Basic Biittner : Chitown loses a couple of legends

Monday, March 9, 2015

Fans of Chicago's major league baseball teams - especially the Cubs - have often been referred to as "long suffering."

An apt term, perhaps, because both the National League 's Cubs and the American League's White Sox have been around for more than 100 years now, and fans haven't done a whole lot of post-season celebrating lately.

Both teams had early success - in fact they played each other in the World Series in 1906 - but the fact of the matter is the Cubs haven't played in the World Series since 1945, and haven't been World Champions since 1908 (106 years now). The White Sox have had a little more recent success. In 1959 , they appeared in the Series, losing to the Dodgers, and 46 years later, the Pale Hose actually captured a World Series, defeating the Houston Astros in a 4 game sweep (Houston is now in the American League, by the way).

At any rate, good news on the field has been scarce for both the North Siders and the South Siders, but this off - season has been especially rough off the field for Chicago baseball fans, as each team's "good will ambassador" - two of the best players in each franchise's history - passed away. "Mr. Cub", Ernie Banks died in January, and "Mr. White Sox", Minnie Minoso, died on March 1st.

Both men were shining lights on and off the field for Chicago's franchises for 50+ years, and the two men had a lot in common.

First and foremost, each was an outstanding ball player - two of the best during the decade in which I became a fan, the 1950's. Banks was a shortstop during the first part of his career, and he was so good he was twice (1958-1959) named the National League Most Valuable Player - even though his team, the Cubs, were not a championship club, or even a contender. In the second half of his career, the Cubs brought up a pretty good fielding shortstop, Don Kessinger, and "Mr. Cub," whose fielding was not his strongest asset, willingly moved over to first base.

The team benefitted -immediately - ALMOST getting into the post-season in 1969, behind future Hall of Famers Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Ferrguson Jenkins.

Banks' strong suit- outside of his sunny "Let's Play Two" attitude - was power hitting. An unimposing 6-1, 180 pounder, #14 used his quick wrist action to send the ball out of the park 512 times during the "pre-steroid era," driving in 1638 runs for his career - all of it spent with the Cubs.

Ernie made the NL All-Star team in 11 different years, was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. had his uniform number retired in 1982, and has a statue of himself outside of Wrigley Field.

Saturnino Orestes Armas Miñoso Arrieta (his full name) was even slighter than Banks at 5-10, 175 lbs. A native of Havana, Cuba, "Minnie" (probably called that because it was easier for sportswriters to remember) came to the majors a couple of years before Banks and made an immediate impact. He didn't have Banks' power, but he did have speed ("The Cuban Comet" was another of his nicknames). He led the American League in stolen bases in each of his first three seasons and also led the league in triples three times, and in doubles and base hits one season each. He played a pretty solid left field, winning Gold Gloves in three of the first four seasons in which they were awarded. Like Banks, Minoso's number (9) was retired by the White Sox in 1983, but unlike Banks he has never been elected - or even come close to being elected - for baeball's highest honor, the Hall of Fame. Like many greats who have not been elected to the Hall, there are probably a number of reasons thatHall induction hasn't occurred.

In Minoso's case, one factor might be the relatively brief length of his career and, ironically, another thing that may have deterred voters from choosing him is the LONGEVITY of his career . Let me explain. Minoso came to the majors for the proverbial "cup of coffee" in 1949, and though his career was played primarily in the 1950's and early 1960's, former White Sox owner Bill Veeck brought him back to play briefly in the 1970's and 980's, mostly as a publicity stunt, so that, technically, he played in the major league game in five different decades. It's possible that that may have detracted some voters, who may not remember the years he actually played - and played very well - before he kind of became another of Bill Veeck's Publicity Stunts, like midget pinch hitter Eddie Gaedel.

Here are a few other things Banks and Minoso had in common: Both men, like so many others, got their start in the "Negro Leagues," and weren't allowed into the "bigs" as early as their talent might have otherwise dictated. Another thing the two had in common was that neither ever played in a World Series. Ironically, Minoso, who spent the vast majoriy of his career with the White Sox, was traded to the Indians in 1958 - one season before the White Sox' 1959 World Series appearance. He was back in Chicago in 1960, and Veeck presented him with an honorary 1959 pennant championship ring at the beginning of the season, saying that he felt that Minoso had done as much as anyone in helping the White Sox reach the top of the league through his influence in building a winning team.

Another thing Banks and Minoso had in common, of course, was their winning personalities - always showing a positive attitude, in spite of poor childhoods, MLB's segregation policies, and the weak teams on which they usually played.

Following Minoso's recent death, current White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf said that Minoso "was always upbeat."

"I don't think he ever had an unhappy day," said Reinsdorf. "At least if he did, he never let anyone know he was unhappy. He was always upbeat. He always had a smile. He always had something nice to say to somebody. He never hesitated to sign an autograph. He never hesitated to try to answer people's questions. He never complained."

And from everything I have read, pretty much the same things could be said of Ernie Banks.

Perhaps in this era of thawing relations with Cuba, those who vote will choose to elect Minnie Minoso to join the other great players in Cooperstown.