For a decade and a half starting in the late 1950s, few things were more unnerving to professional pitchers than the sight of Orlando Cepeda striding confidently to the plate. He was one of those hitters that made fans happy that baseball didn’t have a clock. Not that it mattered. When the Baby Bull cleaned off the plate and dug into the dirt with his back foot, time had a way of standing still.

A power hitter in the truest sense of the word, Orlando played as long and as hard as his disintegrating knees could take him, and then some. 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. Orlando’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 superstardom in sports.

Orlando Manuel Cepeda was born on September 17, 1937, in the southern seaport city of Ponce, Puerto Rico. (Click here for today's sports birthdays.) His only brother, Pedro, was four years older.

Orlando’s father, Perucho, was a big, power-hitting shortstop sometimes called the “Babe Ruth of the Caribbean.” But he was more commonly known as “The Bull.” Orlando often answered to Peruchin and would come to be called “Baby Bull” (and also “Cha-Cha”) by his fans.

Like many Puerto Rican stars of the 1920s and 1930s, Perucho followed the money and spent his prime years playing in the Dominican Republic. Perucho was widely regarded as his country’s top player. He had a legendary throwing arm and was a famous bad-ball hitter. Because of his dark skin, playing in the American major leagues was not an option, but in his prime there is little doubt he would have performed at an All-Star level in the U.S. Fearful of the racism he would encounter as a Negro Leaguer, he decided to remain in the Caribbean, where he often faced major leaguers during winter ball.

After Orlando was born, his father joined the Guayama club of the Puerto Rican Winter League. It was good to have Perucho home. The money he was sending from the Dominican was barely keeping the family afloat, and what he kept for himself he often gambled away. Though past his prime at this point, Perucho batted over .400 in 1938 and 1940,. In 1939, he edged Josh Gibson for the Puerto Rican League batting title with a .383 mark.

By this time, Perucho was primarily an outfielder and first baseman. His career drew slowly to a close during the World War II years, when new jobs came to the island. Perucho was hired to check the water quality in various rivers.

Still, baseball was in his blood. Perucho continued to play and also coached. In 1944, he represented Puerto Rico in an All-Star Game against Cuba. The broadcast of the game marked the first time young Orlando ever listened to a radio program. Before that game, a Cuban teenager named Orestes Minoso challenged Puerto Rican star Luis Marquez to a footrace. Orlando became a “Minnie” Minoso fan that day. Years later, when Orlando was a minor leaguer, he finally met Minoso and promptly fainted.

Orlando Cepeda

Perucho always maintained his tight baseball connections. Through his father, for instance, Orlando got to meet Jackie Robinson, who was visiting Puerto Rico with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the spring of 1947. Perucho introduced Robinson as the man who was making it possible for dark-skinned players like the Cepedas to reach the majors.

Orlando idolized his dad, as did almost every kid in Puerto Rico. When he and his father would go to the market, they drew a crowd of fans and well-wishers. Perucho taught Orlando how to hit and pitch. He also took him on many of his baseball travels in the 1940s, making sure that his son honed his skills for hours a day. Orlando actually 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.

Both Pedro and Orlando were talented ballplayers. But where Pedro couldn’t bear the constant comparisons to his dad—and eventually quit the game—Orlando strived to become the same kind of player. He too lost interest in baseball briefly, after failing to make a local team. For a time, he directed most of his energy toward basketball. But around the age of 13, Orlando injured his right knee for the first (but hardly the last) time. He refocused on baseball after that.

Orlando’s condition was corrected with an operation on his right leg in 1952 that included the removal of knee cartilage. It kept hium in bed for two months and on crutches for almost half a year. The upside was that he continued to shovel food into his body and gained more than 40 pounds. It took Orlando little time to convert this extra weight into muscle, and he was transformed from a singles hitter to a kid who could launch a fastball out of any ballpark.

Despite nearly two years away from organized ball, Orlando soon found himself playing for one of the best amateur teams on the island. Later he was part of an All-Star team that traveled to the Dominican Republic. On the opposing squad were two future professional teammates, Julian Javier and Felipe Alou. In 1953, Orlando joined the Santurce Crabbers as a 16-year-old batboy, which allowed him to work out with major leaguers before games. Among the players on the Crabbers were two more future major league teammates, Sam Jones and Ruben Gomez.

Gomez was one of Orlando’s heros. A legendary headhunter who pitched for the San Franciso Giants in the majors and Crabbers in winter league ball, he played for three decades in Puerto Rico, retiring at age 50. Gomez and Orlando would have some interesting adventures together before it was all said and done.

Orlando played ball in school during the winters and wherever there was a game during the summers. One of his schoolmates was Juan Pizarro, a future All-Star with the Chicago White Sox. Another young player Orlando got to know was Roberto Clemente, who tried out for a team his father coached in Juncos. Clemente later joined the Crabbers after signing with the Dodgers.

