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Minnie Minoso, the first black White Sox player, passes away
0:48 | MLB
Minnie Minoso, the first black White Sox player, passes away
Monday March 2nd, 2015

One month after the passing of Ernie Banks, and less than three months after he was snubbed yet again by Hall of Fame voters, baseball—and the city of Chicago—has lost another great, iconic ambassador. Minnie Minoso, the first black Cuban to star in the majors and the first black player for either of Chicago's teams, died early Sunday morning of a tear in his pulmonary artery caused by chronic obstructive pulmonary artery disease. He's believed to have been somewhere between 89 and 92 years old, though sources differ as to his actual age.

A dynamic all-around ballplayer with speed, an excellent batting eye and considerable power, Minoso, nicknamed “The Cuban Comet,” got his start in the Negro National League and went on to hit .298/.389/.459 with 186 homers, 205 steals and a 130 OPS+ in parts of 17 major league seasons, the heart of which was a 1951-1964 run during which he earned All-Star honors seven times, placed fourth in the AL MVP voting four times, and won three Gold Gloves. He did it all while serving as a pioneer, a key figure in the transition to a fully integrated game who had to battle racism and segregation, enduring epithets from opposing players and fans along the way. At times he was forced to eat in different restaurants and sleep in different hotels than his teammates.

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After Minoso’s run in the majors, he played and managed in the Mexican League, where he was “the Black Charro” (Black Cowboy), then returned to the White Sox as a coach. During that stint, he made pinch-hitting appearances in 1976 and 1980, giving him the distinction of being the majors' third-oldest player at age 54 and the second to have played in parts of five decades (1940s through '80s). He made similar cameo appearances in 1993 and 2003 with the independent Northern League's St. Paul Saints, whose part owner, Mike Veeck, is the son of former major league owner Bill Veeck, an instrumental figure in Minoso's career.

Alas, the combination of uncertainty about his age and the gimmickry of those latter-day cameos may have obscured the case of a player whose career is worthy of the Hall of Fame. In December, Minoso was one of 10 candidates who fell short during the most recent vote by the Golden Era Committee, just the latest in a long line of disappointments on that front. In an interview conducted by my former Baseball Prospectus colleague Christina Kahrl that was published at ESPN just two days before his death, Minoso described the heartbreak of falling short, saying, "Don't tell me that maybe I'll get in after I pass away. I don't want it to happen after I pass. I want it while I'm here, because I want to enjoy it."

Minoso's most basic biographic details are somewhat confusing. The son of Carlos Arrieta and Cecilia Armas, he was born in El Perico, Cuba, a town near Havana, on November 29 sometime between 1922 and 1925. His official website uses 1922 and his 1946 Cuban passport shows 1923, but in his 1994 memoir, Just Call Me Minnie, he wrote:

"I was 19 years old when I arrived in the United States in 1945, but my papers said I was 22. I told a white lie… to obtain a visa, so I could qualify for service in the Cuban army. My true date of birth is the 29th of November, 1925."

Baseball-Reference.com uses that date, but upon news of his passing, his family and the White Sox claimed he was 90 years old, which would put 1924 as his birth year. He was baptized as Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Armas, but became known as Minoso because his mother had four children from a previous marriage by that name; he would legally change his name to Orestes Minoso upon becoming a US citizen in the 1980s.

Minoso grew up working in the sugar cane fields, like his father, and learned baseball while playing in the sandlots with older half-brother Francisco Minoso. He modeled his game after Cuban star Martin Dihigo (elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977) and played every position at one time or another, including catcher and pitcher. In 1943, he began playing semipro ball for $2 per game for Ambrosia Candy, and worked his way up the sport's ladder, moving on to cigar manufacturer Partegas' team, the Marianao winter league team (where he won Rookie of the Year honors in 1945 while making $200 per month) and then the New York Cubans of the Negro National League, who offered him $300 per month; Alex Carrasquel, the first Venezuela-born major league player, signed him on behalf of the Cubans. Minoso turned down a more lucrative offer to join the Mexican League, which was at that point vying to compete with Major League Baseball by raiding major league rosters.

