Monday, March 2, 2015

The Cuban Comet

When on April 30, 1951, Saturnino Orestes Armas Miñoso Arrieta became the first black man to play for a Chicago major league baseball team, he hit a home run in his first at-bat. Before that in 1949, Bill Veeck bought Miñoso's contract from the Negro League New York Cubans and signed him with his Cleveland Indians, making Minnie Miñoso the first black player of Latin American origin to play in the big leagues. Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda wrote that Miñoso is "to Latin ballplayers what Jackie Robinson is to black ballplayers... the one who made it possible, ... the first Latin to become a superstar."

It's a strange coincidence that the seven time all star, three time gold-glover died just weeks after another Chicago baseball icon, Ernie Banks. Not only were both the first players of color to play on their respective Chicago teams, not only did both men have long and distinguished careers, but each would become unquestionably the heart and soul of their teams, even long after their playing days were over.

In Miñoso's case, it's difficult to say exactly when the end of his career came; he is perhaps best known as the only player to have appeared in a major league baseball game in five different decades, (seven decades in pro ball if you count plate appearances for minor league teams in 1993 and 2003). Miñoso's role was limited to pinch hitter for his old friend Veeck's White Sox, appearing at the plate eight times in 1976 and twice in 1980. In those ten at bats, Miñoso collected just one hit. Folks my age who never saw him in his prime, (and I'm no spring chicken), are more likely to think of Minnie Miñoso as a spry old man, rather than the "The Cuban Comet" as he was known in his glory days.

Call it respect, nostalgia, or a gag, just another bit of Veeckian mischief, but it's likely that those ten extra at bats for the White Sox while he was in his fifties, cost Miñoso some respect, at least among the folks who determine every ball player's ultimate dream, induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

In his 2001 epic tome, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the author rates Miñoso as the tenth best left fielder of all time, between Willie Stargell and Billy Williams, both Hall of Famers. In his argument for Miñoso's induction, James lists by his reckoning, something not to be dismissed, the twenty greatest players in MLB history between the ages of 30 and 39. Minnie Miñoso is number 16 on the list, and the only one who is not in the Hall of Fame, with the exception of Pete Rose, who was excluded for his off-the-field shenanigans. Given that Miñoso didn't break into the big leagues until he was in his mid to late twenties (depending upon which birth date you accept), his already impressive career stats could have been better, had he more years in his prime to play in the majors, were it not for the color-barrier.

The latest snub of Miñoso came less than three months before his death, when the "Golden Era Committee" made up of eight Hall of Fame players and the same number of executives, rejected all ten of the stellar players of the fifties and sixties who came before them, Miñoso included.

In an ESPN article published just two days before he died, Christina Karhl interviewed Miñoso at length about his career, his disappointment at the snub, and the open hostility he faced as a player. Miñoso says:

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.

He added this story about a confrontation with an opposing pitcher:

One day, this pitcher said he was going to get me. And I go up to the plate thinking, if I bunt it past this pitcher I'll get a base hit. So I put my hand out and push the ball up the line; we're both heading to first base -- and I didn't go after him. And he asked, "Why did you do that, why did you save me?" And I told him, "Because you have a wife, you have a kid, you have a mother. If you'd broken your leg or if I'd cut you, that would be on my conscience." Later on, he sent me a thank-you note, saying that I had earned his respect from then on.

Fitting last words I think for a great ballplayer and an even greater man.

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