Try as he might, Perucho had trouble keeping a roof over his family’s head and food on the table. The Cepedas eventually moved to Santurce, the densely populated slum in San Juan. The conditions there were often horrendous, and Orlando’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.

Perucho Cepeda, 1950 Denia Milk

Toward the end of the school year in 1955, Perucho prevailed upon a friend, Pedro Zorilla, who ran the Crabbers, to get his son a tryout with the New York Giants. Orlando would have to be the family bread-winner soon; his father was 49 now and suffering from malaria he contracted on the job, as well as other health problems. Zorilla sent five youngsters to the States that spring, Orlando, Jose Pagan, Francisco Sayas, Al Rodriguez and Julio Navarro, whose son Jaime would later go on to a more than respectable 12-year big-league career as a pitcher. Because they were all underage, Zorilla appointed Clemente to be their shepherd until they reached Florida.

The quintet arrived in Melbourne at an electric training camp. The Giants were fresh off their remarkable sweep of the Cleveland Indians in the previous autumn’s World Series. Among the teenagers looking to earn a place in the organization that spring was a towering 17-year-old from Alabama, Willie McCovey.

Orlando hit with a closed stance and murdered high pitches. Though a bit flat-footed, he ran like a deer. On defense, what he lacked in sure-handedness as a third baseman he made up for with his exuberance and willingness to learn. He impressed enough to warrant a contract.

Orlando 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 Rebels of the Class–D Appalachian League, he received news that Perucho had succumbed to a stomach disorder. Orlando attended the funeral in Puerto Rico and was tempted to stay, but as Carmen pointed out, his $175/month was now the family’s primary source of income. He flew back to Virginia and joined the Rebels.

A combination of grief, loneliness and a failure to see eye-to-eye with manager Jack Crosswhite added up to slow start for Orlando. He hit just one home run for Salem. The biggest problem may have been the racism he encountered in the South. Orlando was unaccustomed to it and appalled by it. After 26 games, the Giants decided he would be better off with Kokomo, a new team in the struggling Mississippi–Ohio Valley League.

Orlando flourished in his new surroundings, getting along famously with catcher-manager Jack Milaskey and playing beside shortstop and fellow Latino Enrique Cardenas. In 92 games, Orlando hit 21 homers—good for a third-place tie in the circuit’s power department—and ran away with the batting race on the strength of a .393 average. He also posted the MOVL’s top slugging mark at .634 and drove in 91 runs.

Orlando earned a promotion to the St. Cloud Rox of the Class-C Northern League in 1956, where he continued his lusty hitting. Playing for longtime St. Cloud (and future Giants) manager Charlie Fox, 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 Orlando’s progress at the plate but concerned about his future position. They tried him out at first base during the season, and he seemed comfortable on the other side of the diamond. The Giants decided it was a good fit.

The big promotion came in 1957. Orlando, now 19, was ticketed for Class-AAA Minneapolis after a solid showing in spring training. The Millers were the top farm team for the Giants, who were playing their final season in New York. It was a team of veteran journeymen and hot prospects.

Orlando was by far the youngest player on the roster, but not the only kid in the lineup. Fellow infielders Andre Rodgers and Jim Davenport were in their early 20s and headed for the majors, as was outfielder Felipe Alou, who was only with the Millers for a couple of months. Orlando formed close relationships with Rodgers (a Bahamian) and Alou (a Dominican). Among the other players who suited up for Minneapolis skipper Red Davis that year were old-timers Gene Bearden, Hank Thompson, Max Surkont and Wayne Terwilliger.

Against experienced Triple- A pitchers, Orlando saw his average drop but maintained his power numbers. He was still using an exaggerated closed stance, which left him vulnerable to quality pitches low and inside—something he hadn’t encountered to that point in his career. He crushed everything else, finishing the year with 25 home runs, 108 RBIs and a .307 average.

Roberto Clemente, Topps Archives

Over the winter, the Giants announced their move to the West Coast. Orlando had looked forward to playing in New York, where there was a large and vibrant Puerto Rican community. However, he would find San Francisco much to his liking. The trick was getting there sooner rather than later. Thirty-year-old Whitey Lockman was the incumbent at first base, but he was only slightly better than a utility player. Bill White, who had lost time to military service, was also in the mix. Orlando arrived in the team’s new training camp in Phoenix as a non-roster player, but Horace Stoneham was already boasting that he would be the team’s starting first basemen when the Giants broke camp.

Orlando was eager to prove Stoneham worng and did little to diminish his chances. Lockman certainly could see the writing on the wall. He sidled up to manager Bill Rigney one day as he inspected Orlando’s Hornsby-like swing and said he thought the kid was “three years away”—adding “from the Hall of Fame.” Rigney would still be talking about Orlando years later, maintaining that he was the best young right-handed hitter he’d ever seen. McCovey would call Orlando the best pure right-handed power hitter in baseball.

