A dark time to be a Southside Geek

I’m not an actor and never aspired to be, but I would imagine that in the realm of acting, there are two key challenges.  One is to repeatedly master interpreting a character that has been well written and developed.  I suppose this is the draw of the Shakespearean actors who spend a lifetime mastering the characters written by the Bard.  You start off young playing a Romeo or Juliet, and as you age, you graduate to Hamlets and Ophelias then Lears and Desdemonas and finally the Prospero and … (there really aren’t a lot of great roles for female actors … this inequity has been around for a long time!).  To me, this is like mastering the old figures that skaters were required to trace in the ice as a preliminary to the more interesting and expressive free-skate.  It took exceptional discipline and skill, even if it was not particularly creative.

The other challenge is giving birth to an original character.  Sure, there are some basics worked out by a writer, but here the challenge is to create a realistic and convincing character that is also consistent.  To me, this is the more difficult thing, because it requires discipline, intelligence, and imagination (somewhere, there is an interview where Samuel L. Jackson chides other actors’ complaints about working with green screens and virtual characters … and that he never had a problem with it because all it should take is using imagination to fill in the details).  To me, this is a bigger challenge.  I think so much of our art is derived (even Shakespeare drew heavily from source material … this is hardly new), which isn’t necessarily bad, but original characters are few and far between … and the percent of those who get some good writers and a good actor to really give them life are even smaller in number.

 

 

Spock

 

Pictured:  Original

 

You can’t be a geek and not love this guy … if there were a Mt. Rushmore for geeks, he’s up there.  It is hard to think and look back but in a time in our country (not so dissimilar from now), when emotion and illogic on all sides was the rule of the day, that a hero could come about that was so icily logical.  To conservatives, he was a stark contrast to the bleeding heart hippies and civil rights protesters tearing up cities, and to more liberally minded folks, he was a living representation of acceptance without reservation.  Anyone who ever felt like they didn’t quite fit in could relate to this character.

That’s the character.  In contrast, Leonard Nimoy wasn’t all that icy.  There have been hundreds of articles printed in the past few weeks about him (his passing was not a surprise).  Certainly there have been platitudes of sadness and celebration, all well earned.  Let me focus on some facts.

Like in 1968, when a young bi-racial girl wrote a letter to a teen magazine, addressed to Spock, asking how he handled being bi-racial.  When Nimoy found out, he wrote a letter to the magazine giving the young lady some advice.  In a time when it was hard enough for people in this country to accept African-Americans … it was progressive to even begin thinking about bi-racial people.  Keep in mind, things like this could cost performers future earnings since studios could easily turn away more progressive thinking actors in order to avoid alienating money earned in Southern/MidWestrn theaters.

Like in 1973, when Star Trek: The Animated Series was gearing up.  Nimoy found out that Shatner and DeForest Kelly (Dr. McCoy) had been approached to star along with Nimoy, but that Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), George Takei (Sulu), and Walter Koenig (Chekov) had not been offered roles.  Nimoy made it clear to the producers:  Star Trek is about diversity, and those actors were the diversity.  If they weren’t offered roles, they could count him out.  One of the recurring motifs I’ve picked up in reading a lot of the tributes to him are that his compassion and respect for fellow actors and artists was genuine.  Prior to that Nimoy and Koenig had been involved in making sure that Nichelle Nichols started getting paid equally with the rest of the non-African-American, non-female cast.

Like in 2007 when Nimoy published The Full Body Project.  Dating to his youth in Boston, Nimoy was fascinated with photography, and took classes in California, and was even an artist in residence at the American Academy in Rome.  The Full Body Project, in Nimoy’s own words, “frightened” him as he photographed nude full bodied women in an exploration of femininity and sexuality beyond what society and the media portray.

Like in 1962 when Nimoy teamed up with Vic Morrow to independently produce Deathwatch, which was a film about two prisoners fighting over the love of a third.  Read that again … a full half-decade before anyone knew who Nimoy was, he was teaming up to make a serious film about homosexual love in prison … in the early 1960s.  In the early 1980s, it was still considered risky to produce a film version of Kiss of the Spider Woman, and that got William Hurt an Oscar for his risk taking.  I would imagine that Nimoy qualifies for “artistic street cred”.

