CHICAGO -- Minnie Minoso is 85. Or 88. Or, if you believe what Orlando Cepeda told Jerry Reinsdorf, 91.
He long has been one of the greatest treasures on Chicago's baseball scene, although only the wisest among us have truly embraced him. Bill James, the numbers cruncher who helped turn statistical analysis into the industry it has become, provides a nice definition of Minoso's legacy.
"The fantastic level of his passion for the game, which shone through everything he did, every play he made," James wrote in an email this week. "The way he has lived his life, which was communicated so clearly to all who saw him play."
Minoso played his first baseball game in Bridgeport in 1947 -- the Negro Leagues' East-West All-Star Game, when the Comiskey Park stands were packed beyond capacity -- and broke the color barrier with the White Sox almost 60 years ago, in dramatic fashion. His home run off the Yankees' Vic Raschi on May 1, 1951 was sweet music to the ears of manager Paul Richards, who had pushed general manager Frank Lane to trade for him.
"It seems like yesterday," Minoso said during lunch Wednesday.
There are whispers around U.S. Cellular Field that Minnie has started to age, and White Sox employees should know. They see him all the time, as he motors down Lake Shore Drive from the townhouse that has been his home for 30 years to eat at the Bard's Room, where Reinsdorf serves lunch year-round for his staff.
It is there, in the company of the White Sox chairman, general manager Ken Williams, community relations director Christine O'Reilly or any of the scores of staffers who long ago adopted him as an honorary grandfather that the legendary Cuban outfielder can count on being treated with a level of respect equal to what he achieved and overcame in a life defying adjectives.
"Everybody's so sweet, so nice," Minoso said. "You feel like a little baby. There's a lot of love, a lot of respect. It makes you feel like you're born again."
Minoso looks great for his age, whatever age he is (some sources list his year of birth as 1922, others as '25). He says he has maintained his playing weight (175 pounds), and his legs are still the strong pistons that drove him to leave Cuba as a teenager and then to extend his career by a decade in Mexico after the White Sox released him in 1964.
"I went there for one year and stayed for 10," Minoso says, offering the hint of a smile.
Minnie has a wife who is much younger, a son in his early 20s and a border collie named Jewel he walks around a Chicago neighborhood where he could not have lived during his big-league career, which saw him hit above .300 in eight of his first 10 seasons, drive in 100 runs four times and steal 205 bases.
"He's somebody that radiates happiness," Reinsdorf says. "He makes everybody around him feel good. There's something special about his personality."
Minoso grew up in the sugar cane country outside Havana. He fell in love with baseball there and chased his dream to America as a member of the New York Cubans in 1946 and '47, the years when baseball finally was wrestling with the badly overdue topic of integration.
The Indians, who had signed Larry Doby to break the American League's color barrier three months after Jackie Robinson arrived in Brooklyn, signed Minoso before the '48 season but mostly would leave him in the minors until '51, when after eight games they traded him to Richards' White Sox.
Minoso, the first dark-skinned Latin in the big leagues, was treated like he was black but faced additional challenges because he was only learning to speak English.
"There were only two kinds of players then," Minoso says. "There was black and white, and I am not white."
University of Illinois professor Adrian Burgos Jr. says Minoso's career path is "unprecedented" in all that he faced, including the revolution in Cuba that would cut him off from his family and his home.
"He was constantly tested, and he would have to take it to dispel the stereotype of the hot-headed Latin," Burgos said. "He made it easier for (Roberto) Clemente and everyone behind him."
Former Negro Leaguer Monte Irvin says "before you learn how to hit, you had to learn how to duck," as white pitchers tested their new adversaries. Minoso apparently wasn't much of a ducker. He led the league in being hit by pitches 10 times in his first 11 seasons, but never changed his aggressive hitting style.
"He crowded the plate," Reinsdorf says. "He stood right on top of the plate."
On an afternoon at Yankee Stadium in May, 1955, Minoso was hitting cleanup. A double by Jungle Jim Rivera had put men on second and third with one out in the first, and Minoso dug his spikes into the dirt intent on bringing home two runs. The pitch from Bob Grim, a 20-game winner and Rookie of the Year in '54, slammed into the left side of Minoso's head, breaking his helmet.
It would be two days later, back in Chicago, when Minoso would learn it also fractured his skull. He went to the hospital on the advice of the Comiskey Park cook, not the team trainer, who had cleared him to play.
"The doctor said if I had played one more game I could have died," says Minoso, who would miss two weeks, and probably should have stayed out longer.
Those were tough times, and Minoso holds no grudges. He is, however, angry at the various gatekeepers of baseball's Hall of Fame, which have denied him admission while enshrining Negro Leaguers he does not consider his equal. He will be considered this winter by the latest incarnation of the Veterans Committee on the 1947-72 ballot.
He is disappointed that a city that so loudly has lamented the late Ron Santo's exclusion from the Hall rarely even has included him in the conversation. It is not his style to be outspoken or critical, but an upcoming documentary by Chicagoan Tom Weinberg promises to carry some pointed comments.
Minoso offered a few over lunch.
"I've kept it inside me," he said. "It will go with me when I die. I won't be able to talk after I die. . . . I'm mad because it seems a lot of people ignore a lot of things I do in baseball."
Younger fans know Minoso primarily (if not exclusively) for coming out of retirement to play a handful of games in 1976 and '80, promotions Bill Veeck put together so Minoso could become a four- and then five-decade player.
"Unfortunately, I think he's largely remembered for the stunts," analyst Rob Neyer of SB Nation said. "But wasn't he the first black Latino star in the majors? Seems like that should be his legacy."
Minoso enjoys the company of fellow Cubans such as Alexei Ramirez, and was delighted that Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras contributed to the White Sox's 2005 championship. He hasn't visited Cuba since he left, and has no plans to return now that the last of his four siblings has died.
"I was busy," Minoso said. "Too busy. I was in love with an organization. It was my home, my organization -- the White Sox."