It’s not easy being a prospect when the player you’re touted to replace is a perennial all-star and fan favourite.
That’s the position that Humberto “Chico” Fernandez found himself in after he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers as a 19-year-old in 1951. Once the slick-fielding shortstop was in the Dodgers’ system, it seemed that no matter how impressive he was, he wasn’t going to unseat Pee Wee Reese at the big league level.
Born in La Habana, Cuba in 1932, Fernandez grew up with few luxuries. He told Lou Hernandez in the book Memories of Winter Ball: Interviews with Players in the Latin American Winter Leagues of the 1950s that he grew up very poor. Fernandez’s father worked as a mason and his mother stayed home to look after him and his brother.
In high school, Fernandez planned to be an electrician, until coaches and scouts saw his potential on the diamond. It was mostly his dazzling defence that convinced Brooklyn Dodgers’ scout Andy High to sign him.
Fernandez, who spoke virtually no English, was assigned to the Dodgers’ Class-C, Pioneer League affiliate in Billings, Mont., in 1951, before he was promoted to Class-B Miami of the Florida International League the ensuing campaign.
It was in 1953, however, that Fernandez and fellow Cuban, Sandy Amoros, both debuted with the Montreal Royals. According to William Brown’s excellent book, Baseball’s Fabulous Montreal Royals, the two Cubans understood little English and clung together. Royals manager Walter Alston devised a simpler set of signs for Fernandez and Amoros.
The Royals’ traveling secretary, Rocky Brisebois, was instructed to stay close to Amoros and Fernandez to make sure they got to the ballpark and ate properly. Brown writes that the only thing that Amoros initially knew how to order was apple pie and ice cream.
But the language barrier certainly didn’t impact their performance on the field. With Fernandez at shortstop and Amoros in the outfield, the Royals won the International League championship and the Junior World Series. The right-handed hitting Fernandez, still honing his skills at the plate, hit .247 in 145 games, while Amoros topped the league with a .353 batting average and walloped 23 homers.
Fernandez returned to the Royals in 1954 and led the team in hits (168), runs (75), doubles (44) and stolen bases (11). But despite his best efforts, the Royals were ousted in the second round of the playoffs.
After attending big league camp the following spring, Fernandez was again assigned to Montreal. In 1955, he upped his batting average to .301 and knocked in a career-high 62 runs, while continuing to wow with his glove. His brilliant defence inspired International League president Frank Shaughnessy to call Fernandez “the greatest fielding shortstop in league history.”
Fernandez began 1956 in Montreal again, before he was finally promoted to the big leagues in July when Jackie Robinson, Don Zimmer and Randy Jackson were all sidelined with injuries. When Fernandez was called up, Reese shifted to third base for a stretch, while the promising, 6-foot, 195-pound Cuban took over at shortstop.
Fernandez mostly impressed with the leather in his first big league stint, but his first home run was a grand slam off of St. Louis Cardinals’ left-hander Don Liddle in a Dodgers’ 12-4 win on August 4.
In all, Fernandez played in 34 games with the Dodgers in 1956, but he still couldn’t wrestle the starting shortstop job away from the aging Reese the following March. But in a testament to how highly Fernandez was thought of in baseball circles, the Dodgers were able to trade their prized infield prospect and a player to be named later to the Phillies that April for four players and $75,000 (a huge sum at that time).
It was in the City of Brotherly Love that Fernandez would experience his first extended taste of regular big league action. He was the Phillies’ everyday shortstop in 1957 and 1958.
On December 5, 1959, Fernandez was dealt to the Detroit Tigers, where he became their regular shortstop for three seasons. In 1962, Fernandez clubbed 20 homers – more than all of his other big league seasons combined – and established himself as one of the American League’s best all-around infielders.
On May 8, 1963, the Tigers traded Fernandez to the Milwaukee Braves, who flipped him to the New York Mets on the same day. Fernandez played his final 58 big league games with the Mets in 1963.
The veteran shortstop was swapped to the Chicago White Sox on April 23, 1964, where he suited up for their Triple-A, Pacific Coast League affiliate in Indianapolis, prior to spending 1965 in Japan with the Hanshin Tigers. In 1966, he competed for Reynosa in the Mexican League, before returning to the United States to play for the Tacoma Cubs (Chicago Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate) for his final two seasons.
Fernandez retired at the age of 36 and returned to Detroit to serve as an insurance agent for Metropolitan Life for 20 years. Fernandez has since relocated to Sunrise, Fla., where he resides with his wife, Lynne. He has three daughters that live close by.
When Hernandez met Fernandez to interview him in 2012, the author said that aside from the cane Fernandez used for walking because of multiple surgeries on the same knee, the former fielding whiz appeared to be in good health.
*This is the fifth article in my series about members of the 1954 Montreal Royals. You can read my articles about Roberto Clemente, Billy Harris, Don Thompson and Gino Cimoli by clicking on their names.