Hall of Fame 2022: Why it matters that Minnie Minoso and Buck O'Neil finally made it to Cooperstown

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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Every Hall of Famer has a story of how they got to the hall. But not many can match the incredible journeys of Buck O'Neil and Minnie Minoso, two baseball pioneers whose long roads finally reached the most exalted place in the game on Sunday -- the hallowed Plaque Gallery of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

That neither legend was alive to experience such an honor was certainly bittersweet -- a word thrown around a lot in Cooperstown over the last few days. Yet because O'Neil and Minoso were known as much for their grace and spirit of generosity as for their immense achievements in the game, it turned out that there was more sweet than bitter.

"Man, oh, man, nothing could be better," said Dr. Angela Terry, O'Neil's niece, who delivered the acceptance speech on Sunday on Buck's behalf. She was, of course, quoting her uncle.

She was right, because the following words are so long overdue that you can't combine these two now-true statements with a conjunction. Both must be stated in their own right:

Buck O'Neil is a Hall of Famer.

Minnie Minoso is a Hall of Famer.

At last.

And while, of course, it's impossible not to wish that it would have been true while both men were still with us, one thing this weekend was clear: Anyone sitting in "the valley" -- the grounds adjacent to the Clark Sports Complex where the acceptance speeches are made every summer -- felt like O'Neil and Minoso were with us on Sunday -- and always will be.

"I think Minnie would have loved very much to share this with his family and with his friends," said Dr. Adrian Burgos, one of the country's foremost experts on Latin baseball and long one of the most prominent boosters of Minoso's Hall of Fame case. "So I think it's our duty to celebrate it for him."

MOST STORIES ABOUT the life of John Jordan O'Neil Jr. -- or Buck, as his countless friends called him -- begin with the fact that on Nov. 13, 1911, he was born in the deeply segregated American south of the Jim Crow Era. His grandfather, Julius, was an enslaved man taken from western Africa on a slave ship. The surname O'Neil belonged to the man who owned him.

Yet, despite this, in O'Neil's autobiography "I Was Right on Time" he stated, "My grandfather was not a bitter man. He was an optimist." To say that foreshadowed the way Buck O'Neil lived his life is an understatement.

"It's very hard to describe (that quality) as an innateness, who maybe he was destined to be who he became, and to touch people in the way that he did," said Bob Kendrick, O'Neil's close friend and his successor as the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. "Because I know it was special. I'm not saying what I think, I'm telling you what I know, because I was there. I witnessed this every place we went."

O'Neil never played in the extant major leagues -- the American League or National League -- though he was almost certainly good enough to. He was a solid, contact-hitting first baseman known for his glove work. The documented games now part of the official record put his career average at .260, but O'Neil insists that he was a .300 hitter.

MLB's decision to officially designate the Negro Leagues as a major league in 2020 was a gesture that simply reiterated something O'Neil always knew to be true: He had played in the major leagues. The was the central message of O'Neil's work as the leading ambassador of Negro Leagues baseball. It was just that -- the players who played in it very much felt like they were in the big time.

"He told us about the Negro Leagues and we fell in love with the Negro Leagues through his lens and through his eyes," Kendrick said. "But we really fell in love with Buck O'Neil, who lived his life in such a way that demonstrated that you could get further in life with love."

It was the story that O'Neil told all throughout his life, from his days as a player and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs, through his decades as a legendary scout for the Cubs and, later, the Royals, as well as during his time as the first black coach in the AL or NL.

The reasons for why the Negro Leagues had to exist in the first place are unconscionable. And there were rugged times beyond which most of us today can comprehend. But, dammit, they had fun. That's the story O'Neil told for years and years, though not enough people seemed to be listening.

Until, suddenly, everyone started listening. That happened in 1994, not long after that season's World Series was canceled because of a labor dispute. Because that was when "Baseball," the treasured documentary from Ken Burns, debuted on PBS.

"He had more charisma in his little finger than 99% of people will ever have in their whole lifetime, and it was immediately apparent," said Lynn Novak, Burns' long-time collaborator. She conducted the initial interviews with O'Neil for the documentary that made him a national star.

Novak recalled that at one point, she listened to O'Neil finish a story and said, "That must have been hard." O'Neil was having none of that.

"Don't feel sorry for us," Novak remembered O'Neil saying. "We stayed in the best hotels. They happen to have been Black-owned and operated. We had the best restaurants. Everywhere we went, the fans loved us. We were traveling with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway and Count Basie."

