SABR

Orlando Cepeda

This article was written by Mark Stewart.

For a decade and a half starting in the late 1950s, few things were more unnerving to major league pitchers than the sight of Orlando Cepeda striding confidently to the plate. A power hitter in the truest sense of the word, Cepeda played as long and as hard as his disintegrating knees could take him. Remembered as a difference-maker both in the field and the clubhouse, he had an uncanny ability to make bad teams good and good teams great. Cepeda’s heartbreaking post-career fall from grace—and eventual resurrection to Cooperstown—provided a fascinating final chapter to his remarkable story, as well as a poignant reminder of the ephemeral nature of stardom in sports.

Orlando Manuel Cepeda was born on September 17, 1937, in the southern seaport city of Ponce, Puerto Rico. His brother, Pedro, was four years older. Cepeda’s father, Perucho, was a big, power-hitting shortstop sometimes called the “Babe Ruth of the Caribbean,” but more commonly known as “The Bull.” Cepeda often answered to Peruchin, and would come to be called “The Baby Bull” (and also Cha-Cha) by his fans.

After Orlando was born, his father joined the Guayama club of the Puerto Rican Winter League. This proved helpful to the family, as the money he had been sending from the Dominican was barely keeping the family afloat, and what he kept for himself he often gambled away. Though past his prime, Perucho batted over .400 in 1938 and 1940, and in 1939 edged Josh Gibson for the Puerto Rican League batting title with a .383 mark.

Cepeda may have played too much baseball as a young boy, and later this led to problems with his legs—one of which was bowed to the point where it impeded his running. Around the age of 13, he injured his right knee for the first time. Cepeda’s condition was corrected with an operation on his right leg in 1952 that included the removal of knee cartilage. It kept him in bed for two months and on crutches for almost half a year. The upside of this time away from the diamond was that he continued to shovel food into his body and gained more than 40 pounds. It took him little time to convert this into muscle, and he was transformed from a singles hitter to a kid who could hit a baseball out of any ballpark.

Try as he might, Perucho had trouble keeping a roof over his family’s head and food on the table. The family eventually moved to Santurce, the densely populated slum in San Juan. The conditions there were often horrendous, and Cepeda’s mother, Carmen, had to work odd jobs to make up for the money her husband lost to gamblers and con artists, or gave to his mistresses and their children.

Toward the end of the school year in 1955, Perucho prevailed upon a friend, Pedro Zorilla, who ran the Santurce Crabbers, to get his son a tryout with the New York Giants, who soon signed him to a contract. Cepeda would have to be the family bread-winner soon; his father was 49 now and suffering from malaria and other health problems. Zorilla sent five youngsters to the States that spring, Orlando Cepeda, Jose Pagan, Francisco Sayas, Al Rodriguez and Julio Navarro, whose son Jaime would pitch in the majors for the Brewers. The quintet arrived in Melbourne, Florida, at an electric training camp. Among the other teenagers looking to earn a place in the organization that spring was a towering 17-year-old from Alabama, Willie McCovey.

A right-handed batter, Cepeda hit with a closed stance and hammered high pitches. He was a bit flat-footed, but ran very well. On defense, what he lacked in sure-handedness as a third baseman he made up for with his exuberance and willingness to learn. Cepeda was thrilled to be starting his pro career, but crestfallen his father would never get to see him play. Two days before his first game, for the Salem (Virginia) Rebels of the Class–D Appalachian League, he received news that Perucho had succumbed to a stomach disorder.  Cepeda split the 1955 season between Salem and another Class D club in Kokomo, Indiana.

Cepeda earned a promotion in 1956 to the St. Cloud Rox of the Class-C Northern League, where he won the Triple Crown, with 26 homers, 112 RBIs and a .355 average. He also led the league with 177 hits. The Giants were thrilled with Cepeda’s progress at the plate, and with his work at first base, his new position as of the middle of the season. The next year for Triple-A Minneapolis, Cepeda hit 25 home runs, with 108 RBIs and a .307 average.

