11/01/11 1:00 PM ET
Minoso's pioneering role can't be overlooked
By Adrian Burgos / Special to MLB.com
Pioneering integration in Chicago is part of the unprecedented resume Minoso established within the annals of baseball. A two-time All Star in three Negro Leagues seasons who then became a seven-time All Star in the Majors in his first 11 full seasons, Minoso's lifetime average neared .300 wherever he played. His presence at the plate and on the basepaths challenged opposing pitchers' sense of control as he helped transform the White Sox from a perennial also-ran into a first-division club, joining Hall of Famers Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio in creating the Go-Go White Sox during the decade.
What does it mean to be the Latin American Jackie Robinson?
For starters, it requires acquiring a fuller understanding of what was involved in his coming out of the Negro Leagues and literally being one of organized baseball's test subjects in its "great experiment" in the late 1940s. Additionally, it necessitates us accepting that while Jackie Robinson initiated the process of baseball integration, his entry in 1947 did not bring an immediate end to the practice of institutionalized racism within organized baseball. It took 12 more seasons before every Major League team had at least one black player appear in a regular-season contest.
Minoso stands in select company. He, along with Robinson, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, and Roy Campanella, among other black stars, ushered the Majors into the integration era. This special cast of players endured the toll of entrenched Jim Crow practices found in hotels, restaurants, and rail cars as they came North from Spring Training sites in the deep South, and throughout the regular season where a surprising number of Northern institutions engaged in their own set of racially discriminatory practices.
To excel on the baseball diamond while continually dealing with racial slights on and beyond the playing field makes their on-field accomplishments stand out all the more. No other group of Major Leaguers has ever been called upon to perform in the face of such pressure.
The stats of Minoso and other integration pioneers who emerged as starts merit extra consideration. In his first decade in the Majors he placed in the American League's Top 10 in on-base percentage nine times, in batting average eight times, in slugging percentage six times, and five times in RBIs. Equally significantly, Minoso helped transform American League baseball during that decade, in spite of it being the slower of the two Major League circuits to embrace racial integration.
Jackie Robinson carried the weight of America's racial animus and of its contradictions on his shoulders as he undertook the task of dismantling organized baseball's institutionalized culture of racial discrimination. He also bore the hopes of African-Americans in realizing their civil rights aspirations.
Since he was not African-American, Minoso did not fully enjoy the unflagging enthusiasm and wholehearted support that sustained Robinson through the transformative years of integration. This made the trail blazed by the "Cuban Comet" as the Major Leagues first black Latino and as the barrier breaker in Chicago all the more difficult.
Before Roberto Clemente came Minoso. The significance of the Cuban's entry and success in the Majors was not lost on Hall of Fame outfielder Orlando Cepeda, a native Puerto Rican: "Believe me when I say that Minnie Minoso is to Latin ballplayers what Jackie Robinson is to black [American] players. ... As much as I loved Roberto Clemente and cherish his memory, Minnie is the one who made it possible for all of us Latins."
Indeed, Minoso truly opened the door of opportunity for all Latinos into the Majors. Other Latin Americans came before him, but they were lighter-skinned Latinos who passed organized baseball's racial litmus test to maintain its color line. A comparison of the Latinos who performed in the Negro Leagues and those allowed into the Majors reveals that the overwhelming majority of the era's most talented Latinos toiled in the Negro Leagues.
Minoso's diamond exploits meant that others like him could follow; it was a critically important step in what ultimately developed into the Latinization of baseball from the 1960s until today.
Sadly, Minoso's worthy case for enshrinement in Cooperstown has never really received full consideration. His candidacy has fallen in the cracks of the criteria of eligibility for Baseball's Hall of Fame established by the Baseball Writers Association of America and the Hall's Board of Directors.
For starters, his three years as an All Star-caliber performer in the Negro Leagues are discounted -- accomplishments in the Negro Leagues are not treated as another Major League.
Moreover, a candidate can only be elected into the Hall as part of one category: Negro Leaguer or Major Leaguer; player or executive/manager -- not any combination thereof.
This allowed for eight players and five executives who participated exclusively in the Negro Leagues and three players (Satchel Page, Monte Irvin, and Willard Brown) who performed in both to be elected as part of special Negro League elections. Another 10, that included Larry Doby, Rube Foster, Ray Dandridge, and Turkey Stearnes, were inducted as part of various incarnations of the Veterans Committee.
Yet the Hall's criteria for eligibility most adversely affected the very men who directly bore the impact of the Major League owners' scattershot approach to integration: barrier breakers such as Minoso, who transitioned from starting their careers in the Negro Leagues to personally breaking the color line on various Major League teams -- don't forget how long it took for the Hall to honor Doby.
A select few talented Negro League stars were chosen to undertake the task of integrating the Majors. The toll on their careers for having their big league dreams deferred not by a lack of talent but by a lack of willingness of owners to pursue integration with all deliberate speed has not been part of the equation of assessing their overall career accomplishments.
