Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Minnie Miñoso - Golden Era Hall of Fame Candidate and Baseball Pioneer

Minnie Miñoso 1954 Bowman
Minnie Miñoso is one of ten candidates eligible for the Golden Era Hall of Fame vote that will take place during December's Winter Meetings in San Diego.  The Golden Era Committee votes on candidates who made their biggest contributions to the game between 1947 and 1972.  The Committee is a 16-member panel made up of retired Hall of Famers, Major League executives, and veteran media members.  Each member of the panel can vote for up to four of the ten candidates.  A candidate must carry 75% of the vote to be elected.  December's vote will mark the second meeting of the Golden Era Committee, which previously voted in December 2011, electing Ron Santo who picked up 15 of 16 possible votes.  Miñoso was one of four other candidates that drew promising support on the 2011 ballot, picking up nine votes--tied with Gil Hodges for third highest, just behind Jim Kaat, who collected ten votes, and ahead of Tony Oliva, who garnered eight.  Miñoso will, once again, share the ballot with Kaat, Hodges, and Oliva as well Ken Boyer and Luis Tiant--who also appeared on the 2011 ballot--along with Dick Allen, Billy Pierce, Maury Wills, and Bob Howsam who are each newcomers to the ballot.  Miñoso was one of baseball's most exciting and well-rounded players during the 1950's and early 1960's.  Miñoso has an intriguing Hall of Fame case that goes beyond just his impressive numbers and on the field accomplishments but also includes his pioneering role of being one of the first black superstar ballplayers in the early days of integration as well as Major League Baseball's first black Latino player.

Born in El Perico, Cuba on November 29, 1925, Miñoso's name at birth was Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Armas.  Early in his life Miñoso started going by his middle name Orestes.  Orestes had two older half-brothers who played baseball for a local factory team and he would accompany them to games so he came to be referred to by their last name Miñoso.  Orestes would later pick up the nickname Minnie during his first season as a member of the Chicago White Sox.

Miñoso began his professional baseball career in his native country during the mid-1940's.  As a black Cuban, Miñoso found his path to the Major Leagues blocked by the color barrier.  Nevertheless, Miñoso made his way to the U.S. in 1945 to play in the Negro Leagues for the New York Cubans, a team largely comprised of Cuban-born players.  On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson integrated the Major Leagues when he made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  That same year, Miñoso helped the Cubans win the Negro League World Series.  Late in the 1948 season, Miñoso was signed by the Cleveland Indians and assigned to their minor league affiliate Dayton where he hit a blistering .525 in 11 games.  Miñoso made Cleveland's big league roster out of Spring Training in 1949 and in the process became the first black Latino and eighth overall black player to break the color barrier in the Major Leagues.  Despite his talent, Miñoso struggled to find playing time on Cleveland's veteran roster and was sent down to the club's Triple-A affiliate in San Diego.  Miñoso dominated Triple-A pitching but was kept in San Diego for the remainder of 1949 and all of 1950.  In the early days of integration, even forward thinking franchises like Cleveland are believed to have employed an unofficial quota system under which they were reluctant to have what might be perceived as too many black players on their roster, as a result obviously talented black players like Miñoso were kept in the minors.  Miñoso made the Indians for a second time out of Spring Training in 1951 but once again had trouble finding playing time.  Fortunately, just a couple of weeks into the season, new Chicago White Sox skipper Paul Richards--who had managed against Miñoso in Triple-A--requested that his club trade for Miñoso.

When Miñoso suited up for Chicago on May 1, he was first the black player to take the field for the franchise.  Even though the color barrier had been broken four years earlier, the integration of baseball had been a slow process--particularly in the American League.  In fact, the White Sox were just the third AL team to integrate and Miñoso was one of just four black players active in the league at the time.  Moreover, the other three black players, Larry Doby, Luke Easter, and Harry Simpson played for Cleveland, Miñoso's former club.  And, it would be more than two years before another AL team took the step of integrating their roster.

