What is it about being a kid that makes you attach yourself to certain ballplayers, none of whom you’ve ever come close to seeing in a real game and only rarely on television? Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax were obvious targets for our affection, of course, although in my schoolyard it was always either Mantle or Mays, never both. Even when I was barely knee-high to a Baltimore Chop, this lifelong Yankee hater was a Mays man all the way.
But the guy who really had the number one claim on my heart was Harmon Killebrew, a big, strong-armed power hitter from the potato state of Idaho. He was hardly Mr. Colourful. Asked once whether he had any hobbies, the devout Mormon thought for a moment. “Just washing the dishes, I guess,” the soft-spoken slugger eventually replied. So why did I latch onto Killebrew, from among all those flashier stars? Other than the fact that he was a hell of a hitter, who knows? It’s just one of those unfathomable mysteries of youth. But he remained my favourite ballplayer for 15 years, until his retirement in the mid-1970’s.
Another ballplayer I loved almost as much in those lazy, hazy carefree days of baseball was good old Minnie Minoso. He found his way into my young heart through the usual vehicle of silent box score and baseball cards, plus the entrancing rhythm of his name. I knew nothing about him, really, other than that he stole a lot of bases, played the game with enthusiasm, and, a solid clutch hitter, he knocked in a lot of runs. But most of all, as a kid, what was there not to love about someone baptized Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Minoso Armas, who gave himself the sweet tag of Minnie Minoso?
As he kept on playing, oblivious to Father Time’s order to hang up his spikes, my fondness grew. He didn’t seem to know the meaning of retirement. When his major league career was done, the ageless Minoso drifted down to the Mexican League, where he played through his 40’s. At the age of 45, he hit .359 to win the Mexican Winter League’s batting title. In his final season, by then nearly 48, he played 120 games, hit 12 home runs, knocked in 83 runs and batted.265. Three years later, Minoso was brought back to his beloved White Sox by owner Bill Veeck, the best baseball impresario in all the world. Two months short of his 51st birthday, Minoso faced major league pitching for the first time in 12 years. He went one for eight, knocking a single off a Sid Monge fastball. That made him the fourth oldest player in big league history to get a hit. The Gordie Howe of baseball. (Minoso might have been even older for these landmark moments. His birth date tended to bounce around like a Mexican jumping bean.)
Someone with a lot of time on his hands added up everyone’s major and minor league lifetime statistics, and figured out that Minoso stood second, behind only Pete Rose, on the list of most total hits in professional baseball. Ty Cobb was third.
Much later, I learned that the Cuban-born star was also a baseball pioneer, the first black from Latin America to play in the majors, suiting up with the Cleveland Indians in 1949, and the first black to play for the Chicago White Sox. That was in 1951. In his first at bat, he hit a home run, launching a lengthy tenure with the White Sox that made him one of the most popular players in team history, with his own statue at what I will still call Comiskey Park.
When Minoso passed away a few days ago, there was universal sadness at the loss of someone whose embrace of the joy of baseball was unsurpassed. I’m also sure I wasn’t the only one taken aback by his death, despite his many years on Planet Earth. Heck, if anyone could defy the odds and live forever, surely it would have been Minnie Minoso. I kind of thought he would live forever.
Here’s the NYT obit on this great man. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/02/sports/minnie-minoso-dies-treasured-white-sox-ballplayer.html?_r=0 Even better, if you’re obsessed, like I am, about Minnie Minoso, and have a few spare moments, this is a marvellous, definitive look at his long career, with incredible detail and photos from his days in Cuba and early years in the majors. Outstanding. http://www.cnlbr.org/Portals/0/Hero/Orestes-Minoso.pdf
(Actually, Minoso hated Castro and left Cuba, never to return, in 1961. But late last year, after President Obama announced a landmark rapprochement with his homeland, Minoso expressed the hope that he might now go back and revisit the sugar cane fields where he laboured as a youth.)
Meanwhile, although I never saw him play, I do have one Minnie Minoso anecdote. It goes back to my time in Newmarket, Ontario, when our gang of four seemed to be the only true-blood baseball fans in town. Besides myself, there were Doug Cane, Dennis Myers and the great Paul Ingledew, who might have been a slugger in his own right, except for a bad eye.
One evening, we were playing home run derby. You got three tries an inning to hit the ball far enough for a homer. We had set up Ingledew’s bike out in the field as the home run marker. But it was too far. As dusk approached, not one of us had even come close to belting the ball over the bike for a homer. Up came Paul Ingledew for his final at bat. For who knows what reason, he suddenly announced in a loud voice: “Pinch hitter, Minnie Minoso!” Whereupon, he whacked a towering blast that soared way over his heretofore-unreachable bike for the only home run of the game. We laughed ourselves sick. Then we went home.
RIP, Minnie Minoso. And shame on all those sports writers who broke your big heart by keeping you out of the Hall of Fame. “Even if it hurts on the inside, I will always be smiling on the outside,” said Minnie, after falling short once again in 2011.