God Bless You and Godspeed, Minnie Minoso

It’s not been a good winter for fans of Chicago sports. As if injuries to two of the city’s brightest stars in hockey and basketball weren’t enough, both baseball teams have now had to say goodbye to great players.

First Mr. Cub and now Mr. White Sox, Orestes “Minnie” Minoso, who passed away Sunday at the age of 90; I’ve got to think the two are having a game of catch right now. Much was made of Banks’ role in helping to integrate baseball — and rightly so — but it was Minoso who became Chicago’s first black player when he joined the White Sox on May 1, 1951.

Born in Cuba, Minoso moved to the States in 1945 and played for three years in the Negro Leagues for the New York Cubans. His contract was purchased by the Cleveland Browns, who were owned at the time by none other than future Sox owner Bill Veeck.

Minoso actually made his MLB debut with the Indians in 1949, but only played 9 games at the end of that season. He spent the following year in the minors and came to Chicago in a trade early in the 1951 season. He made the most of his new home, hitting .326 and winning Rookie of the Year.

After 7 seasons on the South Side, Minoso was traded back to Cleveland following the 1957 campaign. But Veeck, who had purchased the Sox prior to their pennant-winning 1959 season, saw fit to bring Minnie back to Chicago for a second time.

Health issues for Veeck forced him to sell his stake in the team in 1961, the same year Minoso began to exhibit a bit of a drop in production. While a .280 average is something most players would aspire to, it was the veteran’s lowest in 11 full MLB seasons.

A trade to the Cardinals followed, but the change in scenery exacerbated the diminution of Minoso’s skills. Of course, the fractured skull and broken wrist he suffered crashing into an outfield wall didn’t help. His rights were sold to the Washington Senators prior to the 1963 season, but he batted only .229 and was released that October.

Where did Minoso go from there? Why, back to the White Sox, of course. His third run with the Good Guys was far from memorable though, as he hit .226 over the course of just 30 games, almost exclusively as a pinch hitter.

Minoso hit the final home run of his major league career on May 6th, nearly 13 years to the date of his debut. He retired after that season, but couldn’t stay out of the game. In 1965, Minoso caught on with Charros de Jalisco of the Mexican League, batting .360 with league-leading totals of 35 doubles and 106 runs scored.

He went on to play 8 more seasons in Mexico, finally walking away in 1973 at the age of 48 after a season in which he hit .265 with 12 home runs and 83 RBI. No, that’s not a typo. Seeing that line absolutely blows my mind. I don’t care if it’s a 48-year-old man playing Little Leaguers, 12 bombs and 83 ribbies is a feat.

But when noted showman Bill Veeck re-purchased the Sox in 1975, thus keeping the team in Chicago, the writing was on the wall for another go-round for Minoso. The Sox great returned to the team in 1976 as a base coach and actually appeared in 3 games, going 1-8 with a single and becoming — at 50 — the 4th-oldest player to collect an MLB hit.

Minoso was called into active duty again in 1980 at the age of 54, becoming the 4th-oldest MLB player ever as he went 0-2 in two pinch-hit appearances. In all, Minnie Minoso played in 1,835 games over parts of 17 seasons for four teams. He compiled a .298/.389/.459 slash with 1,963 hits, 189 home runs, and 1,023 RBI.

A great defender who was rated by Bill James in 2001 as the 10th-best left fielder of all time, Minoso played all over the outfield and spent time at both corner infield spots. James even said, “Had he gotten the chance to play when he was 21 years old, I think he’d probably be rated among the top thirty players of all time.”

Minoso’s Hall of Fame candidacy was hurt by his counting stats, which were certainly impacted by the fact that his debut didn’t come until the age of 25. But despite the fact that Minoso was never granted entry to Cooperstown, he was always upbeat.

Like Ernie Banks, Minoso had an infectious smile and loved nothing more than spending time around the game of baseball. In fact, he said of his love for the game, “When I die, I want to be playing baseball. Truly. They don’t bury me without my uniform.”

To borrow another phrase from the White Sox great, “God bless you, Minnie Minoso.” You made the game, the city of Chicago, and the world a little better, a little brighter, and you will be missed. Godspeed.

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