“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”


 
1957-1963
MIKE FORNIELES

Jose Miguel Fornieles y Torres was born on January 18, 1932, in Havana, Cuba. As a teenager, Mike, as he was commonly known, attended Edison Institute, a high school in the La Vibora neighborhood of Havana, and after that worked as a grocery clerk.

He was playing amateur ball in 1950 when the Washington Senators signed him to a contract. The Havana Cubans of the Florida International League were one of Washington’s affiliates, and the Senators had an unmatched presence in Cuba.

Mike began his professional career in 1951 in Texas, with the Big Spring Broncs of the Class C Longhorn League. He was assigned to play the next season for Class B Havana. After spending most of 1951 in the rotation, he was used primarily as a reliever for the Cubans in 1952.

Havana sent up Mike up to Washington, who gave the 20-year-old the start in the second game of the doubleheader in September. He threw two complete games and also two relief appearances. During the off-season the Senators dealt him to the Chicago White Sox.

Mike returned to Cuba to play that winter for the Tigres de Marianao in the Cuban League. For the White Sox, he split the 1953 season between the starting rotation and the bullpen. The next year he spent most of the season with the Charleston Senators in the American Association.

In 1955 with the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League, Mike proved that he didn’t belong in the minors. Promoted to the White Sox, he had nine starts and 17 relief appearances. In May 1956, he was traded to Baltimore in a six-player deal. He had 11 starts and 19 relief appearances over the rest of the season for the Orioles.

During the 1956-1957 Cuban League Series, Mike pitched in 29 games for Cuba. Joining the Tigres were the champions from Panama, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela.

Still only 25 years old, he pitched his fifth full major league season in 1957, and in June, he was dealt for the third time in his career, this time to the Red Sox. He spent the rest of 1957 and then a further 5 1/2 seasons with the Red Sox. Though he’d been used mostly as a reliever before coming to Boston, he made 18 starts and only seven relief appearances for the Red Sox that year, going 8-7 with a solid 3.52 ERA. The move to Boston could not have been easy for him. He had spent his major-league career on teams where there were fellow Cubans on the roster, or at least Latin Americans, but in Boston he was the only Latin American player on the team.

In the winter of 1957-1958, he returned to Cuba to play. The Tigres won the Cuban League title again and progressed to another Caribbean Series. Mike started Cuba’s opening game and pitched the team to a 10-2 victory over Venezuela.

After a successful first season with the Red Sox, he struggled in 1958 to his worst season in the majors to that point. As bad as 1958 was, the next two seasons were his most successful in the major leagues. For the first time in his career, he was used exclusively as a reliever.

In 1959, he posted a 3.07 ERA, striking out 54. He was often the last man to come out of the Red Sox bullpen, as he finished the game in 26 of his 46 appearances and picked up 11 saves, the highest total on the Red Sox that year.

As good as he was in 1959, he was even better in 1960, setting or tying career highs in several important pitching categories. He made 70 appearances, all in relief, setting an AL record for games pitched.

Mike’s success in 1960 was also recognized when The Sporting News made him the inaugural winner of its Fireman of the Year Award for the American League. While he was the last man out of the bullpen, he often pitched multiple innings to protect a lead.

During the following offseason diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba were severed, creating an uncertain situation for the approximately 20 Cuban players in the majors at that time. State Department officials said ballplayers would likely not be exempt from the restrictions the U.S. placed on Cuban nationals. If the political developments worried Mike, he didn’t show it on the field, as he threw five shutouts in the Cuban League.

The Red Sox front office was concerned that Mike might not be able to return to the majors and these worries were possibly compounded when he didn’t arrive for spring training in Scottsdale, Arizona, on schedule. It turned out that Mike was stranded in Miami, as an airline strike prevented him from catching a connecting flight.

He had defected from his home but it came with sacrifices. He smuggled out $200 in the fingers of his baseball glove, but almost assuredly left a great deal of money behind in Cuba. Additionally, when he tried to make arrangements for his family to join him in the States, his wife, whose family had sympathies with the Communist Party, refused to go. She and his daughter remained in Cuba.

Despite the drama of his offseason, he was named to the AL All-Star Team in 1961, becoming the fifth Cuban player to play in the midsummer classic. He went 9-8 for the year with a 4.68 ERA in 57 games. He was victimized much of the year by the long ball, surrendering a career-high 18 homers.

After 1961, he had less success. In 1962 he posted a 5.36 ERA, finishing 21 games and got the final five saves of his career. His days as the Red Sox top reliever were finished with the emergence of Dick Radatz. But he was an important part of Radatz’s success, as he took the young pitcher under his wing and mentored him during that 1962 season.

1963 was his 12th and last season in the majors. He made nine appearances for the Red Sox, all in relief, finishing six of them, and posted a 6.43 ERA. With his best days seemingly behind him, he had fallen on the Boston depth charts and in June was sold to the Minnesota Twins.

He had a 4.76 ERA before drawing his release in July and didn’t catch on anywhere else during the rest of the season, but he signed a contract with the Cincinnati Reds the following February. However, he was released in April, before the season began, and that was the closest he came to pitching in the majors again.

Once he was out of baseball, he worked as a car salesman, selling cars at Pontiac Village in Boston and Wilmington, Mass. However, his love of the sport never died and he spent two seasons in the mid-1960s pitching in the Boston Park League for the Supreme Saints. Attendance reportedly doubled whenever he pitched. He also tried his hand at broadcasting, and in 1993 he spent a year as the third man in the radio booth doing Red Sox broadcasts in Spanish on WROL.

Mike Fornieles died on February 11, 1998, at the age of 66 at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, of injuries suffered in a fall in his home in Bay Harbour.