Orlando made the Giants in 1958 and established himself as the team’s everyday first baseman. Opening Day found the Giants playing the Dodgers in the debut of West Coast major-league baseball. Orlando looked out of the dugout before the game and saw some familiar faces from his boyhood, including Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges and Duke Snider. In the third inning, Orlando hit an opposite-field bomb off a change-up from Don Bessent. It was technically the first major-league homer hit in California.

The Giants fielded a young starting lineup with lots of veteran experience on the bench. Orlando 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 park, but there was plenty of room to spray line drives. The Giants took full advantage, leading the majors with 250 doubles. Orlando collected 38 himself, finishing two ahead of Dick Groat for the league lead. Orlando’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 first-place votes in the Rookie of the Year balloting.

The Giants won 80 games and finished in third place, far behind the defending champion Milwaukee Braves and the surprising Pittsburgh Pirates. But in most respects the season was an unqualified success. Not only had the Giants improved by 11 victories, they had 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. They appreciated a superstar like Mays and found Orlando’s precociousness irresistible, claiming him as their own.

In terms of adjusting to life in the majors, Orlando did just fine. He picked up English fairly well and had as an apartment mate none other than Ruben Gomez, the pitcher he had rooted for in Santurce as a boy. Gomez took him under his wing and showed him the ropes as it were. Orlando was fiercely loyal to Gomez in return.

On one occasion as a rookie, this attachment nearly put a premature end to Orlando’s career. In some circles, Gomez was known as the “Madman.” He seemed to relish conflict on the mound and was at his best when fans were screaming for blood. In a game against the Pirates at Forbes Field, he plunked Bill Mazeroski, and later Vern Law returned the favor by knocking down Gomez. When the umpire issued a warning to Law, Pittsburgh manager Danny Murtaugh hustled out of the dugout only to be confronted by Gomez, and the two got into a shoving match. The benches emptied, with the usual milling around and such. That’s when Mays noticed Orlando grabbing a weapon out of the bat rack. He snagged the rookie before he could get up the dugout steps to defend his roommate’s honor. Orlando received a $100 fine and the rules of engagement on major league ball fields was explained to him with greater clarity—bats were never to be used as weapons.

Whitey Lockman, 1955 Bowman

That winter, Orlando found himself teamed with Gomez once again, this time on the hometown Crabbers. They were facing Mayaguez in the playoffs when Gomez hit a batter, and again Orlando backed up his friend when a fight seemed imminent. The brawl never materialized, but the Mayaguez fans were sufficiently riled up to throw garbage at Orlando when he went chasing after a foul pop later in the game, causing him to drop the ball. He picked it up and fired it into the stands. The ball ricocheted onto the field off the forehead of an unruly customer. The fans went berserk, and the umpires forfeited the game to Santurce. Orlando had to be escorted out of the stadium by police. He survived the rest of the winter season, leading the league with a .362 batting average.

Also that winter, Orlando bought a new home for his family and asked his girlfriend, Annie Pino, to marry him. They tied the knot following the 1959 campaign. Gomez was traded prior to spring training, so Orlando roomed with a friend that season in San Francisco. He lived it up in his final summer as a bachelor, the Giants having doubled his rookie salary to $15,000. Much of that went toward a first-rate hi-fi set-up. Orlando loved playing Latino music and was also becoming something of a jazz aficionado.

Orlando continued to make sweet music in his sophomore season, topping the Giants 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 Orlando’s long balls was a jaw-dropper that carried over the left field bleachers and completely out of County Stadium in Milwaukee. It was the first time that had been done. The Giants, led by a solid starting staff (but lacking a decent bullpen), engaged in a three-way race with the Dodgers and Braves that went deep into September.

San Francisco’s fortunes were bolstered by the arrival of McCovey, who was blistering the ball at Triple-A and continued to do so in the majors. To get his potent bat in the lineup, the Giants moved Orlando to left field, where his fielding 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. Orlando was extremely unhappy about the defensive shift, but what could he say? McCovey was hitting like Babe Ruth and the Giants were winning.

San Francisco held a two-game lead with eight to play, but then the wheels came off. Rigney’s starters were exhausted, and it showed in a three-game sweep by the Dodgers. The Giants never recovered and finished third again, while the Dodgers beat the Braves in a playoff for the pennant.

The 1960 season saw the Giants move into Candlestick Park. The right-handed hitters could tell in April that the new stadium would do them no favors. Most games, the wind held up all but the most powerful blasts toward left field. To his credit, Orlando—who had been a pull hitter to that point—opened up his stance and began driving the ball to right. This helped him remain a dangerous hitter. He finished the year with 24 homers, 96 RBIs and a .297 average.