Thus began O'Neil's new life as a living oracle, of not only Negro Leagues baseball but baseball itself. He told stories, often the same ones over and over, spreading the word about the Negro Leagues and promoting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which he helped get off the ground and for which he served as its first president.

"I've rarely met anyone who has the gift of Buck O'Neil to tell a story and make you care about it," Novak said.

In 2005, after the NLBM was born and research efforts deepened our knowledge and understanding of those who were a part of those leagues, a committee was formed to consider the Hall of Fame cases of all those overlooked, including that of O'Neil.

Seventeen players, executives and pioneers from Black baseball were selected for induction. O'Neil, falling one vote short, was not one of them.

It would seem easy to be bitter -- except, of course, for Buck O'Neil.

"He literally reached out his arms, wrapped them around all of us and said, 'It's okay,''' said Kendrick, remembering the day that O'Neil found out he had fallen short. "Instead of us consoling him, he's consoling us. It's what I still say to this day has to be one of the greatest displays of strength of character that I've ever witnessed."

A couple of years later, the Hall of Fame created the Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, honoring those with unique contributions to the game. The award has since been given to luminaries such as Rachel Robinson and, of course, O'Neil himself won it posthumously.

A statue of O'Neil stands prominently at the entrance of the museum, near the staircase that leads up to the galleries. For 14 years, O'Neil's smiling likeness has held sway over that corner of the Hall of Fame, greeting everyone who enters.

"He has to be the only Hall of Famer who had a statue before he had a plaque," quipped Bob Costas, cracking up the gathering at an event held in O'Neil's honor outside of Cooperstown on Saturday.

For a while, that statue seemed to be the only place O'Neil's legacy in Cooperstown would lie -- just down the hall from the Plaque Gallery, but not inside it. Then, in December, another committee once again took up O'Neil's case.

Too little? Too late? Bitter? Sweet?

"With all the things that are encompassed in this man's incredible career, he absolutely deserves to be there at the pinnacle, for anybody who made their living in this game," Kendrick said, following Buck's example by deciding to focus on the sweetness.

MINNIE MINOSO WAS born Nov. 29, 1923. At least that's what it says on Baseball Reference. He claimed to be born in 1925, and that's the way it is listed on many sources. But researchers have also uncovered an image of one of his old driver's licenses that has the year as 1924.

Whatever Minoso's birth date actually was, it all adds up to the same thing: If it had been only a few years later, he would have gotten at least five more productive seasons in the extant major leagues.

"When he crossed over and becomes the first Black Latino in Major League Baseball, he was really just waiting for that chance," Burgos said. "And that's what happened on May 1, 1951. He got that chance. And he just became what he always was, a star."

Here's a quick observation based on 21st century metrics: From 1951 to 1960, Mickey Mantle was the only American League hitter to produce more WAR than Minoso.

In other words, for a full decade -- the minimum career length required to be considered on a Hall of Fame ballot -- Minoso was arguably the second-best player in his league, surpassed only by one of the best players of all-time.

On those merits alone, Minoso had a damn good case for getting into the Hall of Fame a long, long time ago. But the numbers, strong as they are, don't begin to tell the full story of a man who lived one of baseball's most amazing lives. Born on a sugarcane ranch in Perico, Cuba, Minoso grew into a player so famous throughout Latin America that he had a popular song written about him in the 1950s.

The only context you need for what Minoso meant to those he paved the way for is an oft-repeated statement that perhaps began with a foreword written for Minoso's autobiography by Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda: "Minnie Minoso is to Latin ballplayers what Jackie Robinson is to Black ballplayers."

The statement was repeated on Sunday, when Tony Oliva took time out of his own acceptance speech to pay homage to the influence of Minoso on his career by evoking those words again -- and by mentioning the song.

"We're here in Cooperstown to celebrate his excellence," Burgos said. "And his ambassadorship, because he was an ambassador of Latinos to (the majors). He was really the first Latino star in Major League Baseball."

Minoso did more than pave the way for those who followed from Cuba. He helped them transition to America in whatever way he could -- from food and lodging advice to making contacts with teams and scouts. You name it.

Take Pedro Sierra, a former Negro Leagues and minor league pitcher from Havana, whose long career lasted from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. These days, Sierra is a fixture at Hall of Fame induction weekends, where he sets up shop at the corner of Main and Pioneer.

When asked about Minoso, Sierra talked about a time that he stayed with Minoso, and the time that Minoso got the Washington Senators to reverse a decision to release him. "He was my mentor," Sierra said.

"I think in a way, he almost took on a role of surrogate father," said Minoso's youngest son, Charlie Rice-Minoso. "As the first, there wasn't an example for him to follow. And there was no one to help him navigate. He just did it on his own. And he did it with grace."

