RIP to Rudy Hernández, the first native Dominican pitcher to appear in the American or National League. His family reported that he died on Wednesday, November 23, in Condado, Puerto Rico, at the age of 90. Hernández also holds a rare distinction of playing for two different Washington Senators franchises in consecutive seasons. He played with the original Senators and 1960 and the expansion Senators in 1961.
Rudolph Albert Hernández was born in Santiago, Dominican Republic, on December 10, 1931. Per Hernández’s SABR bio, his family had moved between New York City and the Dominican Republic for several years, and they made New York their permanent home when Hernández was seven years old. He attended Commerce High School and played baseball and basketball; the Commerce basketball team won the city championship in 1950. He was also a member of the swim team. He graduated in 1950 and was signed by the New York Giants as an outfielder. Bubber Jonnard was the scout who signed him, though Hernández also credited Carl Hubbell. For his first four professional seasons, Hernández hit from the .240s to the .260s with single-digit home run totals. From the statistics that are available on Baseball Reference, Hernández was a good fielder and had the patience to draw a walk. However, he never made it out of the Giants low minors.
Hernández played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, and he began converting to a full-time pitcher in the 1953-54 offseason. By the time he reported to the Class-C Muskogee Giants of the Western Association in the spring of 1954, the 22-year-old was a pitcher instead of a center fielder. He was an immediate sensation on the mound, too. In one of his first starts, He threw a 3-hitter against Joplin and cracked a solo home run as well. By the end of the season, Hernández had a 15-4 record, a 3.57 ERA and 144 strikeouts. He also batted .425 with 5 home runs. However, he would have to wait a couple of years before he could build on that initial success on the mound. He was drafted and spent two years in the Army, where he noted on a baseball questionnaire that he guided a missile outfit.
Hernández returned to professional baseball in 1957 with the Sioux City Soos of the Western League. His return to pro ball was a rough one, as he sported a 5.66 ERA to go with a 9-8 record. He got involved in a brushback war during a game with Lincoln and at one point charged reliever Art Murray while waving his bat. Hernández was not ejected and closed out the game, but he had barely made it off the mound before Murray raced from the Lincoln dugout and tackled him, sparking another dust-up. Hernández pitched brilliantly for Escogido in the Dominican Winter League in 1957-58, but he lost all 9 decisions while pitching at three different minor-league teams for the (now San Francisco) Giants in 1958. He was released by the Giants after the season.
Hernández was given a second chance by the Miami Marlins of the International League. The team was making an effort to sign Latin American ballplayers and signed Hernández after scouts saw him pitch well in the Dominican Republic. “We checked him out further and heard that he had a real good fastball and a good sinker,” said general manager Joe Ryan. The Marlins ultimately assigned Hernández to the Chattanooga Lookouts at the start of the 1959 season. For a time, he was one of the top pitchers in the Southern Association, with a league-leading 2.21 ERA. He had a few struggles later in the season but still ended up with a creditable 8-12 record and 3.42 ERA. He also continued to be one of the minors’ best-hitting pitchers, with a .326 batting average and 2 homers.
The Washington Senators, parent team of the Lookouts, assigned Hernández to Charleston in 1960. He was used strictly out of the bullpen for the first time in his pro career, and he took to it well, with 6 wins in 31 games. The Senators brought him to the majors in early July, demoting reliever Dick Hyde in the process. Fellow Dominicans Ozzie Virgil Sr., Felipe Alou and Julian Javier had reached the majors by then, but Hernández was the first pitcher from his home country to appear in an MLB game when he debuted on July 3, 1960. Fellow Dominican Juan Marichal joined the Giants a couple of weeks later, and Diomedes Olivo also pitched a few games for Pittsburgh later that season.
