Monday, July 30, 2012

125. Minnie Miñoso: Big Before He Was Minnie


The strapping young man from the rural providences stood tall and straight as he approached Rene Midesten, the manager of the Ambrosia Candy baseball team. His skin was dark as night and his body was as strong as a bull from working in the cane fields. For the past 4 or 5 years the young man before him had traveled the country making a name for himself playing amateur ball for sugar plantations and mining company teams. Now 16, the time had come to make the move to the big city of Havana and become a professional ballplayer.

The Ambrosia Candy team was one of many factory and government teams that played in the Havana Semi-Pro league. Once a ballplayer got on one of those teams and did well, it was just a short time before the professional Cuban League came calling.
Midesten listened passively as the young man described how he could pitch and catch and hit - he'd heard it all before. Every niño from the sticks thought he was the next Martin Dihigo. But as the young man talked he was also watching Midesten's team work out on the field behind him. The third baseman made one bad play after another. Besides pitch, catch and hit, he told the manager, he was also a third baseman. Midesten's ears perked up and moments later for the princely salary of $2 a game and a guaranteed job in the company's garage, Orestes "Minnie" Miñoso became a professional ballplayer.

Two years later and after moving his way up the semi-pro ladder, Miñoso was signed by the Marianao Tigers, one of the Cuban Winter League's best teams. Besides featuring the best Cubans, the winter league attracted the finest Negro league players from the United States. The level of play was top draw and to say the pay was better would be an understatement. Miñoso signed for $150 a month which was quickly bumped up to $200 when the ball club realized how good he was. By the time the season ended he'd batted .301 and was the 1945-46 Rookie of the Year.

In the years before Jackie Robinson, a Cuban ballplayer had two options if he wanted to play in the United States: if he was light skinned with wavy hair, he went into organized ball. If he was a darker hue with kinky hair, it was the Negro leagues. You really couldn't get any darker than Miñoso, so it was the Negro leagues.

The Negro National League had among its clubs a team called the New York Cubans. Though not exclusively made up of Latin players, the Cubans were the main club the Latins gravitated to when they wanted to play ball in the States. The Cubans played most of their games at the Polo Grounds and though they hadn't won a pennant yet, were always among the finest in the National League. It just so happened that one of Miñoso's coaches with Marianao was Jose Fernandez who was the manager of the New York Cubans. By the time the Cuban season had ended Fernandez had convinced the owner of the Cubans, Alex Pompez, to offer Miñoso a contract.

There was a potential problem. The Pasquel brothers, Jorge and Bernardo, who ran the upstart Mexican Baseball League was offering staggering amounts of cash to professional ballplayers in order to stock their new league. Because the Pasquel's were persuading players to break their contracts with existing teams they were considered outlaws and were physically thrown out of many ballparks when they were caught talking to players. The huge salaries they were offering for the upcoming 1946 season was more than many players could imagine and they succeeded in luring a number of major leaguers in addition many of the finest black and Latin players. While the money was good, the risks were high - in short order organized baseball decreed that anyone breaking a contract to play in Mexico were banned from playing in the major or minor leagues. Latin and black ballplayers also were affected because the Cuban Winter League was under a tentative contract with organized ball as well. Even if a ballplayer was not signed by a major or minor league team, he was still ineligible to play in Cuba if he appeared in the Mexican League. It was big risk and when Miñoso was confronted with a large duffle bag of cash and a 2 year contract for $30,000, the young star turned it down flat. He wanted to play in the Unites States.
Miñoso signed his name to the contract Alex Pompez sent and for $150 a month he became the New York Cubans' rookie third baseman.

Playing their home games in the Polo Grounds, the rookie batted a respectable .309 in 33 games for the New York Cubans in 1946. Making his talent known, his salary was doubled to $300 a month to ensure he wasn't tempted by the roving Mexican League recruiters. Miñoso enjoyed playing in the United States and with his generous income he soon established himself as one of the Negro National League's best dressed ballplayers. Nap Gulley, who played against Miñoso in those years swore the Cuban had 40 or 50 immaculate suits. He went on to state that he could have been a magazine model. One other thing Miñoso prided himself on was his language skills. While some other teammates chose to speak only Spanish, Miñoso tried to communicate solely in English. He figured that he was playing in America so he should know the language. It's interesting to note that although players and sports writers always made comments about his accented English and rogue grammar, Miñoso none-the-less was proudly fluent in the tongue of his adapted homeland.

Besides his fashion sense and budding bilingualism, Miñoso impressed his teammates by eagerly learning all he could from the veterans. He watched the stars on the opposing teams and continually improved his craft. Fellow ballplayers soon learned that no matter how well he played his game, Miñoso strived to do it even better.
The next season Miñoso took off, leading the team with a .294 average and establishing himself as the best lead-off man in the league. Black fans across the nation appreciated his play and he was voted to represent the East team in that year's East-West All Star Game in Chicago. He played the whole game but went 0-3 as the West won 5-2. Along with slugger Pat Scantlebury and pitchers Dave Barnhill and Luis Tiant, the speedy Cuban led his team to the pennant. In the Negro World Series against the Negro American League champion Cleveland Buckeyes, Miñoso batted a remarkable .423 as the Cubans defeated Cleveland in 6 games.

The following season Miñoso continued to improve and by the All-Star break in July was batting about .400. Again he was recognized by the sporting public by being selected to his second East-West Game. This year he went 1 for 4 with a stolen base in another loss to the West. By now Miñoso was undeniably a star and it was tempting for him to think organized ball could be a possibility. The stakes were high in that 1948 All-Star Game as the stands were crawling with major league scouts and every player knew it was their best shot at making the big time. Due to the popularity of the game and also presumably to give the players even more of a shot at showcasing their talents to a mixed audience, a second East-West Game was played in the middle of August in New York. Before the game, Miñoso's teammate Jose Santiago was approached by the Cleveland Indians' scout. Besides Jose, the Indians were looking at Miñoso as well. Realizing this was his chance, Miñoso performed spectacularly. In his first at bat he stretched a chintzy single into a double and later knocked in the East's winning run. By the time he'd showered, Miñoso's contract had been purchased by the Cleveland Indians.

Sent to the Dayton Indians, Miñoso hit .525 in 11 games and the Indians made him a big leaguer the following year. His famed nickname "Minnie", probably a by product of too many sprained Caucasian tongues trying to pronounce his last name properly, came shortly afterwards. All-in-all, Miñoso spent almost 30 years spread over 5 decades playing baseball in Cuba, the United States and Mexico. Miñoso is one of those borderline players who always seem to come up short when the Hall of Fame voting comes around. Though I might not be as enlightened as a real live sportswriter who gets the final vote on such things, I am under the impression guys like Miñoso, Gil Hodges and Sammy T. Hughes deserve a plaque in the Hall more than say, Ron Santo, Lefty Gomez or Phil Rizzuto. But hey, I'm just an artist and it's baseball and without what-ifs like this, what else would there be to talk about during those long winter months, soccer?

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