Minnie and Buck
As we close in on what might be an extraordinary day—and, realistically speaking, might also be a heartbreaking one—I think of them together, Minnie Miñoso and Buck O’Neil, two old friends with enough joy to power Times Square and enough friends to fill it on New Year’s Eve.
On Sunday, they are each on ballots to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
This time, I hope. This time.
I’ve made each of their cases so many times through the years, so many times, that I don’t have many words left. Minnie Miñoso was Latin America’s Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Chicago, the first dark-skinned Latino to star in the major leagues, one of the best outfielders of his or any time.
Buck O’Neil was the greatest spokesman the game has ever had, a fine player in the Negro leagues, a fine manager, a legendary scout, the first African-American coach in Major League Baseball, but most of all that first thing, a storyteller, a man who spread the gospel of baseball far and wide and helped keep alive the story of the Negro leagues when it was in danger of dying.
“You are an inspiration to me,” a man said to Buck when we were in Chicago for the funeral of the great Negro leagues catcher Double Duty Radcliffe.
“Do you remember the first baseball game your father ever took you to?” Buck asked in return. He asked this question so many times to so many people. It was his way of connecting. The man did not remember all the details—he wasn’t even sure if it was a day game or at night—but he did remember two things for sure. One was that it was at Comiskey Park in 1951.
And the other was that Minnie Miñoso hit a home run.
“He is my hero,” the man said.
“Mine too,” Buck replied.
They were both my heroes, Minnie and Buck, in part because of their accomplishments but more because of who they were as men. Both endured some of the worst that America has to offer. They fought back the only way they knew how to fight—with love, with hope, with the purest joy. Yes, of course, it does break my heart a little that they were not elected to the Hall of Fame when they were alive and could be at the party celebrating their lives.
But then I remind myself that they both knew how much they were loved.
There’s a question I ask myself all the time: What is the Baseball Hall of Fame? There isn’t one answer to the question—the Hall of Fame’s motto is: “Preserving History. Honoring Excellence. Connecting Generations.” And that all feels right to me, there’s the museum that tells the story of baseball, and there’s a plaque room that honors some of the greatest players to ever play the game, and there’s a research center for people who are interested in telling baseball stories, and there’s a theater that plays a movie called “Generations of the Game,” which I was fortunate enough to write with my friend Jon Hock.
But when we talk about the Hall of Fame, let’s be honest, we are mostly talking about a place in the mind, a place where the greatest and most important people in the history of the game live on forever. Each and every one of us has a different Hall of Fame in our mind. And our different versions clash and collide; right now on Twitter I just noticed a brewing squabble between Jon Heyman and Keith Olbermann over the Hall of Fame worthiness of Barry Bonds.
The older I get, the more I believe that such arguments are less about the players and more about the Halls of Fame that live in our imaginations. For some, a Hall of Fame without Barry Bonds simply makes no sense. And for others, a Hall of Fame with Barry Bonds simply makes no sense.
And I think that’s why I have felt so emotional about the Hall of Fame cases of Minnie and Buck: The Hall of Fame feels so empty without them. I am well aware of the arguments from some that Buck just wasn’t a good enough player no matter what else he might have done or that Minnie didn’t accomplish enough in the major leagues. It’s not just that I disagree with those arguments, I find them to be stony and cold and entirely lacking the delight and exuberance these men brought to baseball.
Think how much poorer baseball would be without Minnie and Buck.
Or maybe it’s better said like this: Think how much richer baseball is because of Minnie and Buck.
The last time Buck O’Neil was up for the Hall of Fame, as I’ve written too many times, I was there with him in a little meeting room at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. This was 15 years ago. My brother and dear friend, Bob Kendrick, walked into the room, and he was already near tears, and he said: “Buck, we didn’t get the votes.”
And Buck said instantly: “Well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.”
He tried to hide his hurt. But he was hurting. Of course he was. He died a few months later.
Minnie came up on the 2012 Veterans Ballot, and he fell three votes shy of election. He was back on the ballot in late 2014, and this time he fell four votes short. He had a harder time hiding his hurt. He died a few months later.
After Buck died, after Minnie died, I must admit that their Hall of Fame elections meant less to me. I didn’t see the point. Both had lived long lives—Buck died at 94, Minnie at 89—and it seemed to me that was plenty of time for us to appreciate them and honor them while they were alive. We had failed them. And there was no fixing our failure.
But as the years pass on, I’ve come to look at it differently: We owe it to Buck and Minnie to tell their stories. We owe it to ourselves. Buck O’Neil grew up in Florida at a time when he was not allowed to attend Sarasota High School. Minnie Miñoso quit high school in Cuba and went to work in the sugar cane fields. Buck left home to play ball because one hot day he was working the celery fields and he shouted out, '“Damn, there’s gotta be something better than this.” Minnie formed his own team, and then talked his way onto the Ambrosia Candy team in Havana, and there he was seen by a Negro leagues scout and executive named Alex Pompez.
Buck went to play for the Kansas City Monarchs, and had so much charisma and plain sense that people immediately started calling him “Cap” — for Captain.
Minnie went to play for the New York Cubans and was spotted by Abe Saperstein, the famed owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, who recommended him to Cleveland owner Bill Veeck.
Buck’s impact on the Negro leagues was enormous as a player, as a manager, as a scout and as someone whom major league owners trusted. When the New York Yankees were finally ready to sign their first black player—years after Jackie Robinson—they knew that it had to be the right guy. They asked Buck. He recommended Elston Howard, who would play in 12 All-Star Games, win an MVP award and leave no doubts.
Minnie’s impact on the major leagues was enormous as the very first dark-skinned Latino superstar—“He paved the way,” Roberto Clemente would say—and one of the best outfielders of the 1950s. He should have been Rookie of the Year in 1951. He should have won the MVP in 1954.
Buck dedicated the rest of his life to sharing the story of the Negro leagues and keeping the memories alive. He was the star of Ken Burns’ glorious “Baseball” documentary. He was at the heart of founding the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. He was, if I can say this humbly, The Soul of Baseball.
Minnie played on … and on … and on. After he retired from MLB, he played in Mexico well into his late 40s. Veeck brought him back out of retirement for three games in 1976, and brought him back out for two more in 1980 when Minnie was at least 54. Bill’s son Mike brought Minnie back out again to take at-bats for St. Paul in 1993 and again in 2003—Minnie’s last professional at-bat was a six-pitch walk against Tim Byrdak; he fouled the 3-1 pitch straight back He was at least 77. He might have been 80. The birthdate question was always an open-ended one with Minnie.
“I don’t think I could do anything else,” he said. “Baseball is in my blood.”
And so we come back around again to a day when both men are on the Hall of Fame ballot … and I admit that my nerves are fried. In 2006, I was sure Buck would get elected, and the disappointment was crushing. In 2015, I was sure Minnie Miñoso would get elected, and it was the same pain all over again.
This time, I’m not sure. I don’t have any idea. All I know is that I so badly want Minnie and Buck to be in the Hall of Fame—not for them, so much, but more selfishly for me. I want the Baseball Hall of Fame I love to feel fuller. I want more people to hear their stories. I want all of us, all at once, to raise a glass to Minnie Miñoso and Buck O’Neil, who I think are at the very heart of why we love this crazy game.