Bernard Fernandez, a pitcher whose career began in 1938 and lasted for more than a decade, passed away at the age of 96 on November 19, 2014. His gravelly voice still echoes in my head from our 2007 meeting, when I visited with Fernandez at his modest home in South Philadelphia. For over an hour, we candidly discussed his sojourn in the Negro Leagues.
A right-hander, Fernandez was born on March 5, 1918 in Tampa, Florida; the son of a Cuban father and African-American mother, Juan and Birdie Fernandez. His love affair with baseball started there, in his hometown, with the Cincinnati Reds, who trained at nearby Plant Field. As a kid, Fernanez would do whatever he could each spring to catch a glimpse of the Major League stars who played there — despite the absence of blacks on the field.
“My first memory of watching a baseball game was in Tampa,” he told me. “I got into baseball because a couple of fellas I knew liked the game, and we used to go to the ballpark. We didn’t have money to get in, but around the 7th inning, they would open the gates since the game was practically over. That’s when I became really interested. I used to watch guys like Paul Derringer and Johnny Vander Meer, and try to follow in their footsteps.”
Fernandez honed his skills while playing for the team at his Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Tampa. (The CCC was a public work relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942 in the United States for unemployed, unmarried men from relief families as part of the New Deal.) He entered the program after leaving high school in the ninth grade, and even though the camp was segregated, it gave Fernandez the opportunity to play organized ball.
“If you played baseball or any other sport,” he said, “it seemed like you got more privileges, got more respect around the camp. We used to play in different parts of the city and play other teams, so we had a small league going by ourselves. That’s the way we participated.”
In 1938, while pitching for the Jacksonville Red Caps, he was recruited to play for the Atlanta Black Crackers of the Negro American League. His initial foray into the big time of Negro League Baseball didn’t last very long.
“My tenure with that team was short lived — maybe about a month,” Fernandez said. I got homesick and wanted to be back in Tampa with the fellas. It was my first time away from home. I wasn’t satisfied after being around the guys and being away from home. I just couldn’t cut it right then.”
In his debut with Atlanta, Fernandez had to face the feared lineup of the Homestead Grays, which included the likes of Hall of Famers Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard. That combination could make any pitcher’s stomach turn, especially a rookie’s.
“I was real nervous because my first pitching assignment was against the Homestead Grays,” remembered Fernandez. “They had Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Jelly Jackson; you know those kinds of guys. I used to listen to the other old timers talk about how Josh Gibson hit the ball and how hard of a hitter he was. I was kind of shaky. They had to pull me; I think I walked the first six men I pitched against. I was nervous but they sent me right back in the next day again. I pitched three-to-four capable innings the next day, but I was nervous. [Gibson] could see you had that fear.”
Soon afterward, young hurler returned home to Tampa, and this time he caught the attention of another Hall of Famer, Oscar Charleston. The legendary center fielder was then managing the Philadelphia Stars, and after witnessing Fernandez pitch a spectacular game against Charleston’s club, the manager made him an offer right there on the spot.
“[Oscar] Charleston told me,” he said, “‘If you can pitch this well against the team I got, you could win a lot of games.’”
Without hesitation, he agreed to join Charleston, and spent the rest of the 1941 season with the Stars. With World War II in full swing, he came back to Tampa in the off-season to work at MacDill Air Force Base, but in 1943, started a six-year run in the Negro Leagues — he spent time with the New York Black Yankees and Richmond Giants before retiring in 1948.
“I wound up my career in 1948 with the Richmond Giants,” he said. “I stayed there about a year. I was married and I didn’t think I would stay away [long], as Philadelphia was my home base.”
One of his greatest memories came from playing at Yankee Stadium against the Birmingham Black Barons. Playing in front of a large crowd, Fernandez offered up his best to the opposition, only to see it squandered away late in the game.
“Yankee Stadium, we used to call that, ‘The Hotel,’” he said. “I was in there pitching against Birmingham. That game stuck out with me; I had them 2–0 for about seven innings and it looked like the team fell apart. We lost 5–2. That game always stuck in my memory, because I had friends and people I knew came out to see me pitch. We had about 20,000 people out there that day.”
Having toiled in an era when pitchers were expected to go the distance, Fernandez told me that he marveled at the salaries that modern relief pitching specialists make for only having to pitch to a few batters per game.
“When they gave you the ball to pitch, they expected you to pitch the ball game,” he said. “They had nothing like that [in relief] to snatch you out of the game. Sometimes if you were hit hard, they’d pull you. It’s not like they’d bring you to pitch to one man and then bam, gone! You had to really work for what you got. Now they make millions of dollars. I think I could have pitched for fifteen years by pitching to one man, then out and gone!”
Fernandez also noted how players used to endure a harsh travel schedule out of fear of losing their jobs. The players in the Negro Leagues didn’t have the luxury of an injured reserve, so they caught sleep wherever they could, even in the dugout.
“If you couldn’t play, you didn’t have a job because they weren’t going to keep you for so long,” he said. “I’d be on the bench and be half sleeping. We’d be on the road all night and half of the day getting to where we’re going and you are absolutely bagged up. We were young and we were strong.”
He faced the finest the Negro Leagues had to offer, well before Jackie Robinson integrated the Majors. They were offensive threats every time they stepped to the plate.
“Buck Leonard was a hard out,” he said. “Luke Easter and Larry Doby were very hard outs. Monte Irvin hit right-handers as well as left-handers. [Josh] Gibson was a power hitter; most of the time when he connected it was a home run or triple.”
After his playing days were over, Fernandez settled in Philadelphia and went into construction for nearly thirty years before retiring in 1979. It wasn’t until the renewed recognition of the Negro Leagues in the 1990s brought the spotlight to the baseball career he tucked away a half-decade ago.
“I guess I’m still important,” he said. “Knowing something about Negro baseball, it makes you feel good to still be recognized. I would like to be remembered this way. I always thought, due to certain situations and conditions, I never hit my potential like I wanted to or was supposed to. I just want to be remembered as a player that participated in the league.
“Everyone couldn’t be a Satchel Paige, but what I did, I enjoyed it.”