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Miñoso mingles with fans at Comiskey Park in the early 1960s. Half a century later, he’s still making friends.He was born in Perico, Cuba, just outside Havana. His birth name was Saturnino Orestes Arrieta, but he was often mistaken for his older half brother, who also played ball and whose last name was Miñoso. Later, in the United States, sportswriters called him Minnie, just for the sake of alliteration, leaving him with a girl’s first name and his brother’s last name. He didn’t care as long as he got to play.
When he was about 12, Miñoso quit school and went to work in the sugar cane fields, like his father. The work made him strong, if not happy. When he found out his employer didn’t have a youth baseball team, he organized one and named himself manager. Miñoso was so likable, even then, that no one complained when he fined his young players 50 centavos each time they missed a bunt sign.
He patterned his game after that of Cuban superstar Martin Dihigo. He lined balls to the opposite field and ran like crazy, driving pitchers and catchers to distraction. When he was 18, he latched on with Havana’s Ambrosia Candy team, earning a paltry $2 a game plus $8 a week for working in Ambrosia’s garage. After that, he rolled cigars for Partagas and played for the company team. Finally, at 20, he latched on with Marianao, one of Cuba’s best teams, where he made $200 a month. He didn’t need a second job anymore.
Major-league baseball was still segregated in 1946 when Miñoso came to the United States, signing a contract to play for the New York Cubans, of the Negro leagues. One year later, Jackie Robinson integrated the game. Miñoso had his chance. In 1949, he made his big-league debut with the Cleveland Indians; in 1951, the Indians traded him to the White Sox.
In his first at-bat of his first game for the Sox, he faced Vic Raschi of the Yankees. One of Miñoso’s teammates warned him Raschi threw a good curve and a good slider.
“Well, I’m going to swing at the first pitch, whatever it is,” he said.
He did—and hit it 415 feet for a home run.
“So,” I asked him, 60 years later, “what was the pitch? Fastball? Curve?”
“It was a baseball, I think.” He smiled. A line he’s probably used 5,000 times.
I asked if anyone had treated him badly because he was the team’s first black player.
“From the first day here,” he said, “people respected me.”
Did it make any difference that he was Cuban and not African American?
“Nah. You see the person, you see white or black. It don’t make any difference where you come from. I’m black.”
Though he spoke little English, he became a favorite of fans. With Chico Carrasquel, Jim Busby, and Miñoso all stealing bases and fielding slickly, the Go-Go Sox were a thrill to watch. While the Yankees had the big-name, high-priced sluggers, the Sox had hungry hustlers. In his rookie year, Miñoso was hit by pitches a league-leading 16 times. It wasn’t that opposing pitchers wanted to hurt him; it was that Miñoso wanted to get hit. Anything to get on base. Anything to help the team. Other players may have been more talented, more intelligent, he says, but no player in the history of the game ever hustled more.
The Sox of the 1950s were some of the best teams ever to play baseball in Chicago. Unfortunately, the Yankees were usually better. Though segregation shortened Miñoso’s career by perhaps half a decade, he still finished with near–Hall of Fame numbers: a .298 batting average, 186 home runs, and 1,023 runs batted in.
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Photograph: Ray Gora/Chicago Tribune