After the 1957 seasons the Giants moved from New York to San Francisco. Cepeda had looked forward to playing in New York, where there was a large and vibrant Puerto Rican community, but he would find San Francisco to his liking. Cepeda arrived in the team’s new training camp in Phoenix as a non-roster player, but owner Horace Stoneham was already boasting that he would be the team’s starting first basemen when they broke camp, and he beat out Whitey Lockman and Bill White for the job. On Opening Day against the Dodgers, Cepeda hit a third-inning, opposite-field bomb off a Don Bessent change-up.

The 1958 Giants fielded a young starting lineup with veteran experience on the bench. Cepeda and Willie Mays supplied most of the power, slugging 25 and 29 home runs, respectively. Seals Stadium—the team’s home for two seasons prior to the construction of Candlestick Park—was not a power-friendly field, but there was plenty of room to spray line drives, and the Giants took full advantage of this feature, leading the majors with 250 doubles. Cepeda collected 38 himself, finishing two ahead of Dick Groat for the league lead. Cepeda’s 96 RBIs tied him with Mays for the team lead, and he chipped in a .312 average and 15 steals. At season’s end, he received all 21 votes in the Rookie of the Year balloting.

The move west proved profitable for the Giants. They nearly doubled their attendance from the previous year in New York, despite the fact that Seals Stadium held fewer than 25,000 fans. San Franciscans came out in droves to see their new team, and although they appreciated a superstar like Mays, they found Cepeda’s precociousness irresistible, and claimed him as their own.

Cepeda continued to shine in his sophomore season, leading the team with a .317 average and 105 RBIs. He finished just behind Mays for the team lead in steals and home runs, with 23 and 27. One of Cepeda’s home runs was a jaw-dropper that carried over the left field bleachers and completely out of County Stadium in Milwaukee, the first time this had been done. Led by a solid starting staff (but lacking a decent bullpen), the Giants engaged in a three-way race with the Dodgers and Braves that went deep into September.

San Francisco’s fortunes that season were bolstered by the arrival of Willie McCovey, who had blistered the ball at Triple-A. In order to get McCovey in the lineup, Cepeda had to move to left field, where his style was likened to a man wrestling with an alligator. Fortunately, he had quick reflexes and soft hands, so he was able to make corrections at the last instant. Cepeda was unhappy about the defensive shift, but he had no choice. McCovey was hitting like Babe Ruth and the Giants were winning. San Francisco held a two-game lead with eight to play, before the wheels came off.  After being swept by the Dodgers, the Giants faded to third place.

The 1960 season saw the Giants move into brand new Candlestick Park, another park which hurt right-handed hitters. To his credit, Cepeda —who had been a pull hitter to that point—opened up his stance and began driving the ball to right. This helped him keep his average near .300 without much of a power loss. He finished the year with 24 homers, 96 RBIs and a .297 average. As good as McCovey was in 1959, he was that bad in 1960. He batted .238 and had to be straightened out in Tacoma at one point. Cepeda stepped in and handled first base in McCovey’s absence.

Playing on the West Coast and away from the larger media markets, in many respects it wasn’t until 1960 that baseball fans around the country truly became acquainted with Cepeda. The issue of Sports illustrated that arrived in American homes prior to Memorial Day profiled the “Sa-Fra-Seeko Kid” and his relationship with the city he could barely pronounce. Cepeda also caused a mild stir when he posed in the nude for Look magazine. The photos were cropped from the waist up. Cepeda was sold on the idea because Look promised to write about how he was the best young right-handed hitter in baseball. Instead the story was loaded with quotes from incoming manager Alvin Dark about why he would never be the player Mays was.

Dark was not enlightened when it came to the more outspoken Latino players, and he eyed fan-favorite Cepeda with particular suspicion. Nonetheless, Cepeda split his time evenly between the outfield and first base in 1961, logging more than 600 plate appearances. Among his many highlights, he hit a ball off Robin Roberts that cleared the roof at Philadelphia’s Connie Mack Stadium, he drove in eight runs in a slugfest with the Cubs, and in a July game against the Phillies, Gene Mauch issued an intentional pass to Mays hoping to induce a double play from Cepeda, who promptly socked his first career grand slam.