Encouraged by the Dodgers' signing of Jackie Robinson to a professional contract in October 1945, heralding a challenge to MLB's longstanding color barrier, Minoso chose to honor his agreement with the Cubans and come to the United States. Playing primarily at third base, he starred for the Cubans from 1946-1948, helping the team win the NNL pennant in 1947 and starting for the East team in the All-Star Game. After helping the Cubans win the Negro League World Series in 1948, Minoso was signed by Indians owner Bill Veeck, who had integrated the American League with the signing of Larry Doby in 1947, less than three months after Robinson's major league debut. Veeck was acting on a tip from Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein, whose hoopsters sometimes suited up for Negro League teams to earn extra money. Sent to the Indians' Dayton affiliate in the Central League to finish out the 1948 season, Minoso went 21-for-40 with nine extra-base hits in an 11-game trial.

That wasn't enough for him to crack the lineup of the Indians, who won the World Series in 1948 with a roster that featured All-Star Ken Keltner at third base as well as Doby and hot-hitting Dale Mitchell in the outfield. Minoso spent most of 1949 and 1950 pulverizing Pacific Coast League pitching for the San Diego Padres. He did play nine games for the big club in the former year, debuting on April 19, 1949 and thus becoming the eighth black player in major league history:

Player

Team

Debut

Jackie Robinson

Dodgers

April 15, 1947

Larry Doby

Indians

July 5, 1947

Hank Thompson

Browns

July 17, 1947

Willard Brown

Browns

July 19, 1947

Dan Bankhead

Dodgers

August 26, 1947

Roy Campanella

Dodgers

April 20, 1948

Satchel Paige

Indians

July 9, 1948

Minnie Minoso

Indians

April 19, 1949

Minoso went just 3-for-20 during his brief stay with the Indians, and if he wasn’t lost enough in the shuffle behind the forgettable likes of outfielders Bob Kennedy and Thurman Tucker, he was virtually buried once Veeck sold the team following the 1949 season. He returned to San Diego in 1950, and while he broke camp with the Indians to start the 1951 season, he rode the bench at the outset of the season. The day after going 5-for-8 with a pair of doubles in a doubleheader loss to the Browns — his first two starts of the season — he caught a break when he was dealt to the White Sox as part of a three-team, seven-player trade that also included the Philadelphia A's.

Minoso debuted for the White Sox on May 1, 1951, making them the sixth team to integrate after the Dodgers, Indians, Browns, Giants and Braves. He announced his presence by hitting a two-run homer off the Yankees' Vic Raschi in his first plate appearance as part of a 2-for-4 day. Liberated by the deal, he split his time between third base and both outfield corners for the Sox in 1951, hitting a sizzling .326/.422/.500 with 10 homers and a 151 OPS+ while leading the league in triples (14), steals (31) and hit-by-pitches (16). Additionally, he finished fourth in Wins Above Replacement (5.5) and second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting behind the Yankees' Gil McDougald, receiving 11 first-place votes to McDougald's 13. Thanks to Minoso and the maturation of double play combo Nellie Fox and Chico Carrasquel and staff ace Billy Pierce, the White Sox snapped a streak of seven straight losing seasons, improving from 60-94 in 1950 to 81-73 in 1951.

That stellar rookie season began an 11-year stretch over which Minoso hit .305/.395/.471 (134 OPS+) with an average of 16 homers, 18 steals and 4.7 WAR per year. He was a constant presence on AL leaderboards in that span, ranking in the top 10 in batting average eight times, in on-base percentage nine times (five in the top five), and in slugging percentage six times. That OBP was helped along by his tendency to crowd the plate and take one for the team, which he did en route to leading the league a record 10 times in hit-by-pitches. Those plunkings provided a window into the man's philosophy. As he told Kahrl recently:

“What was I doing wrong in the game, that they'd purposefully want to hit me? They didn't do it because I'm nice-looking, and I didn't do it to get the record. I crowded the plate, because if you only have to look middle-outside, you can kill a pitcher, and if it's outside it's a ball.

“My father and my mother taught me there was a way to pay somebody back, if they tried to break your arm or break your face: Pay them back on the field with a smile on your face. I used to keep my teeth clean all the time, just to make sure that's how I gave it back to them that way all the time.”

