36 Years With Minnie Minoso

I was seven years old in 1951 and I loved the White Sox. When Minnie Minoso (they called him Orestes then) joined the team that year, I fell in love with him right away.

I didn’t know or care back then that he was Chicago’s first black player or the first black Latin star in the major leagues. I just cherished the way he played the game. Minoso was an aggressive hitter and base-runner, and the greatest all-around hustler I’d ever seen.

In the 1970s, I got involved with the Sox and Bill Veeck. I had a minor ownership interest in the ball club, and I worked as an independent documentary producer. In 1976, a group of us were in Sarasota to film a show called Inside Spring Training for Channel 11. It rained almost every day. They couldn’t practice. So Minnie and I started a shuffleboard competition. We spent a few days together. We filmed a short sequence with the two of us playing shuffleboard. It was the first time I ever really talked to him on camera. He was so competitive, even in a shuffleboard game, but he was also kind and friendly.

That’s when I first started thinking about telling his remarkable story. I had no idea it would take more than 36 years.

Over the years I shot a lot of footage, and over the past 15 months I’ve worked intensively on the documentary. We interviewed not just Minnie but family, teammates, fans, Commissioner Bud Selig, former pitcher Luis Tiant, former slugger Tony Perez, and dozens of others. My partner Joel Cohen and I probably have 25 or 30 hours of Minnie. Sometimes it’s a struggle to understand what he’s saying, but his honesty always comes through clearly.

Minnie tells a million stories. One about  Frank Lane, the general manager of the Go-Go-Sox, reveals plenty about the man and the times. Lane had come down to Havana before the 1952 season to get Minnie to sign a contract the year after he’d been named The Sporting News Rookie of the Year (at 29.) Here’s the transcript of that story just the way Minnie tells it on video.

Frank Lane come to Cuba to sign a contract. And I said, “no, I disagree” for whatever he offer me. And I said “no, I don’t sign it.”… He offered $17,000, second year… and I said, “because first I make $7,000 and to be Rookie of the Year, that was like Most Valuable Player, so their raises should be…$10,000 for the Rookie of the Year. But I don’t know that. And I just was always dreaming, should I make $20 grand, I’m happy… So I told Frank Lane, “Frank, ” I used to call (him) ‘Daddy’ …

I said, “Daddy, I have a agree with you about something.” He said “What is it?” I said, “Look, you give me $20,000 and the long I be play for the Chicago White Sox so I’m not entitled to make any one penny more. But if you have a bad year, you can cut me the 25 percent and you not gonna hear from me.” He look me and say “No, son, I not do that. If…I do those thing I was criminal because you gonna make a whole lot more. You gonna be one of the great baseball players … in the Chicago White Sox and the league. But that’s the most I can give you. That’s the most I can give you the second year…”

And I look around and I said, “Daddy, you tell me the truth?” He said, “I tell you the truth.” I said “Gimme here.” And I signed for $17,000…

A lot of people don’t appreciate Minnie. He was the first black guy to play ball in Chicago. He couldn’t stay in the hotels with the rest of the guys. He got hit by more pitches than anybody else. Sure, some of that was because he leaned over the plate, trying to get hit, so he could get on base. But it was also because people threw at him. They called him names and treated him badly.

But, as he reveals in out conversations, he kept it all inside. He felt it was critical to stay on track to be the best ballplayer he could be and pave the way for the Latin American and Caribbean players to follow.

One thing he says over and over is that nobody in the history of baseball hustled more than Minnie Minoso, and I believe that. He’s 89 now, and he does 150 situps every morning. He’s a rock. He’s so determined. He’s determined to be healthy and be positive. And he wants to be a baseball icon. He wants to be remembered as the great player he was. That legacy is hugely important to him. He’d like to be in Cooperstown, of course, and I think he should be.

Minnie hasn’t been taken as seriously as he should be. It’s because of his personality, his accent, and because he became a kind of a sideshow when Bill Veeck kept bringing him out of retirement to play—first in 1976 and then again in 1980—even though Bill’s original intention was to help Minnie get his pension.

That’s one of the reasons for this film. I believe this is important. It’s important to preserve the story of Minnie Minoso. This will be around a long time after I’m gone—and he’s gone.

Minnie always says baseball’s been good to him, but I think he’s been even better to baseball.

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TOM WEINBERG is a documentary filmmaker in Chicago. To support his film project, go to www.kickstarter.com.

STORY ART: Main image made in-house. Photos courtesy Tom Weinberg and Facebook.com.

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