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.