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Sports Saturday

White Sox’ Minoso was Minnie in name only

Minoso isn’t credited enough for his play with the Sox, his impact on Chicago and being the first Black Latino major-leaguer.

White Sox outfielder Orestes “Minnie” Minoso poses at Al Lopez Field on March 9, 1957, in Tampa, Fla.
Associated Press

For Minnie Minoso to be known as “Mr. White Sox,” he would have to be the face of the consistently good “Go-Go Sox” teams of the 1950s and ’60s.

Which he was.

Minoso also would have to be one of the franchise’s greatest and most exciting players, at the forefront of an abrupt turnaround into its greatest era.

And he was that, too. They called Saturnino Orestes Armas Miñoso the “Cuban Comet,” a trailblazer with speed and power and defensive skill who, without question, built a career worthy of the Hall of Fame.

And, oh, Minoso would have to be traded to the Sox first. The Indians took care of that on a huge day in Sox history 70 years ago Friday.

Sox general manager Frank “Trader” Lane, who would make 241 trades in seven years — including deals that brought Nellie Fox, Billy Pierce, Sherm Lollar and Jim Rivera to the South Side — had his eye on Minoso for a while. Lane landed the 25-year-old in a complicated three-team swap in which the Sox sent Gus Zernial and Dave Philley to the Athletics and got Minoso from the Indians.

“The Sox got a good man in Minoso,” Indians and St. Louis Browns legend Satchel Paige said when the trade was made. “I rate him No. 1. I’ve been around baseball some 23 years, and if there’s one thing I know, that’s a baseball player when I see one.

“He’s the fastest. That man’s fast as lightning.”

On the day after the trade, May 1, Minoso wasted no time reporting to Comiskey Park. He batted third in manager Paul Richards’ lineup against the Yankees, played third base and hit a home run in the first inning with his first swing against 21-game winner Vic Raschi. It traveled an estimated 425 feet into the center-field bullpen.

On a day when a 19-year-old kid named Mickey Mantle would hit his first major-league home run for the hated Yanks, Minoso’s Sox debut was more momentous. Minoso not only became the first Black White Sox player four years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, but the first Black Latino to play in the major leagues.

It’s remarkable to many that the latter fact often gets overlooked.

“The one thing he really should get credit for and doesn’t is he’s a Black Latino pioneer,” baseball historian, statistician and author Don Zminda said. “He was the first Black Latin player in major-league baseball, and he doesn’t get credit for that.”

“He was our Jackie Robinson,” Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda famously said.

And like Robinson, Minoso was a fabulous, exciting player.

“As a pioneer, he should be recognized,” Zminda said, “but he was a tremendous player.”

To wit: From 1951 to ’60, Minoso was second among American League players in Baseball Reference wins above replacement behind Mantle and ahead of Ted Williams, Nellie Fox and Yogi Berra. Only Mantle scored more runs, only Fox had more hits, only Mantle and Berra had more RBI and only Luis Aparicio had more stolen bases during that period.

“That’s a great player,” Zminda said.

Minoso already was showing that in the Pacific Coast League. He needed an open door.

“The trade liberated Minoso,” said Adrian Burgos, a professor of history at the University of Illinois. “He had the terrific misfortune of going to the most diverse organization in the American League when his contract was sold from the New York Cubans to the Cleveland Indians. The Indians were signing African American, Black Latino players and Mexican players, so he arrived to a team that was loaded with Black talent. Minnie was a major-league-ready player. That trade, and his debut, were about finally getting a chance to prove he was that superstar-caliber player.”

Minoso not only played well — he batted .326/.422/.500 with 10 homers, a major-league-high 14 triples, AL-best 32 stolen bases and 74 RBI that season — but he blazed a trail in Chicago two years before Gene Baker and Ernie Banks would become the first African Americans to play for the Cubs.

The outgoing Minoso opened grocery stores in the city, hawked milk and bread in Chicago newspaper ads and quickly became a popular star.

“He was the face of Chicago, sporting Chicago, for that year and years to come,” Burgos said. “I don’t think people understand what Minnie breaking through and being a superstar did for Chicago. This was a big city, with lots of neighborhoods, and not everyone was on board when integration started.”

And yet, sadly, for all he accomplished on the field and beyond, Minoso, who died in 2015, has not been elected to the Hall of Fame.

Minoso’s career didn’t start with the Indians until 1949 when he was 25 — and there are many who believe he was actually 28 — preventing case-building numbers from going on his résumé. And coming out of retirement to play briefly in 1976 at age 50 and in 1980 probably didn’t endear him to some Hall of Fame voters. At owner Bill Veeck’s urging, Minoso did so to become the first player to play in five decades.

“He’s kind of known for these stunts he was involved in with Bill Veeck and for being a character,” Zminda said. “What gets lost is what a tremendous player he was, particularly from 1951 to ’60.”

Credit Lane for that being shown first in Sox pinstripes. Stacked with outfielders in 1951, the Indians were open to a trade because they didn’t have a spot for Minoso, who would lead the Sox (81-73) to a third-place finish. That season kicked off a golden age of White Sox baseball, a stretch of 17 consecutive winning seasons through 1967.

“An immediate turnaround from a team that was an also-ran for decades,” Zminda said.

Minoso got snubbed by Rookie of the Year voters, finishing a close second to Yankees infielder Gil McDougal (Minoso settled for the Sporting News Rookie of the Year Award), a slight that always troubled him. Lane was upset, too, saying Minoso was deserving of MVP honors. He was fourth in MVP voting.

Minoso was traded back to the Indians after the 1957 season in a deal that brought right-hander Early Wynn and outfielder Al Smith to the Sox and helped them win the 1959 AL pennant. When the Sox reacquired Minoso after that season, Veeck gave him a championship ring, citing Minoso’s role in building a winning culture and for delivering Wynn, the AL Cy Young winner in 1959, in the trade.

Back on the South Side in 1960, Minoso would have his best season, batting .311/.374/.481 with 20 homers, 32 doubles and 105 RBI and winning his third Gold Glove (an award first given in 1957) as an outfielder. He was fourth in MVP voting for the fourth time in his career.

As Burgos said, how Minoso and others like him performed under unique, trying circumstances shouldn’t be overlooked. But it often is.

“The story of Minnie Minoso adds the element of a man who leaves his home country, is experiencing the reality of being a Black foreigner, to become beloved in a city like Chicago,” Burgos said. “And on top of all that, he was becoming a hero in Black Chicago.”

Robinson set the standard and made it clear Minoso could be a major-league star.

“But Minnie’s debut — and his performance — just reverberated because now as a Black Latino star, he was not only the toast of Chicago, but of the Caribbean and Cuba. ‘This is what we can do. We can follow in his footsteps.’

“His performance, persona and charisma attracted folks to what the promise of integration could be, and that starts with the 1951 season.”