Like in 1968, when it was still a bit risky to publicly side with the Civil Rights movement, especially for less-established stars who might frighten studios away from giving them work if they were seen as taking sides … he joined far better established actors like Jack Lemmon and Barbara Streisand to help the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the immediate wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.  While the SCLC is often thought of strictly as a political association, they were also responsible for trying to help hundreds of thousands of impoverished people in the South.  Nimoy ran a food drive, including a big fundraiser at the Hollywood Bowl, to help them out.

In more recent years, he has been behind a big push to get people to stop smoking and to not start the habit.  Ultimately, this is what killed him, he knew it was going to kill him, and he tried his best to speak out and help others not walk that same road.

Spock_car

It goes without saying … he was just frickin’ geek cool 40 years before Tina Fey brought it back!  Also, there is a great story about the time Spock’s car was towed by … well, who would you guess would tow Spock’s car (set phasers for hammy fun!)?

 

That’s why there is an overwhelming amount of love for the guy.  It makes one wonder if Spock helped make Leonard Nimoy all he became, or if we so embraced Spock because so much of Leonard Nimoy was in the character.

IDICIDICIDIC

This morning I woke up to read dreadful news for the citizens of White Sox Township.  Our very own “Mr. White Sox”, Saturnino Orestes Armas Arrieta Miñoso has passed away.  He was simply known as Minnie Miñoso.  No one in Major League history had a career like him.

Miñoso was Afro-Cuban, and was the first Latino with dark skin to play in Major League Baseball.  Two years before Ernie Banks integrated the Cubs, Miñoso integrated the White Sox.  His arrival from Cleveland at the start of the 1951 season not only heralded a new era of greater racial awareness on the South Side, but it also helped bring in the “Go-Go” era in White Sox history.  In his first game on 1 May, he hit a home run.  The Sox would end the 1951 season with an 81-73 record, their first winning season since 1943.  The Sox would have winning seasons through 1967 .. .one of the five longest stretches of winning seasons in Major League history.  Over his 17 year career, he was a 9-time All-Star, and 5 times finished in the top-10 for MVP voting.  Along with Al Kaline and Willie Mays, he was one of the first three outfielders to win a Gold Glove when the award was started in 1957.  He would win two more in the next three years.  Miñoso’s career on-base percentage was 0.389 (higher than folks like Tony Gwynn, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Pete Rose, Carl Yastrzemski, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez (all of whom are at least Hall of Fame caliber players).  In one of baseball’s golden ages, Miñoso was one of its greatest players.

His career WAR (wins above average replacement player) with the White Sox is 41.3 (over his entire career, it is 50.1).  Between 1951-1960, Miñoso’s WAR was the 8th highest in the Major Leagues.  For that decade, his WAR was higher than Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Al Kaline, Larry Doby, Red Schoendienst, and Roy Campanella.  All of those players I mentioned have plaques hanging in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.  For reasons that are boggling to many baseball historians and fans, Miñoso remains a glaring omission.  8 times he finished in the top 5 in the American League in stolen bases … he might have done better if Luis Aparicio not come along and started stealing more.

In the 1950s, only two players in the Major Leagues hit 100 home runs, stole 100 bases, and managed to bat over 0.300.  Willie Mays was one.  Minnie Miñoso was the other.  That is elite company in an era of hitting.  Miñoso was an exceptional all-around player.

Miñoso retired with a very respectable 0.298 batting average.  From 1951-60, Miñoso batted 0.307, which was the 8th highest batting average for the entire decade in Major League Baseball (rounded off, that ties him with Mickey Mantle!).  His teammate Nellie Fox, who eventually made it to the Hall of Fame after far too long a wait, batted only 0.303 for the decade.

Aside from integrating their respective teams, and becoming so beloved as to earn the monikers “Mr. Cub”/”Mr. White Sox”, Miñoso and Banks shared something else … they truly loved the game.  In Miñoso’s case, he hated being away form it.  In 1976, with Bill Veeck back in charge of the White Sox, Minnie, aged 51 (plus or minus a few years, no one was certain of his real age), signed a limited contract with the Sox, and made it into 3 games as a designated hitter.  In 8 at-bats, Minnie managed one hit, becoming the third player in history to hit safely in a Major League game after his 50th birthday (I remember this distinctly … my dad was not a big baseball fan, but even he got excited about seeing a player from his boyhood getting a second chance).  In 1980, Minnie made a shorter return (2 games, 2 at bats as a pinch hitter), and became the first player to appear in 5 decades of Major League Baseball.  Only former Sox great Nick Altrock and the immortal Satchel Paige had played Major League Baseball at an older age.

