January 12, 2012
Inside The Park
My first memory about Minnie Minoso stems from 1977, on one of those bright afternoons when I had talked my grandfather into stopping at the dime store on the town square in Red Oak, Iowa. It's just as Sinclair Lewis as it sounds. The store sold baseball cards, and I was working on my Topps collection that summer by picking up four or five 10-cent packs at a time. Not everything at the dime store actually cost a dime, but fifteen baseball cards and one rock-hard piece of bubble gum did, and they came bundled in colorful wax wrappers that I liked so much that I refused to throw them away. My parents didn't give a rip about sports, but my grandfather had played second base in Class-B ball in southwest Iowa in the 1920s and understood what baseball could mean to a young boy. He was glad to fork over change for the cards.
Red Oak had, and still has, the type of rustic town square that was once the primary business district of small midwestern towns. Some communities have courthouses stuck in the middle of their square, but Red Oak has trees, a fountain, and a park. That day, I sat in the grass opening my cards, stuffing the gum in my mouth one piece at a time, while my grandfather lounged on a bench under a tree talking to a fellow retired farmer, who wore a green John Deere hat. The names on the cards didn't mean much to me at the time—it hadn't been that long since I had learned to read—but I loved the team names, the pictures, and of course, the numbers on the back. Suddenly I came across card No. 232 from the 1977 Topps set:
I remember handing the card to my grandfather and asking him to read the back—there were a lot of words on there. Turns out that Minnie had broken a record that Nick Altrock* set three weeks before the crash of 1929, about which my grandfather proceeded to reminisce with his pal. I asked my grandfather if he knew Altrock, because I didn't yet understand the distinction between the majors and the very low minors and didn't have any concept of just how big the world was—Red Oak seemed like a metropolis to me. He laughed and spit some tobacco juice on the ground and handed the card back to me, saying something like, "Well, isn't that something."
(*The card also turned out to be wrong. Jim O'Rourke was the oldest when he hit safely, doing so at the age of 54 in 1904.)
I sat in the grass looking at Minnie for a long time after I finished opening the rest of my cards, studying his rugged face on the front of the card and wading my way through the words on the back.
This was my only memory of Minoso for a number of years, until I got my hands on my first baseball encyclopedia and began my protracted study of baseball history. When Minoso's name landed on the ballot of the Golden Era Committee last fall, I thought back to that afternoon that is now both distant and immediate, as memories tend to be. I had encountered Minoso at the ballpark a few times since moving to Chicago but hadn't had a chance to talk with him. It's not that I didn't want to meet him, but Minoso is always surrounded by people, in the middle of telling a story of his or listening to someone else's, and I tend to shy away from crowds. Here was a living piece of baseball history so close, yet I had never gotten to know the man behind it.
Nor had I really given serious thought to whether or not Minoso ought to be in the Hall of Fame, but I began to consider his case when the G.O.C. ballot came out. I have to admit that I had previously been swayed by the gimmickry that marked Minoso's post-major-league career, the three games in 1976 and the two in 1980. (The White Sox also wanted to activate Minoso in 1993, but Bud Selig put the kibosh on that plan.) Minoso became one my subjects in my first writing assignment for the Kansas City Star, which was to compile a weekly notebook on the now-defunct Northern League. This is when sports sections still needed such things to fill space. As it turned out, it was yet another gimmick that brought me back to Minnie, but further from the truth about his real role in baseball's history.
The St. Paul Saints trotted out the 80ish Minoso for a game, just as they had 10 years before. The Saints were operated by Mike Veeck, whose family has connections with Minoso dating back to the 1940s. In fact, Minoso wore a White Sox uniform to Bill Veeck's funeral in 1986. The Saints were trying to drum up publicity by making Minoso the first seven-decade player, just as they had 10 years before when they made him the first six-decade performer. Minoso led off the game against lefty Tim Byrdak, who had appeared in the majors with the Royals but was in the midst of what turned out to be a successful quest to get back to The Show. Minoso fouled off a pitch, worked a full count, and then walked. It was a nice story, and I treated my Northern League beat with a kind of grim earnestness. But in that same notebook, I wrote an item about a player named Jeff Brooks getting flattened by the Jackhammermobile during a game in Joliet. This was not serious company Minnie was keeping.