The Giants, however, were never in the hunt. They languished in the middle of the pack most of the year, costing Rigney his job. 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. Orlando stepped in and handled first base in McCovey’s absence.

Playing on the West Coast in those days kept news of a great player from spreading nationwide. In many respects, it wasn’t until the 1960 season that baseball fans around the country truly became acquainted with Orlando. 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. Orlando also caused a mild stir when he posed in the nude for Look magazine. The photos were cropped from the waist up. Orlando 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 Orlando would never be the player Mays was.

Dark was not exactly enlightened when it came to the more freewheeling Latino players, and he eyed fan-favorite Orlando with particular suspicion. That being said, there was little to complain about. Orlando split his time evenly between the outfield and first base in 1960. He logged more than 600 plate appearances, while McCovey, Felipe Alou and newly acquired Harvey Kuenn shared the at-bats that fell to the other positions.

Ruben Gomez, TCMA the 1950s

With the expansion draft having thinned out the talent pool by a good 50 players, Orlando was one of several rising stars who had breakout seasons in 1961. There were many highlights for him during this remarkable year. He hit a ball of Robin Roberts of the Philadelphia Phillies that cleared the roof at Connie Mack Stadium. In a slugfest with the Chicago Cubs, he drove in eight runs. And in a July game against the Phillies, Gene Mauch issued an intentional pass to Mays hoping to induce a double play from Orlando. He promptly socked his first career grand slam.

The Giants raced out to an early lead and then drifted back behind the red-hot Cincinnati Reds, who ultimately won the pennant. Orlando 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 NL who could match these numbers was Cincinnati’s Frank Robinson, who finished ahead of Orlando in the MVP race after the season.

It did not go unnoticed in the Caribbean that winter that the NL’s Triple Crown had been shared by two Puerto Ricans; Clemente won the batting title with a .351 average. It was an important milestone in the evolution of major league baseball.

What did go unnoticed during Orlando’s stellar season was the fact that he had reinjured his right knee. It happened in a home plate collision with Johnny Roseboro of the Dodgers. Orlando only missed a handful of games, but he would never play entirely pain-free again. The injury also drove a wedge between Orlando and his manager. Orlando never felt Dark respected him or his Spanish-speaking teammates. When Dark started accusing Orlando of giving something less than a full effort after the Los Angeles series, he became enraged. He had made key plays in each of the four games during that particular meeting with the Dodgers. Years later, when Dark was coaching for the Cubs, he apologized to Orlando for not taking his injury more seriously.

The injury to Orlando aside, coming out of 1961, the Giants were so close to the pennant they could taste it. San Francisco 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.

The team that broke camp in 1962 had added a couple of important pieces. Billy Pierce and Don Larsen joined the pitching staff. Pierce would go 16–6 as a starter, and Larsen would notch 11 saves in 49 games from the bullpen. Also, young Tom Haller had ascended to the starting catcher’s role, backed up by Ed Bailey. Together, they produced 35 home runs and an even 100 RBIs.

The one-two punch that really drove the Giants in 1962 was Mays and Orlando. They combined for 84 homers and 255 RBIS, and both hit better than .300. Five other Giants also batter .300 or close to it—Jim Davenport, Felipe and Matty Alou, Kuenn, and McCovey, who was relegated to outfield duty by Dark.

Orlando’s contribution was sizable—35 homers, 114 RBIs, 105 runs scored and a .306 average. He made 160 starts at first base, this despite a knee injury he hid from the team. A weight had fallen on him during an off-season workout session, and he did not want to give Dark the satisfaction of criticizing him anymore.

With journeyman Jack Sanford turning in a remarkable 24–7 season, including 16 straight wins during one stretch, and Billy O’Dell and Marichal chipping in 19 and 18 victories, respectively, the Giants finished their schedule with 101 wins. In most years, this would have been enough to cop the pennant, but in 1962 the Dodgers were every bit as good. The two teams dueled all summer. The Dodgers 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 last day. A best-of-three playoff would now decide the pennant.

The Giants chased Koufax with three early runs in Game 1, and Orlando put the game out of reach with a sixth-inning blast off Larry Sherry. The Giants won 8–0. Los Angeles took Game 2 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 3, 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. Orlando tied the game with a sac fly to the opposite field, which also advanced a runner to third. The Giants re-loaded the bags before Davenport drew a walk to score the go-ahead run. Finally, Mays crossed the plate on an error to make the score 6–4. Pierce came in and got the final three outs to send San Francisco to the World Series.

Orlando Cepeda, 1961 Topps

The Giants nearly topped that miraculous comeback against the Yankees in the World Series. In Game 7, New York held a 1-0 lead with the Giants were batting in the bottom of the ninth. San Francisco had men on second and third with two out. Yankees manager Ralph Houk had a choice. He could pitch to McCovey or walk him to get to Orlando, who was not hitting well in the series. Houk decided to take his chances with Big Mac. McCovey hit a screamer right at second baseman Bobby Richardson to end the World Series.

