Jackie Robinson began to blaze a trail for black baseball players to integrate Major League Baseball in 1947, but he was not alone. However, the battle to integrate baseball was far from over when Orestes “Minnie” Minoso made his first Big League appearance with Cleveland in 1949. He passed away this weekend, and with Minoso’s death we lost another of the game’s underappreciated heroes.
The Cuban-born Minoso — the first black Latino player in the Major Leagues — found a home with the Chicago White Sox in 1951, slamming a home run off of Yankees ace Vic Raschi in his first White Sox at-bat (Raschi would win 21 games and lead the American League in strikeouts that year). Minoso stormed onto the national scene that summer in his first full season, leading the American League with 14 triples, 31 stolen bases and 16 hit by pitches. Minoso would lead the AL in both steals and triples two more times, in addition to pacing the Junior Circuit in hit by pitches an astonishing nine more times. A player with a rare combination of speed and power, Minoso would go on to play in seven All-Star games and win three Gold Gloves before retiring in 1964.
Despite his storied career and his place in baseball history, Minoso was denied entry into the Hall of Fame both by the Baseball Writers Association of America and by a special vote in 2011 for players from the Negro Leagues.
The Hall of Fame certainly overlooked Minoso’s contribution to the integration of baseball, but I fear that the rest of America might forget too. The generation of men who integrated America’s game is slowly passing beyond our reach. Robinson passed away way back in 1972, but many more have left us in the past few years. Larry Doby, the first black man to play in the American League, died in 2003, while Cubs legend Ernie Banks died earlier this year. These men were some of the last links to one of the first successful integration struggles in 20th century America.
It is easy to see how these men were relegated to footnotes in what has become a far too simplistic version of integration. They weren’t “the first,” and it is easier to glorify one man rather than the host of players who struggled for years to level the playing field. This is not to take anything away from Jackie Robinson, but he was only the first in a long line of those who stood up to racism in baseball.
Take Doby. Although he said, “I’ll take second. Second ain’t all that bad” in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 1998, he is too often forgotten. He broke in just six weeks after Robinson, and since most cities only had one Major League team, he was the first black player many Major League fans ever encountered. Yet the anniversary of his first game, July 5, sees little fanfare, while April 15 is “Jackie Robinson Day.”
Or take Dan Bankhead, the first black pitcher in 1947, who struggled because the threat of repercussions for hitting a white player with a pitch kept him from throwing the ball inside. A feared fireballer on the Negro League circuit, Bankhead fizzled and only appeared in 52 big league games.
Take Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston or Martin Dihingo, all great ballplayers denied the chance to play in the Major Leagues because they were born too soon and their stars had faded by the time Major League Baseball was willing to take down its racist barriers. All of these men deserve credit for fighting to integrate the game, even if all they did was play baseball so well that nobody in their right minds could believe that “black players couldn’t handle the Major Leagues.”
All of their legacies, along with Minoso’s, deserve to be remembered and to be honored. The integration of baseball was a crucial step towards equality for all races in America, and it took the combined efforts of all of these individuals to push baseball out of its backward past.
One place where Minoso’s legacy is not lost, however, is on Major League rosters. In 2014, 28.4 percent of those on Opening Day rosters identified as Latino, whereas only 8.2 percent identified as Black or African-American. Every Latino player who has followed Minoso into the Bigs since 1949, from Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente to White Sox slugger Jose Abreu, owes their chance to the struggle that Minoso went through decades ago. As the generation that helped to integrate America’s game begins to fade away, it’s time for all of us to remember the sacrifices they made.