Additionally, Minoso led in steals and triples three times apiece, and in total bases once, with eight other top 10 finishes in that category as well, and eight in OPS+. He earned All-Star honors seven times, starting for the AL in 1954, 1959 (the first of two games) and 1960 (both games) and he won three Gold Gloves despite the fact that the award wasn't introduced until 1957. He finished fourth in AL MVP voting four times, three in the 1951-1954 span and ranked in the top 10 in WAR seven times, including four times in the top five, with his 8.3 WAR leading the league in 1954. His 52.1 WAR over that 11-year stretch ranked eighth in the majors, and second in the AL behind only Mickey Mantle.

Minoso helped the White Sox to eight straight seasons above .500 from 1951-1957, but despite winning as many as 94 games, the team could finish no higher than second place, and no closer to first in the eight-team league than five games out. In December 1957, he was traded back to the Indians in a four-player deal that sent future Hall of Famer Early Wynn to Chicago. Taking over the mantle of staff ace, Wynn would win the 1959 AL Cy Young award while helping the "Go-Go Sox," by this time owned by Veeck, to their first pennant since their infamous 1919 one, though they lost to the Dodgers in the World Series.

After Minoso continued to thrive in Cleveland, the Sox reacquired him as part of a seven-player deal in December 1959, with Veeck granting him an honorary AL championship ring at the beginning of the 1960 season for his role in helping return the club to prominence. Again he made a splash in his first game with Chicago, hitting a pair of homers including a grand slam against the Kansas City A's on Opening Day and thus setting off fireworks on Comiskey Park's new $350,000 "exploding" scoreboard. Believed to be 37 years old at the time, Minoso hit a fairly typical .311/.374/.481 with 20 homers, 17 steals and what would prove to be his final All-Star berth, though the Sox slipped to 87 wins and a third-place showing in the league's final season as an eight-team circuit.

After Minoso's performance slipped a bit the following year, he was traded to the Cardinals in November 1961. While he joined an outfield that included Curt Flood and Stan Musial (“Old Grandad, Ancient Age, and Little Squirt Chaser,” as Flood quipped), a broken wrist limited him to just 39 games and a meager .196/.271/.278 showing. He spent 1963 with a 106-loss Senators team before again returning to the White Sox in 1964, though he made just 38 plate appearances, mainly in a pinch-hitting capacity, before drawing his release in mid-July. Still a drawing card in Latin America, and able to play baseball at a reasonably competitive level, he spent the 1965-1973 seasons in the Mexican League and two of its minor leagues, serving as player/manager.

When Veeck re-purchased the White Sox in 1976, he hired Minoso as a coach. In September of that year, the Sox activated him, and Minoso went 1 for 8 as a designated hitter; his September 12 single off Sid Monge led to his being celebrated with a 1977 Topps baseball card as the oldest player to hit safely just short of his 54th birthday, breaking the record of 53-year-old Nick Altrock. Contemporary research with regard to his age and those of others now places him as the fourth-oldest. He remained as a coach through the 1978 season and reappeared with the team in 1980, Veeck's final season of ownership; he went 0-for-2 in a pair of pinch-hitting appearances, joining Altrock as the only other player to play in five different decades. Commissioner Fay Vincent quashed the White Sox attempt to reprise that role in 1990, claiming it was not "in the best interests of baseball" for a 68-year-old player (as he was believed to be) to appear in a major league game. The independent St. Paul Saints, who did not answer to any commissioner, signed him to do so in 1993 and again in 2003; he drew a walk in the latter appearance.

Alas, that whimsy probably had an effect on the way BBWAA voters viewed Minoso's Hall of Fame candidacy, and it certainly affected his eligibility. He debuted on the ballot in 1969, but received just 1.8 percent of the vote. Whether that was because some believed he was not yet retired due to his Mexican League activity, or because Hall voters had not yet begun to consider players on the basis of Negro League accomplishments (Satchel Paige would be the first in 1971) is one mystery; why he should have been on that ballot, just four seasons removed from his final major league appearance (1964; by custom, the year of the ballot is not counted) is another. In any event, he didn't receive a vote again until 1986, after five seasons had elapsed from his final MLB appearance. By that point, most of the writers voting were far more familiar with those cameos than the heart of his career. He never drew more than 21.1 percent, and his BBWAA eligibility finally lapsed after the 1999 ballot.

