Fernandez was the first Tiger shortstop to hit 20 homers

Chico Fernandez hit 20 home runs for the Detroit Tigers in 1962.

Chico Fernandez hit 20 home runs for the Detroit Tigers in 1962.

This month, one of the Tigers most popular players from the early 1960s is celebrating his birthday and I thought it was the perfect time to look back at his interesting career.

Cuban-born shortstop Chico Fernandez had one of those weird careers with several twists and turns, a baseball journey filled with odd circumstances, surprises and a few disappointments. But overall, Fernandez was a man who loved to play baseball, and he enjoyed his best and most popular seasons in Detroit.

Beginning in 1960, Fernandez spent parts of four seasons in the uniform of the Detroit Tigers. But just when it seemed he had established himself as a promising member of the Detroit infield he was traded away in one of those deals that had fans asking “What the heck?”

Humberto Fernandez Perez was born in Havana, Cuba on March 2, 1932. At an early age he distinguished himself with his athletic prowess on that baseball-crazy island. After the color barrier was finally broken in Major League Baseball in 1947, many teams were crawling all over Central America searching for baseball talent. It was no longer necessary to sign only “light-skinned” Latinos. All of the great talent in Cuba and elsewhere south of the border was fair game. The Brooklyn Dodgers were one of the first teams to staff a robust crew of scouts to scour that region for ballplayers. The 18-year old Fernandez was signed by the Dodgers in 1951.

The Brooklyn scout who found Fernandez wrote that he was “an excellent shortstop with a major league arm,” while also noting he “needs work on his swing.” Fernandez played his first pro ball in the states for the Dodgers’ farm team in Billings, Montana, a place about as different from Havana as he could imagine. In his first few years with the Dodgers, Fernandez hit better than expected and showed great range at shortstop, but other factors conspired to keep him from the big leagues. For one, he was blocked by Pee Wee Reese, the star shortstop playing every day for the Dodgers. The team also had a deep, well-stocked farm system with excellent middle infielders under contract all over the country. It also didn’t help that Fernandez was adapting poorly to life in the United States. He missed his family and as a very sensitive young man, he often had difficulty relating to his managers and coaches. He could pout or sulk for days or weeks if he made a poor play or was chastised by anyone in authority.

Fernandez was in his sixth minor league season before he was finally promoted to the major leagues, in 1956 when he was summoned midseason to serve as a utility infielder for Walter Alston. But when Reese finally lost his job it wasn’t to Chico, it was to another long-serving minor leaguer, Maury Wills. The Dodgers sent Fernandez to the Phillies where he finally got a chance to play every day at the top level. In 1957 he appeared in 149 games, hitting .262 with 18 stolen bases and 51 runs batted in. He served two years as the Phils’ shortstop until he lost his job in 1959 for what the team judiciously called “lack of interest.” What was the problem? Well, mostly it was his attitude. Fernandez held out for more money almost every spring, he reported late to spring camp, and he generally made a nuisance of himself.

To be fair to Chico, he was the second black player to appear in a uniform for the Phillies, and the first Latin player. He felt like a fish out of water. Suddenly on the bench, in 1959 he played 45 games in the middle infield for the Phillies, some of them as a double play partner with a second baseman named Sparky Anderson. Philadelphia couldn’t trade Chico fast enough, and after the season they dealt him to Detroit.

In Detroit, Fernandez found a clubhouse that seemed just as unfriendly, at least at first. The Tigers had been the second-to-last team to integrate, finally playing their first black player in 1958 when Ozzie Virgil was called up in midseason. Though it was more than a dozen years since Jackie Robinson had debuted, the Tigers had still never had a regular player of color in their lineup. Fernandez broke that barrier in 1960 when he played 133 games and earned good reviews for his glove work. His bat was still pretty anemic, but at that point in baseball history, shortstops were expected to be all defense, and anything that came from the offense side was considered extra.

In 1961 the Tigers teamed Fernandez with second baseman Jake Wood, their first African American everyday regular. The double play combo did commendable work in the middle of the infield and Detroit won 101 games, becoming one of the few teams to finish second despite topping the century mark. That season Fernandez missed a few games in the summer when he had his tonsils removed. A famous photo showed Chico and Gordie Howe (who was recuperating at the same time from knee surgery) in the hospital together.

Chico’s favorite teammate in Detroit was Rocky Colavito, the powerful Italian slugger who was adored by Detroit fans for his muscles and his high-flying home runs. Amazingly, in the early weeks of 1962, Fernandez matched Rocky homer-for-homer. On May 29 he had seven homers (the same number as Colavito), 20 RBIs, and an unbelievable .556 slugging percentage. “I’m strong this year and my legs are good,” Fernandez said, “I didn’t play winter ball, but I got plenty of exercise.”

His power surge didn’t continue at that feverish pace, but when the season concluded Fernandez had produced 20 home runs, an eye-popping figure for him. He became the first Tiger shortstop to hit 20 home runs in a season. To put in context how unexpected his homer total was: in his eleven previous professional campaigns Fernandez had never hit more than six homers in a season. It didn’t go unnoticed to Detroit officials that ’62 was the first season where Chico reported on time and in good shape.

“I never tried to hit home runs before last season,” Fernandez said as spring training started in 1963. “I found I [would] hit the ball into the hole at shortstop, and he would throw me out. So, I decided to swing the bat harder. Now the ball is going over the shortstop [and] sometimes over the fence.”

But just as it seemed Fernandez had found a home and a home run swing, the Tigers made a bold move. They gave up on him. Chico appeared in Lakeland for spring training in 1963 heavier than he had ever been. Not only that, he was 31 years old and the Tigers had a young infielder named Dick McAuliffe who they thought very highly of. Though Detroit had employed four managers in his brief time with the team, Fernandez had not gotten along with any of them. The Detroit front office, led by new general manager Jim Campbell, was tired of putting up with him. On May 8, just a few weeks into the season, they traded Chico to the New York Mets for veteran outfielder Sweet Lou Johnson and cash.

Leaving Detroit broke Fernandez’s heart. He was well-liked by Detroit fans, who liked his enthusiasm and flamboyant style of play. Chico liked his teammates and his family enjoyed the city. being shipped somewhere else after having his best big league season was a shock. He briefly considered not reporting to the Mets.

Being traded to the Mets was like being asked to sit at the kids table at Thanksgiving. Sure, you’re still in the big leagues, but the view isn’t nearly as good. Manager Casey Stengel didn’t pay much attention to Chico, he had a lot of other problems with his hapless ballclub, and Fernandez got through an uneventful season. He started off as a the regular shortstop for the Mets, but when his average sunk below .180 he was benched in July and eventually sent to the minor leagues. He bounced back when rosters expanded in September which only served to allow him to play his final games in the major leagues.

While baseball had seemed to give up on him, the Cuban shortstop didn’t give up on baseball. He played five more seasons in the minor leagues, even spending a few years in the Detroit system and one year in uniform in Japan. He retired from professional baseball in 1969. In subsequent years he was an advocate for political change in his native Cuba and a supporter of baseball players who were able to come to America from the island nation. This month he turns 84.