Chicago Tribune Op-Ed: White Sox great Minnie Miñoso's impact extended far beyond the outfield
Minnie Miñoso belongs in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. The first Afro-Latin player and one of the first Black players to enter the Major Leagues, Minnie started his big-league career in 1948, and played in what had just been a segregated sport in a mostly segregated country. We met when I was a child with polio, and he embodied a kindness and generosity that I’ve tried to carry with me for the rest of my life. He was my hero, he was my friend, and he was what baseball is all about. I firmly believe that, come the Baseball Hall of Fame committee’s votes this winter, Minnie should finally be inducted in Cooperstown.
In 1955, one year after I was stricken with polio, Minnie’s White Sox played an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Russwood Park in segregated Memphis. I was a small boy on crutches wearing a White Sox t-shirt and cap getting autographs at the dugout rail when a white pitcher from the Cardinals, Tom Poholsky, approached me and handed me a baseball. When my father and I approached Poholsky to thank him, he said, “Don’t thank me, thank the player over there” -- number nine for the White Sox, Minnie Miñoso. In segregated Memphis, Black players weren’t comfortable approaching white people, so Minnie had a white player come over to me instead. In the entire baseball field of 50 players or more, Minnie cared about a young Sox fan with polio. I was puzzled that Minnie didn’t feel he could come over to me.
In 1960, I saw Minnie again in Memphis. Instead of going to the Peabody Hotel where all the white players stayed, I visited Minnie at the Lorraine Motel — where Martin Luther King Junior was later killed. Seeing Minnie, an all-star, and my hero, segregated from his white teammates truly awakened me to the insanity of racism and the vile institution of segregation. Minnie was the nicest guy on the field and my hero, and this experience influenced my decision to become a civil rights advocate both in my private and public life. But segregation didn’t stop Minnie. He would go on to set the league on fire, hitting nearly .300 for his career, leading the league in triples and stolen bases for multiple years, being voted a seven-time All-Star, being a golden glove outfielder numerous times, and being named The Sporting News’ Rookie of the Year. Still, despite his fame and accomplishments, Minnie never forgot about me. When I moved to Los Angeles with my family, we visited him at Chavez Ravine. He came up to my dad and said, “Doc, how’s the kid’s leg; how’s he doing?”
I never forgot about Minnie. His genuine kindness meant that our friendship would last throughout Minnie’s life. He went on to be inducted into the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame, Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame, Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum Hall of Fame, the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame, and would spend the remainder of his life as an ambassador of the sport for Afro-Latin and Latin players. I pursued a career of public service in my hometown of Memphis. Minnie remained an inspiration to me as I went on to serve as a United States Congressman. I have devoted my life to improving race relations and, as Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, to seeing longstanding wrongs righted. Minnie also inspired me to become a strong advocate for America opening up to Cuba. I worked to dissolve the trade blockade and encourage business, tourism, and diplomatic missions. To me, Cuba was Minnie.
I was honored to travel to Cuba on multiple occasions. I went to Cuba with then Secretary of State John Kerry to raise our flag over the former embassy and reestablish diplomatic relations. I was also privileged to return to Cuba with President Obama for his historic visit. In Havana, we exercised baseball diplomacy with Tampa Bay playing the Cuban All-stars with President Obama in attendance. I shared Minnie’s baseball cards and pins with the fans at the ballpark. Minnie was a part of our baseball diplomacy.
When considering a candidate for the baseball hall of fame, panelists toil over the statistics and impact that a player had during a career. Minnie’s career by statistics alone is worthy of the Hall of Fame, but baseball is more than hits, runs, and steals. Minnie opened my eyes to the evils of segregation and led me to focus on civil rights, and his big heart was known to be open to hundreds of thousands of others. There is no doubt that Minnie’s actions on and off the field ought to be memorialized in the Baseball Hall of Fame; he was a singular player and the Jackie Robinson of Latin ball players.
Congressman Cohen represents Tennessee’s 9th Congressional District.