These were the disparate incidents that until recently marked whatever notion of Minoso I held in my mind. I knew that his objective Hall of Fame case was borderline, but his absence from Cooperstown had never given me pause. In Chicago, the cause célèbre has always been Ron Santo, the beloved former Cub who will finally be enshrined in the Hall—posthumously—in July. Just over a year ago, I covered Santo's memorial service on a snowy night in downtown Chicago, and Minoso was one of the VIPs who stopped on the sidewalk to chat with the gathered media. In my story, I called Minoso a South Side baseball icon—the White Sox's version of Santo. Until I wrote the words, I had never really given the idea any thought. I remember pausing with my finger over the “backspace” key, wondering if I had overdone it. I decided that I hadn't.
If all goes well, I'll have a Hall of Fame vote of my own in a few years, so I spend a lot more time these days reading things like Jay Jaffe's JAWS-related work. Mostly, I've considered players who will be eligible when I vote as well as players already in the Hall, as I try to define for myself the vague notion of "Hall of Famer." Players like Minoso and Santo are beyond my help, so I've spent more time wondering about things like the crapstorm that will hit next year when the wave of so-called "steroid era" players hit the ballot. I can only hope that they muster enough support to remain eligible. That way, I'll have the option of voting for them in a few years. In my line of thinking, either a player did enough to help his teams win over the years, or he did not. I try not to sweat things that I can't really evaluate. The Hall lists abstract qualities such as integrity, sportsmanship, and character among its qualifications for membership, but what do those things even mean? My conclusion has always been that except in extreme and obvious circumstances, these non-quantitative personality traits have to be set aside.
After the ten names on the first Golden Era ballot were released, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf instructed his staff to arrange a forum on Minoso's candidacy. The forum was held at the ballpark in November, about three weeks before the 15-person committee was to vote. I was asked to cover the event because someone somewhere was on vacation, and I was glad to go. I didn't expect to learn anything to shake my ambivalence about Minoso's Hall chances. As it turns out, I came to believe that Minoso is one of those "extreme and obvious" cases to which I alluded.
The day of the forum was cold and windy, one of those wintry fall afternoons that makes baseball season seem a long ways off. I arrived at U.S. Cellular Field early, as is my habit, and was led to the banquet room where lunch was going to be served. I sat by myself at a table and scribbled notes as I watched the luminaries and speakers arrive. Hall of Famer Tony Perez showed up and was soon joined by should-be Hall of Famer Luis Tiant, another name on the Golden Era ballot. Some older players whom I later recognized as Billy Pierce, Jim Landis, and Jim Rivera joined the crowd. Soon Minoso and his family arrived. He was wearing a sharp gray suit and looked as if he were closer in age to Perez and Tiant's generation than the one that included his elderly teammates.
I was writing all of this down when a hand touched my shoulder. It was Minoso’s. The food had been put out by the catering staff, and he wanted to make sure that I got something to eat. It was a small thing, but it made an impression. Later, during the forum, historian Rich Lindberg said, "I think every man, woman, and child in the city of Chicago has a Minnie Minoso autograph. He is the ultimate baseball ambassador." That's true, but more than anything, Minoso just seems like a really nice guy. That doesn't make him a Hall of Famer, of course, but it did clarify why people have gone to so much trouble over an 86ish-year-old ballplayer.
