This day in White Sox History: Minnie Breaks the Color Line

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For the first 7,635 games in White Sox history (7,655 including postseason), there were no black players. Something similar can be said for many other MLB teams, but that doesn’t justify it. Furthermore, the White Sox had gone through seven consecutive seasons under.500, from 1944 to 1950.

Things changed on May 1, 1951.

The day before, the White Sox were involved in a three-team trade with the Philadelphia Athletics & Cleveland Indians, involving seven players:

-          White Sox receive: Orestes Miñoso & Paul Lehner

  • Indians receive: Lou Brissie

  • Athletics receive: Dave Philley, Gus Zernial, Ray Murray & Sam Zoldak

 

The key player given up by the White Sox was Gus Zernial. Not only was he coming off a season where he set a new franchise record with 29 home runs, but after the trade, he’d go on to lead the American League with 33 home runs in 1951. Perhaps his biggest claim to fame was that he was the one to introduce Marilyn Monroe to Joe DiMaggio, but that’s another post for another day.

The Indians received Lou Brissie, whose Major League career started against all odds in 1947. He had suffered severe leg injuries during World War II and pitched his entire Major League career wearing a specially designed leg brace.

The White Sox received 25-year old (we think – his age has always been a point of contention) Orestes Miñoso, a heralded Cuban prospect who had a 9-game trial with Cleveland in 1949 and started 1951 used mostly in pinch-hitting duties. The day after the trade, Miñoso would be the first black player to appear in a game for the White Sox.

Notice the wording – first black player to appear in a game. Miñoso was not the first black player signed by the White Sox. The year prior, the White Sox signed two black players – outfielder Bob Boyd & catcher Sam Hairston. The name Hairston should sound familiar; his son Jerry played for the White Sox, and his grandsons Jerry Jr. & Scott both played in the Majors as well.

But when Orestes took the field for the White Sox, he was the first black player in franchise history, something that’s difficult to imagine today. It’s hard to imagine a time where people of all backgrounds and colors were not allowed to play on the same field. It’s even tougher to imagine that the sport could keep the game segregated for over 50 years. But that’s the world Orestes Miñoso, who would come to be known as “Minnie” Miñoso, lived in. Not only was he the first black Major Leaguer to play for the White Sox, but he was the first black Major Leaguer to play for Chicago. Ernie Banks wouldn’t break the Cubs color line until late 1953. And at the time, Chicago was second to only New York as the biggest city in the country; Los Angeles wouldn’t take over the number two spot until decades later. Minnie’s arrival in Chicago was a big deal.

When Miñoso debuted two years earlier for the Indians, he was the eighth black player to debut in the 20th century; the firstborn outside of the United States. By May 1, 1951 he was still one of only sixteen black Major Leaguers. Willie Mays would join the league later that month. The White Sox were the sixth of sixteen teams to bring in a black player, after the Dodgers, Indians, Browns, Giants, and Braves.

And all of this sets the scene for the game on May 1, 1951. The White Sox hosted the Yankees at Comiskey Park and here were the lineups:

Yankees                                                         White Sox

RF Mickey Mantle                                        SS Chico Carrasquel

2B Jerry Coleman                                        LF Paul Lehner

3B Gil McDougald                                        3B Minnie Miñoso

LF Gene Woodling                                       1B Eddie Robinson

C  Yogi Berra                                                 RF Al Zarilla

CF Jackie Jensen                                           CF Jim Busby

1B Joe Collins                                               2B Nellie Fox

SS Phil Rizzuto                                              C   Gus Niarhos

P   Vic Raschi                                                 P   Bob Cain

Making a fine introduction in Chicago, Miñoso hit a 2-run homer off Yankee right-hander Vic Raschi in the first inning in his first time at the plate in a White Sox uniform, scoring Lehner. Unfortunately in the top of the second, Miñoso gave the two runs right back to the Yankees. Pitcher Bob Cain** loaded the bases with two out and Mickey Mantle hit a grounder to Miñoso for a 2-run error. Minnie added an 8th inning single to finish 2 for 4 with a run, home run, and 2 RBI in his White Sox debut. The White Sox lost 8-3; two of the Yankee runs were on Mickey Mantle’s first Major League home run, which came in the 6th inning off Sox reliever Randy Gumpert.

**Cain would be traded to the Tigers two weeks later; on August 19 he found himself a part of baseball history when he pitched to 3’7” Eddie Gaedel

The rest of the season, Minnie split time between the outfield and third base before moving primarily to the outfield for the rest of his career. As a rookie, Miñoso hit a remarkable .326/.422/.500 with 112 runs, 34 doubles, 14 triples, 10 home runs, 76 RBI, and 31 stolen bases. He walked 72 times compared to but 42 strikeouts and was hit by a league-leading 16 pitches. Minnie’s .422 on-base percentage remains the second-best by a rookie in AL history, behind only Ted Williams (.436 in 1939) and just a hair ahead of Aaron Judge (.422, but lower if you carry it out) in 2017.

Fast-forward to 2020 and Miñoso not only has his #9 retired by the White Sox (that happened in 1983), but he has a statue on the Guaranteed Rate Field concourse as well (unveiled in 2004). He was a Negro League All-Star and Major League Baseball All-Star. He played professional baseball in seven decades (including one-game stints with the St. Paul Saints in 1993 & 2003). He’s a member of the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame and the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame. Minnie Miñoso is a trailblazer for black Latinos as well as an international baseball legend, yet still no Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown. Hopefully, that changes in December when the Golden Era Committee gathers. The honor is long overdue.

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