As the Giants raced out to an early lead, and then drifted back behind the red-hot (and ultimately pennant-winning) Reds, Cepeda was unrelenting in his production at the plate. He topped the league with 46 homers and 142 RBIs, and led the Giants in hits, batting and slugging. The only player in the league who could match these numbers was Cincinnati’s Frank Robinson, who finished ahead of Orlando in the MVP race after the season. Almost unnoticed during this stellar campaign was the fact that Cepeda had reinjured his right knee. It happened in a home plate collision with Johnny Roseboro of the Dodgers. Cepeda would never play entirely pain-free again.

The Giants of this period were loaded with talent. They had a cadre of young offensive stars, an emerging ace in young Juan Marichal, veteran leaders in the clubhouse and on the pitching staff, and of course, the amazing Willie Mays. After combining for 86 homers and 265 RBIs in 1961, Cepeda and Mays came back with 84 and 255 in 1962, and both hit over .300. Five other Giants, meanwhile, hit .300 or close to it. Cepeda’s contribution was 35 homers, 114 RBIs, 105 runs scored and a .306 average, celebrating his return to full-time first base play with McCovey in left field.

The Giants and Dodgers dueled throughout the summer of 1962. Los Angeles seemed to have matters in hand going into the final weeks of September, but they won only three of their last 13 and the Giants caught them on the final day. Starting the best-of-three playoff, the Giants chased Koufax with three early runs in Game One, and Cepeda put the game out of reach with a sixth-inning blast off Larry Sherry as the Giants won 8–0. Los Angeles took Game Two at home on the strength of a seven-run sixth inning and a manufactured ninth-inning run by Maury Wills that snapped a 7–7 tie.

Game Three, also in L.A., was another wild affair. The Dodgers held a 4–2 lead with three outs to go. The Giants loaded the bases with one out, and then Mays plated a run with an infield hit. Cepeda tied the game with a sacrifice fly to the opposite field, which also advanced a runner to third. The Giants re-loaded the bags and then Davenport drew a walk to score the go-ahead run. Finally, Mays crossed the plate on an error to make the score 6–4. Billy Pierce came in and got the final three outs to send San Francisco to the World Series.

The Giants nearly topped this miraculous comeback against the Yankees in the World Series. In Game Seven, the Giants were batting in the bottom of the ninth with men on second and third and two out in a 1–0 game. New York manager Ralph Houk had a choice. He could pitch to McCovey or walk him to get to Cepeda, who had not been hitting well in the series. Houk decided to take his chances with Big Mac. McCovey hit a screamer right at Bobby Richardson to end the World Series.

Cepeda had another superb season in 1963, with 34 home runs, 97 RBIs and a .317 average. McCovey finally fulfilled the promise of 1959 with a league-leading 44 homers and Mays added 38, but it wasn't enough to upend the Dodgers, who went on to sweep the Yanks in the World Series. San Francisco dropped to fourth in 1964, but Cepeda had his typical 31-homer, 97-RBI .304 campaign. He also got a clutch ninth-inning hit to tie the All-Star Game, which the NL won moments later on a three-run homer by Johnny Callison.

In 1965, Dark was replaced as manager by the affable Herman Franks. Franks was of the opinion that McCovey’s problems (he stumbled through a dreadful 1964 campaign) stemmed from his displeasure playing the outfield. Believing that a position swap with Cepeda would produce a net gain, Franks installed him in left field at the beginning of the 1965 season, even though he was aware of Cepeda’s tender right knee.

