Ex-Negro League, MLB Star Minoso Was Also A Pioneer

By Joe Posnanski
Updated: June 30, 2007

KANSAS CITY — More than a year has gone by since that crazy Buck O’Neil day. That was the day when a panel of Negro Leagues historians and researchers voted 17 people into the baseball Hall of Fame but passed on the obvious choice, the man who, probably more than anyone, represented and kept alive the Negro Leagues, Buck O’Neil.

Plenty has been said and written about that day, of course. None of the panel members have ever come forth to explain what they were thinking. I suspect none ever will now that Buck is gone. There’s no percentage in stirring up those old ghosts.

The people who run the Hall of Fame — several of whom were privately mortified and embarrassed by the whole process — have promised they will honor O’Neil in their own way. The Hall of Fame board meets in July, and they will discuss the best way to keep Buck’s legacy alive. A Buck O’Neil Award — given annually to a person whose lifetime dedication to baseball made it a better game — could be in the works.

But there was someone else snubbed that crazy Buck O’Neil day. He is the only person on the Negro Leagues’ ballot who is still alive today — in fact, he will be in Kansas City at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum this weekend to talk a little baseball. He was a great player.

“He was much, much better than me,” Buck O’Neil used to say all the time. He was a pioneer — the first black major-leaguer to play in Chicago. He was also the first dark-skinned Latin American to play in the major leagues. He was a seven-time major league All-Star, even though he did not (could not) make it to the big leagues as a full-time player until he was 28 (or so — his birth year is under some dispute).

He also remains one of the most popular men to ever play baseball.

So the question remains: Why the heck is Minnie Minoso not in the Hall of Fame?

Here’s why: The Hall of Fame is not much for subtlety. The Hall of Fame is about numbers — 3,000 hits, 300 victories, 500 homers — and it’s about gut feelings. Minnie Minoso doesn’t have the numbers. He doesn’t even have 2,000 major-league hits. He doesn’t have 200 homers.

And he simply did not strike the writers/voters as a Hall of Famer — though it should be noted that because of the oddness of his career (he played in a game when he was 54 as a publicity stunt), they did not really start voting seriously on him until 1986, 25 years after he was a great player.

In other words, most of the voters never saw the real Minnie Minoso play ball.

“Minnie was an absolutely amazing player,” Billy Williams, the Hall of Famer who played for the crosstown Cubs the last few years of Minoso’s career, said a couple of years ago. “You want to talk about a guy who could do everything. Hit. Run. Throw. Minnie was something else.”

How good was Minnie Minoso in the major leagues? Well, if you wanted to pick an all-decade all-star team from the 1950s, Minoso would be in the American League outfield (along with Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams). He ran well enough to lead the American League in stolen bases his first three seasons. He played the outfield so well, he was part of the first major league Gold Glove team (he shared the outfield with Willie Mays and Al Kaline).

He was productive enough to drive in 100-plus runs four times and score 100-plus runs five times. He hit .300 or better eight times, and perhaps even more impressively he had a lifetime on-base percentage of .389, one of the best of his era (in large part because he led the league in getting hit by pitches an amazing 10 times).

If these were his only Hall of Fame qualifications, then his Hall of Fame resume might fall a bit short. But this is where it gets a bit messy — and the Hall of Fame just doesn’t deal too well with mess. Minoso was excluded from the major leagues (or minor leagues) for the first four or five years of his baseball career because of the color of his skin. He was a two-time Negro Leagues all-star in that time.

What would have happened had he been given those years in the big leagues? Would he have put up the Hall of Fame numbers? And even more to the point, had he not had to deal with the tensions and difficulties and the inevitable racism of being one of the first black players in baseball (he was only the third in the American League), how much better could he have been? How much longer could he have lasted?

We’ll never know. Baseball is filled with these mysteries. How many games would Bob Feller have won had it not been for World War II? How many homers would Ted Williams have hit had it not been for his two stints in the Navy?

How many games would Sandy Koufax (or Steve Busby) have won had he not hurt his arm? How good could Pete Reiser have been had he not run into walls? We don’t know.

But we do know this: Minnie Minoso was a fabulous player when he finally got his chance. In his last historical abstract a few years back, author Bill James used his win shares formula to rank the top players in baseball history between the ages of 30-39. He found Minoso ranked 16th, just behind Frank Robinson and just ahead of Willie Stargell. Every eligible player in the top 20 is in the Hall of Fame.

Minoso was a great player. He overcame the times. He was a gentleman — he became one of the most popular men to ever play baseball in Chicago. And he was a Jackie Robinson-type of hero to so many Cuban players who followed him, men such as Tony Perez, Tony Oliva and Luis Tiant.

I guess it all depends on what you want in a Hall of Famer. There are many immortals in the Hall of Fame (Ruth, Clemente, Mantle, DiMaggio, Mays, Musial) and there are just as many who you have never heard of (Cummings, Grimes, Willis, Chesbro, Manley). In the end, it’s a museum dedicated to remembering those players and baseball people who should be remembered.

People should not forget Minnie Minoso.