- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

My father, an Illinois union organizer, was a Chicago White Sox fan to the end. The Sox, who played and still play on the Windy City’s South Side, were the working man’s ball team — in contrast to the Cubs on the North Side, who catered more to white-collar types. His sons shared his love for the Sox at a time when baseball meant more to young people than it does today.

The fifties were the era of the “Go Go Sox,” of Luis Aparicio, Nellie Fox, “Jungle” Jim Rivera and, most of all, Minnie Minoso. Minnie died this week at the age of 89, 90 or 92, depending on who you believe, but those of us who grew up cheering him had come to the conclusion expressed by current team owner Jerry Reinsdorf that he would never die; that he might just be immortal. He was playing when I was a kid and was at the spring training games I took my own kids to while they were growing up flashing that same smile fans had become familiar with during his playing days.

Minoso’s family cut sugar cane in Cuba, but he managed to make it to the United States to play baseball with the New York Cubans of the Negro National League where he was spotted in 1949. Abe Saperstein, who, in addition to organizing basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters, served as a part-time scout for the legendary Bill Veeck, and Veeck, then president of the Cleveland Indians, promptly bought Minoso’s contract. After tearing up the minors, Minoso hit the majors as a rookie in 1951, but was promptly traded to Chicago — the team he transformed and loved to the day he died.

The obituaries all note that Minnie was Chicago’s first black player, but race had little, if anything, to do with his popularity. He didn’t play baseball for the money, or even the fame, but because it was fun and something he was born to do. He was exciting, and every kid who saw him play could sense the excitement and love he brought to the game. In his very first at-bat in Chicago’s old Comiskey Park, he hit a 430-foot home run. That year, he hit .326 with 14 triples and 31 stolen bases. He quickly became known as “The Cuban Comet,” and when he came to bat, the growing crowds in the stadium would begin chanting “Go … Go … Go.” Soon, the entire team began to hustle as never before.

The Sox hadn’t won a pennant since 1920 — and were still wearing black rather than white socks as a symbol of the embarrassment of the 1919 scandal — but the new Sox were on the way. Unfortunately, in 1957, Minnie was traded back to the Indians and missed the 1959 season and a chance to play in the World Series. The Sox needed pitching and got Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn and a pretty darn good outfielder in Al Smith in exchange for him, but Chicago fans demanded his return and got him back in 1960. In his first game back, “The Cuban Comet” outdid his debut performance years earlier by belting two home runs for his team.

And it was his team. He was, by then, at the tail end of a career equalled by few, and was traded away again, but returned to become as iconic and loved a South Side hero as Ernie Banks on the other side of town. Before it was over, Minnie became the only major leaguer ever to play in five different decades. When he retired, he stayed in Chicago, could be found at his favorite restaurant, traveled to spring training with the team and was as open, friendly and humble as he had been in the fifties. He didn’t get to play in a World Series and missed the Hall of Fame vote last year, though he had a career better than many who have been enshrined.

He will eventually get in, but he told a reporter he really wanted to be selected before he died because the hoopla would be fun. He didn’t need to be lionized — though those who knew him did lionize him — but he was always up for a little more fun. A man who can accomplish as much as he did, inspire as many people as he did in the process, live to 90 or so and make Reinsdorf, his friend, wonder if he had ever had an unhappy day will be remembered for a long, long time.

Keene is the editorial page editor of The Washington Times.

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