SABR

Minnie Minoso

This article was written by Mark Stewart.

In February of 2006, Orestes "Minnie" Minoso was preparing himself for the day he had anticipated for many years. Considered by a significant group of historians, statisticians and old-time fans to be among the best baseball players not enshrined in the Hall of Fame, Minoso awaited the voting results of a special panel that would open the gates of Cooperstown to overlooked and underappreciated stars of black baseball. However, when the names of the enshrinees were announced, Minoso's was not among them.

Minnie Minoso was born Saturnino Orestes Arrieta, on November 29, 1925, in El Perico, Cuba, a town near Havana. Arrieta was his mother's maiden name, while his father's name was Carlos Lopez. Both labored in the sugar cane fields outside of the big city. Minnie had two sisters and two half-brothers.

Minnie did not like school. During his pre-teen years he quit work in the cane fields and to play ball. When his employer, the Lonja plantation, failed to field a youth team, Minnie organized one himself, finding players and equipment and managing the club. He demanded that his charges learn the signs, and fined them 50 centavos when they missed one. This kind of pride and determination--combined with an ability to get along with everyone--would aid Minnie immeasurably during all phases of his baseball life.

Minnie's sandlot career got its start near his home in El Perico, where his older half-brother Francisco Minoso was already well known. Everyone called the younger boy Minoso, and he did not correct them. The nickname "Minnie" came after he reached the U.S.--in Cuba, he was always Orestes.

Around the age of 14, Minnie saw Martin Dihigo play, and he tried to model himself after the multitalented superstar. Minnie was a cagey opposite-field hitter whose bat was still quick enough to turn on an inside pitch and send it screaming over the left fielder's head. Every at-bat became a game of cat and mouse.

Like his hero Dihigo, Minnie played every position at one time or another as a teenager, but was primarily a catcher. One day, he got whacked on a batter's follow-through. His mother, who was watching from the stands, ordered him to find a new position. He switched to pitcher, and twirled a no-hitter at the age of 18 against a junior all-star team from Central Espana. The victory was bittersweet for Minnie, as his mother had passed away a month earlier.

Minnie wandered around Cuba playing ball and doing odd jobs, using the house of a wealthy family friend, Juan Llins, as a home base. After his 20th birthday, Minnie approached Rene Midesten, who ran the Ambrosia Candy team in Havana. Midesten asked Minnie what position he played. The youngster was in the middle of explaining how he could pitch and catch when he eyed the team's third baseman, who seemed to be having a tough time in the field. He quickly added third base to his résumé.

Midesten liked what he saw and hired Minnie for $2 a game for the 1943 season, plus $8 a week working in the company garage. In his first at-bat for the team he hit a pinch triple to win a game. He earned regular action after that, and finished with a .364 average. Minnie moved up the semipro ladder and took a job as a cigar roller and third baseman with Partagas.

Toward the end of 1945, Minnie made it to the big time--a $150/month contract with Havana's Marianao club, one of the top winter league outfits in the Caribbean. His manager, Armando Marsans, was so impressed that he quickly gave him a raise to $200 to keep him from moving on to greener pastures. Minnie hit .300 that season and was honored as Rookie of the Year.

In 1946, Minnie signed a $300/month deal to play for the New York Cubans of the Negro National League. Alex Pompez, the team's owner, had been tipped off and sent Alex Carrasquel down to sign him before someone else snapped him up. There was a glut of talent in pro baseball at this time with the major leaguers returning from World War II as well as the Negro Leagues and Latino baseball. The Mexican League, vying to become a second major league, enticed players of all colors to jump their contracts and play south of the border. Pompez sensed that Minnie would be a target.

Indeed, he was offered $15,000 by the Mexican League, but honored his Cubans deal and remained in the United States. Besides, rumors were rampant that Mexican Leaguers might be banned from U.S. baseball. That, plus the fact that the Brooklyn Dodgers had signed Jackie Robinson, encouraged players like Minnie to stay in the states.

Minnie played third base for a Cubans team that also featured catcher Ray Noble and pitcher Luis Tiant, Sr. He appeared in 33 official games and finished 1946 with a .260 average in league play. In 1947, Minnie became the NNL's most effective leadoff hitter, batting .294 and helping the Cubans win the pennant. He was also the East's starting third baseman in the All-Star Game. In the World Series, the Cubans beat the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro American League.