The reality is that Minoso did not get better from April 1949 to May 1951. Two seasons spent with the Pacific Coast League's San Diego team were not because he lacked big league ability, but mainly because of the fantastic misfortune of having been acquired by the American League's most committed organization to racial integration, the then dominant Cleveland Indians. Indeed, Minoso did not sign with Cleveland as your typical amateur free agent; New York Cubans owner Alex Pompez sold Minoso's contractual rights to Cleveland following the 1948 Negro League season.
The multiple levels of competition that the Cuban encountered next were a unique characteristic of the early years of integration. In addition to beating out other players at one's own position to land a roster spot, black players had to compete with one another to secure one of the roster spots earmarked for blacks. In Cleveland in 1949, that meant beating out Doby, Paige and Luke Easter, as well as all the other black contenders.
That Minoso won the Sporting News 1951 Rookie of the Year Award and placed in the MVP voting once traded to the White Sox proved that he belonged; he just needed a chance.
While South Side fans quickly embraced Minoso, the same could not be said of his on-field adversaries. Opposing teams, and especially pitchers, tested him, hurling epithets and brush-back pitches at the Cuban. In a 1955 interview he admitted to sportswriter Lou Miller that one AL team in 1951, "Always call me names. They say, 'We hit in the head, you black ______." Although in the intervening years he claimed others did not hit him purposefully, no American Leaguer got hit more than Minoso from 1951 to 1961 -- he led the league in hit-by-pitch in nine of those seasons.
Integration upset major league clubhouses. White American players, unaccustomed to having to consider their racial beliefs or prejudices as part of their professional livelihood, now had to weigh them carefully as blacks entered the locker room as teammates, and as they traveled together on the road.
The Cuba native had to prove his greatness in the midst of adversity. Robinson made clear the availability of black talent ready to star in the Majors; Minoso's challenge to succeed involved answering other questions. Could a black Latino handle the role of being a racial barrier breaker and become a star, all the while overcoming the cultural obstacles of language, food, and social customs?
Minoso faced an additional challenge in these heady days of integration: he was not just black but also Latino. No one before him in Major League history had entered the circuit as such. Prior to Robinson's breaking of the color line, 54 Latinos had appeared in the majors. They had been allowed to enter precisely because they could be presented to the public as Cuban, Venezuelan, or Puerto Rican and not as black.
Paul Richard, White Sox manager for that 1951 team, often related a story about Minoso's first game with the White Sox. Teammate Luis Aloma was acting as Minoso's interpreter with the reporters, fielding questions and relaying them to Minoso. One reporter asked, "How are you gonna be able to play ball with these guys if you can't speak English?"
Without the interpreter, Minoso quickly answered.
"Ball, bat, glove," he said. "She no speak English."
This year's newly revised Veterans Committee perhaps stands as the Cuban great's last, yet best, chance to be elected into the Hall; ironically, it may be the fullest consideration of his credentials for enshrinement alongside Clemente, Robinson, Doby and Cepeda, as well as former White Sox teammates Fox and Aparicio.
Yes, the BBWAA did vote on his case (from 1986 through 1999). That voting, however, was delayed by a rule no longer in place; players still active in the Minor Leagues were ineligible for ballot inclusion. Thus, Minoso's years playing in the Mexican League -- an affiliated league of organized baseball -- from 1965 to 1973 postponed his appearance on the BBWAA list of those eligible for the Hall of Fame consideration.
Minoso's name first appeared on the ballot in the fall of 1985, 22 years after his last full season as an active Major Leaguer. By that time, many of the BBWAA voters who had actually witnessed him perform at the height of his career were no longer an active majority of voters. Arguably, more of those casting votes better remembered his pinch-hit performances for Bill Veeck's White Sox in 1976 and 1980 than his days as an integration pioneer whose excellence on the playing field ensured integration for blacks and Latinos was a transformative process and not a fleeting trend in the sport.
For Robinson, pioneering integration was a vital framework to analyzing his achievements in the game and deserved to be a consideration when he was up for election to the Hall of Fame in 1962.
"I do not think I deserve election simply because I was the first Negro in baseball," Robinson wrote in a January 1962 Amsterdam News article, before adding, "Looking at baseball today and what has happened in the game, I do not believe that the pioneer role can be completely overlooked."
Integration was a transcendent breakthrough; Robinson proclaimed it was "the beginning of a more democratic image for that sport and for America." Importantly, Robinson was not alone in making integration a successful process.
Orestes "Minnie" Minoso was one of the special cast called upon to perform the role of integrating America's game. The Cuban did not simply integrate the Sox, nor was he just the Majors' first black Latino. Like Robinson, he was a transformative player, one of the Majors' earliest black stars who defined the 1950s and paved the way for the next generation of Latin American ballplayers through the 1960s and 1970s.
Minoso's case for the Hall ought not to simply fall between the gaps of a criterion that penalizes him for having been one of those called out of the Negro Leagues to integrate America's game. He answered that call and the results were fantastic. The Veterans Committee ought to elect him for a combination of two key factors -- his excellence on the field, achieved in the midst of the most intense pressure ballplayers had to confront; as well as his dual role as the integrationist for two races, black and Latinos, literally changing the face of Major League Baseball over the past 60 years.
Adrian Burgos is an associate professor of both History and African American Studies at the University of Illinois as well as the author of "Playing America's Game(s): Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line." (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007) This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.