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Minnie Miñoso's Hall-of-Fame baseball legacy

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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Minnie Miñoso, one of the most iconic players in the history of the Chicago White Sox, was finally elected to the Hall of Fame by the Golden Days Era Committee.

It is a joyous day for those who have long championed Miñoso's place among baseball's all-time greats.

RELATED: Cuban tradition alive and well, fueling Sox present, future

It is also long overdue, something those champions say should have happened while Miñoso was still alive.

But whether during his legendary playing career — which featured appearances for Negro League, American League and National League teams in 20 different seasons and touched five different decades — during his retirement or after his death in 2015, one thing is wildly apparent when talking to those advocating his election: Miñoso's legacy has always been Hall-of-Fame caliber.

"Minnie was our Jackie Robinson," former White Sox pitcher José Contreras said Monday, speaking through team interpreter Billy Russo as one member of a three-person panel interviewed about Miñoso's candidacy.

That right there is the most succinct — and most powerful — way to encapsulate what Miñoso meant to so many.

Robinson stands as one of the most important figures not just in baseball history but in American history, his influence on the game marked in ways as grandiose as the retired No. 42 at every big league ballpark and an annual day of honor across the sport.

 

To hear someone labeled as even a version of Robinson carries an awful lot of weight — and screams "no-brainer" when it comes to considering a Hall-of-Fame case.

"You can never reduce Minnie Miñoso's career to just baseball," said Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. "Minnie Miñoso was the Latino Jackie Robinson, hands down. And what he did in his game is noteworthy and certainly justifies Hall-of-Fame merit. But what he meant for legions of Latino ballplayers, to know that they, too, could have the dream of playing in the major leagues, cannot be understated."

In baseball, more than any sport or walk of life that honors its legends, so much emphasis is placed on the statistical. There's nothing inherently wrong with such an approach, of course, and setting one's standards for Hall-of-Fame worthiness based on on-field production is one way to keep the game's most exclusive fraternity, well, exclusive.

But legacy is something that while not as easy to nail down as numbers can truly paint a picture of one's accomplishments. In that arena, Miñoso is almost peerless, not just a phenomenal ballplayer but "the" ballplayer for one of the game's oldest franchises, an entire nation, an entire region of the world.

"Right now, in Cuba, the access to information is very easy, especially through social media. But at that time, when I was a kid, we didn't have that access. The information that we got there was limited. But we knew about Minnie," Contreras said. "I don't know exactly how that information got there, but we knew and people used to see (Cuban greats playing in the United States) as heroes, as role models. Everybody wanted to be like them, everybody wanted to be like Minnie.

"If he's inducted, that's going to be huge for Cuba, for the Cuban players, for the Cuban country. He meant and he means a lot for all of us. He was a trailblazer. ... That is something that he really deserves. He needs justice. He needs to be there."

Look around the game today, and Miñoso's legacy is everywhere. No aspect of it is more important than the road he paved for the game's scores of Cuban and Latino stars. But elsewhere, living beyond the back of his baseball card and his Baseball-Reference page, his legacy lives.

Let the kids play? Maybe that means letting the kids play like Miñoso played.

"I guarantee a lot of the young players don't even realize it," said Eduardo Pérez, a former big leaguer, an ESPN broadcaster and the son of Tony Pérez, one of the few Cuban players currently in the Hall of Fame. "A lot of those players have learned it in winter baseball (played during the offseason in Latin American countries). Let's face it, Minnie not only made his living in the Negro Leagues and Major League Baseball, but he also had an influence in Mexico, as well, in winter ball, as well. All that zest just continues to encompass all the young Latino players.

 

"Give a lot of credit to baseball and the way they are allowing these players now to be able to show emotion on the field. The unwritten rules have been swept aside, you can say, and it's more of the zest. We see Ronald Acuña Jr., what he's doing. If it's Juan Soto with the bat. Just the speedsters on the bases, where (Miñoso) was a major asset when he played the game, where there wasn't a lot of base running. Minnie was stealing those bases, creating havoc.

"I see it so much in these young players, and it's because the game itself is embracing right now the zest of those players. For years I saw it in winter baseball, playing it, managing it. ... Now we're seeing it more at the major league level. I must admit, it's fun."

Don't get these guys wrong, Miñoso wasn't just in the right place at the right time. He earned this consideration by what he did on the field, too. Talking about numbers and numbers only obscures the entire scope of his influence, but he was a 13-time All Star, a three-time Gold Glove winner, and that aforementioned Baseball-Reference page is peppered with bold numbers — indicating he was a league leader in various categories over and over again.

Earning the title of "Mr. White Sox," he was a star on those exciting teams of the 1950s and 1960s that posted 17 consecutive winning seasons and live on in franchise lore.

"Classic leadoff guy," Kendrick said. "He had Rickey Henderson capabilities, because he did have power, and he had great speed, he had the great arm. He was the quintessential leadoff guy.

"Minnie put the 'Go' in Go-Go White Sox. He brought that brash and daring style that was singular to Negro Leagues Baseball. He was this guy, a beautiful ballplayer ... who just electrified."

And Miñoso did it all while weathering many of the same challenges and hardships that, because of his race, Robinson did as he was breaking barriers — all while getting used to a new country, a new culture and a new language.

"I knew Minnie, and I can hear his voice in my head, talking about being called the N-word when he didn't even know what it meant," Kendrick said. "Because his skin was as dark as mine, and yet still being able to persevere and still bring such great joy to this game under some of the most challenging sets of circumstances that anyone could ever face playing this game."

"Minnie came here and he did all the great things, and he could never come back to Cuba. He never could come back to his family," Contreras said. "I just imagine all the things that Minnie did without his family being there or here with him. And he never had a problem. He was good on and off the field. He fought through all the obstacles put in front of him. He did great. He was a real hero because I cannot imagine doing all the things that he did at that time."

 

It was an informative discussion featuring these three advocates, three men who know their baseball, know their history and know what Miñoso meant to so many. The meat of Miñoso's playing career was so long ago, long enough ago that a large percentage of modern fans have no idea how to evaluate it, outside of those aforementioned numbers, making this perspective essential.

In the end, it was enough to garner only one reaction: How can you not consider Miñoso's incredible baseball legacy worthy of the Hall of Fame?

"He deserves to be there," Kendrick said. "It's that bridge between the Negro Leagues and the great country of Cuba, it's that bridge that he, like others before, created and laid so that Eduardo and José and others could pursue their major league career. It doesn't happen without those players.

"It's only fitting that he takes his proper place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame because to me he exemplifies everything a Hall of Famer is supposed to be."

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