Minnie Miñoso: Cuba to Cooperstown via the Negro Leagues

 

Havana, Cuba, 1941.

The strapping young man from the rural providences stood tall and straight as he approached Rene Midesten, the manager of the Ambrosia Candy baseball team. His skin was dark as night, and his body was as strong as a bull from working in the cane fields. For the past 4 or 5 years the young man had traveled the countryside making a name for himself playing amateur ball. Now the time had come to make the move to the big city of Havana and become a professional ballplayer.

The Ambrosia Candy team was one of many factory and government teams that played in the Havana Semi-Pro league. Once a ballplayer got on one of those teams and did well, it was just a short time before the professional Cuban League came calling. Midesten listened passively as the young man described how he could pitch and catch and hit – he’d heard it all before – every niño from the sticks thought he was the next Martin Dihigo. But as the young man talked, he was also watching Midesten’s team work out on the field behind him. He noted their third baseman made one bad play after another. Besides pitching, catching, and hitting, he told the manager, he was also a third baseman. Midesten’s ears perked up, and moments later for the princely salary of $2 a game and a guaranteed job in the company’s garage, Orestes Miñoso became a professional ballplayer.

THE JOURNEY that brought Orestes Miñoso from the Cuban hinterlands to Cooperstown began in El Perico, a sugar cane farming town of around 3,000 inhabitants just outside Havana.

Even today there are many myths and questions swirling around the newest Hall of Famer. To start, there is the question of when he was really born. The official site of Minnie Miñoso, minoso.com, gives his birthdate as November 29, 1922. The earliest mention of Miñoso in American newspapers, such as the December 12, 1951 edition of The Sporting News, gives the same 1922 date. However, when Miñoso applied for United States citizenship in 1978, he gave November 29, 1923 as the date of his birth. In 2013, Hake’s Auctions sold Miñoso’s 1951 Cuban driver’s license, which records that same 1923 birthdate. Further complicating matters is that many modern guides and online reference sites give his birth date as November 29, 1925. And that’s the same date Miñoso himself wrote on his 1948 American Baseball Bureau questionnaire.

Which one is correct? I really can’t say. At the time, many ballplayers shaved a few years off their actual ages to make themselves appear younger and thus more desirable to scouts. It was called your “baseball age,” and it may have been what Miñoso was giving on his 1948 questionnaire. This makes sense since he was an unknown Black Cuban trying to break into White organized baseball, and the younger he appeared to be, the more attractive he would be to prospective teams. However, by 1951 Miñoso was an established major leaguer and no longer needed a “baseball age,” so he could give 1922 as his birth year with no fear of ageism hindering his career.

If Miñoso’s birthdate wasn’t complicated enough, there’s the matter of his actual name. Though he’s best known as Orestes Miñoso, his actual birthname is Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Armas. So where does Miñoso come from? According to his Center for Negro League Baseball Research biography by Dr. Layton Revel and Luis Munoz, Miñoso’s mother had four children from a previous marriage. The two boys and two girls, who became Minnie’s older half-brothers and half-sisters, used Miñoso, their birth father’s name, as their last name. Minnie’s two half-brothers were already known as good ballplayers, so when young Orestes became old enough to play ball, he assumed their already well-established name of Miñoso. Years later, when he became an American citizen, Minnie officially changed his name to “Orestes Miñoso.”

THREE YEARS after beginning his career with the Ambrosia Candy team, Orestes Miñoso had moved his way up through the semi-pro ranks, playing for several mining company teams until he caught the eye of a scout for the Marianao Tigres, one of the Cuban Professional League’s best teams. Besides featuring the best Cubans and Latin players, the Cuban Professional League’s winter season attracted the finest Negro leaguers from the United States. The level of play was top draw, and to say the pay was better than on a candy or mining company team would be an understatement. Miñoso signed for $150 a month, which quickly bumped up to $200 when the ball club realized just how good he was. By the time the season ended, he’d batted .301 and was voted the 1945-46 Cuban League Rookie of the Year.

IN THE YEARS before Jackie Robinson, a Cuban ballplayer had two options if he wanted to play in the United States. If he was light skinned with wavy hair, he went into organized ball. If he was a darker hue with kinky hair, it was the Negro leagues. You really couldn’t get any darker than Miñoso, so the Negro leagues it was.

The Negro National League had among its clubs a team called the New York Cubans. Though not exclusively made up of Latin players, the Cubans were the main club the Latins gravitated to when they wanted to play ball in the States. The Cubans played most of their games at the Polo Grounds, and though they hadn’t won a pennant yet, the club was always among the finest in the Negro National League. It just so happened that one of Miñoso’s coaches with Marianao was Jose Fernandez, manager of the New York Cubans. When the 1945-46 Cuban League season had ended, Fernandez had convinced the owner of the Cubans, Alex Pompez, to offer Miñoso a contract.

