Obituary: Lorenzo “Chico” Fernandez (1939-2020)

RIP to Chico Fernandez, a utility infielder for the Baltimore Orioles in 1968. He has died at the age of 81. His death has been confirmed by a couple of sources, although the details are scarce. There is a discrepancy about the date — it was either November 26 or 30. Baseball Reference has gone with the 26, so that is the date I would lean toward until a family-placed obituary is available.

Victor Rojas, an announcer for the Los Angeles Angels, reported on Twitter on November 30, “Lorenzo ‘Chico’ Fernandez passed away this morning. One of the great baseball men the game has ever seen & a true friend to so many in & around the game.”

Additionally, several posts on Facebook from those in the baseball community indicate that Fernandez died from injuries suffered from being struck by a vehicle near his home and later died from his injuries on Thanksgiving day, November 26. He was living in Miami in his retirement.

He is not to be confused with Humberto “Chico” Fernandez, who played from 1956-63 for the Dodgers, Phillies, Tigers and Mets. That Fernandez, who was also born in Havana, was seven years older and died in 2016.

Lorenzo Marto Fernandez Mosquero was born in Havana on April 23, 1939. His father, Lorenzo Sr., was a big baseball fan as well as a well-respected businessman who ran an auto parts company in Havana, so he grew up in a very baseball-friendly home.

Fernandez went to the same high school in Havana that the other Chico Fernandez and Willy Miranda had attended previously. A 1964 article about him stated that Fernandez came to the United States to enroll at Louisiana State University but had to take an eight-week course in English first. During that time, the Detroit Tigers saw him working out with the LSU freshmen baseball team, signed him and sent him to play for the Decatur Commodores of the Midwest League in 1958. “The little shortstop-third baseman speaks little English but always “talks it up” from his position and is one of the finest hustlers in the Midwest League,” reported the Decatur Daily Review in August 1958.

The 19-year-old Fernandez became a popular player in Decatur and hit .285 in his first professional season. He drove in 43 runs and walked 44 times to go with just 36 strikeouts. At the last home game of the season, Fernandez was presented with a watch after being named the most popular player on the team. He then led Decatur to overcome a 7-1 Keokuk lead, hitting a 2-run triple to tie the game and a squeeze bunt to win it.

Playing in Decatur may have saved his life. Lorenzo Sr. reported that soldiers from the Batista regime once searched his house, looking for something. When they couldn’t find what they were looking for, they left. “They could have been looking for Chico,” said Hube Lipe, business manager for the Commodores. He added that Batista’s police had killed thousands of young men in an attempt to intimidate Castro sympathizers during the Cuban Revolution.

In the 1958-59 offseason, Fernandez returned home to play in the Cuban Winter League. He was on the Mariano Tigers team that also included Minnie Minoso, Solly Drake and Bob Shaw, to name a few major leaguers. Fidel Castro took power during this time, and Lipe, who was in Cuba visiting the Fernandez family, was an eyewitness. “Just seeing the happy reactions of the people when they realized there was no longer a dictator was something I’ll never forget,” he added.

Hindsight is 20-20. Fernandez would later make Miami his permanent home rather than return to Castro’s Cuba.

Fernandez remained in the Tigers’ low minors for the next two seasons. Sometimes he would play well and sometimes he struggled, but he was a popular player wherever he went. When he joined the Montgomery Rebels in 1959, it took a while for his bat to warm up. Even so, Montgomery went on a winning streak with him in the lineup, thanks in part to his defense and some timely hitting. The infielder eventually raised his average up to a respectable .264.

A shoulder injury in 1960 derailed what was a sensational season with the Commodores in 1960. Fernandez hit .324 over 56 games and scored 41 runs. After that season, Fernandez found himself on the move frequently. After spending all of 1961 with the Durham Bulls, he split 1962 with AAA teams in Denver (Tigers) and Louisville (Milwaukee Braves). It’s not clear what transaction sent him to the Braves organization for part of a season, but he was back with Detroit to start 1963. He was released and signed by the Chicago White Sox organization in mid-’63. The White Sox became his home for the next several years, as he stayed with the Lynchburg White Sox of the South Atlantic League from 1963 through 1965.

Source: The Evening Sun, March 25, 1968.

Fernandez hit pretty well in Lynchburg, batting .287 in 1964 and .260 in 1965. Though he had no power, he put on a notable display of defensive wizardry. From the tail end of the 1964 season until July 25, 1965, he had 99 consecutive errorless games. Even more impressively, he did it as a utility infielder, playing all over the infield except first base. It’s one thing to put together an errorless streak at one position; Fernandez had to play flawlessly at second base, third base and shortstop.

The Sox finally moved Fernandez up to the AAA level in 1967, when he was assigned to the Indianapolis Indians. By then, he had spent a full decade in the minor leagues, and most of that at the lower levels of the minors. He’d become a defensive whiz and had a great batting eye, but he had only hit 4 home runs in 10 years’ worth of minor-league games. He hit .251 in Indianapolis and was demoted briefly back to Evansville. The team, as a whole, sent a telegram to the White Sox front office protesting the move. Indianapolis was contending for a pennant in the Pacific Coast League, and the departure of their steady infielder hurt their chances.