Although he was the sole black player on the White Sox, the trade ended up working out well for Miñoso since Chicago, in contrast to Cleveland, made a point of finding a spot for him in their starting line up--rotating him between third base, right field, and left field.  Finally granted regular playing time, Miñoso immediately established himself among the game's elite during his rookie season, hitting an outstanding .326, second to only Ferris Fain for the AL batting crown.  Miñoso showcased his speed by leading the AL in triples and stolen bases while also finishing second in the league in runs scored.  Yet despite his excellent season, Miñoso was narrowly beat out for the Rookie of the Year Award by New York Yankees infielder Gil McDougald in a close vote.  However, Miñoso drew more support than McDougald in the MVP vote, finishing in fourth place--five spots ahead of the Yankees infielder.

Miñoso proved his stand out rookie season was no fluke, becoming one of baseball's most dominant players throughout the 1950's and early 1960's.  During his career, Miñoso regularly placed among the league leaders in nearly every major offensive category and led the AL on at least one occasion in hits, total bases, doubles, triples, stolen bases, sacrifice flys, times hit by pitch, and games played.  Miñoso was a seven-time All-Star and drew MVP votes in eight different seasons.  Although he never won the MVP Award, Miñoso did pick up one or more first place votes on three separate occasions and finished fourth in the vote four times.  Though he was never a threat to lead the league in home runs, Miñoso generated enough power with doubles and triples to regularly finish among the AL leaders in extra base hits and slugging percentage.  In addition, Miñoso had four seasons in which he drove in over 100 runs as well as four campaigns where he eclipsed 100 runs scored.  Miñoso hit over .300 eight times and in five of those seasons finished fifth or higher among AL hitters.  The combination of Miñoso's high batting average, patience at the plate, and tendency of getting hit by pitches enabled him to also stay among the league leaders in OBP.  Miñoso's speed and aggressiveness on the basepaths kept opposing teams off-balance and made him a constant threat to swipe a bag or take an extra base.  On three occasions Miñoso led the AL in stolen bases and triples.  Few players were as consistent as Miñoso, whose impressive rookie campaign marked the first of an eleven-year stretch, from 1951 to 1961, in which he hit .280-or-higher each season with an OBP no lower than .369.  Miñoso could also be counted for durability, never missing more than 16 games in a season during the same eleven-year stretch.

Minnie Miñoso 1958 Topps
In addition to his offensive excellence, Miñoso also evolved into one of the game's best defensive players.  After initially seeing action at third base and all three outfield positions over his first two seasons, Chicago settled on having Miñoso primarily play left field in 1953.  The permanent move to left helped Miñoso make positive strides defensively and he proved to have one of the league's most dangerous throwing arms, leading AL left fielders in assists six times, while finishing as runner-up on three other occasions.  Miñoso's outstanding defense was recognized when he was part of the inaugural Gold Glove Award class in 1957 when the award was voted on by sportswriters and honored just one player from each position.  Miñoso also won Gold Gloves in 1959 and 1960 when the honor was bestowed on one player from each position in each league and voting was done by the players themselves.  Most of Miñoso's career took place before the existence of the Gold Glove Award but had they been given out from the onset of his career it is likely he would have received the honor several more times.  With a slick glove and strong throwing arm to go along with his potent bat and speed on the basepaths, there were few players as well-rounded during the 1950's and early 1960's as Miñoso.

Miñoso played his final big league season in 1964.  Throughout his playing career and for several years afterward, Miñoso's date of birth was listed as November 29, 1922.  In actuality, Miñoso was born a full year three years later in 1925 but had used the 1922 birth year to acquire a visa when he lived in his home country of Cuba, something Miñoso revealed in his 1994 autobiography, Just Call Me Minnie.  Being recognized as three years older may have hastened the end of his Major League career since he was thought to be in his early-40s when his skills began to erode instead of his late-30s and that may have turned teams off from giving him a chance to prolong his career.

