José Maria Fernandez, Sr.
Positions: c, 1b, of, manager
Teams: Cuban Stars (East) (1916-1929, 1931-1934), Chicago American Giants (1930), New York Cubans (1935-1950)
Height: 5' 10'' Weight: 175
Born: July 6, 1896, Guanabacoa, Cuba
A smart catcher who was expert at handling pitchers, he spent thirty-five years in the Negro Leagues as a player and manager, beginning in 1916. Defensively he was a good receiver with an excellent throwing arm, and in 1924 he was regarded as one of the best catchers in the league. As a veteran player he also played first base and was a good average hitter but did not generate much power and was not a fast base runner. Even as late in his career as 1945, after having spent nearly thirty years in the United States and Cuba catching winter and summer, he was still considered a peerless catcher in black baseball.
In Cuba he caught some of the greatest names in baseball, black and white, including Dolph Luque and Freddie Fitzsimmons, and never had an injured finger. While playing 23 winters in Cuba, mostly with Almendares, he compiled a lifetime batting average of .277, with his best years being .333 (1927-1928), .318 (1928-1929), .306 (1935-1936), .303 (1922-1923), and .290 (1934-1935).
The light-complexioned Cuban began his thirty-five year U.S. baseball career as one of the catchers on Alejandro Pompez's 1916 Cuban Stars, batting eighth in the lineup. The next year he moved up in the batting order, and beginning in 1918, he was the clean-up hitter for the Cubans for the next three seasons while also playing at first base and in the outfield. In his first two years the ballclub was sometimes known as the New York Cuban Stars and the Cuban Stars of Havana. Beginning in 1922 he dropped down to the sixth and seventh spots in the batting order for the remainder of the decade, hitting for averages of .259, .263, .235, and .232 for the years 1924-1925, 1927, and 1929, respectively.
In 1929, in a game against Hilldale, he showed why he was sometimes called "hot-headed." After being hit by a ball pitched by Cooper, the opposing pitcher, he threw his bat at the pitcher and was determined to settle the matter off the field after the game was over. The umpire tossed Fernandez out of the game to avoid an escalation of the rhubarb. In 1930 he left the Cubans for a season to play with the Chicago American Giants and had one of his best years at the plate, hitting .373.
When the Cuban Stars joined the new Negro National League in 1933, the wily veteran receiver was the starting catcher, and when Pompez organized the New York Cubans, Fernandez hit for averages of .217, .255, and .344 in 1939-1941. In 1938 he took the managerial reins for Pompez's ballclub and remained at the helm through the 1950 season, directing the Cubans to a Negro National League pennant and World Series victory over the Negro American League champion Cleveland Buckeyes in 1947. Fernandez advocated playing hard but clean baseball and was considered a smart pilot without equal. He also became a playing manager in his home country, managing the All Cubans in 1945-1946.
Although unable to play as a regular as the years began catching up with him, he was still able to come off the bench to pinch hit in a tight spot. His son, Pepe, also a catcher, followed in his footsteps but had only an abbreviated career.
Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.