The real epiphany hit me a few minutes later, after the forum began in an auditorium across the hall. The event was being taped, presumably so that the recording could be distributed to the voters on the committee. ESPN's Pedro Gomez was hosting, and various speakers were brought to the floor of the amphitheater-shaped room. The first speaker was a history professor named Adrian Burgos, who authored a book on baseball's color line as it related to Latinos. It was Burgos who uttered the money quote that made me sit up and take notice.
"The Latinization of baseball started with Minoso," Burgos said. "We needed Minoso to counteract the stereotype of the hot-headed Latin. We needed another Jackie Robinson. That's what Minoso brought to the game."
Whoa. I suppose that somewhere in my consciousness I was aware that Minoso was the game's first black Latino, but I had never heard it stated in such a stark fashion. And it got my attention. This was something I should have known, or at the very least was something of which I shouldn't have had to be reminded. The allusion to Robinson left me in a daze.
Speaker after speaker came forward to sing Minoso's praises. Stats LLC's Don Zminda read off a laundry list of Minoso's statistical accomplishments, all clustered into his first 11 seasons in the majors. This, too, was moving in its own way. Category by category, Minoso ranked second, third, fourth, second. Sure, many of the departments were based on counting stats, but he fared awfully well in the percentages as well. It's easy to make the case that only Mickey Mantle was more valuable than Minoso over the period from 1951 to 1961. Is that in itself enough to merit membership in Cooperstown? Some say yes, others no. As I mentioned, that aspect of Minoso's case is borderline, entirely dependent on what level of inclusiveness you believe the Hall of Fame should have.
Even after the impressive reading of Minoso's statistical accomplishments, I found myself dwelling on Burgos' words: the Latin American Jackie Robinson.
Minoso's former teammates took the floor and gave a humorous, glowing account of their days with Minnie, giving him credit for creating the Go-Go Sox persona of the 1950s. Minoso wasn't on the White Sox's 1959 pennant winner, having been traded to Cleveland in 1957 for Early Wynn and Al Smith—two key figures on the '59 Sox. Pierce, Landis, and Rivera tried to make the case that the style of play established by Minoso was largely responsible for the feats of the team that finally broke through. It wasn't a very convincing case. The gentlemen's hearts were in the right place, but they didn't need to stretch things quite so much.
During the break between sessions, I skirted off to the men's room, where I found Perez and Tiant talking in Spanish. They ignored me as I listened to them talk grimly about a topic which I couldn't understand. Whatever it was, it was about Minnie, and they were in complete agreement. When I returned to the auditorium, Perez and Tiant had taken the floor to discuss Minoso's influence on Latin players of their generation and the ones that have come since, which is greater than I had ever allowed myself to imagine.
Perez also offered the Jackie Robinson comparison, then talked about growing up in the same village in Cuba, where they both cut sugarcane in the fields as children. Perez's father would take him to Havana to watch baseball from time to time, and it was then that he first saw Minoso play. This must have been in winter ball, as Perez was very young when Minoso played full-time in Cuba.
"All you hear in Cuba in the ’50s was Minnie Minoso," Perez said. "Every kid that wanted to be a ballplayer wanted to be in Minnie Minoso's shoes."
Then Perez looked over at Minoso and grew teary-eyed, with an expression on his face that I will never forget.
"I can be a Hall of Famer right now," Perez said, raising his hand high above his head. "But every time I'm in a room with Minnie Minoso, he's up here."
This week, the results of the annual BBWAA Hall of Fame voting were announced, setting off another round of arguments and essays about who should be in, who shouldn't, who deserves to vote and who doesn't. Gomez drew ire for casting a vote for Bill Mueller. Most of the arguments I read these days are based on statistical analysis and, frankly, that's probably never going to change. At the same time, my experience with Minoso has reminded me that this kind of analysis cannot tell the full story of player. Voters have a responsibility to acquaint themselves not only with the context in which a player's record was compiled, but also the obstacles that player may have cleared to compile that record. With Robinson, it was the color line. For Santo, it was diabetes. Minoso smiled in the face of racial, cultural, and linguistic bigotry. When it comes to voting on the players whom I will hopefully have a crack at, this kind of biographical research will only be due diligence. The major trails have already been blazed, at least until the first woman breaks through into the majors and builds a borderline Hall case. When she does, she'll get extra credit from me for being a pioneer.
