Minnie Minoso: From the Hall of Fame Library player files, Part 1

Minnie Minoso, 1953 Bowman

Previously in this series, I've looked at the player files of Fielder Jones, Eddie Cicotte, Johnny Mostil and Luke Appling.

With today's guest, we will now have accounted for the first eight decades of White Sox history, thanks to a guy who played in five decades by himself. His name is Saturnino Orestes Armas Minoso Arrieta. Everybody calls him Minnie.

Why Minnie Minoso?

Because he should be in the Hall of Fame, damnit, and still some people think he's undeserving for flimsy reasons.

How he got to Chicago

Minnie Minoso was picked by the Cleveland Indians, but the Tribe lineup was well-equipped back then. Minoso didn't have a set position back then. He played everywhere in Cuba, even catcher -- "I want to play third base, but catcher you no find. So I catch." -- until he took a bat to the elbow and his mom wouldn't let him play there anymore. By the time he was picked out of the Negro Leagues, he most resembled a third baseman. However, first Ken Keltner blocked him at the hot corner, and then Al Rosen, so they moved him around the diamond in the minor leagues.

But no matter where they moved him, they had talent, with Rosen at third, Larry Doby in left and Luke Easter at first. White Sox GM Frank Lane jumped on the chance to pry Minoso from Indians GM Hank Greenberg. Lane said it took 36 hours to hammer out the three team trade:

  • Chicago: Sent Dave Philley and Gus Zernial to the Philadelphia Athletics.
  • Philadelphia: Sent Paul Lehner to the White Sox, and Lou Brissie to the Indians.
  • Cleveland: Sent Minoso to Chicago, and Ray Murray and Sam Zoldak to the A's.

Chicago baseball finally had its first black player, and it was a long time coming:

Comiskey Park is right in the heart of Chicago's Harlem, and the Comiskeys and Lane long have been under tremendous pressure to give the Negro customers a player of their race for whom to cheer.

Up to this time the White Sox and the Cubs had shown no great eagerness to locate a Negro star. Sam Jethroe worked out at Comiskey Park for a week before the Dodgers signed him. Other Negro players in the majors were examined here, but their tryouts were only perfunctory.

The language barrier

When I opened up the folder of his clippings, I was greeted with a massive headline from Collier's on April 5, 1952:

MINNIE'S

What You Say

'HOKAY!'

Back then, nobody made an effort to clean up his broken English. Sometimes it was defensible, as when it actually represented the language barrier affecting communication. Most of the time, there was more interest in sketching Minoso as a caricature, sometimes going so far as to write "thees" instead of "this."

Minoso had the benefit of a Spanish-speaking teammate in Chico Carrasquel, the Venezuelan shortstop who succeeded Luke Appling at the position. However, because Carrasquel was light-skinned enough to be considered Caucasian, they couldn't be roommates, so he was on his own for a good chunk of the time early on.

His effervescent personality won a lot of people over, and while the press ran with it and played up his naïveté through his strange syntax, it probably could have been a lot worse. He had the gift of providing good copy. A few articles recounted a story about showing up to Cleveland's spring training five days late in 1949. Greenberg was scolding him out, but Minoso smiled, shrugged and responded with, "Fine, fine."

Only when Greenberg said he was going to fine him did Minoso respond with something different. And when Greenberg asked him what Minoso would do if he were in his shoes, Minoso said:

"You mean if you Minnie and me Hank?" asked Minoso. "Then I say, 'Minnie fine fellow. He always in good shape. He all the time hustle. He work hard during winter. I no mind he come late.'"

Greenberg never fined Minoso.

His playing style

Station-to-station baseball had ruled the day, by and large, since Babe Ruth changed the way the game was played. The White Sox had neither the players nor the park to try playing long ball, so they ran relentlessly.

Minoso led the charge, and people paid attention. In Chicago, attendance shot up from 781,330 in 1950 to 1.33 million in 1951, giving the White Sox their most profitable season in history, according to one clipping.

Opponents took notice, too.

Casey Stengel: "Now you see him and then you don't. You don't suppose he's two guys, do you?"

Phil Rizzuto: "Minoso always upsets the infield. You know you have to field the ball cleanly and rush your throws when he's at bat or on base. He just doesn't give you any chance to relax, mentally or physically. He gives you the jitters." (Saturday Evening Post, July 10, 1954)

Minoso scored from first on a wild pitch against Detroit simply by never stopping. He was stealing second when pitcher Bill Wight through a wild pitch. Minoso picked it up and went to third, and when he saw that nobody was covering home, he blew around third base and beat catcher Joe Ginsberg to the bag.

And that headline above was taken from an exchange he had with third base coach Joe Adair, after tagging up on a shallow fly to center against the Red Sox. Adair told him to hold up, but the story has Minoso saying, "Too late. I gone." After sliding in safely, he yelled back, "What you say? Hokay?"

Early on, Minoso was as unpredictable in left field as he was on the basepaths. He had a hard time judging line drives in left in his early years, but eventually he was considered stellar enough to win three Gold Gloves in four years.

His hitting style

Birdie Tebbetts, who played in the American League from 1936 to 1952, said Minoso changed the perception of hitting with his approach at the plate. It was a pull-hitter's world, but Minoso showed that opposite-field hitters could hit for power and become stars. In fact, Tebbetts, who was in Cleveland at the time of the trade, said they chose to keep Harry Simpson over Minoso because Simpson pulled the ball.

Washington manager Bucky Harris explained what Minoso did in more detail:

You think you can fool him, but he'll cross you up every time. He's a right-handed batter, so you pitch him inside, figuring he won't pull the ball down the left-field line. But then he hits it out to the right-field wall. No wonder they pitch at him instead of to him.

Yes, Minoso got hit by a ton of pitches, for he crowded the plate with his head leading the way. He considered beanballs an inevitability:

I don't care if I die. Yes, I crowd plate and move into ball. But I cannot hit any other way. I no wrist hitter. I always see ball. But I cannot tell which way she going to break until too late. (June 4, 1955)

And death wasn't out of the question, because he did take a couple pitches to the skull. One time, it didn't hurt, as an article had Minoso campaigning to stay in the game by saying (at least in an article), "Me play. I am a leetle (sic) doozy, but I am so anyway, all thee (sic) time."

But on May 18, 1955, Minoso took a fastball to the face from the Yankees' Bob Grim, which broke his cheek and knocked him out for a couple of weeks. Grim was more bothered by it than Minoso, who said he saw no ill intent. He noted that the Yankees were actually quite considerate, with Yogi Berra telling him to stay down.

He shrugged it off as a result of his style:

"Some people pick up the ball quick, when it leave pitcher's hand. Me, I pick up ball four-five feet away." (May 25, 1957)

I've got lots more on Minnie -- too much for one post -- so continue on to Part 2.

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