Miñoso is at 87, which means he falls short. They also have a Hall of Fame Standards, on which a score of 50 represents the "Average HOFer." Miñoso is at 35, which means he falls well short. And they have Similar Batters, showing the 10 players most statistically similar to a player, weighted toward players who played the same position. The 10 players most similar to Minnie: Carl Furillo, Cy Williams, Ken Griffey Sr., Amos Otis, Gary Matthews Sr., Ben Chapman, Dixie Walker, Bob Watson, Gee Walker and Tony Oliva. None of those are in the Hall of Fame, although many people (including myself) think Oliva should be in. It's also worth pointing out that these stats are for hitting and running only, and do not take defense into account.

One of the arguments in Miñoso's favor is that he got a late start, due to the color line. Except that might not be true. For so long, it was presumed that he was born in 1922, making him 26 when he first stepped to the plate in a major league game, and that's much too late for a player of his talent. But if he really was born in 1925, as Baseball-Reference says, then he made his big-league debut at age 23, and that's hardly early by the standards of that era, especially since it was a lot harder for a major league team to find a worthy player, white or black, in Cuba or elsewhere in the Caribbean than it would have been to find one in the continental U.S. And while he was certainly good in the Negro Leagues, he didn't have the long record of being spectacular in them, as did Irvin and Doby, who got into the Hall based on a combination of performances from all-black and mostly-white baseball.

But considering what kind of performance Minnie Miñoso put up, playing just about every home game in a park that favored pitchers (or, in the case of his brief time in St. Louis' Sportsman's Park, favored lefthanded hitters rather than righthanded ones like himself), adding in his defense, adding in his Negro League tenure, and topping it off with his pioneer status, as the 1st black Hispanic in the major leagues, I think he belongs in the Hall of Fame.


Minnie Miñoso died today, having been found unresponsive in his car while he was getting gas. He was 89, and, like Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy, who died on Friday, the cause appears to have been the lung ailment COPD.

The players who were stars in the 1950s are going fast. There aren't a whole lot left. A few of the Brooklyn Dodgers are still around, like Don Newcombe and Carl Erskine. The New York Giants are still represented by Irvin and Willie Mays. The Yankees still have Yogi Berra, but he has looked very frail the last couple of years. We need to treasure these people while we can.

Chicago had just lost Ernie Banks, and now they've lost Minnie Miñoso. They were treasures of their city. It is sad that, now, they will be buried treasures.

"Minnie may have been passed over by the Baseball Hall of Fame during his lifetime," said the world's leading White Sox fan, President Barack Obama, a permanent resident of Chicago's South Side, "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."

The Prez has a way with words, just as Minnie Miñoso had a way with baseball.

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