Oh, So … Minoso

At the end of my last post I wrote, with tongue mainly in cheek, that I wish I could have played major-league ball, but that the chances of this happening were a big fat zero. My friend Ted O’Reilly commented that this was just as well, that my career in music has been much longer than any ballplayer’s, with the possible exception of Minnie Minoso, who managed to play in parts of seven decades. This is true and a good point, but also reminds me that I wrote a fairly long piece about Minoso a couple of years ago. So I thought this was maybe a good time to dig it up and post it.

It’s a profile of his baseball life and career, as well as an argument on behalf of him deserving to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. When I wrote it, I felt strongly that Minnie Minoso and Ron Santo were the two best players not in the HOF. Shortly thereafter, Santo was elected, unfortunately a few months after his premature death. Minnie is now 90 and still seems to be mostly in good health, so I’m hoping the HOF voters don’t repeat this dumb, ‘better too late than never’ timing and will put him in while he’s still here to enjoy it. I’m not holding my breath though, and I hope Minnie isn’t either. Here then is a look at one of the most versatile, durable, interesting and joyous players ever in baseball history.

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Like single-malt whiskies and jazz records, the Baseball Hall of Fame and its election process(es) are as much for arguing about as they are for enjoying. A rich source of debate and controversy, mostly of the harmless variety – who should go in, why and when, who’s already in that shouldn’t be – and on and on. This brings us to a player I’ve wanted to write about for a while; one Saturnino Orestes Armas (Arrieta) Minoso, or, as he is mercifully known, Minnie Minoso.

He was born on November 29, 1922 in Havana, Cuba and began playing semi-pro baseball there at the age of fourteen. He had both great talent and enthusiasm for the game, which provided a way out of poverty and the drudgery of working in the local sugar cane fields. He became a star of the Cuban leagues and was eventually signed to play with a Negro League team in America in 1946. The major-league colour-line was broken by Jackie Robinson with Brooklyn in 1947 and this would have huge implications for players such as Minoso, opening the door a crack for them.

Other than Brooklyn, the most progressive team on the racial front back then was the Cleveland Indians. Owned by the iconoclastic Bill Veeck, they were the first American League team to have a black player – Larry Doby. Minoso signed with them but before long was traded to the Chicago White Sox, mainly because the Indians were so rich in players at the time. He spent most of his career back and forth between these two teams from 1951-61, although mostly with Chicago. He is forever associated with White Sox baseball and helped turn that team back into a contender in the 1950s. He closed out his major-league career playing short stints with the Cardinals and Senators 1962-3, finishing with one last season in Chicago before retiring at 42. As we shall see though, the major leagues were just part of the story, his playing days were far from over.

I never saw him play, but have read lots about him. He’s one of my favourite players in the off-season game of ‘baseball in the mind’ that I’m so fond of. Though he didn’t play for any of the New York teams that so dominated baseball in the 1950s, he epitomizes the baseball of that decade, along with the likes of Sherm Lollar, Rocky Colavito, Nellie Fox, Vic Power, Ernie Banks, Richie Ashburn, Ted Kluszewski, Mickey Vernon, Billy Pierce and Vern Law, and others.

Minoso is widely regarded by many as the best player not in the Hall of Fame, a distinction once reserved for Ashburn until the Veterans Committee elected him in 1995. Ashburn and Minoso had some strong similarities – they played in exactly the same era, were both fast, smart, hustling, popular players. Ashburn had more defensive value and a higher batting average, but Minoso had much more power and RBI production as a hitter. Minnie is still with us, turning 90 this past November.

Minoso is in a unique no-man’s-land in regard to Hall of Fame selection. Because he was a black Cuban and baseball had a segregation policy until 1947, he didn’t become a major-league regular until 1951. He was 28 by then, an age when most players have already had their best seasons. Although he went on to a long and productive career from 1951-64 and was widely considered one of the best players of his day, he receives no consideration for what he did in the Cuban and Negro Leagues. This is in contrast to good players who spent their entire careers in those leagues. To its credit, the Hall formed a special Negro Leagues committee/wing to study and elect great black and Cuban players who never had the opportunity to play major-league ball.