The man who "discovered" Minnie for American white baseball was Abe Saperstein, of Harlem Globetrotters fame. Saperstein had a keen eye for talent, and he had good contacts through his basketball players--several of whom suited up for Negro League teams to pick up extra cash. Saperstein and old-time scout Bill Killefer took a trip to New York to check out hurler Jose Santiago of the Cubans. They were there on behalf of Cleveland owner Bill Veeck, who had already signed Larry Doby and made him the A.L.'s first African-American player.

Saperstein and Killefer found Santiago in his hotel, but all the pitcher could do was rave about his roommate, Minnie Minoso. Minnie had already been to a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals, who had not offered him a contract. After watching him in action, Saperstein recommended the Indians sign both players, which they soon did.

Minnie arrived in Dayton of the Central League for the final two weeks of the season, and racked up nine extra-base hits in 11 games and batted a sizzling .525.

Minnie broke camp with the Indians in 1949, making his major league debut on April 19. But he was hardly used, and batted under .200 in limited action. He was sent to the west coast for seasoning, as Cleveland stuck with veteran Ken Keltner at the hot corner. Over the next two seasons, Minnie crushed Pacific Coast League pitching for the San Diego Padres. He hit .297 with 22 homers in '49, then batted .339 in 1950, with 130 runs, 115 RBIs, and 30 stolen bases in the PCL's extended season.

Minnie came north with the Indians out of spring training in 1951, although they had no place to play him. Third base now belonged to Al Rosen, while the outfield was being manned by veterans Larry Doby, Dale Mitchell, and Bob Kennedy. Still, Minnie had proven all he needed to against PCL pitching, so there was no point in keeping him in the minors. He saw some action at first base spelling Luke Easter, but basically spent April on the bench.

On April 30, Minnie was traded to the Chicago White Sox in a major three-team trade that saw Gus Zernial and Dave Philley sent by Chicago to Philadelphia, Lou Brissie move from Philadephia to Cleveland, and several other players change addressed.

The Indians obviously had a win-now mentality, and Brissie addressed an immediate need. Also, the Indians had another "Negro outfielder" coming up named Harry Simpson. They felt he had more power potential than Minnie. Finally, Greenberg had become suspicious of Minnie's commitment when he showed up several days late for spring training. Instead of simply apologizing, Minnie tried to sweet talk the Cleveland brass.

Minnie took the field for his new team against the Yankees on May 1. For the first time, the fans at Comiskey Park were treated to the sight of a black man wearing a White Sox uniform. They liked what they saw. Minnie homered in his first at-bat, belting a Vic Raschi pitch 415 feet. They even forgave him after a late-inning error at third allowed New York to score the winning runs. Two weeks later, the team went on a 14-game winning streak, and Minnie was the toast of the town. The fans even gave him his own day later that season, marking the first time the White Sox had ever feted a rookie in this manner.

Minnie split the rest of the year between left field and third base, becoming a full-timer in the outfield after the White Sox acquired veteran Bob Dillinger from the Pittsburgh Pirates to handle the hot corner. With speedy young Jim Busby did hitting .283 and swiping 26 bases, second on the club to Minnie's league-leading 31, and shortstop Chico Carrasquel adding 14 steals, Chicago made up for the fact that it had only one power threat in their lineup, first baseman Eddie Robinson. The Go-Go Sox were starting to take shape.

Minnie also slashed his way to a .324 average, second in the AL to Ferris Fain's .344. Minnie's 14 triples were the most in baseball in 1951, and his 112 runs fell just two shy of the league lead. In July, he was selected for the All-Star Game--his first of seven appearances. Gil McDougald edged Minnie for Rookie of the Year honors, but fans on the South Side would not have traded their Cuban speedster for three McDougalds.

The White Sox, expected to be a .500 club in '51, won eight more games than they lost. Interestingly, at the end of the season, the April trade looked like a win-win-win deal for Cleveland and Chicago. Brissie gave the Indians exactly what they wanted from him, Zernial led the AL in homers and RBIs, and the Sox had a top-of-the lineup hitter to pair with emerging star Nellie Fox.

Minnie was a revelation to Chicago fans with his relentless hustle and base-stealing ability. Whenever he reached base, the fans in Comiskey Park would chant, "Go! Go! Go!"

Among the many memorable plays he made during that season was came against the Tigers. Minnie lit out for second on a pitch by Detroit's Bill Wight, which skipped past catcher Joe Ginsberg. Minnie never broke stride, and as he neared third he saw Ginsberg picking up the ball and rubbing it. Minnie kept on going, and slid into a pile of three Tigers who had all converged at home plate in a panic--Wight, Ginsberg and first baseman Walt Dropo. Ginsberg held on to the ball but missed the tag.

