Minnie Minoso: One for the ages, and for Baseball’s Hall

Upon learning the other day that the beloved Senor Saturnino Orestes Armas Minoso Arrieta – better known merely as “Minnie” – had passed beyond this mortal coil to his just reward at the tender age of probably at least 92, my reaction was perfectly reasonable.

I slammed my fist on my desk and, while enduring the subsequent pain, howled a string of un-printables, essentially asserting in language that can be rather more safely deployed here, “Those bloody (blankety blank) idiots have done it again!”   

The ranks of said culprits consist of all the people who botched, flummoxed, and ultimately booted Minnie Minoso’s highly deserving Hall of Fame cause over a period of a full half century. Such company includes the baseball writers who whiffed on him for 15 years and the assorted veterans committees who subsequently blundered left and right over the next 25 and even the special committee formed about a decade ago for the expressed purpose of rectifying such wrongs but somehow never came to grips with the Minoso case for reasons that now remain permanently inexplicable.

No issue in sports is more equally impassioned and wacky than the obtuse and eternal Cooperstown debates. Those who love the game and think they know it cold are divided, sub-divided, drawn, quartered, and forever at odds over countless burning questions.

Should Joe Jackson and Pete Rose be forgiven?  Should the sins of the PED offenders ever be excused? How come one wonderful season gets Hack Wilson into the Hall but can’t do the same for Roger Maris? Was Jim Bottomley better than Gil Hodges; Red Ruffing better than Wes Ferrell; Chick Hafey better than Tony Oliva? How do you balance the claims of great players who sacrificed their best years serving their country in a world war? Might such honored ancients as Ray Schalk and Bobby Wallace, a Rabbit Maranville or an Eppa Rixey even be good enough to make today’s Houston Astros as mere bench-warmers? Scholars of antiquity fret over the denial of “Bad Bill” Dahlen while the spurning of Black Jack Morris enrages contemporary pundits. And if and when such issues get resolved, there will be a bevy more to replace them.    
The problem, basically, is that there’s never been an agreement on criteria or credentials aside from some vague and imprecise acknowledgement of statistical merit and alleged fame and both factors are highly qualified and ill-defined. Stats can be split like hairs or atoms while fame has much to do with whether you played in New York or Kansas City. In the end, this playing field is mighty uneven.

And because it’s all so relative, it is common sense that ought to carry the day. Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby are in the Hall of Fame and so, too, should be Minnie Minoso. They are, essentially, equals. They form an immortal triumvirate, these three. Yet two are highly honored and one is utterly ignored and that is not right. It makes no sense.  

Robinson is properly canonized for having been the pathfinder who tore down the gates of baseball’s segregation, his permanent place of highest honors in the culture growing every generation in terms of heroic legendry. Belatedly, honors also came to Doby for the infinitesimally less arduous task of following Robinson by just a couple of months and smashing the same brutally tough barrier in the AL that Robby did in the NL, surely a distinction without a difference.
Acknowledgement came slower than it should have to Doby, in part because of Robinson’s out-sized aura, but it did come in time for Larry to enjoy it while he was still with us. Alas for Minoso, he was denied even that modest satisfaction.

Upon Minnie Minoso – the first black Latin performer to sign, play, and achieve stardom in Major League Baseball – fell the most difficult of the three epic tasks, in my opinion. Every detail of his ordeal was compounded by the monumental problems of the language barrier, profound cultural conflict, and his much skimpier preparation for the task.

Robinson and Doby had much in common. Both enjoyed what for the times were stable middle-class backgrounds allowing for superior education, military service, extensive grooming in the American sporting culture, and meaningful professional experience before they signed with MLB. Unquestionably there were difficulties along the way, especially for Robinson, but their backgrounds still amounted to major advantages in terms of preparation and it was because they’d had such preparation they were selected to be trail-blazers.

Minoso had near none of these advantages. In every detail the ordeal was harsher for him, yet he handled it with as much grace and courage as Robinson and Doby did theirs. Even more, some would say. Which fact has never been properly recognized nor even properly discussed, which is both wrong and dumb.

Born in El Perico, Cuba, and indentured to the sugar-cane fields as a child, Minnie learned the game on Havana’s hardscrabble sandlots, arriving in America in 1946 speaking not a word of English and with only one skill, baseball. It was Bill Veeck – in my opinion much more of a true saint in the cause of racial justice in baseball than Branch Rickey – who plucked Minnie from the New York Cubans of the Negro National League in 1949. To the incomparable Veeck, Minoso, Doby, Satch Paige, even Luke Easter were not employees but prodigies. He would be their mentor and patron from the day he signed them to the day he died. Bill Veeck was very special.

Recognizing Minoso’s need for more grooming, Veeck planted him in the friendly environs of San Diego in the Pacific Coast League. Two years later Veeck was gone from Cleveland and Minnie belonged to Chicago’s White Sox for whom he would excel through the 1950s. His true age was always a matter of some confusion, but Minoso, like Robinson, was probably a 28-year old rookie who likely had already sacrificed his best seasons to the infamous “color barrier,” making what he went on to do all the more remarkable.

Was it easier on Minnie than it had been for Larry or Robby? Consider this: When in that rookie season, 1951, he got beaned ten times, he not only led the majors but he also set an MLB record in that dubious category. A warmer and happier player than either Doby or Robinson, it’s possible certain pitchers found Minnie even more aggravating. He would later say his mother taught him to smile brightly whenever people tried to hurt him. Opponents must have loved that.

As a pioneer, Minoso’s credentials are indisputable. In that regard, he ranks pound for pound not only with Doby, but also with the fabled Robinson. But was he  roughly their equal as a player? I say, “unquestionably!”

Sturdier than the others, Minnie played meaningfully into his 40s and thus piled up the highest totals in near-all offensive categories. Doby had more homers, but Minoso had more RBIs and more of everything else than either. Robinson’s lifetime batting average was .311, Minoso’s .298, and Doby’s .283. Robinson had the greatest single season, hitting .342 in 1949 when he was NL MVP. But Minoso’s run of seven .300 seasons in which he led the league in nine offensive categories (three times in both triples and stolen bases) and was seven-times an all-star quite precisely compares with Robinson’s best run. Minoso had more power and the edge on defense, too. In his late 30s, he won gold gloves the first four years they were awarded. Both were very aggressive players, great base-runners who played hard. Robinson was more intimidating, although that may have had as much to do with his personality as his skills.

Let’s put it this way. There was only one Jackie Robinson. Larry Doby was a terrific player heavily burdened by the role he was forced to play. And Minnie Minoso was, cheek to jowl, their fellow traveler in the very same league.

How Minnie yearned to make it to Cooperstown. He declared it to be his “life’s dream.” The last of his cruel rejections came from the fumbling, bumbling Vets Committee just last December.

But some day he’ll make it, and when he does I shall slam my fist and mutter more expletives, cursing again the idiocy. That is, if I’m still around.