As the first black Latino to play in the Major Leagues, Miñoso had to endure his share of racism and deal with the difficulties of playing in a foreign country while trying to learn a different language and culture.  Not only did Miñoso have to deal with the racial prejudices of the time but he often found himself a target of racially-tinged taunts and bench-jockeying from opposing teams.  Miñoso was also the victim of beanballs throughout his career.  By his own admission, Miñoso did crowd the plate and picked up the break of the ball late, thus he was often inadvertently struck by errant pitches.  However, in the first several seasons after integration, pioneering black players Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Luke Easter, Sam Jethroe, and Miñoso usually finished at or near the top of the hit by pitch leaderboard in their respective league--lending credence to the theory that black players were thrown at and knocked down more than white players.  And, no player during this time was beaned as much Miñoso who led the league a record ten times in hit by pitch and was plunked a total of 192 times in his career.  One manager is known to have ordered one of his pitchers to throw at Miñoso's head.  Disturbing incidents like this imply that at least a few of the beanings he endured may have been due to the color of his skin--something the jovial Miñoso chooses not to dwell on.

Minnie Miñoso 1955 Bowman
The late 1940's and 1950's were a pivotal time for pioneering black baseball players and the game itself.  Tasked with the enormous responsibility of proving themselves worthy of playing alongside white athletes, Miñoso and his fellow pioneers faced these challenges with grace and dignity, proving to be role models to not only their peers but future generations as well.  Over the years, most of the key pioneer black players have been elected to the Hall of Fame:  Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella were voted in by the BBWAA during the 1960's.  Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin were largely elected for their careers in the Negro League, each gaining induction through a special Negro League Committee which met from 1971 to 1977.  Despite being the second black player to break the color barrier and integrating the American League, Larry Doby had to wait until 1998 to be voted in.  Doby's long overdue election came through the Veterans Committee, the predecessor to the Golden Era Committee which will judge Miñoso's Hall of Fame candidacy.  With each of those deserving pioneers elected, Miñoso looms as the Hall of Fame's most glaring omission from the early days of integration.

Miñoso collected 1,963 career hits in 1,835 games along with 186 home runs, 1023 RBI, a .298 batting average, and .389 OBP--strong career numbers that likely would have been even more impressive had his Major League career not been delayed by several seasons due to the color barrier and the reluctance of teams to carry what could be perceived as too many black players on their roster in the years immediately following integration.  During the 1940's and 1950's, it was not uncommon for a player to crack the team's starting line up in their late teens and early-20s.  When finally given the chance to play everyday at 25-years old, Miñoso proved he was not only good enough to belong in the Major Leagues, but immediately established himself as one of the game's most dominant players.  Author and University of Illinois professor Adrian Burgos, Jr. perhaps described it best:  "Miñoso was the first black Latino in the majors--and was one who was not just able to survive, but achieve excellence."  While it is impossible to quantify what Miñoso's career numbers could have he been was it not for the color barrier and other factors, the combination of his solid career and unique pioneering role as not only one of the first black superstars but also the Major League's first black Latino player make Minnie Miñoso an ideal choice for the Hall of Fame.

----by John Tuberty

Sources:  Baseball Reference, Baseball Reference Play Index, SABR, Minnie Miñoso's SABR Bio, Baseball Almanac, Google News Archive, Eugene Register-Guard, Reading Eagle, MLB, Minoso By Any Other Name by Richard C. Lindberg from The National Pastime:  A Review of Baseball History, William M. Simons-The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, 2009-2010 (McFarland), Bruce Markusen's Cooperstown Confidential, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Chicago White Sox, White Sox Interactive, Baseball Hall of Fame, Southside Sox, Lou Hernández-Memories of Winter Ball:  Interviews with Players in the Latin American Winter Leagues of the 1950s (McFarland), Peter C. Bjarkman-Baseball with a Latin Beat:  A History of the Latin American Game (McFarland), Minoso HOF pdf by MLB.COM

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