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2006-02-22 17:24
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

Growing up, I often confused Minnie Minoso with Manny Mota, even though I knew Mota played for the dreaded Dodger teams of the late '70s. To be honest, I didn't really know much at all about Minoso until I read Allen Barra's collection of essays, "Clearing the Bases" a few years ago. But after reading Barra's piece, I was hooked, and today, I've got my own tribute to Minoso up at SI.com.

In "Minnie Minoso: The New Latin Dynasty," Barra wrote:

Isn't it odd that at a time in sports history when we are more issue-conscious than ever, no one has a clue as to who the first Latin ballplayer was? Well, anyway, I didn't ahve one, and I've been writing about this stuff for more than twenty years. Either I'm different from most fans in this regard, or the grumbling you sometimes hear from Latin ballplayers is legitimate.

Okay, so who is the Latin Jackie Robinson? First of all, we have to be specific about what we're asking, and after some thought I decided that there was no point in trying to track the first white Latin player, as there would be no real issue regarding the bigotry even white Latinos must have endured, but there was no hard or fast barrier to break. The first dark-skinned Latin player, I was told by the Hall of Fame, was Cuban-born Saturino Orestes Arrieta Minoso, "The Cuban Comet," better known to fans as Minnie. Minnie Minoso made his debut in 1949, two years after Jackie Robinson, playing for Bill Veeck's Cleveland Indians. Larry Doby, who also made his debut in 1947, shortly after Jackie, is recognized as the AL's first black player, but what about Minoso? What must it have been like for him, to be both black and Hispanic? There have been shelves full of material on Jackie Robinson, and in recent years baseball historians have started to catch up to Larry Doby, but who knows about Minnie Minoso?

Outside of Chicago--where Minoso's number is retired by the World Champion White Sox--and perhaps Cuba, not that many people talk about Minnie at all. Barra sparked my interest, and made a compelling case for Minoso as a Hall of Famer, comparing him to Doby and Enos Slaughter.

Both Doby and Slaughter were very good players but what I would rate as borderline Hall of Fame candidates. Both had a lot of people pulling for them and pleading special case arguments; Doby had virtually all the writers who had back the first Negro Leaguers, and Slaughter had fans such as Tom Wicker, who wrote a chapter advocating his HOF candidacy for Dan Okrent's "The Ultimate Baseball Book."

Minoso still doesn't have a lot of people campaigning for him, though he has a chance to be elected to the Hall next Monday. I recently spoke with Tony Oliva, another Cuban-born star, and he thinks that Minoso compares well with Doby:

Look at the numbers. And Minoso was a guy who played outfield, he played infield, he played very, very hard. But he was a Cuban. You have to take care of your people first. That had to be the reason [he wasn't elected to the HOF]. If you had the same situation in Cuba, they would try and take care of Cubans first, you know? For us to achieve something, we've got to do double of what the other people do...The name Minnie Minoso was everything if you followed sports in Cuba. He was the top of the line for me. He put up a lot of great numbers, especially in those days when it was very tough to play. In Cuba, man, everybody loved Minoso.

Peter Bjarkman, a Latin baseball historian, has an excellent chapter on Minoso in his book "Basball with a Latin Beat" (essential for any well-stocked baseball library). Minoso, he writes:

was the most colorful dark-skinned Cuban ballplayer of the post-Robinson integration years. Yet Minoso's flashy style and dramatic flair translated into huge efforts at doing precisely what was needed to win ballgames for his team. He played with a reckless abandon aimed always at achieving nothign short of total victory; his was a flair with a clear work ethic. He stole bases with the game on the line, harassed pitchers with daring base-running ploys, took extra bases and made impossible wall-crashing catches.

...Lary Doby...possessed a stable temperament that made him far more like Jackie Robinson's teammate Roy Campanella--a quiet revolutionary determined to lead by strong silent slugging and soft-spoken clubhouse diplomacy. Minoso...burned instead with Robinson's dignified fire. The "Cuban Comet" also burned up the American League base paths with three consecutive stolen-base titles (1951-1953) in an age when base speed was of little premium and rarely an offensive strategy of preference. The flashy style he brought to the game was guaranteed to cement Minoso's reputation with fair-minded fans, just as it would further fan the flames of hatred among those spectators and opponents who could not stand to see such a flashy black man uptaging everyone else on the field.

Here's hoping that Minoso gets his due while he's still alive to enjoy it. He's certainly deserving.