Prior to the Game 7 thriller, the teams had traded victories in the first six games. The Yankees did a superb job of neutralizing San Francsico’s big bats. Orlando managed just three hits in five games and was benched in the two games pitched by right-hander Ralph Terry. Mays and McCovey didn’t do much better.

The Yankees deserved much credit for their handling of Orlando. He was not one to be outfoxed at the plate, but clearly they had done so. Orlando was a hitter who waited for a pitch he believed he could handle and then used his quick hands to drive it. Even off-balance, he could reach any fence in any ballpark.

One of the few pitchers who found a way to pitch to him in was Lew Burdette of the Braves. Interestingly, during Orlando’s first three years in the league, he owned the righty. When the Braves acquired catcher Sammy White in 1961, Burdette explained his predicament to the veteran backstop. Since Orlando hit Bird Cage like he knew what was coming, White decided they had nothing to lose by actually telling him what was coming. When Orlando faced the Burdette-White battery for the first time, White actually informed him what his teammate intended to do. Orlando half freaked out. He didn't want to know what was coming. The umpire made him step back in the box, explaining that if the Braves were dumb enough to announce their pitches, that was up to them. According to Burdette, Orlando didn’t get a ball out of the infield against him from that day on.

The Giants, meanwhile, continued to out-slug the competition. But in 1963, they simply could not match the Dodgers’ pitching. Marichal had a season for the ages, recording 25 victories and pitching 321 innings, but Koufax was even better for Los Angeles. That, plus the rise of the St. Louis Cardinals, relegated the Giants to third place, spectators in a mildly interesting September tussle between the Dodgers and Cards, which ultimately went to L.A.

Orlando had another superb season in 1963, with 34 home runs 97 RBIs and a .317 average. He also scored 100 runs. McCovey finally fulfilled the promise of 1959 with a league-leading 44 homers. Mays added 38 dingers, and the two catchers matched their 35 long balls from the previous season.

The 1964 pennant went to the Cardinals, but not until they prevailed in a wild final week that saw the collapsing Phillies, resurgent Reds, and power-laden Giants all have a mathematical shot at first place. San Francisco ended up fourth, just three games out.

Orlando did his part by turning in what was now a ho-hum 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.

Willie McCovey,
2003 Upper Deck Vintage

Mays led the league with 47 home runs and a .607 slugging percentage, and rookie Jim Ray Hart was a revelation with 31 homers from third base. Their production almost made up for a disappointing season from McCovey, whose output plummeted to 18 homers and a .220 average.

The abrasive Dark was shown the door after the season, and affable Herman Franks was installed at the helm. Orlando was encouraged by this regime change. He had been coached by Franks in the minors, and they got along well. Franks was of the opinion that McCovey’s problems stemmed from his displeasure playing the outfield. Believing that a position swap with Orlando would produce a net gain, he installed Orlando in left field at the beginning of the 1965 season, even though he was aware that Orlando had a tender knee.

Early in the season, Orlando dove for a ball and injured his right knee again, this time seriously. Until that time, he had suffered through the normal aches and pains associated with playing 150-plus games a year. But this was something very different. Orlando’s knee was ruined. He played in only 33 games that year, virtually all as a pinch-hitter. The Giants lost the pennant to St. Louis by two games, and a lot of fans pointed to Orlando’s lost season as the reason. They were prompted in large part by Franks, who complained that Orlando wasn’t doing enough to work his way back.

Orlando had the knee surgically repaired over the winter and did various types of manual labor to strengthen the joint and stay in shape. He showed up at spring training practically begging Franks to let him play first, but the manager felt that McCovey would do anything for the Giants, while Orlando would not. When Orlando 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 play for him, offering Claude Osteen, but the Giants backed off.

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. He was angry about the injury and the position change, and made no attempt to hide it. Orlando sensed that he would no longer be the same player. Prior to the injury, his numbers over seven seasons looked very Aaron-like. With his knees irreperable with the medical technology of the day, he would never approach those stats again.

One of the ways in which Orlando’s injury diminished his game was on the basepaths. Fans tend to remember him as a player with wobbly knees—and because of successive injuries, he was. But prior to 1965, Orlando had above-average speed and was an aggressive (though occasionally indiscriminant) base runner. He liked being on base and loved to score runs.

Though marginalized by Franks, Orlando was convinced he still had plenty to offer. Every day he 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. They had dealt first baseman Bill White, as well as third baseman Ken Boyer, after tumbling into the second division in 1965. St. Louis was obviously desperate for a middle-of-the-order hitter to play the first base. Orlando certainly fit the bill. And in fact, St. Louis had been talking to the Giants throughout spring training. The Cards 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.

