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Monday, December 5, 2011
Minnie Minoso's still not in the HOF?

By Christina Kahrl

While Chicagoans can celebrate Ron Santo finally getting his due from Cooperstown -- posthumously and several decades late -- it isn’t like the outcome of the "Golden Era" election was a perfect bit of resolution for baseball fans in the Windy City. White Sox great Minnie Minoso is still on the outside looking in, and that’s every bit as egregious an oversight.

Taken at face value, the big-league numbers for Minoso don’t make an overwhelming case, not the way that Santo’s did. Minoso led the league in steals three times in an era when people didn’t steal a ton of bases. He led in triples three times and hits once and total bases in another -- that doesn't exactly get statheads fired up. Tallying up 1,963 hits, 186 home runs, 205 steals and a .298/.389/.459 batting line doesn’t sound like much in isolation. Minoso did not win a major award, and he never played in the postseason. At first blush, it’s a very good career, but perhaps not an all-time great one.

That would be a superficial response, however. You can’t talk about Minnie Minoso’s case for Cooperstown without getting into his history in other circuits, playing at a time when opportunity was not equal, thanks to matters of race and the reserve clause. His first three years as a pro were spent in his homeland in Cuba (1943-45), followed by three more years starring in the Negro Leagues for the New York Cubans (1946-1948). Minoso then had to spend 1949 and 1950 marking time in the PCL because the Indians felt they were already stocked up in the outfield.

Minoso would only get his real break in 1951 after getting sent to the White Sox in a three-way deal. When, at long last, he made it to the majors to stay in 1951, Minoso was already 28 years old. (He was born in 1922, not 1925 as had been initially thought.) As a result, Minoso was already well through the years that are supposed to be a player’s peak seasons, years he hadn’t gotten to spend in the majors thanks to institutionalized racism and then limited opportunities. We don’t know, can’t know, how much of his career was lost to those factors, just that it was.

However, despite this late start Minoso went on a 10-year run that marked him as one of the best players in the American League. Not broadly speaking, or generously: We’re talking about Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, and Minnie Minoso. Using Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, from 1951-60 Minoso is second in the AL behind only Mantle. If you harbor a reasonable suspicion of defensive value, using offense alone Minoso falls from second ... all the way to third, behind Mantle and Williams.

Going year to year and using WAR, in 1951 Minoso was one of the four best position players in the league; count offense alone in that season, and he’s behind just Teddy Ballgame. Sticking with WAR, Minoso was one of the five best position players in the AL in 1951, 1953, 1954 (leading the league), 1956, 1957, 1958 and 1959 (tying with Nellie Fox for the lead). This isn’t a Ralph Kiner-like brief run -- Minoso was simply a great ballplayer, and consistently one of the best of his era.

Minoso’s career is often a case of just missing out, which is why his coming up short in this latest popularity contest can be especially exasperating. He just missed winning the 1951 AL Rookie of the Year, getting 11 first-place votes to the 13 given to Gil McDougald of the Yankees. In 1954, when Minoso was the best player in the league, he was one of five candidates to get an MVP vote in a fractured ballot; instead, the Yankees’ Yogi Berra won his second of three MVP trophies. Minoso also just missed the postseason during this era of Yankees’ dominance: he was on the White Sox in 1957 and in 1960, but because he’d been dealt to the Tribe (for Hall of Famer Early Wynn and outfielder/third baseman Al Smith), he missed being part of the 1959 pennant-winning team.

All of this neglects Minoso’s importance as an example and as a trailblazer as baseball’s first great black Latin player as well as the first black man to play for the White Sox. His popularity in Chicago was locked in from the get-go, as he was widely acknowledged as the reason why White Sox attendance crossed a million for the first time in franchise history in 1951, and then stayed there through the ’50s. Remarkably, the rookie was rewarded with a Minnie Minoso Day at Comiskey Park at the end of that same season. Those aren’t criteria, but a black Latin star becoming a big part of a franchise-wide turnaround is rightly remembered on the South Side as cause for pride.

This is not to trash the positive results of Monday's announcement. Santo’s selection is the closing note of a long campaign to right a wrong, achieving what many already believed -- that Ron Santo was a Hall of Famer, and always had been. The chicanery of the process isn't suddenly validated because this latest mechanism belatedly achieved the right conclusion. In light of the continuing oversight of Minoso, a healthy dose of skepticism that we’ll see the Hall eventually get it right in his case as well would be totally understandable. You can wonder if Minoso will be alive to enjoy the recognition that he too is due, should that day finally come. After what happened with Ron Santo, you have to hope not.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.