In 1990, the Miami Miracle of the Florida State League (a minor league) requested permission to sign Miñoso to play in his 6th decade of professional baseball.  The Commissioner’s Office refused to grant permission, but three years later, the independent St. Paul Saints (owned by Disco Demolition creator Mike Veeck, Bill Veeck’s son) gave Miñoso his wish.  In 2003, now aged 78ish, Minnie made his final professional appearance, drawing a walk, becoming the oldest player to reach base in a professional game.

One of the prizes of my collection is a baseball signed by the 1957 White Sox, and Minnie is on there.  About a year and a half ago, I was at a show (which would turn out to be Minnie’s last appearance).  I realized what a shame it was that I had never actually met “Mr. White Sox” face-to-face.  So I decided to go and do so.  He was certainly of an older age, but he would continue telling stories until you walked away.  I purchased one of his custom made hats, proclaiming that he is in fact baseball’s only 7 decade player.  On the brim, he signed it. personally, to me.  That’s a special part of the collection!

Minnie_statue

Minnie got about every accolade that he had coming to him.  His #9 had been retired in 1983 by the White Sox (only Luke Appling and Nellie Fox had their numbers retired prior to that).  In 2004, the White Sox dedicated a statue to him on the outfield concourse.  In 2000, he was elected one of the three starting outfielders on the White Sox “All-Century Team”.  In 1984, he was elected to the Chicago Sports Hall of Fame, and in 1990 he got elected to the World Baseball Hall of Fame.  Minnie has been elected to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame … TWICE!  After the government of former pitcher Fidel Castro closed down the Cuban professional league in 1960, the Hall of Fame there stopped selecting players.  A group of baseball players in exile formed a group in Florida to keep the tradition alive, and elected Minnie in 1983.  After a half-century of dormancy, the Cuban government re-opened the actual Cuban Hall of Fame, and began inductions again in 2014.  Minnie got in on the first ballot!  At the last game ever played at old Comiskey Park, Minnie brought out the lineup card to the umpires for the final time.

It seems like everyone has recognized the greatness of this special player … except for the American Baseball Hall of Fame.  Despite all of his numbers, Minnie played in the shadow of players like Mantle and Williams who were superior power-hitting outfielders.  Even in Chicago, he took a back seat to Ernie Banks who slammed over 500 home runs.  Not helping his case is that he never appeared in the post season (he spent 1959 with Cleveland while the Sox won the AL pennant).  Some have suggested that his later-life appearances were seen as cheap publicity stunts.  As more and more people embrace sabremetrics, the accomplishments of Miñoso’s career are getting more positive buzz.  Bill James, one of the first historians to routinely apply advanced metrics in baseball listed Miñoso as the 10th best left fielder in the game’s history, noting that he might have been ranked higher if he had been allowed to play sooner (Miñoso didn’t make his MLB debut until he was 26).  In 2011, Miñoso finished runner-up on the ballot for induction by the Golden-Era Veterans Committee (losing out to the recently deceased Ron Santo).  In 2014, he finished fifth in a year where no players got enough votes to be inducted (I have a hard time forgiving the committee for this … if Minnie had been elected, he would have gone in along side Tony LaRussa and Frank Thomas, and I would have witnessed that!).  At this point, while he certainly deserves induction, and I suspect it will come one day, it is even more of slap in the face to a great player to be strung along until after their death.  I mean, some of the slightly less extreme Pete Rose fans suggest that as a fitting punishment.  Why is Minnie getting treated this way?

Minnie_Jose

Minnie’s last public appearance at U.S. Cellular Field was 26 April 2014 to throw out the first pitch at Noche de Familia Night … a night dedicated to Latino families.  Catching the pitch was Cuban-born rookie José Abreu, who would win the AL Rookie of the Year Award that year.

Nonetheless, I will choose to dwell on his greatness.  We members of this small township of baseball fans know the truth about this gift given to us over 60 years ago.  We will continue to tell the stories of this man’s legacy to the game and the city that embraced him.

58_Sox_Logo58_Sox_Logo58_Sox_Logo

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