Obituary: Jackie Hernandez (1940-2019)

RIP to Jackie Hernandez, an infielder for 9 seasons in the majors and a part of the 1971 World Series champion Pirates. His teammate Manny Sanguillen announced on Twitter that Hernandez died on October 12 at the age of 79. His SABR biography, written by Jose Ramirez and Rory Costello, states that he was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly before his 79th birthday. Hernandez played for the California Angels (1965-66), Minnesota Twins (1967-68), Kansas City Royals (1969-70) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1971-73).

Jacinto Hermandez was born on September 11, 1940 in Central Tinguaro, Cuba. His father worked in a sugar cane factory and died when Hernandez was 11, leaving behind a wife and nine children.

“We lived alright,” Hernandez told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1971. “Nothing big, but all right. My brothers played amateur baseball. I was the second youngest. I got to play when I was 13 or 14 and I kept at it.”

He originally signed with the Cleveland Indians as a catcher, though he converted to a shortstop after a year or two in the minor leagues. He and two other Cubans, Hector Cardenas and Orlando Centella, were all signed by Indians scout Julio Hidalgo, who was working in Cuba. All three put up great numbers in their first pro season, though Hernandez was the only one of the trio to reach the majors. He hit .274 with 5 home runs for the Dubuque Packers in 1961.

In the offseason, the three Cuban ballplayers remained in the United States, living in Arizona at Cleveland’s expense. The regime change in Cuba that brought Fidel Castro to power made things difficult for the foreign-born players who were in the United States. There was no guarantee that Castro would let them leave in the spring, so Hernandez and the others stayed.

“Castro won’t last more than three years. He will either be out of Cuba by then or else somebody is going to shoot him. Conditions cannot be as good as our families say,” they told the Tucson Daily Citizen in February 1962. Hernandez was allowed to return to Cuba only after his mother’s death in 1990.

Hernandez moved to Miami when he realized he could never return to Cuba. He married Ida Singleton in 1963, and they had one son, Jacinto. According to Hernandez’ SABR biography, they were married for 47 years until Ida’s death in 2013. Jacinto Jr. became a professional jai alai player in Miami.

Hernandez remained in the Cleveland farm system through mid-1965. He had some struggles at the plate, but he showed good speed on the basepaths and a little power. In June 1965, Cleveland sent him to the Angels in a deal that brought veteran pitcher Jack Spring to the Indians. He hit .231 for the AAA Seattle Angels, with 39 RBIs and 24 stolen bases. He was brought to the majors in September along with rookies Dick Simpson, Barry Latman and Jim McGlothlin.

Source: The Minneapolis Star, April 9, 1968.

Hernandez was inserted into a game on September 14 as a pinch runner against the White Sox. He stole second base, advanced to third on a throwing error and scored on a Rick Reichardt single. His first at-bat came on September 24 in Baltimore, and he singled off of Wally Bunker. He also hit an RBI double later in that game. He ended the 1965 season with 2 hits in 6 at-bats for the Angels.

Hernandez spent all of 1966 with the Angels and appeared in 58 games, but 37 of those appearances were as a pinch runner. He started just five games and managed 1 hit in 23 at-bats, to go with 19 runs and 1 stolen base. In the field, he spent time at second, third and shortstop, as well as right and center field. If you live by speed, you sometimes die by speed. He was brought into a game as a pinch-runner against the Minnesota Twins on April 16. It was an ugly game, as three Twins runners were thrown out on the bases. Hernandez replaced Tom Satriano, who had tripled in the 9th inning, and was promptly picked off by catcher Jerry Zimmerman.

“I was running like the Twins,” Hernandez said after the game.

Early in 1967, he was traded to the Twins as the player to be named later in a deal that sent Dean Chance to Minnesota and Pete Cimino, Jimmie Hall and Don Mincher to the Angels. The Twins used him in much the same way, as a defensive replacement and pinch runner, in 1967. He batted .143 in 29 games and spent most of the season with the Denver Bears of the Pacific Coast League. He did get a measure of revenge against the Angels on August 14 — his first game against his old team — as he drove in the tying run with a 9th-inning single and scored the winning run for a 2-1 Twins win.