Hernández rattled off three scoreless appearances in short order. In the game on July 9 against Baltimore, he came into the game in the seventh inning of a 2-2 tie, after starter Hal Woodeshick allowed the first two batters to reach base. He intentionally walked a batter to load the bases but escaped the inning without allowing a run. The Senators exploded for 5 runs in the top of the eighth inning, and Hernández threw 2 scoreless innings to get his first major-league win. Hernández won his first 4 decisions for Washington, including a 15-inning marathon against the New York Yankees. He threw a couple of shutout innings and got the win when Billy Consolo and Lenny Green scored 3 runs off Ralph Terry in the top of the 15th. A couple of poor late-season outings left Hernández with a 4-1 record and a 4.41 ERA in 21 appearances. He struck out 22 batters and walked 21 in 34-2/3 innings.
The Senators moved to Minnesota after the season. Now known as the Twins, the team left Hernández unprotected in the expansion draft that welcomed the Los Angeles Angels and (new) Washington Senators into the American League. The Twins were hit hard by the draft, losing Julio Becquer, Faye Throneberry and Tex Clevenger, among others. Pitchers Hernández, Woodschick and Hector Maestri were all drafted by the new Washington club, making them the only ballplayers to play for the old Washington Senators in their last season and the new Senators in their first season. Hernández was part of the Opening Day roster and pitched in 7 games for the expansion team. His only decision was a loss against the Twins on April 22. He threw a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth inning in a 4-4 tie but allowed a single to Earl Battey, the leadoff hitter in the tenth. He balked Battey to second base, when umpire Hank Soar ruled that the pitcher didn’t come to a complete stop as he faced batter Reno Bertoia. Manager Mickey Vernon removed the pitcher after the balk, and reliever Dave Sisler eventually let the winning run score on a Zoilo Versalles sacrifice fly.
“I didn’t bring my hands down slowly from the chest. I just pulled them together quickly from my sides before making the pitch,” Hernández explained after the loss. “I’ve done that before and it hasn’t been called. I’d do it again.”
In 9 innings of work in 1961, Hernández allowed 3 earned runs on 3 walks and 4 strikeouts. He was sent to Triple-A Indianapolis when the rosters were cut down to 25 players in early May, and he did not return to the majors again.
Over parts of 2 seasons, Hernández appeared in 28 games, all in relief. He threw 43-2/3 innings and had a 4-2 record and 4.12 ERA, with 26 strikeouts and 24 walks. Opposing batters hit .258 against him. The former outfielder had a total of 6 at-bats, all in 1960, and he singled off Baltimore’s Milt Pappas for his only big-league hit.
Hernández pitched for three minor-league teams in 1961 and continued to be a well-traveled reliever for the rest of his pro career. As he moved around, he ended up in the Kansas City Athletics organization, though he also pitched for Pacific Coast League teams in the Cleveland and Cincinnati organizations. His busiest year was in 1963, when he stayed with the Portland Beavers of the PCL for the entire year and got into 52 games. He had a 4-3 record and threw 83 innings.
That season, Portland took a trip to Hawaii to play the Islanders, and Hernández was able to meet and befriend pitcher Bo Belinsky, who had been banished from the Los Angeles Angels for too many late nights and too much poor pitching. The two had never met before, but they ran in similar circles. “Rudy has always given me a hard time,” Belinsky told The Honolulu Advertiser while the two were hanging out at the SurfRider Hotel. “I’ve never met him, but I know him through the women we’d both met around the country. They’d tell Rudy, ‘You know, you look like Bo Belinsky,’ and my women would say to me, ‘You know, you look just like Rudy Hernandez.'”
Turning toward Hernández, Belinsky made a mean face and said in jest, “I hate him — stay out of my territory!”
In 9 seasons as a minor-league pitcher, Hernández had a 52-49 record, primarily as a reliever. He also had a .263 batting average in 13 total seasons in the minors, with 37 home runs.
In his retirement, according to the SABR bio, Hernández ran a couple of bars in Puerto Rico. He later worked for the country’s Department of Sports and Recreation as a baseball instructor and occasional baseball scout for the Orioles and Cubs. Hernández is survived by two daughters.
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3 thoughts on “Obituary: Rudy Hernández (1931-2022)”
I still have Rudy’s 1961 card (as seen in the article) that I have had since I was 10 years old that same year. I wonder how much it is worth.
Very sorry to hear about my friend Rudy. We were friends in the 1970’s in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
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