Comments
2006-02-22 18:17:56
1.   Alex Belth
An old family friend who grew up in Chicago during the 1950s shared the following with me a few years back. I remember him signing Minoso's name to a piece of famous music.

"It's not classical music, it's a Christmas carol, and the initial effect depends on the similarity of 'Orestes' to 'Adeste', then on the resemblance of Spanish names to Latin words. Later you sort of bellow 'Sherman Lollar' before sort of chanting 'Paul Richards, Nelson Fox...'

Adeste, fideles,
Laeti triumphantes,
Venite, venite ad Bethlehem.
Natum videte, regem angelorum;
Venite adoremus,
Venite adoremus,
Venite adoremus dominum.

Or in English:

O come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him, born the King of angels;
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

Now then:

Orestes Minoso,
Chico Carrasquel,
Saul Rogovin, Billy Pierce, and Omar Lown.
Sherman Lollar, Luis Aparicio,
Paul Richards, Nelson Fox,
Paul Richards, Nelson Fox,
Paul Richards, Nelson Fox, and Early Wynn."

2006-02-23 05:36:45
2.   Shawn Clap
Good stuff. Had I not read your article I would have gone through life thinking Minnie Minoso was just a circus sideshow, oldest man to get a hit, 5 decades in the Majors, the near comeback in the '90s, that sort of thing.

Thanks for digging deeper!

2006-02-23 06:05:17
3.   Sliced Bread
Nice work, Alex.
It's remarkable (sad and frustrating, too) how the baseball community can turn its back on a guy like Minoso.
It seems to me (based on your tribute) that his career should be acknowledged and celebrated in baseball's Hall of Fame.
I'm surprised, given the success of El Duque and the Great Contrarian on the White Sox last season, that we didn't hear more about Minnie Minoso (not that I was scouring through the Chicago newspapers).
Obviously, it's been easier for the national baseball media to banter about Ozzie's mouth, 1917, "Black Sox" scandal etc.
2006-02-23 06:09:41
4.   Matt B
I think my first exposure to Minnie Minoso was a 1977 baseball card commemorating his 1976 at bat to become the oldest player to bat in the bigs. (Which he did again in the 80s, right?) I loved his name and thought that sounded cool. Then, really, it was Strat-o-matic that led me to realize that Minoso was actually a damned fine ballplayer. I've been a supporter ever since.
2006-02-23 11:43:05
5.   Bob Heuer
Alex,
Thanks for a great article saluting Orestes "Minnie" Minoso. If Buck O'Neil, "the eloquent elder statesman of the Negro Leagues," is considered a shoo-in for Monday's Hall of Fame vote, then the same must be true for Minoso who, after all, did have a better playing career.

In the past, Minoso's chances for the Hall of Fame were hurt by his comical image. As for the nickname "Minnie" itself suggesting he's not someone to be taken seriously, that topic is discussed in an authoritative book on Cuban baseball called "The Pride of Havana." The author--Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, a Cuban native and Yale University literature professor--views the nickname "Minnie" as a by-product of American ignorance and condescension toward foreigners excelling in our "national" pastime. (Consider all the "Chicos"--Carrasquel, Fernandez, Ruiz Salmon. Those guys went through entire careers, with Americans thinking their first name was the equivalent of "Boy.") Orestes Minoso was grateful for the opportunity to make a life in a foreign country and wasn't about to quibble over relatively minor indignities like getting stuck with a goofy Disney name.

The truth is, as you and a growing number of U.S. baseball writers are realizing, today's Latino dominance is the outgrowth of a rich tradition of players from a half-dozen Latin American countries. Monday's Hall of Fame vote by a committee of Negro League historians is the outcome of a research process that helped to fill gaps in the baseball world's understanding of Minoso's achievements. Monday's election represents the first time that Hall of Fame voters will consider the full scope of Minnie's qualifications.

As baseball history is rewritten in the years ahead to reflect Latino dominance, it's inevitable that Minoso—truly a pillar of the game's Latino tradition—will get a plaque. But he's 83-years-old and not getting any younger. It would be a real injustice if this committee—organized for the very purpose of remembering qualified people who slipped through the cracks—overlooks the one ballplayer that best embodies the Latino dimension of baseball's integration story.

2006-02-25 18:46:03
6.   Jeb
Bear in mind that minoso's numbers also warrant admission to the hall. He didn't get into mlb until he was 26 and still had 1963 hits and batted .298. If he had started at 20 or 21, he might have had 3000 hits. He is fully worthy of enshrinement into cooperstown!

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