Given their record of excellence – even dominance – in the majors, it’s obvious that the best black players didn’t just suddenly become great upon landing in the big leagues – there were always great ones. Thus, Negro League superstars like Buck O’Neill, Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, John Henry Lloyd, Judy Johnson, Cool Papa Bell and Martin Dihigo (the Ty Cobb of Cuban baseball and Minnie’s idol), are deservedly in the Hall even though their numbers were obscured, or even nonexistent. The Negro Leagues Committee rightly saw fit to overlook the missing official stats, while considering the mountain of eyewitness accounts, oral testimony and other evidence which established beyond any doubt that such players were among the best ever.

Unfortunately, Minnie has one foot on either side of this line. His stunning success at age 28 in his first season as a White Sox regular clearly suggests he was a great player before reaching the majors, but he doesn’t get any credit for this because he eventually did get there, albeit at a late age. He is judged solely on his major-league numbers, which are really good, but maybe fall a bit short due to the missing early/prime years. Given his talent set and level of ability, there is no question he would have been an established major-leaguer in his early twenties if he’d been born white.

There were factors beyond the colour-line which also delayed his arrival in the show. Cuban baseball was played at a very high level in the ’40s, but was even more obscure than Negro League baseball, which at least took place on American soil, was covered in the black press and drew large crowds. By the time Minnie played in America with the New York Cubans, it was 1946 and the Negro Leagues were in their death throes.

A further problem was that the Cleveland Indians had a lot of established talent, including three black players already in centerfielder Larry Doby, pitcher Satchel Paige and the old, slugging first baseman Luke Easter. Even forward-looking teams like the Dodgers and Indians were reluctant at first to have too many black players at once – integration was seen as a process to be effected gradually. Having too many black players was viewed as ill-advised, hasty, and possibly bad for business.

Minnie’s career in integrated pro baseball began late in the 1948 season, by which time he was already 25. He hit .525 in 11 games for an Indians’ farm-team in Dayton, earning a brief early-season tryout with Cleveland in 1949. He went 3 for 16 and, as he had no familiar track record on which to be evaluated, they sent him to the Pacific Coast League for seasoning. Cleveland won the World Series in 1948, mainly on the strength of their terrific pitching and power-hitting infield. Minoso was mostly a third baseman then, but the Indians were well fixed there with the veteran Ken Keltner. Minoso wore out the PCL – a very good league – with the San Diego Padres in 1949 (.297, 22 homers) and 1950 (.338, 130 runs, 115 RBI and 30 stolen bases.) By the spring of 1951, it was obvious he belonged with the Indians but the problem was where to play him. By then Cleveland had Al Rosen, as great a third baseman as you could imagine until injuries ruined his career. They were also loaded in the outfield, so Minnie rode the pine in April.

Trade winds were blowing though. The Indians needed a relief pitcher and eyed Lou Brissie of the A’s, whose manager Connie Mack didn’t want Minoso, but coveted slugger Gus Zernial of the White Sox. Chicago manager Paul Richards knew what a fine player Minoso was, having managed against him with Seattle in 1950. So early in May, a three-way deal was done. The Indians got Brissie from the A’s, the A’s got Zernial from the White Sox, who got Minoso from the Indians. It was a long, arduous journey, but our man had finally reached the promised land.

He did not disappoint. He was an immediate sensation as a regular and the first black player with the White Sox – getting on base, running them like a whippet, slashing hits all over the place, giving the Sox a top-of-the-order presence to go with number-two hitter Nellie Fox. He won the Rookie of the Year Award, hitting .326, leading the league in triples (14) and stolen bases (31), while scoring 112 runs, knocking in 76 with a .500 slugging percentage. Do you think he was ready?

Perhaps another reason Minoso has not made it to the Hall is that he was such a well-rounded, versatile player, as opposed to one who specialized in more attention-drawing skills. Such as hitting 40 or 50 home runs and driving in gobs of runs (like say Jimmie Foxx), or stealing 100 bases a year (like Rickey Henderson.) He was very good at everything, but not absolutely dominant in any one area, although he did lead the AL in a bunch of categories like triples, stolen bases, doubles, hits, on-base percentage and being hit by pitches. Often, being really outstanding at a couple of things will draw more attention than a wide range of skills. Just ask Bobby Grich, a great all-around second baseman who’s barely recognized today because he didn’t have any single distinctive skill to focus on that defined him – he was above average right across the board. Here’s a brief overview of Minnie’s talents :