Everyone who knew Minoso -- fellow players, countrymen, fans and residents of Chicago, where he played during his best seasons -- has some sort of story about his approachability. "He was just a humble guy from a ranch in Cuba," said Charlie Rice-Minoso, the youngest son of the new Hall of Famer. "He just loved people and he loved community, making sure everyone was put together and happy and harmonious. Just connecting with individuals."

It's all the more remarkable because of the fact that so much of what he went through could have consigned him to eternal pessimism.

In the "¬°VIVA BASEBALL!" exhibit that has been on display at the Hall for several years, there is a cartoon from Minoso's time with the Cardinals in the early 1960s. It purports to highlight his acumen on the field, but does so by trafficking in stereotypes and mocking Minoso's accented English.

On the field, Minoso almost unthinkably led his league in hit by pitches 10 times over 11 seasons, and it wasn't necessarily because he stood on top of the plate. In 1955, he suffered a skull fracture when he was hit in the head by a pitch against the Yankees. Time after time, he brushed himself off and moved on.

"He carried the weight of many communities on his shoulders," Rice-Minoso said. "He seemed to have that foresight that if I react or respond in a way that is negative, it is not only going to reflect negatively on him, but upon Black players or Cuban players. And so I feel like him recognizing that, he would do what he could to make it easier for his countrymen."

Minoso has been a cause celebre for Hall of Fame analysts for a long time as perhaps the most egregious omission among former players. The thing is, he's long been a Hall of Famer already. He was elected to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in Exile in 1983, the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996, the Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005 and the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010.

"He's in these amazing halls in other countries that still deserve their own recognitions and still deserve to be held in the esteem in which they are," Rice-Minoso said.

But Minoso wanted to be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He wanted it bad. The disappointment over his near misses ran deep. The White Sox worked on his behalf to keep awareness of his exploits alive, even after he died in 2015.

Finally, in December, it happened. Sweet. Bitter. Particularly for a family that is still coping with the death of Minnie's oldest son, Orestes Arrieta Minoso Jr., who died of complications from ALS in March.

"I know personally, it's something I'm almost grieving in a way again," said Charlie Rice-Minoso. "But at the end of the day, it's still a celebration. It's just been teetering through many different emotions."

The one thing everyone agreed on: Minoso would have enjoyed this weekend immensely.

"While experiencing today is bittersweet without him, I'd like to believe he's here in spirit with us," his wife, Sharon Rice-Minoso, said. "Smiling broadly, his arms held wide embracing us all."

O'NEIL AND MINOSO were friends for decades. They both played in the Negro Leagues and stayed involved with the game for the rest of their lives. While doing so, they became ideal ambassadors for their sport.

But for all they did in baseball, the quality of togetherness which they both championed might be their greatest legacy. It was top of mind for Minoso's wife, who delivered his speech on Sunday on his behalf.

"Baseball was his life," Sharon Rice-Minoso said. "He was proud to wear his uniform and to come to the ballpark every day to greet fans with a smile and sign autograph and after autograph. Some people believe that many signed an autograph for every man, woman and child in the Windy City."

The comment from Sharon that elicited the most nods and smiles was when she alluded to Minoso's love of food and cooking for others, even going so far as to jump into action to cook for the workers in establishments he frequented -- including Sluggers, a bar not from Wrigley Field. For Minoso, food was just another way to bring people together.

Though O'Neil, too, missed the chance to speak at his own induction ceremony -- he did once give a speech at Cooperstown, one that brought to mind many of the same traits with which Minoso was credited. After O'Neil was inconceivably omitted from that 2006 class, he was famously asked to speak on behalf of the 17 who made it and, true to himself, O'Neil delivered what might be the most seminal Hall of Fame induction day address ever made.

"I've done a lot of things I liked doing," O'Neil said. "But I'd rather be right here, right now, representing these people that helped build a bridge across the chasm of prejudice."

Then O'Neil asked everyone present, the Hall of Famers on stage with him as well as the thousands spread across "the valley" to join hands and sing with him. And most of them did, a verse repeated so many times that it became a mantra: "The greatest thing in all of my life is loving you."

The song was reprised before Sunday's ceremony, with Buck up there on the video screen, bringing everyone together once again.

Now finally, Buck O'Neil and Minnie Minoso are Hall of Famers. Longtime friends, with their own unique paths, honored on the same day on a special afternoon in the valley.

It was a long road that led to the Clark Sports Center on Sunday, and it is one we should all be grateful they both traveled.