Detroit Tigers: Chico Fernández paved the way for others to follow in Detroit

In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we look back at the Latin players that joined the Detroit Tigers and left an everlasting impact. Today, we look at  Humberto Fernández Perez, aka Chico Fernández, the first Latin-born player, and starting regular in Tigers’ history.

For Chico Fernández, his journey to Detroit was similar to other minority players that were starting their trek into baseball after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.  Certain teams had quotas of minority players they would allow on the roster. The color barrier was still, in some ways, around to a degree until the early 1960s.

Before Chico Fernández, the color barrier was not a true representation of Latin American players. Cuban-born Dolf Luque, aka the “Pride of Havana” was a right-handed pitcher for several National League ballclubs from 1914 to 1935. Because he was light-skinned, he was allowed to play professional baseball. As described in Luque’s SABR bio by Peter C Bjakrman, Dolf’s tale was similar for future players to come.

“Yet, for all that, his career was destined to be cursed by the fate that eventually became a personal calling card for nearly all early Latin American ballplayers blessed with appropriate talent and skin tone to make their way to the baseball big-time. Among North American fans and writers Dolf Luque would always remain a familiar stereotype – a cartoon figure rather than a genuine baseball hero. At least this was the case at all stops north of Key West or Miami.”

Why did I mention this story of Luque and a few others including another Chico Fernandez, (born Salvador Jose Fernandez) played for the Cubs for few seasons in the 1940s? It is important to have a grasp of history and how it applies to Fernández.

The Tigers actually had two Chico Fernández’s in the organization during the 1960 season. This Chico (born Lorenzo Marto Fernandez) was one of 8 Cuban ballplayers Detroit had in their organization at the time. He was playing for the Tigers’ Class B team, the Durham Bulls (yep, the same one that is now the home of the Triple-A Tampa Bay Rays affiliate) but he would never play in Detroit.

As a way to make it easier for everyone I suppose at the time, many Latin players at the time would receive a nickname. When the Dodgers drafted Humberto, they made him drop his mother’s surname of Perez. “Chico” was the name given because it was easier to say.

Oh so subtle…

In the spring of 1960, Humberto “Chico”  Fernández would be named the starting shortstop for the Detroit Tigers after coming over from the Phillies following the 1959 season. In an interview he had with the Detroit Free Press’s Lyall Smith, the headline read:

“Chico He No Bad Guy“.

As you read the interview, the picture is painted as what all Latin players and African-Americans players had to deal with in the media with paragraphs like this from Smith:

“As might be anticipated, Chico says he is happy with the Tigers. It would’ve been a better story if he said he felt the opposite, but then a fellow can’t expect everything to come up roses when he sits down to interview with a .211 hitter”.

“He’s tall for a Cuban at a shade over six feet. His hair is black with a quick curl. His eyes are dark brown and they jump this way and that when he isn’t looking straight at you, which is often”.

The stat line aside, the rest of the words from Smith were unnecessary. Like other black players of that period of time, he was no stranger to the Jim Crow rules.  Per the article from Vintage Detroit wonderfully done by Bruce Markusen.

“On the Tigers’ first road trip of the season, Fernandez was forced to consume a makeshift meal out of a restaurant kitchen, while the rest of the team ate comfortably in the main dining room.”

In his interview with the Free Press back in 2015, he spoke about players of color were segregated into the former Army barracks and being dropped off at restaurants on the “black side” of town. The mental aspect he would add was tough on Fernandez.

“The only time we were with the Caucasian guys was when we were on the field. When you think of the mental aspect of baseball, where everyone makes mistakes with fans looking for perfection, it’s tough when you don’t have a support system.”

His time in Detroit was short, only playing three seasons from 1960 to 1962. He would make room for Dick McAuliffe. His teammates thought highly of Fernandez and his friendly demeanor. After his playing days, he would come back to Detroit and live here for over 20 years.

He would never return to Cuba after Fidel Castro came to power in 1961. He would get his family out of Cuba and move them to Detroit in 1970, where he would live in the area until the mid ’90s, selling insurance.  He would join the board of Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development. (LA SED), guiding their youth programs.

For all that he dealt with as a ballplayer, it never deter Fernandez on how he went about his life. After he retired, he moved to Florida and passed away on June 12th, 2016. Fernandez’s journey to the majors was difficult but he was able to pave the way for others to follow so they did not have to endure what he did. He was darker than Luque but both players dealt with their fair share of racism and bigotry.