Batting Average. His career batting average is .298, but this was dragged down by the fact that he played until 1964, at which time he was almost 42. His averages in his last three years (mostly as a pinch-hitter), were in the .225 area. Otherwise he hit over .300 in every season but three, in which he hit .280 or better. He didn’t win any batting titles, but finished second twice. His batting average was very high for the 1950s, when averages were in general decline, as players swung for the fences and struck out more and more. Here’s a quote from someone who knew a little about hitting: “Sooner or later, whenever we talk about hitting, someone will ask me if there will ever be another .400 hitter in the major leagues. Of all the so-called “sluggers” in the big time today, the only one I can think of who really qualifies in all respects is Minnie Minoso.” – Ted Williams, as told to Paul Gardner, in Baseball Stars of 1955.

Getting on Base. Minnie was atypical of many Latin players, who were often free swingers, averse to drawing walks. He walked quite often, about 75 – 80 times per season, while striking out only about 40 – 45 times. He also gained a big edge with his ability to “steal first base.” He was an absolute master in the art of getting hit by a pitch, crowding the plate, leaning in and rotating away at the moment of impact to lessen the sting of the blow. This infuriated pitchers and he led the AL in HBP ten years in a row 1951-60. His career on base percentage is .389, which is excellent.

Speed. Minoso was very fast, especially in his early years, when he was nicknamed “The Cuban Comet.” He led the AL in steals three straight times from 1951- 53, and stole 205 bases in his career, a very high total for that time, when home runs were the main offensive strategy. He could easily have stolen 50 – 60 bases a year, if base-stealing had been more in favour then, as in the ’60s. He also led the AL in triples three times, hitting 83 in his career, another indication of his wheels. He was universally considered the most aggressive base-runner of the ’50s and remember, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays also played then. One of the best stories about his base-running came from a game against the Tigers in the 1951 season. Minoso was on first base and lit out for second on a pitch from Bill Wight, which got away from catcher Joe Ginsberg. Minnie never stopped and as he neared third, he saw Ginsberg picking up the ball and rubbing it. He kept on running and slid into a pile of three stunned Tigers at home plate – Wight, Ginsberg and first baseman Walt Dropo. Ginsberg held onto the ball but missed the tag on Minoso’s brilliant slide. Essentially, he scored from first on a steal and a passed ball. Despite his all-out style of play, he was remarkably durable – there are no injury gaps in his career whatsoever 1951-61. In his last three years, he was a part-time player and pinch-hitter, his one concession to age.

Scoring Runs. His speed, base-running and high on-base percentage allowed him to score a lot of runs. He scored over 100 five times and was over 90 three more times, averaging about 90 per season. This is impressive enough, but these totals would have been even higher on a better offensive team than the White Sox, who generally had little power and a low batting average. He scored 1,136 runs in his career.

Power. AAlthough he was not a slugger who hit 30 or 40 home runs a year, Minoso had consistent medium-range power, which increased in his later years. He generally hit 10 to 25 homers per season, averaging about 18. Along with triples, he hit lots of doubles (about 30 a year, leading the league in 1957 with 36.) Despite often hitting at or near the top of the order, he had enough power to drive in 100 runs four times and was over 80 another five times, which is flat-out impressive. He hit 336 doubles and 186 homers in his career, with 1,023 RBI. His career slugging percentage is .460, very good when you factor in his speed; he was one of the best power-speed players ever. Really, he was two players in one. His base-stealing, speed and high on-base average made him an ideal leadoff man, but he developed too much power and RBI production to stay there long. I’m guessing that later in his career he probably batted third in the order a lot, generally the slot reserved for a team’s best all-around hitter and run producer. Either way, he was a very productive offensive player who helped change the post-war game.

Defense. He first came up as a third baseman, but Minoso was soon shifted to left field by the Sox to take advantage of his speed, which gave him great range out there. He had the occasional adventure in left, but won three Gold Glove Awards, even though the award didn’t exist until the late part of his career. He had a more than adequate arm and continued to play some at third as the Sox needed it – they had some real difficulties coming up with a third baseman for a long time. He was undoubtedly a good defensive player.

So, let’s see…… durable, versatile, high batting average, great at getting on base, fast and aggressive base runner, productive hitter/run producer with power, played Gold Glove defense – what the hell else is there? Oh yeah, he had a great attitude, got along with everybody, was one of the most universally popular players of his time. The fans, players…hell, even the umpires loved him and he loved them and the game right back. He played the game the right way, as it was supposed to be played, while also showing infectious joy, enthusiasm, and fire.