It's hard to say why Minoso continues to be overlooked, and I keep that observation in the present tense. Minoso missed on the Golden Era ballot, getting just nine of the required 12 votes for induction. His omission received relatively little fanfare, even in Chicago, where the baseball community was busy celebrating Santo's election. All Minnie had to say was offered through a White Sox spokesman: "Even if it hurts on the inside, I will always be smiling on the outside."
After the vote, Burgos was interviewed for a Chicago Tribune story and said, "The Latino role in baseball history continues to be shoved to the side." Clearly, he is a man of strong words, but it's not hard to see his point. It may actually be unfair to Minoso to invoke Robinson's name, because they are two different men who faced different obstacles and did so with very different demeanors. It does seem a shame that more people don't know or appreciate Minoso's back story. If you asked 100 casual baseball fans at the ballpark who broke baseball's color line, chances are they would all say "Jackie Robinson." If you changed the question to "Who was baseball's first black Latino," chances are you'd get 100 blank stares, or a lot of people saying, "Roberto Clemente." Clemente, of course, is deservedly celebrated by and beyond the baseball community all over the world, but that's still a shame.
It really boils down to what kind of institution you want the Hall of Fame to be. Me, I note that the full name of the place is the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The Hall is not just a place to honor the best from baseball's history, but also to recognize the contributions of those who have meant so much to the game's rich history. Minoso's statistical record and status as a Gold Glover in the field puts him squarely on the threshold of the Halls' doors. It's baffling that his role as a trail blazer has not swept him inside.
Maybe those gimmicks that caught my attention so long ago really have overshadowed Minoso as a player and a pioneer. Not only did the five-, six-, seven-decade thing become what he's known for among recent generations, but the short stints also served to delay his original eligibility until the 1980s, when the circumstances surrounding his real role in the game were three decades in the past. How could we forget such a thing?
Minoso will again be eligible for the Golden Era ballot in three years. When I heard that he didn't get in, I remembered the words spoken by Tiant, who also was again left out of the Hall.
"If you're going to give him the honor, make sure it's while he's still alive so he can enjoy it," Tiant said.
We said the same thing about Santo for years, and then in the first year after he died, a statue of him was unveiled on the southeast corner of Wrigley Field, and the Hall of Fame finally came calling. I didn't get a chance to know Santo in the last year he was around, my first in Chicago, but I'm pretty sure he would have enjoyed these honors. Minoso would, too. Though he's 86, or maybe even 89, he still has the upright posture and ease of movement of a much younger man. In many ways he reminds me of Buck O'Neil, whom I had the good fortune to meet a few times in Kansas City. O'Neil was more stooped than Minoso, but he had the same smile and the same light in his eye, one that seemed as if it would shine forever. Until one day, it didn't. He was 94 years old, and there is, after all, an expiration date on us all.
It would be just as bittersweet for Minoso to get into the Hall posthumously as it will when Santo is inducted in a few months. Perhaps even more so, because if Minoso gets in it will be the first time many younger generations of baseball fans will hear him referred to as the "Latino Jackie Robinson." That seems important.
That day at the forum, they saved Minoso for last, and he talked for a long time and could have kept going. They almost had to yank him off the proverbial stage.
"It's beautiful," Minoso said, looking out over the small crowd. "I wish everyone could have a day like this in their life. It's like starting over again. I thank everybody for the beautiful memory."
This week, when we rejoice in Larkin's election, bemoan the continued shunning of Mark McGwire, among others, and look forward to the overdue recognition of Santo's life and career, I can't help but remember Minoso. I just hope there is at least one more beautiful memory in his future, and in ours.