There was a potential problem, however. The Pasquel brothers, Jorge and Bernardo, backers of the upstart Mexican Baseball League, were offering staggering amounts of cash to professional ballplayers to play in their new league. The huge salaries succeeded in luring several White major leaguers and many of the best Black and Latin players to Mexico. While the money was good, the risks were high – in short order organized baseball decreed that anyone breaking a contract to play in Mexico would be banned from playing in the major or minor leagues. Latin and Black ballplayers also were affected because the Cuban Winter League was under a tentative contract with organized ball as well. Even if a ballplayer was not signed by a major or minor league team, he was still ineligible to play in Cuba if he appeared in the Mexican League. It was a big risk, and when Miñoso was confronted with a large duffel bag of cash and a 2-year contract for $30,000, the young star turned it down flat.

Miñoso signed his name to the contract sent by Alex Pompez, and for $150 a month he became the New York Cubans’ rookie third baseman.

Playing their home games in the Polo Grounds, the rookie batted a respectable .260 in 33 games for 1946. Now a proven talent, Cubans owner Alex Pompez doubled his salary to $300 a month to ensure he wasn’t tempted by the roving Mexican League recruiters. But in the spring of 1947, it wasn’t the Mexicans Pompez needed to be wary of.

The Brooklyn Dodgers held their spring training in Cuba that spring. Among the stars on the team was the much anticipated rookie, Jackie Robinson. The Dodgers played a series of exhibitions against a Cuban all-star team that included Miñoso at third. Dodgers scout Clyde Sukeforth was impressed with Miñoso, and convinced Branch Rickey to sign him to a minor league contract. However, despite several attempts, Miñoso refused to sign with the Dodgers. According to the book Cuban Star, Adrian Brugos’ biography of New York Cubans owner Alex Pompez, Miñoso turned down the Dodgers because he felt Pompez treated him well.

During the 1947 season Miñoso really took off, leading the team with a .294 average and establishing himself as the best lead-off man in the league. Negro League fans across the nation appreciated his play, and the Cuban was voted to represent the East in that year’s East-West All Star Game in Chicago. Miñoso played the entire game but went 0-3 as the West won, 5-2. Due to the popularity of the East-West game, and presumably to give the players even more of a shot at showcasing their talents to a mixed audience, a second all-star contest was played at the end of July in New York. This time Miñoso went 1 for 4 as the West won again, 8-2.

AT THIS POINT the Brooklyn Dodgers entered the picture again. With Miñoso having a great season, the Dodgers opened negotiations with Alex Pompez to buy his contract. That the Dodgers would negotiate with Pompez showed how highly they thought of Miñoso – it had been Branch Rickey’s practice to simply poach any Black player he wanted without offering any compensation to the Negro League team he played for. Yet, despite an August 2 article in the Chicago Defender that announced Miñoso had signed with the Dodgers, Pompez ultimately turned down Rickey’s offer as too low.

Meanwhile, Miñoso settled into the life of a rising star in the Negro Leagues. Miñoso enjoyed playing in the United States, and with his generous income he soon established himself as one of the Negro National League’s best dressed ballplayers. Nap Gulley, who played against Miñoso in those years, swore the Cuban had 40 or 50 immaculately tailored suits. Gulley went on to state that Miñoso could have been a magazine model if he wished. One other thing Miñoso prided himself on was his language skills; while some other teammates chose to speak only Spanish, Miñoso tried to communicate solely in English. The ballplayer figured that he was playing in America so he should know the language. It’s interesting to note that although players and sports writers made comments about his accented English and rogue grammar, Miñoso none the less was proudly fluent in the tongue of his adapted homeland.

Besides his fashion sense and budding bilingualism, Miñoso impressed his teammates by eagerly learning all he could from the veterans. He watched the stars on the opposing teams and continually improved his craft. Fellow ballplayers soon learned that no matter how well he played his game, Miñoso strived to do it even better. It was this work ethic that provided the final push needed to earn the Cubans their first pennant in the history of the franchise.

The Negro National League schedule was divided into two halves. The Newark Eagles, defending World Champs, won the first half, but an exodus of their big stars to the Major Leagues seriously weakened the team. This opened the field for Miñoso’s Cubans. Along with slugger Pat Scantlebury and pitchers Dave Barnhill and Luis Tiant, the speedy Cuban led his team to the top of the standing in the second half. The league awarded the Cubans the pennant based on their overall superior record, and the team prepared to face the Cleveland Buckeyes for in the 1947 Negro World Series.

In Game 1, the Cubans and Buckeyes were tied in the bottom of the sixth when the game was called due to a rainstorm. Cleveland took the second game, but then New York roared back by sweeping four straight for the championship. Miñoso performed magnificently, going 11 for 26 for a .423 average.