Minnie infuriated enemy pitchers with his ability to "steal first." Crowding the plate, he was an expert at leaning in and getting hit by inside pitches, having learned to rotate away at the moment of impact to lessen the severity of the blow. He was plunked a league-leading 16 times in 1951, and repeated as the hit-by-pitch leader in nine of the next 10 seasons.

The 1952 White Sox continued their rise to respectability, finishing in third place, though with the same 81-73 record. Billy Pierce was beginning to establish himself as the staff ace, and the bullpen performed wonderfully. The one-two punch of Minoso and Fox helped the club squeeze 600-plus runs out of a .252 team average and just two extra-base hits per game. Minnie the league with 22 steals, batted .281 and had the second-highest slugging mark on the White Sox at .424. He also established himself as the team's everyday left fielder. Minnie had a few adventures out there, but his speed made up for some mistakes, and his arm was more than adequate, even in cavernous Comiskey Park.

Though not quite a baseball superstar at this point, Minnie loved to play the part. He was difficult to miss when he hit the streets of the Windy City. He drove a green Cadillac, wore brilliantly colored silk shirts and wide-brimmed hats, sported an enormous diamond ring, and carried a roll of $100 bills in his shirt. That Caddy made the trip back and forth from Chicago to Havana for many years, with an annual stop in Florida for spring training.

In 1953, at age 30, Minnie did indeed blossom into one of the AL's best all-around hitters. He batted .313, topped the 100 plateau in runs and RBIs, and helped carried the Sox offense, with Nellie Fox and center fielder Jim Rivera. Billy Pierce won 18 times and led the league in strikeouts, and the bullpen came through again as Chicago racked up 89 victories. A spring winning streak by the Yankees made a run at the pennant out of the question, but the White Sox seemed to be just one power hitter away from challenging New York and Clevelnd for supremacy in the AL.

The team's new slugger turned out to be Minnie. He crashed 19 home runs and fashioned a .535 slugging average in 1954. In fact, he reached double-figures in all three extra-base categories, joining Mickey Mantle and Mickey Vernon as the only batters in the junior circuit to accomplish this feat. Minnie finished the year with a .320 average and 119 runs scored, and the White Sox rose to 94 wins. However, a record-setting season by the Indians coupled with a hard-luck year for Pierce kept Chicago in third place.

An episode that season in a game against the Yankees illustrates what a novelty Latino players still were in major league baseball during the mid-1950s. Casey Stengel, always looking for an edge, ordered utility infielder Willie Miranda to curse at Minoso hoping to distract him in the batter's box. Miranda assumed a menacing pose, and in a harsh-sounding tone invited him out to dinner after the game. Minoso played along, shaking his fist at Miranda and replying in an equally menacing tone that he would be delighted. He stepped back into the box and smacked a game-winning triple.

That winter, Minnie took a break from winter ball after a dispute with Marianao club officials. He had played for the team each off-season except 1949-50 since leaving Cuba. These campaigns often involved 70 games or more, and Minnie probably did not mind the rest, though fans certainly missed him. He was a great favorite of Latino crowds. Whereas he was labeled as "colorful" in the U.S., Minnie was considered fairly serious and businesslike in Cuba. Cuban baseball fans would have preferred him to be more of a hot dog, and probably would have liked him in a Almendares or Habana uniform. Minnie would resume his winter baseball activities after the 1955 season, finally retiring from Cuban ball in 1961. Minnie led the winter league in batting in 1956-57.

In '55, the White Sox finally added some beef to their lineup in the person of Walt Dropo. Although Dropo did not deliver huge numbers, he anchored a lineup that was good enough to win 91 times and finish just five games out of first place. Marty Marion, who took over from Richards in the dugout toward the end of 1954, was now the full-time skipper. He watched as Pierce returned to form with a sparkling 1.97 ERA, and Dick Donovan--picked up from the Tigers--won 15 games to give Chicago a formidable one-two pitching punch. Minnie had a solid year, batting .288 with 10 homers and 19 stolen bases.

Chicago's quest for a first-place finish was thwarted again in 1956 by the Yankees and Indians. The White Sox dropped to 85 wins, despite another year of stellar pitching. The team acquired Larry Doby over the winter, hoping he and Dropo would strike fear into the hearts of enemy hurlers. Doby did his part with great clutch hitting, but Dropo struggled most of the season. Minnie chipped in with 21 homers and a team-high .525 slugging average. He tied Harry Simpson, Jim Lemon, and Jackie Jensen for the league lead with 11 triples.