Early in the year, Cepeda dove for a ball and injured the knee again, this time seriously. He played in only 33 games that year, virtually all as a pinch-hitter. The Giants lost the pennant to Los Angeles by two games, and a lot of fans pointed to Cepeda’s lost season as the reason. Franks complained that Cepeda wasn’t doing enough to work his way back. Cepeda had the knee surgically repaired over the winter and showed up at Spring Training in 1966 practically begging Franks to let him play first. After getting a thumbs-down on this request, Cepeda asked to be traded, Franks claimed the team had tried over the winter but there were no takers. That wasn’t entirely true. The Dodgers made a bid for him, offering Claude Osteen, but the Giants turned them down.

As the 1966 season began, Orlando was stationed in the outfield. Most days he would play until his knee began to ache and then come to the bench for a defensive replacement. Every day, Cepeda looked at the box scores to see which teams might be a good fit. He noticed that light-hitting Phil Gagliano was listed as a first baseman for the Cardinals. St. Louis had traded away first baseman Bill White (as well as third baseman Ken Boyer) after tumbling into the second division in 1965, and obviously were desperate for a middle-of-the-order hitter to play the first base. Cepeda certainly fit the bill. And in fact, St. Louis had been talking to the Giants throughout Spring Training. They offered the Giants an appealing way out of their first base dilemma by dangling Ray Sadecki, a young lefty who had lost a little off his fastball, and the deal was done. on May 8th.

Ironically, the two teams were playing the day the trade became official. And as luck would have it, McCovey was hurt and Cepeda played first base. On the way to the clubhouse after the game, Marichal congratulated Cepeda on his two RBI and predicted the team would never trade him now. He was wrong. Moments later, Franks came over to his locker and informed him that he was now a Cardinal. Cepeda batted cleanup and hit well for St. Louis the rest of the way. He played 123 games for the Cards in 1966 and led the team with 17 home runs, 24 doubles, a .303 average and a .469 slugging mark.

In 1967, Cepeda was the embodiment of what is today called an “impact player.” In a scintillating first half, he was leading the majors in hits and batting average, and driving in runs in the clutch. By the All-Star break, St. Louis was flirting with a double-digit lead over the competition. The Cardinals cruised to the pennant by 10 ½ games. Cepeda finished the year with a league-high 111 RBIs, and also posted a .325 average—no small feat when the rest of the league’s first basemen hit 50 points lower. He blasted 25 home runs despite playing in ungenerous Busch Stadium, and added 37 doubles, 91 runs and 11 stolen bases. He also led the team with 62 walks. The Cardinals beat the Red Sox in an exciting seven game World Series.

Cepeda 's effect on the Cardinals went beyond the numbers. In a year when even the best batsmen sometimes felt they couldn’t buy a hit, Cepeda strode to the plate daring pitchers to get him out. Mike Shannon said it was like having a big guy on your side in a fight; opponents looked at Cepeda and felt like they were going to lose. He also was a clubhouse comedian, as well as the unofficial music director—bringing his top-of-the-line stereo equipment in and playing records before games. It was in the St. Louis locker room that the nickname “Cha-Cha”--originally acquired in San Francisco—was used with unqualified warmth and appreciation. The 1967 Cardinals are considered one of the great teams in history, and Cepeda was an unquestioned leader. After the season Cepeda was unanimously named the league’s Most Valuable Player, the first unanimous choice in league history.

The 1968 Cardinals were prohibitive favorites to repeat as champs, and they nearly did. Only a remarkable comeback in the World Series by the Tigers prevented St. Louis from winning back-to-back championships. Like many sluggers, Cepeda saw his numbers plummet in the Year of the Pitcher. He batted just.248, though he did lead the team with 16 home runs and was second with 73 RBIs. He did hit two home runs in the team’s ultimately unsuccessful World Series.

With Opening Day less than a week away in 1969, the Cardinals dispatched Cepeda to the Braves for Joe Torre. Cepeda joined a potent attack that included Hank Aaron, Rico Carty, Felipe Alou, Felix Millan and, later, Tony Gonzalez. He felt comfortable on the Braves, not just because of the many Spanish-speaking players, but because of the GM, Paul Richards. Richards had played with his father in winter ball and was known as a smart and fair baseball man. Richards was trying to turn a sub-.500 team into a World Series contender in just one season, and the Braves came remarkably close, winning the NL West in the first year of division play, before falling to the Mets in the playoffs. Cepeda had a fine bounce back season, finishing second on the club to Aaron with 22 homers and 88 RBIs.

