Worthy pioneers gain Baseball Hall of Fame

Their Saints came marching in Sunday.

At long last. Buck O’Neil and Minnie Minoso were honored for their greatness by the Baseball Hall of Fame, rewarded for their perseverance, as much for who they were as what they did.

“We are trav’ling in the footsteps; Of those who’ve gone before.” goes “When The Saints Go Marching In” in part. “But we’ll all be reunited; On a new and sunlit shore.”

Honored alas, from beyond the grave O’Neil and Minoso will be, on a shore in Cooperstown, N.Y. next July. But praised for all times with delayed appreciation, two examples of belated Black Lives Matter.

Minoso, the unique Chicago White Sox figure, was voted in by the Golden Era Committee. O’Neil, the ultimate ambassador for the sport whose playing days were relegated to the Negro Leagues, was chosen by the Golden Days Era Committee.

When I read the news I literally applauded in my seat. They were memorable men whom I met and interviewed and for whom I’ve been rooting to receive this ultimate recognition.

O’Neil exuded wisdom and dignity. He played and managed, 1934-1955, mostly for the Kansas City Monarchs and was the first Major-League, African-American coach with the Chicago Cubs in 1962. He was key in establishing the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

O’Neil enjoyed a late-life renaissance through the 1994 Ken Burns documentary on baseball.

O’Neil’s genial, deep-voiced performance was the gem of the show.

John Jordan O’Neil Jr. was born in Carabelle, Florida in 1911, and in his youth engaged in back-breaking celery field work in Sarasota. About a year before his death at 94 in 2006, we rendezvoused at the Negro Leagues shrine.

What struck me was the massive size of the 5-foot-10 O’Neil’s hands and the marvelous power retained in his handshake.

O’Neil spoke glowingly of this same neighborhood when it was populated by the best jazz clubs and his baseball teams stayed in black-owned hotels.

He did not talk of being the grandson of a slave nor very much about how discrimination limited his professional options. At least not with anger in his tone, though he acknowledged that dark side of America.

“We did our duty,” O’Neil said of Negro Leagues players. “We laid the groundwork for the Jackie Robinsons and the Willie Mays’… We did our part and turned it over to the next generation.”

The longer he lived and the fewer of his contemporaries survived, O’Neil became the unofficial spokesman for all of them.

A native Spanish speaker, Minoso was born in Cuba in 1925 and spoke English with a thick accident. He broke the color barrier for the White Sox in 1951. While batting just about .300 in the majors, and labeled “The Cuban Comet,” the outfielder became a favorite of Sox owner Bill Veeck.

Periodically, Minoso signed for single-game gimmick appearances so it could be said he played in the majors in five decades. But Minoso was a serious player, making the All-Star team in seven seasons and winning three Gold Glove awards.

Before his death at 89 in 2015, Minoso was a regular at White Sox games. I saw him often, said hello regularly, and sometimes spoke at length. For years he made community relations appearances for the team.

“I love it,” said the man born Saturino Orestes Arrieta Armas Minoso and who enjoyed wearing flashy clothes and driving flashy cars, such as a pink Cadillac. “I’m having fun.” He joked that if he wrote his full name in autographs “signing it would take 10 days.”

Growing up in a home split by divorce, so poor his family had no electricity, Minoso aspired to come to the U.S. He first did so in 1946 with the New York Cubans of the Negro National League and his stats included seasons batting .356 and .344.

He refused to make much of becoming the first Black White Sox. “It happened to be me,” Minoso said. “It’s not something special or bigger than what other guys did.”

But it was something special only a small number of others did for their organizations at a time it involved having racist epithets hurled their way.

Louis Armstrong, whose version of “The Saints” is well-remembered, was one of those jazz stars O’Neil listened to in their primes. Perhaps when O’Neil and Minoso enter the Hall together, someone should play the song for all to hear.

“Some say this world of trouble, Is the only one we need; But I’m waiting for that morning; When the new world is revealed. When the air is pure and clean; When the air is pure and clean; O Lord I want to be in that number; When the saints go marching in.”