It was just 5 weeks ago that “Rm. Cub,” Ernie Banks passed away. And yesterday, Banks’ counterpart on the South Side, Minnie Minoso died of apparent heart failure.
Minoso’s age is a matter of dispute, but his visa application gives his birth year as 1925, making him 89 when he died. It was something of a joke among White Sox fans. He told various reporters different stories of his age, so that he could have been as young as 87 or as old as 93 depending on what story you want to believe.
No matter his age, Minoso was a pioneer. Coming to the US from Cuba in 1945, he played semi-pro for a few years before performing in the Negro leagues. He was signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1949, but didn’t get much playing time. He was the first black player in Chicago, having been traded to the White Sox from Cleveland in a three team deal with the Philadelphia Athletics. Minoso made an immediate impact, hitting a 2-run home run in his very first at bat with the team.
For parts of 10 seasons, Minnie Minoso played left field for the White Sox. He had tremendous speed and could hit for power, as well as for average. His peculiar batting stance — crouching low and standing close to the plate — resulted in him being hit by the ball an astonishing 192 times in his career.
But it was his infectious personality and determined effort on the field that endeared him immediately to fans. As a fan, you can tell when a ballplayer is having fun on the field and Minoso used the baseball stadium as his own, private amusement park. He was one of baseball’s best “free swingers” — swinging hard and making contact with balls not necessarily in the strike zone. It is a trait of most Latin players even today and Minoso could hit a high fastball around his neck as far as any man ever to play the game.
A quirk about Minoso’s career — he played in 5 different decades. The New York Times explains how that happened:
Minoso seemed to have retired after the 1964 season, but he later played in Mexico. Veeck, in his second stint as owner of the White Sox after his years with the Indians, brought back Minoso in 1976. Minoso had a single in eight at-bats as a designated hitter, making him a four-decade player. Minoso was a White Sox coach in 1980 but was activated by Veeck for the last three games of that season and was 0 for 2 at the plate.
Nick Altrock, a pitcher who began his major league career in 1898, was the only other five-decade player; he appeared in a few games in the 1920s and 1930s.
Under the ownership of Jerry Reinsdorf, the White Sox considered getting Minoso into uniform again in 1990, their last year at the original Comiskey Park. Minoso turned aside suggestions that he would be making a travesty of the game.
“I have a professional respect for baseball players,” he said at the time. “I’m going for a record. Everyone asks and calls, ‘We want to see Minnie.’ It’s like a pitcher trying to pitch to make 300 wins. I have ambition.”
But Commissioner Fay Vincent did not allow Minoso to play.
Minoso played for the Sox seven seasons before being traded back to Cleveland prior to the 1958 campaign. Traded back to the White Sox in 1960, he appeared in his 9th and last All-Star Game while winning his 3rd Gold Glove. Traded away again in 1962 to the St. Louis Cardinals, he returned to the Sox once again in 1964 for his final full year in the majors.
Minoso, like Ernie Banks, was a fixture at both old Comiskey Park and US Cellular Field, mixing with delighted fans — most of whom had only heard of his exploits. President Obama mourned his passing, releasing a statement from the White House:
“Minnie may have been passed over by the Baseball Hall of Fame during his lifetime, 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.”
In truth, Minoso’s career stats are borderline for the Hall of Fame. There are many players with worse numbers who are in and some with better numbers who have also been snubbed. His .298 career batting average, 186 home runs, 1963 hits, and 1023 runs batted in should have been good enough considering the era he played in was rich with talent. But I’m with President Obama on this one. His American story adds up to so much more than a plaque in Cooperstown ever could.