Howie Minas, a roly-poly fireball of a man who talked so fast you had to play close attention, died last month. And a part of the NBC World Series went with him.
Minas put together a town baseball team in Midlothian, Ill., during the 1960s and that team turned into an NBC champion, finally winning a championship in 1992 with a bang fitting of the team. The White Sox drubbed Liberal 21-1, the most lopsided championship game in the 77-year history of the tournament.
Midlothian’s make-up always included a sprinkling of college players from the Chicago area. But the backbone of the squad was a group of good-natured rough-housers who liked to party as much as they liked hitting long home runs. The White Sox stormed Wichita year after year, led by the stoic but determined Minas, who lived a blue-collar life as a cement finisher and later a sports shop owner in Midlothian, a south-side Chicago suburb where people get dirty while they work.
Minas took meticulous care of the baseball field on which his team played at 144th and Homan Avenue, a field that bears his name. He showed up early in the morning to prepare for a game that night. He never let his team take infield or batting practice on his field; it was reserved for games.
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The White Sox played home games every Tuesday and Thursday nights and a doubleheader on Saturday. It was like clockwork, with an occasional Sunday doubleheader thrown in.
Minas’ team couldn’t have been from a more appropriate place. There was nothing glitzy about him or his team. They didn’t float like butterflies; they stung like a two-by-four to the back of the head.
Midlothian set one home-run record after another in the NBC World Series, including Kirk Vucsko’s nine in 1990. When Minas was finally able to put together a pitching staff that was adequate, the White Sox became consistent tournament contenders.
It wasn’t until 1992, though, that they became conquerors.
“We just steam rolled everybody,’’ Vucsko told the Southtown Star, a suburban Chicago newspaper that published Minas’ obituary. “Howie cried tears of joy.’’
It was surely emotional around home plate at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium that championship night during the trophy presentation. After so many years of coming close, including a second-place finish in 1988, it was finally Midlothian’s time. Everybody reveled in Minas’ victory, even Liberal fans.
Minas’ passion for baseball and willingness to put in the time and money necessary to have a team, even though he never had a lot of money, embodies what the NBC is all about. I haven’t known too many wealthy NBC team owners or general managers over the years. Sure, there have been a few who were able to bankroll a team, but they’re rare.
Minas, like so many others who came before and after, made it work by selling ads for Midlothian’s game program. And by holding car washes, bake sales, bingo nights – whatever it took to raise enough money to sustain his baby, which was the White Sox.
He brought a string of mediocre teams to Wichita in the early years, but often said those years provided him with a valuable learning experience. Each year, it seemed, Midlothian got a little better. Then the White Sox blew the doors off the tournament, dominating in a way few teams have.
But as quickly as the team’s championship breakthrough ended, the White Sox were gone. Most of the players from the ’92 team regrouped at the start of the next season, but the goal had been realized. And by August, when the NBC World Series was starting, most of the White Sox had disappeared.
Minas ended up helping Bob Sullivan, an old nemesis from Sullivan’s years with the four-time champion Grand Rapids (Mich.) Sullivans, coach a new Grand Rapids team sponsored by Little Caesar’s. Those two in the same dugout was as strange as it was entertaining, but the team wasn’t around long enough for any fireworks.
Sullivan loved to tell stories about Minas, and he had a favorite from a game between his Sullivans and Midlothian.
“Howie hauled out this great big hose from behind the stands and brought in into the infield,’’ Sullivan said in 1993. “Then he said to the umpires, ‘This is how bad you’re hosing us, maybe you need to hose us some more.’”
Minas came back to Lawrence-Dumont Stadium for quite a few years after the 1992 title, but never again brought a team with him. He sometimes talked about putting the band back together, but most of the White Sox players had gotten old and out of shape and unwilling to do what it would have taken to get back into shape.
The NBC old-timers enjoyed seeing Minas every summer, but they couldn’t help but notice sadness in his eyes. The ultimate competitor had been left without a team with which to compete. And it didn’t take long for Minas to learn that watching a game in the stands wasn’t nearly as satisfying as managing one in the dugout.
A large group of former Midlothian players showed up at Minas’ funeral last month. I’m sure their stories spread into the next day as they remembered a man who got as much out of baseball as anyone who ever lived.
Minas was buried in his Midlothian White Sox uniform. If there was a game where he was going, he was determined to be ready.