Ten Who Missed: No. 4, Minnie Miñoso
Happy Friday! Today we continue our “Ten Who Missed” series — a companion to The Baseball 100, It features 10 players who just missed The Baseball 100 (those 10 players were chosen by you in a survey that Tom Tango and I did a while back). We’ll have a new “Ten Who Missed” essay every Friday. Here are the ones we’ve had so far:
Bonus essay: Zack Greinke
No. 10: Vladimir Guerrero
No. 9: Eddie Murray
No. 8: Shoeless Joe Jackson
No. 7: Turkey Stearnes
No. 6: Harmon Killebrew
No. 5: Barry Larkin
Let me start with a personal note here. When Minnie Miñoso’s wife — Sharon Rice-Miñoso — thanked me in her Hall of Fame speech (along with my dear friends Bob Kendrick and Bill James, as well as the wonderful Adrian Burgos), I felt overwhelmed. I had not expected that, obviously. It is a surreal experience to hear your name in the Hall of Fame speech of someone you so deeply admired and liked.
I do not know if my writing about Miñoso had even the slightest impact on him finally, finally, finally getting elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It doesn’t really matter, I suppose. He should have been elected 30 years ago. He should have been on that stage himself; he wanted that. And he deserved that. And we as baseball fans deserved that, too. Minnie was all heart. His speech would have been a joyous flood of laughter and tears and memories.
Then again, Sharon’s speech was all those things, too. Cooperstown was overflowing with Miñosos — sons and daughters and nieces and grandchildren everywhere you turned — and his spirit galvanized the town all weekend long.
“Baseball,” Minnie famously said, “has been very, very good to me.” And he was very, very good for baseball, and his induction was not only a celebration for him. It was a celebration for the Hall of Fame, too. The place was incomplete without him. A huge void was finally filled.
When Minnie Miñoso died seven years ago, some reported that he was 89 years old. Others reported him being 90. The Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians — the two major league teams where he spent most of his great baseball career — said he was 92.
To the end, Minnie Miñoso was ageless.
On the day he died, I wrote this: “Saturnino Orestes Armas Miñoso Arrieta was a magical player, the sort who marked a time, the sort who infused people with gladness just by being alive.”
I still think that’s right. He was also one helluva ballplayer.
Miñoso quit school as a boy and went to work in the sugarcane fields of Cuba. The work was backbreaking and bleak, and the only brightness to be found anywhere was baseball. This isn’t just Miñoso’s story. It’s also Shoeless Joe Jackson’s story. It’s Grover Cleveland Alexander’s story. It’s the story of Three Finger Brown, Jake Daubert, Juan Marichal and countless others.
Baseball wasn’t just a game. It was an escape from a stark life. A moment spent playing ball, Minnie used to say, was like a moment spent in heaven.
Miñoso chased those moments. He built his own team with kids from the neighborhood, and he served as team owner, general manager, manager and coach. He badgered them to play. He berated them for showing up late. He fined them for missing signs.
And he played every position, every last one, to fill whatever gaps there might be. Nobody wanted to play catcher, so he became a catcher. But when the centerfielder didn’t show up, or a second baseman had to work, or a pitcher got sick, he’d step in there.
The story goes that he wanted to play for the famous Ambrosia Candy baseball team in Havana, and so before he approached the owner, he went to scout the team. He noticed that the third baseman wasn’t very good.
“What position do you play?” the owner asked him.
“Third base,” Miñoso said, and he was quickly signed.
How old was Minnie Miñoso when he went to play for Ambrosia Candy in 1941? We don’t know for sure — even Minnie claimed a couple of different ages. Most sources say he was born in 1925, which would have made him 15 or 16. But for many years, his birthdate was listed in 1922, which would have made him 18 or 19.
Whatever age, Miñoso became an immediate star, even while playing against older and more grizzled men.
In 1945 (at age 19 or 22), he signed to play for Marianao, a professional team in Havana. He was the rookie of the year. That’s when he was scouted by a Negro leagues executive named Alex Pompez (who was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Negro leagues committee at least in part for signing Minnie Miñoso). Pompez paid Miñoso three hundred bucks a month to play for the New York Cubans in 1946. He quickly became the Cubans’ leadoff hitter and, within a couple of years, their biggest star.
As a dark-skinned Cuban, Miñoso’s road through American segregation was not so different from Jackie Robinson’s — except that Miñoso did not yet speak English. Miñoso would say that Branch Rickey tried to sign him after the 1946 season, but he felt a loyalty to Pompez and declined.
You know who scouted Minnie Miñoso?