Even after he was a regular, he continued to play winter ball in Cuba every year. Not because he had to, but because he wanted to. Oddly, the Cuban fans regarded him as a somewhat restrained player, not quite showy enough for their tastes. He was hard to miss off the field in the Windy City though, with his green Cadillac, bright silk shirts, enormous diamond ring, wide-brimmed hats and roll of $100 bills. He was certainly colourful by American standards, but no showboat, he always hustled and gave his best on the field.

After he retired from the majors, he played another ten years (into his early fifties) in the Mexican leagues, earning the nickname “El Charro Negro” – “The Black Cowboy”. The baseball there was on a fairly high level, comparable to AA or even AAA ball and of course Mexico has produced fine players like Bobby Avila, Fernando Valenzuela, Vinny Castilla and others.

After this, his old buddy Bill Veeck hired him as a hitting coach with the White Sox in the 1970s. Never exactly shy about promotional stunts, Veeck had Minnie appear as a DH at age 53 and a couple of days later he singled as a pinch-hitter. He reappeared in a White Sox uniform in 1980, making two plate appearances at 58, joining Nick Altrock as the only player to play parts of five decades in the big leagues. In 1993, at 69, Minnie signed a contract with the independent St. Paul Saints, grounding out in his only plate appearance. In 2003, at 79, he was at it again, pinch-hitting for the Saints, eventually drawing a walk as the only man to play organized ball in seven decades. (Hey….. maybe the Veterans Committee is just waiting to see if he actually retires before they elect him.)

Not only did Minnie love baseball, but perhaps more than anyone else alive, he is baseball. The Hall considers such things as character, integrity, and sportsmanship as well as a player’s ability and numbers. Nobody ever loved the game more, was more persevering in their dedication to it, or played with more elan. Surely Minoso belongs on these grounds also.

Other indicators of his quality are that he was a seven-time All Star, when the AL outfield competition consisted of guys like Ted Willams, Mickey Mantle, Larry Doby, Al Kaline and Rocky Colavito. He didn’t win an MVP award, but finished among the top ten in MVP voting seven times, which has to carry a lot of weight. Seven times, professional writers who saw him play every day went on record by voting him one of the ten best players in the league.

Also, in 1958 he was traded to Cleveland for two really good players – Al Smith, an outfielder with similar skills but not quite as good – and pitcher Early Wynn, well on his way to a 300-win, HOF career. Chicago hated to make this deal and reacquired Minoso from Cleveland in 1960. Minnie didn’t have a lot of luck when it came to winning pennants; he was with Chicago when Cleveland won in 1954 and with Cleveland when Chicago won in 1959. This may have hurt his HOF case, but shouldn’t, he clearly contributed to the success of both teams in challenging the Yankees in the AL of the 1950s.

Many think that Cleveland, at least on paper, should have won the pennant in 1959 – they finished a close second, with Minnie having a good season – .302, 21 HR, 92 RBI. It’s hindsight now, but many believe that if the Indians had just had the wisdom to keep Minnie and convert him to the outfield in 1951, while developing a shortstop (like Luis Aparicio, who they owned but frittered away), then they would have been the dominant team of the ’50s instead of the Yankees. The White Sox replaced Cleveland as the second-best AL team during Minoso’s first stay with them.

There are a number of all-time Top 100 players lists assembled by various experts and groups – The Sporting News, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), Maury Allen, Donald Honig/Lawrence Ritter, Charles Faber and Bill James, who compiled two. Some of these are entirely subjective, while others consider statistical evidence. Faber’s list doesn’t include pitchers and ranks Minoso 91st; remember, there are well over 200 players in the Hall. The second James list reflects his breakthrough Win Shares method for evaluating players and considers both pitchers and Negro League players. It ranks Minoso 85th, but James points out that if Minoso had had the chance to play from the age of 21 or 22, he’d probably rate him about 30th.

James has come up with a formula he calls Brock2, which can predict with a high degree of accuracy what a player’s final career stats will look like, based on his numbers up to a certain point in time. In Minoso’s case he ran an experiment, projecting backwards from Minnie’s stats to see what he would have done from age 22 to 27 (while keeping his actual numbers intact from age 28 on.) This is the result: Games Played – 2,863. At-bats – 9,974. Runs – 1,970. Hits – 3,079. Doubles – 534. Triples – 168. Home Runs – 318. RBI – 1,429. Walks – 1,272. Batting Average – .307. These numbers are all in “automatic Hall of Famer” territory.