The 1970 season was Cepeda’s last as a full-time player in the field. He appeared in 148 games for the Braves and had a terrific season, clubbing 34 homers and 33 doubles, driving in 111 runs and batting .305, all on aching 32-year-old knees. Cepeda’s best game was a three-homer effort against the Cubs in July. It came in a doubleheader during which he collected seven hits in nine at bats. Cepeda appeared in only 71 games in 1971. He suffered another knee injury, but this time the problem was with his left knee, not his right. When Cepeda played he hit, and his 14 homers and 44 RBIs in 250 at bats projected out close to a 30–100 season. Cepeda felt he could have hit more than 40—he was that hot when he was first sidelined in May.

The 1972 season brought more pain and frustration. Cepeda’s balky knees limited him to just 22 games in the field for Atlanta. His last hurrah as a National Leaguer came in a May game against the Astros, when he clubbed a pair of homers off Jerry Reuss. After the team returned home from the series in Houston, Cepeda was shipped to the Oakland A’s for Denny McLain and cash. Cepeda made only three pinch-hit appearances before his left knee gave out again. He underwent his second surgery in a year and missed the rest of the season. When the A’s reached the postseason that fall, he was not on the roster.

After the A’s released Cepeda, he assumed his playing days were over. However, during the winter the American League adopted the new Designated Hitter rule—just in time to breathe new life into Cepeda’s career. Boston’s Latin American scout, Felix Maldonado, felt that Cepeda might thrive in the DH role and the team signed him on January 18, 1973. He was the first DH signing in baseball history.

Playing the entire season on one good leg, Cepeda tied for the team lead with 25 doubles, was second with 86 RBIs, and third with 20 homers. The Red Sox were the fourth different team for which Cepeda had eclipsed the 20-homer mark, making him the first player to accomplish this. Cepeda was named Designated Hitter of the Year after the season. He also finished 15th in the league MVP voting.

In the spring of 1974, new Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson made a dramatic move to make the team younger, releasing both Cepeda and shortstop Luis Aparicio. Stunned and saddened, Cepeda signed a deal to play with the Yucatan Lions in the Mexican League to stay in shape and hopefully attract a little attention. In early August, the Kansas City Royals gave him a contract after DH Hal McRae was injured. Cepeda drove in 10 runs the first week back in uniform, but his power stroke was gone. He played out the season, but batted only .215 with just one home run. It came off Luke Walker of the Tigers and was the 379th and final round-tripper of Cepeda’s major league career.

Common baseball wisdom holds that had Cepeda simply been kept at first base, he might have stayed healthy and approached or perhaps even exceeded 600 career home runs. At age 26, when he was in his prime as a hitter, he was a third of the way there, and only five players in history had more home runs at that age—Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx and Eddie Mathews.

The reality was a bit different, of course, leaving Hall of Fame voters to deal with the still-impressive numbers Cepeda left behind. And somewhat surprisingly those numbers simply weren't enough. From 1981 to 1993, Cepeda was the only eligible player with 300-plus homers and a .295 lifetime average who did not make the Hall of Fame. In his final year of eligibility with the baseball writers, he came an agonizing seven votes short of enshrinement.

There were extenuating circumstances. By this time the postscript on Cepeda’s career included some highly publicized problems off the field. Retired ballplayers, no matter how great, have to find ways to deal with their relative obscurity. Some parlay their fame into business opportunities. Others drift back into the game via the coaching or executive route. Then there are some who just drift. In Cepeda’s case, things began to unravel right before Christmas in 1975. He was arrested at the San Juan Airport after police found 170 pounds of marijuana in his luggage. He was returning from a baseball clinic in Colombia. After two years of unsuccessful legal maneuvering, Cepeda was found guilty of drug possession and sentenced to five years in prison.

