The Cuban Comet

If you mention the 1951 baseball season to anyone old enough to remember visors on automobile windshields,without variance they will begin to talk about the miracle of Coogan’s Bluff. That is the story of the New York Giants, who trailed the Brooklyn Dodgers by thirteen and a half games on August 12 that season but won 39 of their last 47 games to catch the Dodgers and force a three game playoff for the National League pennant. In the third game of that playoff at the Polo Grounds, Bobby Thomson hit one of the most famous home runs in baseball history with rookie Willie Mays on deck to snatch the pennant away from the Brooklyn Bums and the great comeback was complete.

That enabled the Giants to participate in the World Series, which they lost to Casey Stengal’s Yankees four games to two after winning two of the first three. The Yanks made it three pennants in a row in ’51 and would go on to win again the next year and the next in what seemed at the time to be inevitable domination. In retrospect, however, it seems to me that a strange, three team trade made on April 30 of that season might have kept Cleveland from advancing to the World Series instead of New York. That trade brought Lou Brissie, a left handed relief pitcher, to a Cleveland team that featured a big four of starting pitchers that started 130 games among them and completed 69 of those. The four–Mike Garcia, Bob Feller, Early Wynn, and Bob Lemon, were all right handed, so no doubt there was the need, at least occasionally, for a good lefty. Two other leftys, Johnny Vander Meer and Dick Rozek, were on the roster but saw very little action so Brissie in his 54 appearances showed value with an earned run average of 3.20 including four spot starts. The Chicago White Sox sent hard hitting but immobile outfielders Dave Philley and Gus Zernial to the Philadelphia A’s where they could help new manager Jimmy Dykes draw fans if not win games. Zernial would lead the league in home runs that year. Brissie went to Cleveland from Philadelphia and Cleveland sent backup catcher Ray Murray and lefty Sam Zoldak to Philadelphia, where he pitched about as well as Brissie. The A’s sent backup outfielder Paul Lehner to Chicago, where he didn’t play much. That might have been because the White Sox, as part of this complicated deal, obtained from Cleveland Saturnino Orestes Armas Minoso. In other words, they made out like bandits.

After a month of playing sporadically at first base for Cleveland, Minoso, given the condescending nickname Minnie in the states,played 138 games for the Pale Hose as their first Black Face. He was the opposite of Zernial and Philley as a fast, talented outfielder with a strong throwing arm. He also played 68 games at third base. He finished first in the American League in stolen bases with 31 and in triples with 14 as he helped Chicago become the GO GO Sox. He was third in OPS at .922, sixth in total bases with 265,fourth in doubles (34), fifth in on base percentage (.422), fifth in slugging percentage (.500), and second in batting average (.326). He was also probably first in fan appreciation.

Cleveland won 93 games that year and it has been speculated that the emergence of Al Rosen as their third baseman could have been part of the reason Minoso was deemed expendable. Rosen had a fine season himself with 24 homers and 102 runs batted in. There are other things to speculate about when this trade is considered, however. While it is true that Orestes Minoso was technically a rookie, there is little doubt that the baseball world knew of his exploits playing in Cuba, Mexico, and the Negro leagues and also little doubt that the quality of play in those leagues was comparable to the so called big leagues, more so perhaps than anyone was willing to admit. It had only been four years since integration of the major leagues had begun and teams like the Yankees and Red Sox were still years away from accepting reality. Cleveland already had Larry Doby and Luke Easter. Was there, as many believe, a quota? It’s the only thing that makes sense to me. I grew up about 80 miles from Cleveland and about 50 miles from Pittsburgh and I will always remember one of my elders saying , when he visited us after church one Sunday in the mid 50s,that Cleveland and the Pirates “…have too many niggers ..” on their teams.

The Yankees won 98 games that year, which will always be remembered as Joe DiMaggio‘s last and Mickey Mantle‘s first. Their team earned run average was 3.56 while Cleveland’s was 3.38. New York scored 798 runs to Cleveland’s 696. Both teams hit 140 home runs. The Yankees stole more bases, 78 to 52, had an equal number of doubles (208) and more triples by 13 (48 to 35). Is it becoming more clear how Minoso may have helped close the gap offensively? The Yankees had become known as the Bronx Bombers, but in reality their big weapon was defense, especially up the middle with DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto at shortstop and Jerry Coleman or Gil McDougald at second base. The defense in Cleveland was spotty. Jim Hegan was great at catcher and Doby superb in center field but the infield with Ray Boone at short, Bobby Avila at second, and Rosen did not compare favorably at all. Doby patrolled center well but had two statues, Bob Kennedy and Dale Mitchell, on either side of him. So Orestes could have been a big help there as well.

We weren’t that far from Brooklyn vs. Cleveland World Series in 1951 and I suppose all seasons are that way somewhat and that social factors are always involved, even in the games we play and watch with each other.

Orestes Minoso went on to have a career that should have been capped with selection to the Hall of Fame. He played in nine all star games. He won three gold gloves. His lifetime batting average was .298, his on base percentage was .389, his slugging percentage was .459. He tallied 205 stolen bases in an era where they were not considered important to many teams (White Sox not included). He hit 336 doubles, 186 home runs, and 83 triples. He was frequently hit by pitches. The man from La Habana accumulated all those great numbers but also, more importantly, was damned fun to watch. Minnie Minoso was maximum ballplayer.

3 thoughts on “The Cuban Comet

  1. I remember listening to the Clevaland Indian games with Grandpap Latsko before his death, he loved those Indians. At the time, I didn’t think we could root for the American League!!!

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