'If Jackie Could Make It, I Could Too'

Minnie Minoso wasn't just the first black player in Chicago White Sox franchise history. The Cuban-American was also baseball's first black Latin star and one of its best players during the golden era of the 1950s. Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda called the seven-time All-Star "the Jackie Robinson of Latino players."

A star third baseman for the New York Cubans of the Negro Leagues from 1946-48 before signing with the Cleveland Indians organization in 1948, Minoso got his big break after a trade to the White Sox in 1951. Minoso, who played outfield for most of his career, led the American League in triples and steals three times each, and in hit-by-pitch frequency 10 times. He retired from the major leagues in 1964, but continued playing and managing for another decade in Mexico -- and then returned to the White Sox as a coach in 1976, making brief pinch-hit and DH appearances that year and again in 1980 at the age of 55.

Sabermetrician Bill James has ranked Minoso as the 10th-best left fielder in major league history. He has been passed over several times by the Baseball Hall of Fame -- most recently in December by the Hall of Fame's Golden Era Committee. (You'll find arguments for why he should be in the Hall of Fame here and here.)

Now 90, the still-spry Minoso plays an active role with the organization's Amateur City Elite program, which helps inner-city athletes earn college baseball scholarships. Says White Sox vice president of community relations Christine O'Reilly, "There is no better ambassador for White Sox baseball. People meet Minnie and they fall in love with him."

Before he headed to spring training, Minoso stopped by U.S. Cellular Field to talk about his career, baseball's integration and his chances at the Hall of Fame.

Christina Kahrl: In your first season with the White Sox in 1951, you broke the color line for the team. That year, the Sox didn't just post their first winning season since 1943, but they topped 1 million in attendance for the first time in franchise history. It stayed there until they traded you before 1958. Then they traded for you after they lost the World Series in '59, and set a new attendance record in 1961 (1.6 million). So you were an impact guy at the gate. What does that say about your relationship with fans?

Minnie Minoso: The most important thing in my life? The fans. To have a smile, and pay them back with a smile. Sometimes, they might say something bad, and you don't like it? Will you let that get you? No, just smile. That's what I used to do when I was playing. I never thought I was going to do so many things, do so much for the team. I just wanted to play the game and do the best I can, for the fans, for my family, and for the country that I came from, to open the door for somebody else. Sometimes I have to take a lot of things, but I did not want to do anything to hurt somebody who might come to a game the next week. A lot of people don't understand that, and in the beginning, when I did not speak English, I might still understand a bit. But the way I conducted myself, sharing myself with the fans, sharing myself with kids, doing so many things for kids, now I get introduced by fans to their grandchildren.

Kahrl: Was that experience different from playing in the Negro Leagues with the New York Cubans from 1946 to 1948, when you signed with the Indians? How was it different, coming over from Cuba?

Minoso: I said to myself, if Mr. Jackie [Robinson] could make it, I could make it too. I also used to follow Stan Musial, Ted Williams -- my buddy -- and I tried to be like them. They opened the door for me, and whatever I was going to do, I just felt I didn't do anything enough. I just felt that, being around, that I was lucky.

Kahrl: Speaking of Musial and Williams, you were just under consideration to by the Golden Era Committee for induction into the Hall of Fame, but you -- and all of the other nine candidates -- fell short of being elected last December.

Minoso: Truly, I'm hurt. You know why? Because I've seen so many guys -- and all of my respect is for them -- get inducted [into Cooperstown], but my records are better. And I played more years. That's what's breaking my heart. I go to these card shows, and most guys there are Hall of Famers. Some of them got in later, but what difference should there be?

This year, nobody was inducted [by the Golden Era Committee]? And you're really telling me that nobody had the quality to be [in the Hall of Fame]? C'mon. It's not just me. Tony Oliva, Billy Pierce, Luis Tiant ... [The committee] should have considered Mike Cuellar, Richie Allen. Are you telling me these guys will never get in? I don't know what to say.

Kahrl: They keep adding these new categories for Hall of Famers. Do you feel there's a difference between them?

Minoso: Don't tell me that maybe I'll get in after I pass away. I don't want it to happen after I pass. I want it while I'm here, because I want to enjoy it.

Kahrl: You look at the numbers, and in the American League in the '50s the best three players were Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Minnie Minoso. So why aren't you in the Hall of Fame?

Minoso: That's what I'm asking. They keep calling me and telling me, "Minnie, you didn't get in." But the game doesn't look for favorites, it looks at records, and it looks at what you did in baseball. Even in 1951, when they decided the Rookie of the Year, the New York sportswriters wanted to give it to [Yankees infielder] Gil McDougald, so they gave it to McDougald. [The vote was 13-11.] But The Sporting News said Minnie Minoso was their Rookie of the Year. So even now, people will talk about great White Sox rookies, but other than one or two radio guys, people won't mention Minnie Minoso. But there's nothing I can do.

Kahrl: Did you know when you came over from Cuba in 1946 that baseball would be integrated?

Minoso: I wanted people to know that it didn't really matter where you came from. You're from here or there, and it doesn't really matter. But then, there were two skin colors -- black and white. What was the difference, if you were black and born in Cuba, or black and born here in America? Your skin is black everywhere you go.

I never used to have anything against fans because someone called me a name, or because I had to stay in a different hotel, or had to be in a different place. It was not the fans who made it that way -- it was the law. The law was what said you could not be in one place or another [because of your skin color].

It was not the fans, but they had to learn. When you have a baby, the baby is going to learn from what it sees around the house. You have to show him a different way. But that was the law of the United States. In other countries, they may not have had those laws, but they still had discrimination.

