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Oliva reflects on Minoso's life and career

Former Twins great remembers fellow Cuban who died Sunday
MLB.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The cherished fraternity of all-time great Cuban ballplayers suffered a serious loss Sunday, when Minnie Minoso died. Tony Oliva, another all-time great Cuban, was saddened to hear of Minoso's passing and shared his memories of him on Sunday.

"I don't know if he was better than me, but in my book, when they talk about the best Cuban ballplayers, I always say Minoso," said Oliva of his pioneering peer and countryman. "I know I've got all the batting championships and all that stuff, but he did all that stuff, too. He didn't win the batting championships, but if you look at his records and his numbers, you know he was a great ballplayer."

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The cherished fraternity of all-time great Cuban ballplayers suffered a serious loss Sunday, when Minnie Minoso died. Tony Oliva, another all-time great Cuban, was saddened to hear of Minoso's passing and shared his memories of him on Sunday.

"I don't know if he was better than me, but in my book, when they talk about the best Cuban ballplayers, I always say Minoso," said Oliva of his pioneering peer and countryman. "I know I've got all the batting championships and all that stuff, but he did all that stuff, too. He didn't win the batting championships, but if you look at his records and his numbers, you know he was a great ballplayer."

Minoso, whose birthday was listed on baseball-reference.com as Nov. 29, 1925, but whom some believed was as many as three years older, made his big league debut in 1949 with Cleveland and later became the first black player in the history of the White Sox in 1951. Minoso played in the 1940's, 50's and 60's before returning for brief cameo appearances in 1976 (at age 50) and 1980 (age 54). Minoso is one of only two players to play in five decades (Nick Altrock), and he finished his career with a .298 batting average.

Oliva, who would go on to win three batting titles in his distinguished career, said that the era Minoso played in bore almost no resemblance to the game of today. Minoso had to break in at a hostile time, said Oliva, and his statistics can't possibly tell you the context of all he accomplished.

"He played in the '50's and '60's, and that was a nasty era to play baseball, especially if you came from Latin America or you're black or didn't speak the language," he said. "Right now, it's a piece of cake to play the game. It's beautiful. Everything's for the better, for the best. I'm so glad to be able to be around and see all the changes. But it's not the same as playing baseball in the '40's, '50's and '60's."

Oliva said he first learned of Minoso in the Cuban winter leagues during his youth, and he would go on to make his Major League debut just two seasons before Minoso retired for the first time. And when he was told of Minoso's passing on Sunday, Oliva said that he was mostly caught by surprise.

"The first thing I did was open my mouth [in shock]," said Oliva of learning that Minoso had passed away. "I know he was old, but when you see him, he looked like he was 60 years old. He was in good shape and he'd have good expressions, playing around and talking. I talked to him right after the Hall of Fame, and he said, 'They did it to us again. I don't think I'll be around the next time.'"

Oliva, a .304 career hitter in 15 seasons, said he could identify with Minoso for their many near-misses to the Hall of Fame. Oliva fell one vote shy and Minoso missed by four votes in the Golden Era Committee's most recent ballot, but both believed that the door might swing open one day.

"We did what we were supposed to do. We put up the numbers. Now, it's in other people's hands," said Oliva of waiting on word from the Hall of Fame. "Right now, you have to wait three years. And if you're 70 or 80 or 90 years old, three years is like 100 years. The only thing keeping you alive is the fans and the other ballplayers. The other ballplayers mention to you that you belong in the Hall of Fame, and the fans remind you that you belong in the Hall of Fame. The fans fight for you."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com

Minnesota Twins