Happy Birthday, Minnie, No Matter Your Age
Depending on the source, Minnie Miñoso either turns 83 or 86 years old today.
Miñoso's actual age may or may not matter at this point. What's most important is that he's alive and apparently doing well. However, as it relates to his baseball career, Miñoso's age is relevant. You see, it could be the difference as to whether he deserves to be elected to the Hall of Fame or not. At worst, he is a borderline candidate. At best, he should have been voted in long ago.
Saturnino Orestes Armas (Arrieta) Miñoso was born in Havana, Cuba on either November 29, 1922 or 1925. On page five in Just Call Me Minnie, Miñoso claims he was born in 1925, which would make him 83 today (and not 86 as has been widely reported).
People always want to know how old I really am. The official sources have me listed as being born on November 29, 1922. That would make me 71 years old, and I would not make excuses or apologies. I am actually just 68 years old. 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 in order 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.
Miñoso (mean-YO-so, commonly pronounced minn-OH-so by media) was the first black Latino player to appear in the major leagues. He made his MLB debut on April 19, 1949 two years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Depending on his date of birth, Miñoso was either 23 or 26 at that time. If the latter, it's fair to say that he lost at least a few years in the big leagues due to the fact that he was born with the wrong skin color.
Before joining the Cleveland Indians in 1949, Miñoso played with the New York Cubans from 1945 to 1948. He batted leadoff and played third base when the Cubans defeated the Cleveland Buckeyes for the Negro League World Series title in 1947. In addition, Miñoso was the starting third baseman in the 1947 and 1948 East-West All-Star games.
Other than his nickname, there was nothing Minnie about Miñoso. He should have been called Maxie Miñoso because he did everything well on a baseball field. Known as the Cuban Comet, Miñoso ran exceptionally well, played strong defense, and hit for both average and power.
Miñoso was one of the most outstanding players during the 1950s. A seven-time All-Star, he finished fourth in the Most Valuable Player voting four times. Miñoso was also a three-time Gold Glove winner as a left fielder. For his career, he batted .298 with 1,962 hits. Minnie would have hit .304 had he retired after the 1961 season and not hung around for another three years as a part-timer and pinch hitter. But even as is, Miñoso hit .298/.389/.459 with an OPS+ of 130.
The 5-10, 175-pound Miñoso was an on-base machine. He ranked in the top 10 in times on base for 10 consecutive seasons (1951-1960), including seven when he finished in the top five. Miñoso had 11 consecutive seasons with 10 or more hit by pitches, including back-to-back years with at least 20. Moreover, he led the league in HBP in 10 of those 11 campaigns. He retired as the all-time leader among 20th century players and still ranks ninth in career HBP with 192. But, who paid attention to HBP back then? Heck, who pays attention to them today? I mean, can you recall seeing a column with HBP on the back of a baseball card when you were growing up? Wasn't getting hit by a pitch a fluke, something caused by a wild pitcher?
Miñoso led the AL in stolen bases in each of his first three full seasons. Unfortunately, he also topped the league in caught stealing in two of those years and ranked first four other times. For his career, Miñoso stole 205 bases and was caught 130 times (for a success rate of 61%). Nonetheless, by all accounts, he was an electrifying force on the base paths.
As good as Miñoso was, it seemed as if he was held back or overlooked throughout most of his career. As the first black player from Cuba, his MLB career may have been delayed by as many as a few years. Secondly, on May 1, 1951, Miñoso homered in his first at-bat in a White Sox uniform when he became the first black to break the color barrier in Chicago but another rookie by the name of Mickey Mantle slugged his first big-league home run in the sixth inning of the same game. Miñoso (.324/.419/.498 and 24 Win Shares) finished second to Yankees infielder Gil McDougald (.306/.396/.488, 23 Win Shares) in the Rookie of the Year balloting (although he was honored as TSN's ROY) even though he outpolled him in the MVP vote (fourth place to ninth). He also had the misfortune of being
traded from Chicago back to Cleveland two years before the Go-Go White Sox met the Dodgers in the 1959 World Series. Lastly, he played left field during the same decade as two of the greatest ever: Ted Williams and Stan Musial.
Miñoso was lauded in other ways. He had his jersey #9 retired by Bill Veeck and the White Sox in 1983. Furthermore, Miñoso was invited to present the White Sox lineup card to the umpires in the pregame ceremonies at home plate in the last game played at the old Comiskey Park on September 30, 1990. He also took part in the victory parade for the Chicago White Sox 2005 World Series Championship and his statue stands on the outfield concourse at U.S. Cellular Field.
We'll never know what kind of counting totals Miñoso may have been able to amass had he played in the majors from the get go. But, let's not forget, he had an exemplary career anyway.
Bill James, who listed Miñoso as the 10th-best left fielder and 85th-greatest player ever in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, put together a table of "the greatest players in history, based on Win Shares between ages 30 and 39, not including pitchers." Miñoso ranked 16th and was the only player in the top 20 who has yet to be enshrined in Cooperstown.
Miñoso didn't get to play in the majors until he was 28 years old, but had a better career after age 28 than almost any Hall of Fame left/right fielder. Miñoso hit for power, drove in 100 runs like clockwork, was a Gold Glove outfielder and one of the best baserunners of his time. Had he gotten the chance to play in the Majors when he was 21 years old, I think he'd probably be rated among the top thirty players of all time.
In Nothing minor about Minnie, Alex Belth argued in a SI.com article in February 2006 that "Miñoso deserves more recognition as player, pioneer" rather than "his clownish pinch-hitting stunts in 1976 and 1981, which he did as much to qualify for a pension as for the giggles."
Paul Soglin, on his Waxing America blog, contends that Miñoso's split tenure between the Negro Leagues and MLB and the poor relations between the U.S. and Cuba unfairly penalize his case for the Hall of Fame.
Rob Neyer has also been one of Miñoso's biggest supporters when it comes to the HOF. It's just too bad that James, Belth, Soglin, and Neyer don't have a vote, either as part of the BBWAA or the Veteran's Committee, both of which have failed to elect Miñoso whenever he has been on the ballot.
Hall of Fame or no Hall of Fame, 83 or 86, we should all celebrate Miñoso's birthday. Happy Birthday, Minnie. You were one of the game's best and most unrecognized players.
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[Additional reader comments and retorts at the Baseball Think Factory.]