Posted: Wednesday February 22, 2006 1:35PM; Updated: Wednesday February 22, 2006 4:30PM
On April 30, 1951, Miñoso was shipped to the White Sox as part of a seven-player deal. His debut with the new club was a doozy. On May 1, against the defending champion New York Yankees, Miñoso became the first black man to play major league baseball for either Chicago club -- two years before Ernie Banks' debut with the Cubs. Miñoso blasted a long home run off Vic Raschi in his first at-bat. But Miñoso's historic day would be overshadowed. In the sixth inning another rookie, Mickey Mantle, also hit his first big league homer, and the Yankees went on to win the game.
"This knack for inadvertently playing second fiddle on the baseball diamond," notes Latin baseball scholar Peter Bjarkman, "would somehow become something of a hallmark of Miñoso's otherwise brilliant big league career."
This held true after Miñoso's brilliant rookie season, when sportswriters awarded the Rookie of the Year to New York's Gil McDougald. McDougald benefited from being white and playing for the Yankees (who would win another World Series that fall), but a look at the numbers shows that Miñoso was the superior player. The Sporting News picked Miñoso as its top rookie, and oddly enough, the baseball writers themselves had him fourth in their MVP voting -- while McDougald was a distant ninth.
Minoso's rookie stats vs. Rookie of the Year winner Gil McDougald
Miñoso seemed to do everything well: get on base, rattle the pitcher, steal bases, hit for power and hustle constantly. Miñoso was the catalyst, the Soul Brother Number One, of Chicago's "Go Go" White Sox of the '50s. Old Comiskey Park was a pitcher's paradise (350 feet down the lines and 444 feet to straight-away center), so the team focused on speed and defense, Miñoso's strengths. A wonderful fielder -- he won three Gold Gloves after they started giving the award out, in 1957, and likely would have won more had it existed earlier -- Miñoso also led the league in stolen bases during his first three seasons in the majors, bringing the essence of the Negro League game to the lethargic big leagues.
Enthusiastic and affable, Miñoso was hugely popular in Chicago -- a '50s version of Sammy Sosa circa 1998. The White Sox set a franchise record for attendance in 1951, and to acknowledge Miñoso's contributions, the team honored him toward the end of the season with a "Minnie Miñoso Day," an unheard-of honor for a rookie. What Willie Mays was to the National League, Miñoso was to the AL.
Minoso's average batting line from '51-61
From 1951-61, Miñoso was the greatest left fielder in either league not named Williams or Musial. Miñoso ranked in the top 10 in OBP and total bases each year from '51-60 (except '55). He ranked 10th in the decade of the '50s in win shares. The nine players ahead of him are all in the Hall; among the top 14, only Gil Hodges and Miñoso are not.
There is no doubt that Miñoso was a dynamic player. The question is, was he truly great? While his major league career was a success, the fates never seemed to be with him. He joined the Indians in 1949, a year after the team won its last World Series; he played for the White Sox when the Tribe made it to the '54 Series against the Giants; he was traded back to the Indians in '58 and missed the White Sox' World Series appearance in '59. (When he was traded back to Chicago in 1960, Veeck, who by then was running the Sox, gave Miñoso an honorary ring.) The fact that he didn't play in a World Series or for a New York franchise or that he didn't hit a ton of home runs hurt him. So, too, did his nationality.
"Americans at the time didn't seem to pay that much attention to the Latino breakthrough, perhaps because many light-skinned Cubans had preceded Miñoso," says baseball historian Jules Tygiel. "More likely it is because Americans have a binary perception of race -- black and white, making no distinction for Latinos. At the time, it did not seem that what Miñoso was doing was comparable to Robinson and Doby. In retrospect, however, Miñoso's breakthrough looms large."
"Chicago didn't really have any crusading sportswriters, or much of a Latin community at the time," notes author Glenn Stout. "He was alone, and not really embraced as or by African-Americans in Chicago." Moreover, minority ballplayers were often categorized as clowns or threats. The language barrier alone intensified the issue for Latin players. "Those seen as clowns are easier for the media to deal with," Stout continues. "In Chicago, Miñoso was put in a safe place. His skills never got their due because it was so easy for the media then to seen them as 'natural' skills, not acquired. White players almost always work for their talent and acquire it through the accumulative effect of hard work and other desired traits. Black and Latin players don't."
Miñoso was as much an all-out hustler as Pete Rose, and had to put up with considerably more crap. Just how many major league years did Miñoso lose to racism? Some records suggest he was 25 in 1951, others say he was 28. If Miñoso was 28, then what he was able to accomplish in his 30s was truly great. Some observers think Miñoso lost as many as five years to racism, but even if it was only two or three seasons, it was enough to skew his overall achievement in the majors.
When taken as a whole, Miñoso's playing career in the Negro Leagues, minors and big leagues (not to mention the winter leagues -- Miñoso continued to play in Mexico for another nine years after he left the majors) merits recognition. How he should be evaluated is a question of historical context. While Jackie Robinson can be regarded with awe on numbers alone, there is a less-heralded second tier of pioneers, Doby and Miñoso included, whose career numbers are better understood when held alongside the cultural world they played in. If Doby is in the Hall of Fame, why isn't Miñoso?
Miñoso was a populist who worked hard and played hard. He didn't carry the same kind of political and social overtones that accompanied Clemente and Cepeda later on. Miñoso was of an older generation, one that became unfashionable by the late '60s. At a time when an icon like Louis Armstrong was considered an Uncle Tom by some observers, Miñoso too seemed passé in the wake of cultural figures like Clemente. The shame of it is that his reputation has never really recovered. It has instead eroded -- even the name "Minnie" itself denotes something not to be taken seriously. But he is one to remember seriously for what he did on and off the field and because, like Buck O'Neil, he was one of a kind who gave himself to the game and made it a richer experience for us all.