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Rest In Power, Minnie Miñoso

The great Minnie Miñoso passed away yesterday after some 90-odd years of transcendent life. Let us remember him for what he did and not what we denied him.
March 2, 2015, 4:58pm

He left a world that took from him without pause after some 90-odd years yesterday. He would never say such a thing, at least not in public, but to pore over the facts of his life and career is to be struck by his capacity to remain above a fray that so desperately wanted to bring him down. Let it be said that the fray lost, and lost badly, to Minnie Miñoso.

He will be most remembered as Major League Baseball's first black Cuban player, its first black Latino star, and its first black player of any sort in Chicago. He followed a familiar path for the few black players of his era who were allowed to fulfill some small bit of their potential; he toiled, and then he toiled more, and then he toiled yet more so as to reap a tiny bit of what had been denied him for so long by entrenched racist structures that rigged not just a game, but an entire society.

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He was born (supposedly) on November 29, 1925 in Perico, Cuba—a town in the Matanzas Province that was founded in 1874, renamed after Miguel de Cervantes in 1885, and then reverted back to its proper name in 1899 because the Spanish never had any business in Latin America anyway. He played in the pre-Castro Cuban League before departing for the Negro Leagues of the U.S. to play with the New York (wait for it) Cubans. This is about where it ends for most black players of Miñoso's generation, but not for Miñoso himself. The light of his star disinfected just enough of racism's blight to take him further.

He reached the Major Leagues as a Cleveland Indian in 1949, but the team found little use for him—ironically in part because the Indians were one of the few teams willing to sign black players en masse—and so he was traded to Chicago, the city that would become home away from the homeland.

He hit a two-run home run in his first at-bat with the Chicago White Sox, and the love affair between Miñoso and his adopted city was on. A left fielder belonging to an era other than the one of station-to-station baseball in which he played, Miñoso hit forcefully, stole bases without regard for any catcher's arm, and developed a flair for the spectacular on defense—racking up assists and double plays at a rate unfamiliar to his contemporaries. He was, also, just plain cool: a pre-revolution Cuban living the dream in America and flipping off the nation's beasts by thriving; real Americana shit. A return trip to the Indians saw more of the same, as did a return trip to Chicago. There would have been more ending if not for the beginning, but the the story of baseball in Chicago can't be told without its beloved icon, nor can the story of baseball in the 1950s.

He even stole a year from the 1960s, notching his last All-Star appearance, Gold Glove, and top-five MVP finish in the decade's first season. There were a few middling years after that, and some sideshow appearances in 1976 and 1980. A planned minor league appearance with the Miami Miracle of the Florida State League in 1990 was nixed by MLB, presumably because no one who controls our games has any idea how to have some fucking fun.

He doesn't have a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame of Cooperstown, New York. He is a member of the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame—a testament to that country's taste level—but he should be in both. Also: who gives a fuck? Okay, Miñoso openly did give a fuck about getting into Cooperstown, but what player doesn't want that for themselves? He's dead now, and the BBWAA blew its shot several times over to band together in the name of doing something that could be called kind and decent. They'll have to live with that, but I'm sure Miñoso is doing just fine on whatever beam of light is carrying him through. A mere museum—bricks and mortar and the like—could never capture the scope of such a man. Our institutions suck at that sort of thing.

We exist at the mercy of our institutions, sure, but those institutions need not define us. It's a complicated balance to strike—how to go about getting by in the world without becoming part of a world that thrives on minimizing what we may yet be and become, often for the most base of reasons. There is a fraught give-and-take to that calculation, and with it the fear that the give will always be greater than the take. Minnie Miñoso is one of many who threw himself at the beast of American racism, gave as good as he got, and left the beast that much weaker for the next generation. This is what's on my mind the day after his passing—that for as hard as it all may seem, he made the work easier than it would otherwise be. And so, like a certain Latino writer I too freely paraphrase, I bend to the work, because it feels like hope, like grace.