After several years as a bench piece, Hernandez was given the chance to start at shortstop for the Twins in 1968, edging out rookies Graig Nettles and Rick Renick. He hit his first MLB home run on April 17 off the Senators’ Dick Bosman, but he struggled to keep his average over .200. He was demoted back to Denver in mid-July and was called back in September. In 83 games, he had a .176/.218/.221 slash line and was left unprotected in the 1969 expansion draft. He was taken as the 43rd pick by the Kansas City Royals.

With the Royals, Hernandez appeared in 145 games, which was the only time he topped 100 games in a season. He raised his batting average to .222, stole 17 bases and homered 4 times. He was the first ever Opening Day shortstop for the Royals and was in the on-deck circle when Joe Keough drove in the winning run in the 12th inning for a 4-3 Kansas City win. He hit .231 in 1970, though he lost playing time and appeared in just 83 games. In December 1970, Hernandez, Jim Campanis and Bob Johnson were traded to Pittsburgh for Bruce Dal Canton, Freddie Patek and Jerry May.

Hernandez was originally brought on board as a backup to shortstop Gene Alley. Alley, though, broke his left hand in Spring Training, and Hernandez was given the chance to start in his absence. Alley would return and hit .227 in 114 games, but he battled injuries all year. Hernandez played in 88 games and slashed .206/.257/.300, but he happened to be the healthy shortstop when the Pirates finished first in the NL East and headed into the playoffs.

Hernandez started the season white hot, batting around .300 through the first month of the season. Maybe he put too much pressure on himself, or maybe he was hurting from a Spring Training incident we’ll get to in a moment, but he slumped badly and felt the pressure.

The Post-Gazette reported on an incident in August where Hernandez misplayed a ball in Cincinnati that led to a Reds win. He slumped in his locker and cried until Roberto Clemente put his arm around Hernandez and consoled him. “Jackie, what is the matter with you? You did not lose this ball game. We all lost it. No one man loses any game. You remember that. You are a good ball player.”

From that point on, Clemente boosted Hernandez’ morale at every opportunity, and the shortstop responded. In the heat of the pennant race, when every game mattered, he made just three errors in 27 days.

“When we began to win again, a lot of things began to go our way,” said manager Danny Murtaugh. “Jackie Hernandez made things go his way. He made all the plays.”

So about the Spring Training incident. The Pirates played the Orioles in a Spring Training game, and Weaver questioned why Hernandez was the starting shortstop. “Jackie Hernandez is not a winner. You’ll never win with Hernandez,” he said. As he was talking, Hernandez muffed a play. “That’s the Hernandez I know,” Weaver said.

Of course, baseball being what it is, the Pirates and the Orioles met in the 1971 World Series, with Hernandez appearing in all seven games. He hit .231 in the NLCS against the Giants, and he didn’t do much better against the Orioles, with 4 hits in 18 at-bats. But he didn’t make a single error at shortstop in the Series. In Game Seven, with the Pirates clinging to a 2-1 lead, Hernandez fielded a grounder from Davey Johnson to end a Baltimore rally in the 8th inning. The final two outs in the 9th inning were a pop fly to shortstop by Frank Robinson and a grounder to short by Merv Rettenmund. Jackie Hernandez torpedoed the Orioles’ World Series hopes and shut Earl Weaver up.

He spent two more seasons with the Pirates, back in his reserve role. His major league career ended after the 1973 season, and he spent one more year in the minors before closing his professional career with a couple of seasons in the Mexican League. In 9 MLB seasons, Hernandez slashed .208/.256/.270, with 308 hits (including 37 doubles, 9 triples and 12 home runs). He stole 25 bases and scored 153 runs along with 121 RBIs.

Hernandez worked as a driver for about 20 years before getting back into baseball. He served as a coach for independent teams like the St. Paul Saints and the Waterbury Spirit. He also worked with young players at the Pirates training camp and worked at a baseball academy in Miami, Paul’s Backyard, with Paulino Casanova. More recently, he spoke at a SABR Convention in 2016, as part of a panel discussion with several other Cuban ballplayers.

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