The 1957 White Sox finally looked like they had solved the Yankees. Under the tutelage of new manager Al Lopez, they won early and often, and stayed atop the standings for much of the first half. Pierce and Donovan led the way with All-Star seasons, while second-year shortstop Luis Aparicio teamed with the veteran two-hole hitter Fox to set the table for Doby, Rivera, Minoso, and the first base platoon of Dropo and Earl Torgeson. In the second half, Comiskey fans watched in agony as the team began losing the close games they had won earlier in the year. The Yankees slipped past them into first place and held on to win by four games.

After the season, Minnie was traded away when the White Sox were offered a deal they hated to make but could not refuse. The Indians packaged Al Smith--a similar player to Minnie who was five years younger--and Hall of Fame hurler Early Wynn. Chicago utilityman Fred Hatfield was also part of the trade. Though just four years removed from its great '54 season, Cleveland was almost unrecognizable. Bobby Avila was the only regular left from that pennant-winning squad. The team's big slugger was now Rocky Colavito. The club had talent--including young players like Mudcat Grant, Gary Bell, Russ Nixon, Roger Maris and Gary Geiger--but manager Bobby Bragan couldn't turn his roster into victories, and was fired after 67 games. Unfortunately for the Tribe, one of the youngsters that got away that summer was Maris, traded to the A's for Vic Power and Woodie Held.

The Indians improved under new skipper Joe Gordon, and Minnie turned in his usual fine year. He led Cleveland with 168 hits, 94 runs and 14 stolen bases, and finished second on the team to Colavito with 24 homers, 80 RBIs and 25 doubles. The Indians snuck into the first division with a late surge to end up at 77-76.

Minnie's late-career power was a rarity in those days, but few fans were surprised. Although fleet of foot, he was perceived as being a muscle man for much of his career. He tended to wear a bulky uniform, and pulled his pants down well below his knees. Minnie also walked like a big man, with his toes pointed outwards. Stripped down, however, he was the same wiry 175-pounder who broke into the big leagues a decade earlier.

The Yankees finally had an off-year in 1959, and it seemed as if Minnie was in the right place at the right time for the first time. Cleveland looked golden as the summer played out, fighting for first place with Minnie's old team in Chicago. But the pesky Sox just would not go away, and they passed Cleveland at the end of July. When the two teams met for a four-game set in late August, the Tribe was swept and never made up the difference, losing the pennant by five games.

On paper, the Indians could have won. Colavito was the AL home run champion, Held crashed 29 homers, and Minnie chipped in with 21. Tito Francona, picked up in a winter trade, nearly won the batting title. But the White Sox got the clutch hitting and pitching a pennant-winning club needs and the Indians did not.

After the season, Chicago owner Bill Veeck promised Minnie a championship ring for being one of the original Go-Go Sox. Taking it a step further, he also traded to get his old friend back. And thus, on Opening Day, Minnie was wearing his familiar Sox uniform. He celebrated by hitting a pair of homers, which ignited the fireworks on Veeck's new $350,000 scoreboard. Minnie had a good year for the defending champions, leading the AL with 184 hits and pacing the club with 105 RBIs. But the Yankees were back on their game and the young pitchers of the Baltimore Orioles had matured, relegating the Whites Sox to third place with an 87-67 record.

Worse than that, a series of trades--including the one for Minnie--gutted the White Sox of its best young players. Gone in the Minoso trade were Norm Cash and Johnny Romano. Earl Battey and Don Mincher were also dealt, for Roy Sievers. Also gone was Johnny Callison, traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for third baseman Gene Freese--who then was sent to the Reds and contributed to Cincinatti's 1961 pennant. No one took it out on Minnie, who was still a God-like figure to Comiskey fans.

The '61 White Sox spent most of the year chasing the Tigers and Yankees. They finished with 86 wins, in fourth place. Minnie was his usual productive and durable self, batting .280 in 152 games. His stolen base total dipped into single-digits, but he still ran the bases aggressively, and there was plenty of pop left in his bat. Enough pop, at least, for St. Louis to roll the dice on him. With Veeck no longer in control of the Sox, the new owners shopped Minnie over the winter and the Cards--looking for a veteran outfield mate for Curt Flood and Stan Musial--decided to give him a shot. Unfortunately, a broken wrist limited Minnie to just 39 games and a .196 average. His next stop was in Washington, where he served as an outfield reserve for the Senators in 1963. With three power hitters--Don Lock, Jim King and Chuck Hinton--in the starting lineup, Minnie mostly saw action when King was benched against tough lefties. This was reflected in his .229 average.

