(MCT) — Veteran broadcast documentarian Tom Weinberg first met baseball legend Minnie Minoso in the spring of 1976 over a game of shuffleboard at a motel in Sarasota, Fla., then the spring training home of the Chicago White Sox.
"We had a deal to do a TV show about (White Sox) spring training, but it rained every day," Weinberg recalled. "So I played shuffleboard with Minnie and ended up interviewing him.
"He had been my hero as a kid (when he played for the White Sox in the 1950s). He was such an exciting, great player."
Now, 36 years after that initial videotaped meeting, Weinberg's four-decades-in-the-making documentary on the "Cuban Comet" is finally set to premiere on local television.
The hourlong documentary, "Baseball's Been Very, Very Good To Me: The Minnie Minoso Story," runs on WTTW-Ch. 11 at 10 p.m. Tuesday. The title is a phrase that Minoso has used often through the years, long before it became a catchphrase of the fictional Latin baseball player Chico Escuela played by Garrett Morris on "Saturday Night Live" in the late 1970s.
"Baseball's Been Very, Very Good To Me" covers the life of the engaging Minoso, a nine-time All-Star. Utilizing rarely seen Major League Baseball film of Minoso during his heyday as a member of the Go-Go Sox in the 1950s, along with interviews conducted with Minnie from 1976 to 2012, it positions him as not only one of the greatest players of his generation but also a pioneer as the first black Latin star of the post-integration era in the major leagues.
"He's the man's man of Latin baseball players," says Latinobaseball.com's Ralph Paniagua in the documentary. "Guys like Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda (Latin major league stars from the 1960s and 1970s), when Minnie comes into a room, they bow down."
"Minnie was our Jackie Robinson," added Miami radio talk show host Jose "Chamby" Campos in the program. "He opened the doors for all the Latin Americans."
Minoso, who made himself readily available for Weinberg and his director/videographer/editor Joel Cohen during the making of the program, was also there for the official premiere of the documentary, held Nov. 29 at Sluggers Bar near Wrigley Field, a favorite hangout spot for Minoso, who lives near the area.
In addition to being a premiere for the documentary, it was also a birthday celebration for the ageless Minoso, whose 89th (or 90th, depending on who you believe) natal day was Nov. 29.
The former five-tool superstar, who gave a brief, impassioned speech before the screening about how Sox and Cubs fans should "love and respect each other," presented the film with his official thumbs-up after the screening.
"It's a beautiful documentary; I just hope the fans like it," said Minoso, who was dressed in his Sox jersey (with his number "9" on the back) for the premiere, attended by about 60 people, many of whom were close family or friends.
The finished work is a thorough look at Minoso's life, with dozens of interviews, ranging from MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf to former Cincinnati Reds star Tony Perez, who idolized Minnie when he was growing up in his native Cuba.
There are numerous revelations in the documentary, including one from rarely seen Sox minority owner Eddie Einhorn, who says that the team wanted to bring Minoso back for a major league at-bat in the 1990s.
"We were stopped by Major League Baseball," Einhorn said. "They wouldn't allow us to even put him in as a pinch runner. They thought he was too old, and, of course, we really don't know how old Minnie really is."
We also learn about Minoso's complex relationship with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who appropriated all of Minnie's property in Cuba after the revolution, yet admired the "Cuban Comet" as a player.
"Castro said Minnie wasn't a friend of the revolution," said Madison, Wis., Mayor Paul Soglin, who visited Cuba and was part of a group that met the dictator in 1975. "But Castro said he was a hero to the Cuban people, and, because of that, he was always welcome back."
The documentary also pulls no punches when looking back at the racism Minoso encountered throughout the country during his first few years with the Sox in the early '50s. Even in Chicago, Minoso wasn't allowed to stay in Hyde Park's Piccadilly Hotel, where many Sox players lived during the season, because of his race.
"There were times when we weren't accepted in hotels and had to live in different places," recalled his son, Orestes Minoso-Arietta Jr. "But one of the things I appreciated about my father is that he understood the times that he was living in."
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the documentary, however, is Minoso's resolute belief that he belongs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. During the uber-competitive pre-expansion days of the 1950s, when there were only eight teams in each league, Minoso was one of the American League's top players. He was ranked second in the league in hits, runs scored, extra-base hits and total bases, and fifth in batting average in the AL during the decade, which places him among the likes of the New York Yankees' Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra (both Hall of Famers) and teammate Nellie Fox (also in the Hall of Fame).
When you factor in his pioneering status as the first great black Latin player in the majors, his time spent in the Negro Leagues (where he also was an All-Star) and the Cuban Leagues, his career spanning seven decades (although his appearances with the Sox in 1976 and 1980 were publicity stunts) and his continued work as an ambassador with the White Sox, his legitimacy as a Hall of Famer seems valid.
So he is seen being understandably distressed in the documentary when the Hall of Fame Golden Era Committee selects former Cub Ron Santo and not Minoso into Cooperstown in late 2011.
"My heart feels it, but I don't show it to the people," says a disappointed Minoso after hearing that he wasn't selected for the Hall. "Baseball, what have I done wrong to you to make those people who have the decision push me out."
Despite Minoso's full cooperation, it wasn't an easy project for the 68-year-old Weinberg and Cohen to finish. The exorbitant cost to license the vintage Major League Baseball film and archival photos in the documentary forced Weinberg to use the fundraising website Kickstarter to help raise the $20,000 to complete post-production.
Weinberg auctioned off Minoso-related memorabilia on the site, ranging from autographed baseball cards to jerseys, in order to raise the funds.
"It was labor-intensive and something that I don't necessarily like to do, but we needed the money to finish," Weinberg said.
Also, while Weinberg is happy to have the documentary premiering on WTTW, a station with which he has had a long relationship (Weinberg created "Image Union" and the series "The 90s" for Channel 11 and PBS), he was initially looking at either other national cable outlets such as ESPN or the Major League Baseball network as a potential home for the documentary. But Weinberg said that it isn't easy for an independent documentarian to get a "one-off" program on the networks.
"They're looking for series, not one-offs" Weinberg said. "And while Minnie has currency here in Chicago, it's tougher to sell him to a national audience."
But Weinberg, who is working on a project about a lost city in Honduras, says that his ultimate goal is to get as many people as possible to see the finished product, if only to get more people aware of Minoso while he is still alive.
"I think Minnie is an incredibly respectable human being, I really do," Weinberg said. "He's a solid citizen who loves people, loves his life, has overcome many things and never quits."
"Baseball Has Been Very, Very Good To Me: The Minnie Minoso Story" airs at 10 p.m. Tuesday and 3:30 a.m. Wednesday on WTTW-Ch. 11. It airs at 4 p.m. Wednesday on WTTW Prime.
Watch video excerpts of the documentary and of Minnie at the Sluggers premiere of the program online at chicagotribune.com/Minnie.