Willie Mays, 1963 Rub Off

Ironically, the two teams were playing the day the trade became official. And as luck would have it, McCovey was hurt, and Orlando played first base. He knocked in six runs. On the way to the clubhouse, Marichal congratulated Orlando and predicted the team would never trade him now. He was wrong. Franks came over to Orlando’s locker and informed him that he was now a Cardinal.

Orlando batted cleanup and hit well for St. Louis. 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. He even got caught up in the team’s stolen base parade, swiping nine bags to tie Tim McCarver for fourth on the club. The performance earned Orlando recognition as Comeback Player of the Year.

The Cardinals barely made it over .500 in 1966, but there was clearly some help on the way. Bob Gibson would no longer have to go it alone—young guns Steve Carlton and Nelson Briles were ready to contribute, and Ray Washburn was starting to look like a bona fide major leaguer. Dick Hughes, a big right-hander who had toiled fruitlessly for a decade in the minors, could throw four pitches for strikes and was ticketed for a potential starting slot. The only thing that manager Red Schoendienst was missing was a player who could make the team feel like winners again.

In 1967, Orlando Cepeda was the right man in the right place at the right time. In a scintillating first half, he grabbed the majors lead in hits, batting average, and driving in runs in the clutch. The Cardinals had agreed before the season that players would contribute $1 every time they left a runner at third with less than two out. The All-Star Break had come and gone before Orlando had contributed $5 to the kitty.

By then, the NL race was all but over. The Cubs and Giants had mustered early challenges, but St. Louis was flirting with a double-digit lead, despite losing Gibson in July when a line drive broke his leg. The rest of the staff kept the momentum going, and the Cardinals cruised to the pennant by 10 and ½ games. Orlando 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, which was less a case of sudden selectiveness than fear and respect on the part of opposing pitchers.

Orlando's effect on the Cardinals went beyond the numbers. In a year when even the league’s best sometimes felt they couldn’t buy a hit, Orlando 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 Orlando and felt like they were going to lose. He was a clubhouse comedian and also the unofficial music director, bringing his top-of-the-line stereo equipment in and playing records before games. It was his St. Louis teammates that gave him the nickname “Cha-Cha.” The 1967 Cardinals are considered one of the greatest teams in history, and Orlando was their unquestioned leader.

For all the times voters have ignored or misinterpreted the V in MVP, in 1967 they got it right. Statistically, Orlando’s season was not appreciably better than Roberto Clemente’s or Hank Aaron’s or Ron Santo’s or Dick Allen’s. When the ballots were counted, however, Orlando’s name was atop every one. His MVP award was unanimous. That had never happened before in the National League.

The World Series that Fall was fantastic. Baseball’s “Baby Bull” and his juggernaut Cardinals faced the “Impossible Dream” Boston Red Sox, who ere led by Carl Yastrzemski. Both teams had been dreadful the year before, and both had ridden their superstars to the pennant. Gibson was healed and back in top form, but Boston held the home field advantage. St. Louis was still favored by the experts.

Orlando Cepeda,
Sports Illustrated poster

Gibson outdueled Jose Santiago in the opener, 2–1. Lou Brock’s base running made the difference. Lonborg pitched a 5–0 shutout to even the series. In Game 3, the Cardinals forged a 4–2 lead, and Orlando added an insurance run in the eighth when he doubled home Roger Maris. It was his first hit of the series. He doubled again in Game 4, which the Cardinals won 6–0 behind Gibson. St. Louis now had a commanding lead in the series.

The Red Sox made things interesting by winning the final game in St. Louis, and then Game 6 back in Boston. Orlando wasn’t much help in either contest, collectingjust one hit. He went hitless in Game 7, but the Cardinals won 7–2 to nail down their second World Series of the decade and give Orlando his first championship.

The Cardinals were prohibitive favorites to repeat in 1968, and they nearly did. Only a remarkable comeback in the World Series by the Detroit Tigers prevented St. Louis from winning back-to-back championships. Until the last nine outs of Game 7, the Cards looked like a lock. A screaming line drive off the bat of Jim Northrup proved the decisive blow.

Prior to that, Orlando could look back proudly at a much-improved Fall Classic performance, having hit two homers and knocked in a team-best six runs. His three-run tape-measure blast in Game 3 put that contest out of reach and was the final blow in a 7–1 victory. His two-run first-inning homer in Game 5 off Mickey Lolich appeared to spell doom for the Tigers, who trailed in series three games to one, but the St. Louis staff couldn’t hold the lead.

The 1968 regular season had been a good one for the Cards, who outdistanced the Giants again, this time by nine games. Like many sluggers, Orlando 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.

