FAREWELL, THEN, MINNIE MINOSO

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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.

harmonkillebrewBut 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 allyn2majors, 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

Fidel Castro Sitting Next to Baseball Player Minnie Minoso

(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.

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JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY

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(note chilling detail of small window opening on south-east corner of the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, said to be Oswald’s sniper perch, as Kennedy limo turns towards Dealey Plaza)

I’m certainly old enough to have an answer to the perennial question: where were you when you heard JFK had been shot?

But for me, the news unfolded in a strange mixture of whispers and hearsay. I was ensconced at Newmarket District High School. We were writing exams. The principal, in his great wisdom, thought it better that we not be sidetracked from our weighty, academic endeavours with word that the President of the United States had been assassinated. So there was no dramatic announcement over the PA, no weeping teachers giving their students the shocking news from Dallas. Instead, all we got as we prepared to head home that unforgettable afternoon were corridor rumours of an event that seemed impossible to believe. Only when a bunch of us gathered around a student with a transistor radio did we know for a fact that the rumours were true. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was dead.

Beyond the terrible tragedy, itself, what jarred me most was simply hearing the word “assassinated” applied to JFK. These were the 1960’s. In my mind, assassinations were something from the history books, befalling mustachioed figures in gaudy military uniforms like Archduke Franz Ferdinand, or the obscure President McKinley, gunned down in Buffalo at the turn of the century. Assassinations had no place in my world, in 1963. Of course, that sentiment would prove even more naïve as the rest of the violent sixties unfolded to the south of us.

Those days were such a relatively innocent time. A leader like Kennedy could still inspire, without being drowned by cynicism and nattering nabobs of negativism. He was the last American president to be admired around the word, and the outpouring of sorrow on his death will likely never be matched. A young, charismatic, vigorous president cut short in the prime of life. As much as we mourned for him and Jackie, Caroline and John-John, we grieved as well for the loss of so much unfulfilled promise.

After a rocky start to his presidency, when he seemed almost overwhelmed by the weight of office, Kennedy had found his sea legs. There would be no more fiascos like the Bay of Pigs or dithering on civil rights.

When the world teetered on the brink of a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy ignored the advice of his generals and skillfully negotiated a deal with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that took the missiles out of Cuba, nuclear buttons unpressed. You had to be there to realize what a chilling experience that was, going to school in the morning, aware that  Soviet ships were headed for the American blockade and not knowing whether we’d live to see out the day. As Kennedy observed afterwards: “It is insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization.”

Although we will never know what he would have done in Vietnam, Kennedy was becoming more and more of a peacenik, talking up disarmament, fostering increasingly warm ties with Khrushchev and pushing for a treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere.

On civil rights, as freedom marchers in the south were clubbed, set upon by dogs and murdered, Kennedy, who had cynically voted against Eisenhower’s mild Civil Rights Act in 1957 to avoid antagonizing southern Democrats ahead of his run for the presidency, had started to move forcefully against segregation. He delivered a powerful speech pledging government support to enforce racial equality. His television address was lauded by Martin Luther King as “one of the most eloquent, profound and unequivocal pleas for justice and the freedom of all men ever made by any president.”. A few months later, Kennedy introduced his own, tough Civil Rights Act, also endorsed by Martin Luther King, which was finally forced through Congress by LBJ in 1964.

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That was the thing about Kennedy. Not that he was a great president. But that he was showing so many signs of becoming a great president, one who seemed serious about waging peace and making the world a safer and better place to live.

That great hope ended 50 years ago in Dallas. We may never see its like again.  This sentiment of deep, deep loss was summed up by the late, great folksinger Phil Ochs in his moving ballad, penned shortly after Kennedy’s assassination, That Was the PresidentOn the album notes, Ochs, who was well known for his protest songs, wrote: “My Marxist friends can’t understand why I wrote this song and that’s probably one of the reasons why I’m not a Marxist. After the assassination Fidel Castro aptly pointed out that only fools could rejoice at such a tragedy, for systems, not men, are the enemy.”