In 1964, Minnie returned to Chicago for his third stint with the White Sox. He served as a pinch-hitter and sometimes first baseman during a thrilling pennant chase between the Sox, Orioles and Yankees. Chicago lost the pennant by a single game. Minnie also logged time with Class-AAA Indianapolis that season, batting .264 in 52 games.

The end was near. The wheels were gone, and he could no longer line good fastballs into the gaps. Though it was time to leave the major leagues, Minnie's status in the sport made him a big drawing card throughout the Caribbean. In 1965, he started a second career with Jalisco of the Mexican League. Now almost strictly a first baseman, he batted .360 in his first season, and led the league with 106 runs and 35 doubles.

Minnie had another big year for Jalisco in 1965, batting .348. Over the next eight seasons he would also suit up for league clubs in Orizara, Puerto Mexico and Torreon. In 1973, at the age of 50, Minnie played in 120 games and hit .265 with 12 homers and 83 RBIs. After that season, he finally called it quits.

Minnie's retirement lasted until Bill Veeck regained control of the White Sox. In 1976, he hired Minnie as a coach, then talked him into playing a game as a DH at age 53. He went hitless against the California Angels in four at-bats. One day later, Minnie singled as a pinch-hitter. He remained with the team as a coach through 1978, and reappeared in a White Sox uniform in 1980, making two official plate appearances to join Nick Altrock as baseball's only five-decade players.

In 1993, at the age of 70, Minnie signed a contract with the independent St. Paul Saints. He grounded out in his only at-bat for the team. The ball and bat were sent to Cooperstown to mark the moment when pro baseball had its first six-decade player. In 2003, Minnie was at it again, pinch-hitting for the Saints. He took three pitches for balls, then let a fourth pitch go by and trotted toward the first base bag, still hoping to "steal first." The umpire would have none of it, calling a strike, Minnie fouled off the next pitch before letting ball four pass and walking into the history books as a seven-decade pro. His contract, prorated for one game, paid him 32 bucks.

Whether Minoso makes it into the Baseball Hall of Fame remains to be seen. Minnie got a late start due largely to the color of skin, and still had many great seasons during the 1950s. He has continued to work around the game--and for it.

"If it's meant to be, it's meant to be," Minnie said about yet another near miss at enshrinement. "I am truly honored to be considered. I've given my life to baseball, and the game has given me so much. That's what matters most to me."


Sources

A version of this biography originally appeared at www.jockbio.com.

"Major League Minnie," by Furman Bisher, Sport, August 1954.

"Make Mine Minoso," by David Condon, Baseball Digest, July 1960.

"Minoso Keeps Rolling Along," by Bill Furlong, True Baseball Yearbook, 1961.

"Orestes Minoso: Speed Merchant," by John C. Hoffman, Baseball Digest, October 1951.

"Minnie Minoso Added an Unforgettable Touch to the Game," by John Kuenster, Baseball Digest, January 2005.

"Minoso Ought to Pay Me!," by Frank Lane as told to Warren Brown, Sport, July 1955.

"Minnie Draws a Crowd," by Hal Lebovitz, Sport, August 1958.

"Minoso Back at Bat," by John Millea, Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 17, 2003.

"Mighty Minnie of the White Sox," by Edward Prell, Baseball Digest, October 1954.

"No Love for Minnie Again In Latest Hall of Fame Voting," by Phil Rogers, Chicago Tribune, February 27, 2006.

"Minnie Minoso's Big Secret," by Bill Surface, Sport, May 1961.

"On Deck for Hall of Fame," by Dave van Dyck, Chicago Tribune, February 26, 2006.


Books

The Negro Leagues Book, Dick Clark and Larry Lester, Editors, SABR, 1994.

Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball Teams, Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella, Harper Collins, 1993.

The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball, Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Baseball Stars of 1961, Minnie Minoso and Al Smith by Bill Furlong, Ray Robinson, Pyramid Books, 1961

The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James, Villard Books, 1985.

Cult Baseball Players, Tom Mortenson, Danny Peary (ed.), Simon & Schuster, 1990

Sport In Cuba, Paula J. Pettavino and Geralyn Pye, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994.

Viva Baseball! Latin Major Leaguers and Their Special Hunger, Samuel O. Regalado, University of Illinois Press, 1998.

The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues, James A. Riley, Carroll & Graf, 1994.

The Ballplayers, Mike Shatzkin, Editor, Arbor House, 1990.

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