Thanks to a sentence-reduction petition organized by Cepeda’s Kansas City teammate, Cookie Rojas, he served only 10 months. But upon his release he found that from the exalted status he had enjoyed as a national hero in Puerto Rico, he was now considered a national disgrace. Cepeda worked briefly as a hitting instructor for the White Sox, and then scouted in Puerto Rico for a few years. He also opened a baseball school in San Juan. He liked working with kids. He and Roberto Clemente had held countless clinics in Puerto Rico during the 1960s and he felt at home teaching young players. Among the teenagers who passed through Orlando’s academy was Candy Maldonado.

In 1984, Cepeda moved back to the U.S., settling in Los Angeles, where he tutored young hitters with professional aspirations. However, Cepeda’s status as a convicted drug offender continued to haunt him. While renewing acquaintances at Dodger Stadium during batting practice, he was ejected by security. The team did not want him in the ballpark. It was around this time that Cepeda’s third wife, Mirian, encouraged him to turn to Buddhism to deal with the anger and shame he was feeling. She also suggested they move back to Northern California, where the fans remembered the pure and joyful Orlando they had once embraced as their own. They relocated in 1986, and in 1987 the Giants hired Cepeda for a Community Relations position. He moved into scouting and player development for the club, and eventually became a sort of goodwill ambassador for the organization. At one point the Giants released a list of the charities Cepeda had done work for on behalf of the team. It was five pages long. Eventually, he was even accepted back in Puerto Rico, where his sins were forgiven (though not entirely forgotten).

In 1999, Cepeda was voted into the Hall of Fame by the Committee on Veterans. He entered the Hall as part of a group that included Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Robin Yount, old-time manager Frank Selee, umpire Nestor Chylak and Negro Leaguer Joe Williams. Cepeda was just the second Puerto Rican, after Roberto Clemente, to reach Cooperstown. The Giants also retired his number 30 that year.

In 2008, the Giants erected a nine-foot bronze statue in Cepeda’s honor outside AT&T Park. It was the fourth such statue, after Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal. That day the players wore jerseys with the team name Gigantes to honor his Latino heritage. Earlier in the year, Cepeda was a member of the Hall of Fame parade through the streets of New York prior to the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium.

With his legacy unquestioned, his immortality assured and his sins behind him, Orlando Cepeda has finally arrived at the place he seemed destined for so many years ago. But what a long, strange trip it has been.

Sources

Orlando Cepeda and Herb Fagen, Baby Bull (Taylor, 1999).

John Benson and Tony Blengino, Baseball’s Top 100 (Diamond Library, 1995).

Ashyia Henderson, Contemporary Hispanic Biography (Gale, 2002).

Orlando Cepeda and Bob Markus, High and Inside (Hardwood Press, 1984).

David Vincent, Lyle Spatz & David Smith, The Midsummer Classic, University of Nebraska, 2001.

Tim Wendel, The New Face of Baseball (Harper Collins, 2004).

Laura Thorpe, Orlando Cepeda (Woodford Publishing, 1999).

Glenn Dickey, San Francisco Giants: 40 Years (Woodford Publishing, 1997).

Samuel Regalado , Viva Baseball! (University of Illinois, 1998).

Fay Vincent, We Would Have Played for Nothing (Simon and Shuster, 2008).

Roy Terrell, “The Sa-Fra-Seeko Kid,” Sports Illustrated, May 23, 1960.

Myron Cope, “Babe Cobb of Puerto Rico,” Sports Illustrated, May 16, 1966.

Mark Mulvey, “Cha-Cha Goes Boom, Boom, Boom!,” Sports Illustrated, July 24, 1967.

Richard Scheinin, “Orlando Cepeda: Buddhism Saved Me,” Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, March 15, 1994.

George Vescey, “The Hall of Fame Should Open for Cepeda,” New York Times, December 12, 1993.

LatinoSportsLegends.com

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.