The following season Miñoso continued to improve, and by the All-Star break in July he was batting about .400. Again, he was recognized by the sporting public by being selected to his third East-West Game. This year he went 1 for 4 in another loss to the West. By now Miñoso was undeniably a star, and it was just a matter of time before he would join the other Negro League stars who made the jump to the now-integrated major and minor leagues. Just like the previous year, a second East-West Game was played in New York. Before the game, Miñoso’s teammate Jose Santiago was approached by the Cleveland Indians scout. Besides Jose, the Indians were looking at Miñoso as well. Realizing this was his chance, Miñoso performed spectacularly. In his first at bat his speed helped him stretch a chintzy single into a double, and a second double knocked in the East’s winning run. By the time he’d showered, Miñoso’s contract had been purchased by the Cleveland Indians.

SENT TO the Class A Dayton Indians, Miñoso hit .525 for the rest of the ’48 season. His addition to the team helped Dayton get a spot in the Central League playoffs, and he became a hero when he tied Game 1 with a home run and then won the game in the 11th when he raced from first base to score on a double to left field. He hit three home runs in the 5-game series as Dayton beat Ft. Wayne for the Central League championship. At the conclusion of the season, Dayton’s manager Joe Vosmik told the sportswriter Hugh Fullerton, “If there was a league higher than the majors, Miñoso would be ready for that.”

His famed nickname “Minnie” apparently came during his time with Dayton. The earliest use of “Minnie” I could find was the September 18, 1948 edition of the Dayton Daily News. Where the nickname came from has several theories, but I’m going with the version given by minoso.com, the official Minnie Miñoso website. According to their version, the ballplayer was seated in the waiting room of his dentist’s office when the name “Minnie” was called out. The Cuban was used to American’s mispronouncing “Miñoso,” so he stood up and followed the dentist into the examination room. Afterwards he was informed that “Minnie” was the dentist’s receptionist and it was to her he was calling.

The next year the Indians took him to spring training in Tucson where he hit .400, earning him a spot on Cleveland’s opening day roster. Unfortunately, the Indians already had all-star Ken Keltner at third, so Miñoso found himself subbing at first base and the outfield. Because of his sporadic use, Miñoso never got into the swing of things and was hitting .188 when the Indians sent him to the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. Playing every day, Miñoso hit .297 for the Padres.

MEANWHILE, back in Cleveland, the Indians replaced Ken Keltner with future Hall of Famer Al Rosen at third. This move kept Miñoso in San Diego for 1950. His .339 with 20 homers earned him another invite to spring training with Cleveland in 1950. While there, Miñoso hit close to .400, and he easily made the club. The problem was that the Indians already had Al Rosen at third. Their outfield featured Larry Doby, another future Hall of Famer, along with proven veterans Dale Mitchell and Bob Kennedy. He subbed wherever he could, batting a promising .429 in 14 at bats.

Fortunately for Miñoso, the Indians traded their superfluous third baseman to the White Sox. Chicago’s manager Paul Richards informed the new arrival that he was the team’s starting third baseman. Playing every day again, Miñoso exploded. In his first game with the Sox, Miñoso hit a 450 foot home run off Yankees ace Vic Raschi. He’d hit .324 that year and steal 31 bases, earning him the additional nickname the “Cuban Comet.” He capped off his first full season in The Show by taking home the Sporting News Rookie of the Year Award.

MINNIE MIÑOSO’S brilliant rookie campaign marked the beginning of a big league career that made him one of the game’s biggest stars. Called “Mr. White Sox” by his fans, Miñoso’s hustle and spirit drove the “Go-Go Sox” teams of the 1950s and would make him one of the most popular players in the history of the franchise. Fans voted him to seven All-Star Game appearances, and sportswriters awarded him three Gold Glove Awards when he switched to playing the outfield. He led the AL in triples three times, stolen bases three times and hits once. In 1976 and again in 1980, the White Sox activated the old ballplayer to play a few games, and he made his final pro appearance in 2003 when he drew a walk while batting for the St. Paul Saints at the age of 77. His fans on the southside of Chicago never forgot him, and the White Sox retired his number 9 in 1983, followed by a larger than life statue outside their ballpark in 2003. All-in-all, Minnie Miñoso spent more than 30 years spread over seven decades playing baseball in the United States, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Mexico. Already a member of the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame since 1983, the “Cuban Comet” was finally elected to Cooperstown in the Class of 2022.

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Besides the usual contemporary newspaper articles used to create this story, I found Miñoso’s Center for Negro League Baseball Research biography by Dr. Layton Revel and Luis Munoz the best work on the newest Hall of Famer. Also helpful was the official Minnie Miñoso website, minoso.com, Adrian Brugos’ biography of New York Cubans owner Alex Pompez, Cuban Star, and the SABR Minnie Miñoso biography by Mark Stewart.

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This week’s story is Number C1 in a series of collectible booklets.

 

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 3 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 030 and will be active through December of 2021. Booklets 1-29 can be purchased as a group, too.

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