And even then, I wanted to come to the United States of America. I refused to go to other countries, where they might have given me more [money] -- Jorge Pasqual in the Mexican League [offered me] 40 grand -- even when I hadn't seen more than two or three hundred dollars in my life. But I told him I was going to the United States. He said there was a lot of discrimination there, and I said, "We have discrimination everywhere we are." So I came here, and today I'm a citizen of the United States, living right here, in my Windy City.

Kahrl: What kind of interaction did you have with U.S. players when you first made it to the majors?

Minoso: A few guys who would shout, "Hit this [N-word] in the head." When we went to Philadelphia, you could hear Jimmy Dykes [then a coach for the A's] shouting that from the dugout. But then, after the game back to the hotel, he passed me by and said, "Hello, Mr. Minoso." And I went, "Wait a minute, how do you now call me 'Mr. Minoso,' but before you called me dirty names during the game?" And he said, "That's the game."

I was the first black guy to play in the ballpark in New Orleans, when we played an exhibition game there. And they told [White Sox manager] Paul Richards, "He can't play here." Richards said, "If we're going to play, he's going to play here, and if something happens, it happens to everybody." And I said, if I died, I'd die happy because I was wearing No. 9 for the White Sox.

This one game in Philadelphia, the pitcher hit me, and I'm down at the plate. Richards said, "Minoso, you should go back to the hotel, and then go on to New York for the next series." And I said, "Paul, I'm not going to come out." He said, "But you're black and blue!" I said, "Well, I'm black. I don't know about blue, and I'm not going to come out. Because if I come out now, it's going to spread around the whole league, and every time, in every city, they're going to try to intimidate me."

Kahrl: Was the process of integration frustrating at the time, and do you feel it all worked out in the end? Were there things that happened then you couldn't talk about until now?

Minoso: In a baseball game, you could play tough. You didn't have to cut somebody with your spikes or break somebody's legs. That's like being a criminal. Anybody who would harm someone on purpose, I'm against that. You could be better than me, have more ability than I do, or be luckier, but nobody's supposed to get hurt on purpose.

Kahrl: On the other hand, you got hit by a lot of pitches. How much of that was on purpose?

Minoso: Well, sure, I led the league [in HBP] a lot of years. But I was not a power hitter, although I could hit 18 triples one year. What was I doing wrong in the game, that they'd purposefully want to hit me? They didn't do it because I'm nice-looking, and I didn't do it to get the record. I crowded the plate, because if you only have to look middle-outside, you can kill a pitcher, and if it's outside it's a ball.

My father and my mother taught me there was a way to pay somebody back, if they tried to break your arm or break your face: Pay them back on the field with a smile on your face. I used to keep my teeth clean all the time, just to make sure that's how I gave it back to them that way all the time.

One day, this pitcher said he was going to get me. And I go up to the plate thinking, if I bunt it past this pitcher I'll get a base hit. So I put my hand out and push the ball up the line; we're both heading to first base -- and I didn't go after him. And he asked, "Why did you do that, why did you save me?" And I told him, "Because you have a wife, you have a kid, you have a mother. If you'd broken your leg or if I'd cut you, that would be on my conscience." Later on, he sent me a thank-you note, saying that I had earned his respect from then on.

Kahrl: Who were particularly good guys, good teammates?

Minoso: Chico Carrasquel. He spoke Spanish and always sat next to me. When we'd go on the road, we'd get off the bus and go watch cowboy movies. Our friendship was still that close until the day he died [in 2005].

Kahrl: You didn't really retire from baseball in 1964, when you initially left MLB. You went to Mexico and kept playing, so when you came back and played for the White Sox in 1976 and 1980, you hadn't really been gone from the action all that long.

Minoso: I played and managed in Mexico for 10 years, and I'm in the Mexican Hall of Fame. There they call me the "Black Charro" -- the Black Cowboy. I played in the Pacifico League, which was much tougher than the Mexican League. I got to play on the same team with Hector Espino, one of the greatest players ever in Mexico. I remember being asked, "Minnie, why are you here?" And I told them, "Because I'm too old to play there." The money was good, but it was also tough. You'd live on the bus and sleep on the bus three days. The bus ride from Mexico City to Yucatan [took three days]. You'd arrive at the park and play a game that night.

Kahrl: The White Sox have had considerable success in signing Cuban talent in recent years, with guys like right-hander Jose Contreras, shortstop Alexei Ramirez and then first baseman Jose Abreu.

Minoso: I'm pretty close to Abreu. Abreu is 28 years old. He and all those guys -- Ramirez, Dayan Viciedo, or the new catcher, No. 17, Adrian Nieto -- were born after I was already here. They talk to me, they listen to me, but I'm not the guy to overdo it. Nieto said I needed a nickname. So now they call me "The Pimp."

Kahrl: Do you want to talk about how things have changed between the U.S. and Cuba?

Minoso: I've dedicated the last 60 or more years to baseball here [in the U.S.]. I hope everything happening now will just make the Cuban people happy and be what's best for them.

Kahrl: Which of your nicknames do you like best -- "The Cuban Comet," "Mr. White Sox" or "Black Charro"?

Minoso: It is a beautiful thing to have so many names from people who like you. How many other guys have three wonderful nicknames? My agent has said, please just sign "Minnie Minoso." But I also love "Mr. White Sox." How many players who ever played for a team were then named after that same organization?

Kahrl: Chicago lost Ernie Banks, another great trailblazer who integrated Chicago's other baseball team, in January. What was your relationship with Mr. Cub?

Minoso: I saw him just 3½ months ago. He teased me a lot, I teased him a lot. When he passed, I thanked the Cubs' organization for giving him such a good, good goodbye, and showed such respect to the fans. It's what he deserved, and what they deserved.