Sports

Karl Lindholm: Kitty, Tony, Minnie, Gil, Bud & Buck: About time!

BORN A STONE’S throw from Cooperstown in 1858, Bud Fowler was baseball’s first Black professional player. A “baseball nomad,” he played all over the country (even Montpelier, Vt.!) on white teams until the game was segregated in 1887, and then organized and played on Black teams until 1904.
Painting by Graig Kreindler used with the permission of Jay Caldwell

We now have a Vermonter in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Yes, he’s a transplant, but he’s a genuine resident (at least in the warm weather months).

No, I’m not talking about Bill Lee of Craftsbury, Vt., the esteemed Spaceman and Yankee-killer, he of the 119 major league wins, and 2008 inductee into the Red Sox Hall of Fame. Bill has lived in the Kingdom for 32 years.

It’s Jim Kaat, the Minnesota Twins pitcher and later a New York Yankee broadcaster. He resides now, for a few months a year anyway, in Manchester, Vt. He married Margy, a golf pro, 11 years ago and they are now members at Manchester’s Ekwanok Golf Club — “and that’s what brings us to Southern Vermont,” he told the Bennington Banner in December.

Kaat, nicknamed (inevitably) “Kitty,” was the consummate baseball player at his position: pitcher. He played in the Majors for 25 years, 15 with the Twins, nearly 900 games in all, compiling a sterling 3.45 lifetime earned run average.

In the his prime (’62-‘76), he averaged 16 wins a year, winning 25 games in 1966 and 21 games eight years later (‘74) and 20 games the year after that, at age 36. A big lefty (6-foot, 4 inches, 205 pounds), Kaat was a terrific athlete — a good hitter and the Gold Glove winner at his position for 16 years. After his baseball career ended, he turned to broadcasting and called Yankee games for 12 years.

Tony Oliva joins him in this year’s Hall of Fame class. Jim was his teammate with Minnesota for all of Tony’s 15-year career, 1962-76. Both are members of the Twins’ Hall of Fame. Oliva’s career was compromised by chronic knee issues: his last four years were as a designated hitter (an innovation introduced in 1973).

When I asked the aforementioned Mr. Lee the toughest hitter he faced, he replied without hesitation “Tony Oliva — he just wore me out. Line drives everywhere! He could really hit!” This estimate was echoed by Yanks ace Catfish Hunter and Boston star Luis Tiant, a fellow Cuban.

Tony was Rookie of the Year in 1964, won three AL batting titles, was an All-Star eight times, won a Gold Glove in ’66, and retired with a lifetime BA of .304. Born in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, Tony still lives in Bloomington, Minn. He and Jim Kaat are both 83 years old and in good health.

ORESTES “MINNIE” MIÑOSO, the Cuban Comet, integrated Chicago baseball for the White Sox in 1949 after playing three years for the New York Cubans in the Negro Leagues. Miñoso was an All-Star nine times in his 17-year MLB career.
Painting by Graig Kreindler used with the permission of Jay Caldwell

Kaat and Oliva are two of six new members of Baseball’s Hall of Fame, voted in through the Veterans Committee process this fall. The others are Minnie Miñoso, Gil Hodges, Bud Fowler, and Buck O’Neil.

The Veterans Committee actually has five subcommittees, representing different eras of the game, and that don’t meet annually. The subcommittees are broadly composed of 16 members each and include former players, baseball executives, writers and historians.

Minnie Miñoso: Born in Perico, Cuba, Saturnino Orestes Armas Miñoso Arrieta early on got the nickname “Minnie.” I remember as a kid thrilling to the play of Miñoso of the Go-Go White Sox of the 1950s, a good American League team along with Cleveland (all AL teams then played in the shadow of the Damn Yankees).

Minnie was a dynamic player, nicknamed the Cuban Comet. He had all five tools: could run like the wind, hit for average and power, and played great defense in center field. He was an All-Star nine times and a three-time Gold Glove winner; he batted over 300 eight times; and twice led the American league in steals and triples.

Minnie integrated baseball in Chicago when he signed with the White Sox in 1951, two years before Ernie Banks integrated the Cubs. He played three seasons for the Cuban Giants in the Negro Leagues, and one year with the Indians who signed him to an MLB contract. Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda called Minnie “the Jackie Robinson of all Latinos, everybody’s hero.”

Power hitting first baseman Gil Hodges was the rock of Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, the Boys of Summer. An eight-time All-Star with three Gold Gloves, Hodges long had the distinction of being the player with the most votes on the writers’ ballot without gaining induction.

After his playing career, Hodges was the manager of the Miracle Mets of 1969. He died four years later at 47 in the midst of his managerial career.

BUCK O’NEIL WAS a stalwart player and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, the a scout (1955-62) and first Black coach (’62) in Major League Baseball for the Chicago Cubs. For 60 years after his playing career ended, he was an ambassador for the Negro leagues and baseball itself. He died at 94 in 2006.

Bud Fowler was a pioneer of baseball, a “baseball nomad,” who played all over the country (including Montpelier, Vt., in 1887!), on dozens and dozens of teams as the game took root as a cultural institution in the last quarter of the 19th century. Fowler is acknowledged as the first Black professional baseball player, and was a good player indeed. His contemporary, Hall of Famer Sol White, referred to Bud as “the celebrated promoter of colored ball clubs, and the sage of baseball.”

Fowler’s induction is a return home in some respects: he was born John W. Jackson in Fort Plains, N.Y., just a stone’s throw from Cooperstown where he played ball as kid (why he took on the name Fowler, we don’t know). He played largely on white teams before the color line was imposed. His peripatetic life is a fascinating journey through baseball’s earliest days.

John “Buck” O’Neil is one of the most beloved figures in the long history of the game. Shut out by baseball’s color line, he excelled in the Negro Leagues as a player and as a manager for the Kansas City Monarchs. After MLB’s integration, he joined the Chicago Cubs as a scout from 1955-62 and then became the Majors’ first Black coach for the Cubs.

Buck gave the Negro Leagues a face, a heart, and a personality in Ken Burns’ 18-hour baseball documentary (1994). To get a sense of Buck’s remarkable nature, read Joe Posnanski’s wonderful book “The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America.”

The results of the annual Baseball Writers Association of America Hall of Fame vote will be announced on Jan. 25. This year’s vote is immersed in controversy, as Clemens and Bonds and Schilling are all in their 10th and final year of eligibility — and Big Papi and A-Rod are in their first.

I have no problem honoring the six that entered the Hall this fall: there’s no controversy or stain of scandal among them, Hall of Famers indeed!

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