Friday, April 8, 2011

It’s nit-picking time – Miñoso wasn’t city’s 1st African-American ballplayer

I’m not sure if it was the Chicago White Sox who messed up, or if there are just some reporter-types who are a bit too careless with details related to ethnicity. But I couldn’t help but notice many stories circulating around Thursday connected to the White Sox’ Opening Day events that stated one-time All Star outfielder Minnie Miñoso threw out the “first pitch” of the 2011 season to pay tribute to his being the team’s first African-American player.
MINOSO: Doing the honors on Thursday

No. No. No!!!!!

IT IS TRUE that it has been 60 seasons since a Chicago baseball club got with the program and realized that this new “fad” propagated by the Brooklyn Dodgers, Cleveland Indians, New York Giants and St. Louis Browns of signing black ballplayers was here to stay.

It was in 1951 that the White Sox took Miñoso on their team, acquiring him in a trade with the Indians – where he likely would have languished for several seasons in their minor league system.

And yes, one look at Miñoso then, and now (he works for the White Sox by making public appearances on behalf of the ballclub), makes one realize he has African genetics in his racial breakdown.

But, strictly speaking, Miñoso isn’t an African-American ballplayer. He is a native of Cuba who came to this country back before Fidel Castro ever came to authority (and who decided upon Castro’s rise to power that he was better off living full-time in this country, ultimately becoming a U.S. citizen in 1976).

HE’S A CUBAN-American, if you want to do the label correctly. He is a dark-skinned Latino.

But African-American does imply U.S.-born and NOT of some Spanish-speaking origin (although Latinos who are honest admit that there probably is some trace of African in our family trees).
HAIRSTON: The 1st African-American player

Which is why I think that by saying Miñoso was the first African-American ballplayer in Chicago, we’re short-changing the man who truly was the first African-American ballplayer on a Chicago ballclub.

That would be Sam Hairston, a catcher who played in the old Negro leagues who was acquired by the White Sox in mid-season of 1951 and played that one season in the major leagues, before becoming a perennial White Sox minor leaguer who might have had more of a major league career if White Sox catcher Sherman Lollar had ever suffered a serious injury.

HAIRSTON, WHO ULTIMATELY became a scout for the White Sox after retiring as a ballplayer, has an even more intriguing story when one considers that he had two sons, Jerry and John, who both made it to the major leagues (Jerry with the White Sox and John for part of one season with the Cubs).

He also has two grandsons (sons of Jerry) who currently play in the major leagues (Jerry, Jr., of the Washington Nationals, and Scott, of the New York Mets).

The White Sox’ first African-American ballplayer creates a family dynasty that churns out ballplayers – none of whom would have been able to play in the “old days” – unless Jerry, Jr., and Scott could have passed for “Mexican” (their mother is a Mexican-born Latina) and were of light-enough skin tone to not offend the sensibilities of the bigots who sat in the box seats (while black people at the old Comiskey Park who attended White Sox games in those days were unofficially relegated to the seats near the right-field foul pole).

In many ways, the Hairston family story says a lot about our society and where it has come to racially, and also how baseball has managed to adapt with the times.

SO EVEN THOUGH I understand that Miñoso was on hand to throw out the first pitch on Thursday, while Sam Hairston died some 14 years ago, I’d hate to think his tale was lost in the shuffle just because somebody wants to use “African-American” as a generic label for all people who don’t fit their ideal of being “white.”

Then again, it probably was nice to see Miñoso get a little bit of public attention, considering that the next time the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., considers old-time ballplayers (defined as anyone who retired prior to the early 1990s), his name will likely be on the list of potential honorees.

Lost in the continuing saga over whether or not one-time Chicago Cubs third baseman Ron Santo belongs in the Hall of Fame is the fact that Miñoso also has a legitimate case, which some like to accentuate based on the fact that he lost a few major league seasons at the beginning of his career playing for the New York Cubans of the old Negro National League.
He deserves better

As a result, his “major” league career statistics fall a little short of the numerical standards that some voters like to see, while he didn’t play long enough in the Negro leagues to qualify for admission to the Hall of Fame through that route.

SO FOR THOSE of us who want to remember Miñoso, that’s fine. He had a substantial career that doesn’t need embellishments (and is certainly worth more attention than the stunt pinch-hitting stints he did in 1976 and 1980).

But let’s not forget the fact that it was he AND Hairston who integrated the White Sox’ major league roster two seasons before the Chicago Cubs – and some eight seasons before the major league-holdouts (the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox) – finally got with the program.


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