St. Louis o wner Gussie Busch decided to shake things up after what he regarded as a World Series debacle. The following spring, with Opening Day less than a week away, he dispatched Orlando to the Braves for Joe Torre. This was one of many ill-conceived decisions by ownership that many Cardinals later said tore the heart out of a well-balanced, well-adjusted championship-caliber club. Atlanta, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more delighted with the results. In the first year of divisional play, the Braves won the NL West over the Giants by three games. It was the third year in a row a Cepeda-led team kept them out of the postseason.

Orlando 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 General Manager Paul Richards. The baseball lifer had played with Orlando’s father in winter ball and was known as smart and fair. He was trying to turn a sub-.500 team into a World Series contender in just one season, and Orlando wanted to be a part of that metamorphosis. The Braves came remarkably close.

Orlando had a good year. He was second on the club to Aaron with 22 homers and 88 RBIs, and tied for second on the team with 12 stolen bases. His .257 average was disappointing, but he delivered key hits when Atlanta needed them and was a major reason the team finished first in a taut NL West race.

The Braves were favored over the upstart Mets in the best-of-five National League Championship Series. However, in a high-scoring battle, Atlanta surprisingly came out on the short end three times in a row. Orlando batted .455. Aaron was even better, but they were undone by the likes of Art Shamsky, Ken Boswell and Wayne Garrett. In other words, it was simply New York’s year. Few Braves were surprised when the Mets handled the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.

The 1970 season was Orlando’s last as a full-time player in the field. He appeared in 148 games for the Braves and had a terrific season. He clubbed 34 homers,d led the team with 33 doubles, drove in 111 runs and batted .305, all on aching 32-year-old knees. Orlando’s best game was a three-homer effort against the Cubs in July. It came in a doubleheader during which he collected eight hits in nine at-bats. The Braves had plenty of offense that year—Aaron and Carty had All-Star seasons—but the pitching was atrocious, and Atlanta finished a distant fifth in a six-team division.

Orlando split the 1971 season between first base and the DL, appearing in only 71 games. It was a knee problem again, but this time the left knee. The injury required surgery to correct. When Orlando played, he hit, as evidenced by his 14 homers and 44 RBIs in 250 at-bats. He felt he could have hit more than 40 home runs—he was that hot when he was first sidelined in May. The injury was a weird one. He had banged up the knee two seasons earlier, but after a two-week rest it seemed to have healed itself. The blowout happened in Orlando’s living room, when he rose from a chair to answer the phone. The left knee just gave out. Orlando played through the pain for a few weeks before calling it a season and going under the knife.

In that funny way baseball has of turning lemons into lemonade, the Braves may have benefited by Orlando’s absence. Aaron, who was shifted to first and no longer had to patrol the outfield, enjoyed a 48-homer campaign that really put him on track to challenge Babe Ruth’s career record. Atlanta finished with a winning mark but finished third behind the Giants and Dodgers.

The 1972 season brought more pain and frustration for Orlando. His 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 Braves returned home from the series in Houston, Orlando was shipped to the Oakland A’s for Denny McLain and cash. He 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 qualified for the postseason that fall, he was not on the roster.

Roger Maris & Orlando Cepeda, 1962 Topps

Oakland released Orlando, and 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 Orlando’s career. Boston had missed the playoffs by a whisker in 1972, and the Red Sox were counted among the favorites to take the AL East in 1973. Their Latin American scout, Felix Maldonado, felt that Orlando might thrive in the DH role. Boston inked him to a deal on January 18, 1973. He was the first DH signing in baseball history.

The Red Sox had two young left-handed sluggers ready to platoon with Orlando—Ben Oglivie and Cecil Cooper—but Orlando nailed down the everyday job that spring and never let it go. The icing on the cake was playing for Eddie Kasko, a former NL opponent whom Orlando later called the best manager he ever played for.

The Red Sox were not quite the pennant-winner they would become two years later. Reggie Smith and Tommy Harper played the positions that would eventually fall to Fred Lynn and Jim Rice. Luis Aparicio was the shortstop, with Rick Burleson waiting in the wings. The team had failed to find a closer after trading Sparky Lyle to the Yankees the previous spring. Orlando’s old San Francisco teammate, Bobby Bolin, ended up filling that role in 1973. The lack of a shutdown reliever would continue to haunt the club in 1975.

Orlando, playing the entire season on one good leg, tied for the team lead with 25 doubles, was second with 86 RBIs, and third with 20 homers. He had seen the Green Monster before, during All-Star competition, and couldn’t wait to take aim at Fenway Park’s famous left field fence. However, Orlando credited his success in the ballpark to a decision he made not to pull everything—after three games he knew the Monster would eat him up if he changed his approach at the plate. Ironically, Fenway was probably the first home park Orlando played in that favored right-handed power hitters.

