Minoso's smile, bat paved way in MLB

Minoso's smile, bat paved way in MLB

Most players focus on their physical strength, but it was Orestes "Minnie" Minoso's strength of character that helped him overcome adversity and be recognized as a standout player in his time.

Minoso spent three seasons playing for the New York Cubans in the Negro Leagues, showing a glimpse of the player he would become in the Majors. Playing third base, he hit .294 to lead the Cubans to a National League title and reached the Negro League All-Star Game in 1947 and '48. Playing in New York, he had a front-row seat to Jackie Robinson's historic 1947 season. It was the first time Minoso gave serious thought to playing in the Majors.

"After Jackie broke in, sure, I had an idea -- 'If Jackie broke in, there's a chance for me, too,'" Minoso said. "I then had double the ambition to play, because I figured I had a chance to play [in the Majors] someday, if I had the quality to be there. [Race] was never something that intimidated me.

"I've always seen people as human beings, without the distinction of race or of colors. This is one of the reasons why, everywhere I go, I make so many friends. And those who don't know me get to know me. And that gives me a lot of satisfaction."

The Cuban-born Minoso, who signed with the Cleveland Indians prior to the 1949 season, made his Major League debut on April 19, drawing a walk in his lone plate appearance. Minoso went on to appear in eight more games before being sent down to San Diego of the Pacific Coast League, where he batted .297 with 22 homers and tied for fourth in the league with seven triples. Minoso returned to San Diego in 1950, not earning a callup despite finishing fourth in the PCL with a .339 average and third with 30 stolen bases. He broke camp with the Indians in 1951, but eight games into the season was shipped to the White Sox as part of a three-team deal also involving the Philadelphia Athletics.

When Minoso trotted out to the hot corner on May 1 in Chicago, he became the first black player in the history of the White Sox. Not content to rest on that achievement, he homered in his first at-bat, a two-run shot off Vic Raschi, who went on to win 21 games for the Yankees that year. Minoso said just stepping to the plate for the first time as a member of the White Sox was one of the two proudest moments of his career.

"[My] second was when I came to this organization [Chicago] and had my first at-bat." Minoso said. "The pitcher was Vic Raschi, No. 19 for the New York Yankees, and I batted third. The announcer said my name and position while I walked up to the plate. That first pitch was all it took -- I hit a home run. That day, I was Orestes Minoso, but the next day I was 'Minnie' Minoso. It was crazy, because I have no idea where that name came from to this day."

Minoso continued his strong debut season, finishing second to the Yankees' Gil McDougald for the American League Rookie of the Year award and fourth in MVP voting. His .326 average was second in the league, while his 14 triples paced the circuit. It was a tremendous year, made all the more impressive by his being the White Sox first black player. Minoso, however, said he never felt any added pressure.

"No, it was something that made me feel proud," Minoso said. "It's a good thing I wasn't scared coming in, because now I'd give my life for this organization, and everyone, from the employees to the owners, have shown me their appreciation. They know I'd never let them down."

Playing in a tumultuous time, long before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Minoso faced discrimination mainly from other players.

"The discrimination was definitely greater in the big leagues," he said. "In the Negro Leagues, it was blacks against blacks -- there were less differences between us. When I played in the big leagues and started playing amongst white people, it was a lot tougher. The coaches were never discriminatory, but with the players it was different.

"But I'm proud that I was never one of those individuals that would get into altercations with anyone. There were a lot of times that I was called a lot of names and I kept a smile on my face. Sometimes it stings the opponent more when their prey keeps a straight face rather than to show a reaction to their cruelty."

Minoso continued to rack up praise and honors for his play, reaching the All-Star Game each year from 1952-54 and twice finishing fourth in MVP balloting during that span. Before the 1955 season, Ted Williams lauded Minoso's hitting talents to Paul Gardner of Baseball Stars of 1955.

"Sooner or later, whenever we talk about hitting, someone will ask me if there will ever be another .400 hitter in the Major Leagues," Williams said. "Of all the so-called 'sluggers' of the big time today, the only one I can think of who qualifies in all respects is Minnie Minoso."

But the accolades didn't stop there. In 1957, Major League Baseball began awarding the Gold Glove, given to the best fielder at each position. Despite coming up as a third baseman, the 34-year-old Minoso was selected as the best defensive left fielder. He won two more Gold Gloves and finished his career as a seven-time All-Star.

"As a third baseman, I was very brave, but I didn't have the best glove," Minoso said. "I came to the big leagues as a third baseman, but at the beginning, I was a little erratic. I would have great games, and then I would have two games with a lot of errors. It was a great favor to me, actually, because I became a perfectionist in left field, even though I could play any position."

In 1964, Minoso seemingly wrapped up his career by splitting the season with the White Sox and Indianapolis of the Pacific Coast League. However, he played three games with Chicago in 1976, going 1-for-8 as a 53-year-old designated hitter. Four years later, Minoso went hitless in two at-bats, making him the second player to appear in a Major League game in five decades.

After 17 years in the bigs, Minoso was done, compiling 1,963 hits, 186 homers and 205 stolen bases. His .848 OPS is higher than Hall of Famers Tony Gwynn and Reggie Jackson, and in The New Bill James Baseball Historical Abstract, published in 2003, Minoso was listed as the 10th-best left fielder of all time by the noted statistician. Yet he's been largely overlooked by Hall of Fame voters, peaking at 21.1 percent of the vote in 1988 and falling short in a 2006 special election for Negro Leaguers.

Now 88, Minoso expressed mixed feelings at the process that has kept him out of Cooperstown.

"Although other individuals that have started before me -- with records that weren't as good as mine -- have gotten there, I don't think it's been a matter of when I started," Minoso said. "There are individuals that never even played in the Major Leagues that are in the Hall of Fame. I am not against them. Because if some haven't played in the Major Leagues and have been inducted into the Hall of Fame based on what they have done in the independent leagues, then I, too, have played in a lot of leagues."

Robert Emrich is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.