Another compelling method to assess Minnie’s qualifications for the Hall is to compare his numbers to those of other Hall of Fame leftfielders, after the age of 28 in their careers – levelling the playing field, so to speak. James does exactly this in his book, Whatever Happened To the Hall of Fame? Here are the leaders among leftfielders in the category of hits, from age 28 on : 1. Stan Musial – 2,405. 2. Carl Yazstremski – 2,218. 3. Lou Brock – 2,202. 4. Jim O’Rourke – 2,035. 5. Minoso – 1,960. 6. Billy Williams – 1,783. 7. Ted Williams – 1,729. 8. Jesse Burkett – 1,687. 9. Willie Stargell – 1,611. 10. Goose Goslin – 1,458.

With RBIs, it looks like this: 1. Musial – 1,368. 2. Yaz – 1,262. 3. T. Williams – 1,201. 4. Stargell – 1,129. 5. Minoso – 1,022. 6. B. Williams – 988. 7. Goslin – 879 8. Ed Delahanty – 782, and so on. There are actually 16 HOF leftfielders on each of these lists, but you get the drift – Minoso ranks fifth in both these categories among some very heady company. Maybe one of the reasons Minnie has been overlooked is that there are already so many leftfielders in the Hall, but he’s pretty clearly near the top of the class. He was also surely one of the most productive older players ever and one of the oldest to drive in 100 runs (at 37 in 1960.) If Minoso compares this well with other leftfielders from age 28 on, doesn’t it seem logical he would also have done so in his younger years, if he’d had the chance?

All of this highly involved numerical speculation aside, I think Minnie Minoso belongs in the Hall based on what he actually did as a player, especially when considered along with his character and devotion to the game. I sometimes wish the voters would look not just at the numbers themselves as totals, but rather beyond these to what they actually mean in terms of the player’s real ability. It’s not just that Minnie belongs in the Hall of Fame, it’s that the Hall is actually doing itself and baseball fans a disservice by not having him in.

I’d like to close with a funny story about Minnie – he was a comical guy who often spoke half in English, half in Spanish when he got excited, as when pleading his case in arguments with umpires, which often left them in stitches. There’s a parallel story involving Louis Armstrong which I’ll tell first, so I can close with Minnie.

After leaving New Orleans and taking Chicago by storm with King Oliver, the young Satchmo landed in New York about 1925, playing with the famous Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, the first great big band in jazz. It was full of top-notch, educated musicians and played wonderful, swinging arrangements by its leader, full of complex scoring for that time. Louis was self-taught and more used to the looser, more free-wheeling ways of New Orleans jazz. Once while rehearsing a new piece, Louis played a passage marked pp (i.e. double pianissimo) at full volume. Henderson stopped the band and castigated Armstrong. “Louis, why are you playing so loud? It’s marked pp, that means very softly.” “Sorry, Pops”, Louis rasped. “I thought pp meant pound plenty!”

During his brief stint with Dayton in 1948, Minnie was expected to learn a complex system of about 50 signs in short order. During one at-bat, the take sign was put on, but he swung at the next pitch and hit it a mile for a home run. Despite this success, his hard-nosed manager Joe Vosmik chewed him out for missing the take sign. Minnie protested he hadn’t missed it. He thought that ‘take’ meant ‘take a swing.’

Here’s to pounding plenty and taking a swing, may the doors to Cooperstown open for Minnie while he’s still around. Here’s a quote from the man himself about what playing baseball meant to him:

” What more could I ask of life? I came from nowhere. I worked in the sugar fields as a boy. It was a tough life. I had one pair of shoes and one pair of pants. But I always had a smile on my face. My mother and father…taught me to be a good citizen, a good human being, and to love life.”  

Amen to that.

© 2013 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

One thought on “Oh, So … Minoso

  1. Minnie is my favorite player that I have ever watched play, first time in 1951 as a young boy. He was more exciting running on and of the field than most of the players who played the game, he had charisma, confidence and he played with enthusiasm. I personally believe Minnie belongs in the Hall of Fame but either way I feel so fortunate to have seen him play. Best wishes Minnie, God’s speed.

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