By this point, Fernandez was realistic about his hope to play in the big leagues. “I’ll play wherever I can help the club the most. The important thing is that I have my chance at Triple A again, and I want to make the most of the opportunity,” he said before the ’67 season started. He added that he had been approached by several teams to manage in the winter leagues, but they felt he needed more experience at the higher levels of the minors first.

At the end of the 1968 season, the improbable happened. Fernandez was working as a player-coach for the White Sox in the Florida Instructional League in November, and the organization had planned to make him a AA coach and a rookie league manager in 1969. Then the Baltimore Orioles swooped in and paid $12,000 for him in the offseason minor-league draft. Chico Fernandez, who was practically retired, was in the major leagues as a player.

Baltimore scout Jim Frey was the one who recommended that the Orioles sign him. “He has real good hands and a quick, accurate arm… for the big leagues, his bat wouldn’t be much of a threat. But he’s a helluva second baseman,” Frey commented. “Makes the double play great. He could help as a defensive utility man — and he’d be a good defensive man, not just a fill-in.”

“Many, many times I thought of quitting,” Fernandez said. “But I couldn’t go back to Cuba to my folks. Things weren’t normal in Cuba.” Opportunities to make a good salary had become very limited in Cuba. The Castro government took over Lorenzo Sr.’s car parts business, and he had become an employee of his former business. (Fernandez Sr. would eventually make his way to Miami and worked into his 80s as a vice secretary and tour guide for a Cuban baseball museum called La Casa del Baseball Cubano.)

“I can always coach later,” Fernandez added. “My one dream is to play in the majors.”

Source: The Daily News, August 8, 1968.

His dream came true, even if it didn’t work out perfectly. Fernandez spent the entire season on the Orioles’ roster, but he saw relatively little action. He appeared in a total of 24 games, but just 2 of them were starts. He had 2 hits in 18 at-bats for a slash line of .111/.158/.111. When he was on the field, he was used as a shortstop, which was probably his weakest position. He made 1 error in 13 chances for a .923 fielding percentage there. He also had 8-2/3 innings at second base and fielded 3 chances easily.

Fernandez made his major league debut on April 20, in a game where the Orioles were pounding the California Angels 10-1. He came to bat in the top of the eighth inning as a pinch hitter for starting pitcher Tom Phoebus and promptly singled off reliever Bobby Locke. He was then immediately erased on a force out at second base. His next (and last) hit would come almost four months later on August 16. He singled off the Twins’ Jim Kaat in a 5-2 Minnesota victory.

In early August, Orioles reliever John O’Donoghue was demoted, and on his way out the door, he pointed to Fernandez as someone who didn’t deserve to be on the roster. Days later, Fernandez made a beautiful play at second base that gave the Orioles a win over the Twins. With a man on first base and two outs in the ninth inning, he dived to his right to stop a hard grounder by Ted Uhlaender. On his back and facing the outfield, he somehow flipped the ball to shortstop Mark Belanger for the game-ending force play. At a time when the Orioles were in the thick of the postseason race, Fernandez justified his roster spot.

The Orioles made Fernandez a player-coach for the AAA Rochester Red Wings in 1969. He only appeared in four games, and the last one almost turned his baseball dream into a tragedy. He was sent to pinch hit against Tidewater on August 3. He stepped in against pitcher Larry Bearnarth, but without his customary batting helmet with the protective ear flap. He couldn’t find it, so he went out with a helmet that had no flap. Bearnarth let loose with a fastball that sailed up and struck Fernandez below the left ear, fracturing his skull. He was hit right in the spot where the ear flap would have been.

Fernandez underwent emergency brain surgery to remove bone fragments and was unconscious — nearly comatose — for several days. In Montgomery, Ala., the sports editors of the Alabama Journal saw a report that Chico Fernandez was badly injured by a fastball, but they didn’t know which one. Was it “Big Chico,” the one who played for the Tigers and Phillies? No, they learned with dismay that it was “our Chico.” He had played for Montgomery way back in 1959, but he was still a popular presence there whenever his minor-league travels happened to take him into town. Considering how well-traveled Fernandez was, that scene most likely played out in newsrooms across the country.

Nobody — not Rochester Manager Cal Ripken Sr. or Fernandez himself — blamed Bearnarth for the incident. The pitcher left the game following the beaning and accompanied Fernandez to the hospital, in fact.

Fernandez recovered slowly from the injury. An excellent article about the game by SABR member Kurt Blumenau details the recovery. Fernandez had to learn to read and write all over again — both in Spanish and English. His vision wasn’t as good as it once was, and he struggled to remember names of his teammates. He spent a month under observation in a Rochester hospital before he was allowed to travel back to Miami to be with his wife and four children. He had an additional surgery in 1970 to put a metal plate in his head.

“People don’t realize how much I lost that day,” he said in 1970, as he was preparing for a coaching role in Rochester. “I thank God I am able to be here, to be alive, and to be back in baseball,” he added.

The beanball ended Fernandez’ playing career, but Baltimore kept him in their organization for several years. He remained a minor-league instructor for the Orioles through 1976 and occasionally served as an interpreter for the Spanish-speaking players he trained. He joined the Dodgers organization in 1977 as a minor-league coach and roving instructor and remained with the organization for more than 20 years before his retirement.

“When you cannot hit, field and run anymore and God gives you the ability to help move these guys up, it’s a great feeling,” he said of his second career as a baseball teacher.

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