The Veterans Committee, which radically expanded to include all living Hall of Famer, Spink and Frick Award winners (for writers and broadcasters, respectively) in 2001, gave Minoso just 16 out of 81 votes in 2003, his first year on that ballot, and he fared even worse in 2005, 2007 and 2009 balloting, none of which elected a single player whose major league career began after 1943, before the system was overhauled in favor of three era-based systems. Additionally, he was bypassed by the Committee on African-American Baseball, which in 2006 elected 17 players to the Hall from a panel of 39 finalists. Neither Minoso nor Buck O'Neill made the cut; Minoso, the only one of the candidates to appear on a BBWAA ballot, was not to have his major league credentials considered in that capacity. Historian Adrian Burgos Jr., who made Minoso’s case to the committee, had this to say about the process for The Sporting News:

Enforcement of this rule has harmed Minoso and fellow integration pioneer Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe, more than any other candidates from the “Golden Era” of baseball history. Both Minoso and Newcombe performed three years (or more) in the Negro Leagues, and then waited several seasons in the minors, and not because they lacked big league skills. Rather, they were victims of the slow pace of integration in the majors. Moreover, they had the ironic misfortune of having signed with big league organizations (Cleveland and Brooklyn) that were aggressive in signing talent from the black baseball world.

That Minoso, who took on this vitally important role in bringing about the transformation of the national game would later be penalized by such an arcane rule is a shame on the institution. It is an injustice that should have been remedied by the suspension of this rule when it comes to those men who were integration pioneers.

More recently, Minoso received nine out of 16 votes from the Golden Era Committee in 2012. Ron Santo was elected that year, though sadly it came just over a year after his death due to diabetes. Minoso received eight out of 16 votes in the most recent Golden Era Committee balloting, which took place at the Winter Meetings in San Diego in December and saw the 10-candidate slate shut out entirely. At the press conference to announce the results, committee member Steve Hirdt (the 16-member committee's lone representative with a statistical background) said the committee's disappointment over the failure to elect anyone "is mitigated to some degree by the fact that there will be another day for the candidates," a statement that stood as a bitter reminder of Santo's fate and the institution's all-too-cruel history of belatedly bestowing baseball immortality on all-too-mortal candidates.

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Should Minoso be in the Hall? On the surface of it, his career totals — 1,963 hits, 186 homers and 205 steals — don't cry out for enshrinement, nor do his WAR-based numbers. Via my JAWS system, his 50.1 career WAR ranks 25th among leftfielders, his 39.8 peak WAR (best seven seasons) 13th; the former is 15 wins below the average Hall of Fame leftfielder, the latter 1.7 wins. His 45.0 JAWS ranks 22nd at the position, behind 13 of the 19 enshrined.

The big question, however, is how much of Minoso's major-league career is missing due to those circumstances beyond his control, the color line and his age when it was broken, given the uncertainty surrounding his birth date. The 1922 date under which he played his career placed him at 28 years old when he got his first shot at full-time play in 1951, but the 1925 date places him at 25, suggesting that he may have been deprived of the better part of between one and five major league seasons (1946-1950), fewer than if he was really older, but hardly inconsequential. Given that he put up 5.5 WAR in in his first full season and that the seventh-best season within that aforementioned peak score was worth 4.0 WAR, it seems entirely possible that he could have bettered that had he arrived earlier.

The larger truth is that the combination of Minoso's decade-plus of dominance once he secured a spot in the majors, and his cultural importance both as the first black player on either Chicago team and as "the Jackie Robinson of Latino players" (to use Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda's words) point to a player whose exclusion from the Hall stands out like a sore thumb. Still active in the White Sox organization—which honored him with a statue outside U.S. Cellular Field in 2004—he was particularly close to the team's Cuban players such as Jose Abreu, Alexei Ramirez, Adrian Nieto and the since-departed Dayan Viciedo. Said Ramirez to Sports on Earth's Chris Cwik last June, "To talk about Minnie Minoso, I need five to six hours to talk about what he means to us… He's an encyclopedia of knowledge. He opened the door for all of us. We always have him in our hearts, and we're always thinking about him."

No doubt, the rest of the baseball world feels the same way as well.

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