Doug Moe’s Madison: Paul Soglin is still going to bat for Minnie Miñoso

The former mayor has been advocating for Miñoso's induction into Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame for decades. On Dec. 5, it could finally happen.
Minnie Minoso is on the left as an older man, dressed in his old Chicago White Sox uniform and poised to throw a baseball. On the right inset is a small black and white photo of Minoso in his White Sox days wearing a ballcap and smiling.
Courtesy of the Chicago White Sox.
Chicago White Sox player Minnie Minoso was the first Black Cuban to play in the Major Leagues and the first Black player on the Chicago White Sox team.

Paul Soglin is writing a memoir, which will be required reading for anyone wanting to know what happened in Madison across the past half century.

For our current purposes, however, let’s place him in a hotel suite in Havana, Cuba. It’s late on a night in July 1975, and Soglin, in his early years as Madison’s mayor, has an audience with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The talk eventually turns to baseball.

At one point, Soglin asks: “Would Minnie Miñoso be welcome to come back to Cuba?”

Schoolboy passions can last a long time. More on that momentarily.

On Dec. 5, Minnie Miñoso, who died in 2015, will be one of 10 players considered for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in a vote by the 16-member Golden Days Era committee.

When I read New York Times baseball writer Tyler Kepner’s recent piece promoting Miñoso’s candidacy, I knew I wanted to reach out to Soglin, long an outspoken advocate for Miñoso’s enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.

As a kid growing up in Chicago, Soglin thrilled to Miñoso’s aggressive play for the White Sox. When we spoke recently, Soglin recalled Miñoso escaping a rundown between first and second base like it happened last week. It was at least 60 years ago.

But he also remembered standing outside the Piccadilly Hotel and seeing Miñoso drop teammates at the door. The team stayed there, but Miñoso wasn’t allowed inside.

Soglin’s boyhood home was two blocks from the Piccadilly. He’d eyeball the entrance after school, hoping for a glimpse of the ballplayers. He once described the scene on his blog: “Miñoso was Black. He was the first Black Cuban to play in the major leagues. He was the first Black Latin player. From 1954 to 1960, my last summer hanging around the hotel, I never saw a Black man or woman — ballplayer or not — go through the front doors of the Piccadilly Hotel.”

Race, and unfortunate timing, have played a role in Miñoso’s failure thus far to make the Hall of Fame.

As Kepner noted in his piece, Miñoso’s on-the-field statistics argue for inclusion: “From 1951 to 1961, he ranked third in the majors in hits, trailing only Nellie Fox and Richie Ashburn. Miñoso had more steals and a better on-base percentage plus slugging percentage than both .… Fox and Ashburn are Hall of Famers.”

When we spoke last week, Soglin told me that Bill James, the renowned baseball historian and statistician, is extremely high on Miñoso. He was right. From James’ blog: “Miñoso was a magnificent player. In 1954, when he hit .320 with 116 RBI, he also hit 18 triples, stole 18 bases, and scored 119 runs. He drew 77 walks and struck out only 46 times. He was a Gold Glove outfielder. The Gold Gloves weren’t introduced until 1957, when Miñoso was well past 30, but Miñoso won three Gold Gloves (1957-1959-1960). What he did well was ‘everything.’ He hit for high averages, walked, didn’t strike out, hit for power, ran extremely well and played outstanding defense in the outfield. He was good every year.”

It must be noted that after coming to America, Miñoso played the first several years of his career in the Negro Leagues. While Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, James notes “the color line did not shatter suddenly and disappear in 1947. It eroded slowly over a period of several years.”

Negro Leagues stars were eventually made eligible for the Hall of Fame, but Miñoso was what Soglin calls a “tweener” — his records were split. Some of his best years were in the Negro Leagues, followed by a stellar decade in the Major Leagues.

In 2008, Miñoso was one of 39 Negro Leagues players considered by a panel of experts for induction into the Hall of Fame. The panel was headed by former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent. One of the panelists was Greg Bond, a Negro Leagues historian who was studying for a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Soglin took Bond to lunch and lobbied for Miñoso.

After I wrote a newspaper column about this, I got an email from Vincent: “I very much enjoyed your column on Minnie and Greg Bond and the committee I am chairing. My question — are you the Doug Moe who went to Williams College in the class of ’59? Perhaps you and my old pal are not the same. In any event I am delighted to have had a chance to see your fine column. Thank you for it.”

I wrote back to Mr. Vincent explaining I was 3 years old in 1959.

More important, Miñoso — alas — did not get the nine of 12 committee votes necessary for induction.

Now, on Dec. 5, Miñoso gets another chance. Perhaps because of past disappointments, Soglin is not optimistic.

“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s really hard to tell. I remember how hopeful I was the last time we discussed this.”

Soglin said his high school friend, Tom Weinberg, who made a documentary film on Miñoso that aired on public television in Chicago and can be accessed online, feels the same way.

“We’ve been down this road before,” Soglin says.

In closing, let’s return to that 1975 Havana hotel room — a story Soglin tells in his friend Weinberg’s documentary — and the Madison mayor asking Castro if Miñoso would be welcomed back to his native Cuba.

“Minnie is not a friend of the revolution,” Castro said. “But he is a hero to the Cuban people and will always be welcome in his homeland.”

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