The Red Sox were the fourth different team for which Orlando had eclipsed the 20-homer mark. No one in history had accomplished that feat before. His .289 average put him right up there with Tommy Davis and Tony Oliva as one of the top designated hitters in the league. In fact, he was named DH of the Year after the season. Red Sox fans also recall how Orlando would occasionally gamble and take the extra base as a runner—a play they appreciated, knowing how his legs bothered him. Alas, pitching proved the difference in the division race, and the Orioles had more than the Red Sox in 1973. They took the AL East by eight games over Boston.

Orlando’s season in Boston would have made a nice last hurrah—he finished 15th in the MVP voting, ahead of teammates Carlton Fisk and Carl Yastrzemski—but he wanted to keep playing, even after he failed to make the team’s Opening Day roster in 1974. Orlando was actually hitting well in spring training and running relatively pain-free, too. But new manager Darrell Johnson decided to jettison Orlando and Aparicio, both future Hall of Famers, in favor of younger, cheaper players. Orlando was cut before the season started.

Stunned and saddened, he signed a deal to play with Yucatan Lions in the Mexican League that June. Orlando hoped to stay in shape and attract a little attention. In early August, the Kansas City Royals gave him a contract after Hal McRae was injured.

Orlando drove in 10 runs the first week back in uniform, but his power stroke was gone. He played out the season as Kansas City’s regular DH, but he batted only .215 with just one home run, off Luke Walker of the Tigers. It was the 379th and final round-tripper of Orlando’s major league career. By September, the effort it took just to muster four quality at-bats was too much for his body. It was finally time for the Baby Bull to go out to pasture.

In addition to his 379 home runs, Orlando drove in 1,365 runs and scored 1,131 in 17 seasons. His lifetime average was .297—he finished in the Top 10 in batting eight times—and he slugged .499. At one time or another, he led the league in doubles, home runs, RBIs, sacrifice flies, hit by pitch and grounding into double plays. Though known as a free-swinger, Orlando struck out 100 times only once. He was an All-Star seven times—six with the Giants and once more during his MVP season with the Cardinals. He was actually selected to the Mid-Summer Classic 11 times—including both All-Star Games each year from 1959 to 1962. He didn't appear in four of those contests.

Orlando Cepeda, 1974 Topps

Common baseball wisdom holds that had Orlando 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. That left Hall of Fame voters to deal with the still-impressive numbers Orlando compiled. And somewhat surprisingly those numbers simply weren't enough. From 1981 to 1993, Orlando 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, he came an agonizing seven votes short of enshrinement.

There were extenuating circumstances. By this time, the postscript on Orlando’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 Orlando’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, Orlando was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.

Thanks to a sentence-reduction petition organized by Orlando’s former 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, he was now considered a disgrace in his homeland. Orlando had burned through his second marriage at this point and fathered at least one illegitimate child. It was not a pretty picture.

Orlando worked briefly as a hitting instructor for the Chicago 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 their country during the 1960s and he felt at home teaching young players. Among the teenagers who passed through Orlando’s academy was Candy Maldonado. Also, four of Orlando’s sons—Orlando, Malcolm, Ali and Heison—were beginning to express their genetics on the ballfield, with Orlando Jr. being drafted by the Montreal Expos. One way or another, the name Cepeda was likely to live on in the baseball world.

In 1984, Orlando moved back to the U.S., settling in Los Angeles, where he tutored young hitters with professional aspirations. However, his reputation 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 Orlando’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 slugger they had once embraced as their own. They relocated in 1986, and in 1987 the Giants hired Orlando 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 which Orlando 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).

Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda & Frank Robinson,
press photo

After 1993, Orlando’s name was taken off the Hall of Fame ballot. In 1996, he was eligible for consideration by the Veterans Committee, and they voted him into Cooperstown in 1999. 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. Orlando was just the second Puerto Rican, after Roberto Clemente, to reach Cooperstown. The Giants also retired his number 30 that year.

Orlando continued to work for the club. He helped young players with his know-how and inspired groups of at-risk kids and adults with his own personal story. In 2007, the baseball world let out a collective groan when Orlando was stopped for speeding. Marijuana, cocaine and a syringe were found in his car.

One year later, Orlando pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and received a $100 fine. He claimed the marijuana—actually the remainder of a smoked joint—belonged to a family member who had a prescription for it. The syringe belonged to Mirian, who is diabetic. Orlando had no explanation for the cocaine, but he told officers he thought it might be methamphetamines that belonged to someone else who had driven the car. The fact that he didn't know what the substance was helped convince the District Attorney’s office in Solano County that it would not be able to pin the drugs on Orlando. He received a slap on the wrist. That cleared the way for more love to be showered on Orlando by the baseball world.

In 2008, the Giants erected a nine-foot bronze statue in Orlando’s honor outside AT&T Park. It was the fourth statue, after Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal. That day the players wore jerseys with the team name Gigantes to honor Orlando’s Latino heritage. Earlier that year, Orlando 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 well behind him, Orlando Cepeda seems finally to have arrived at the place he seemed destined for so many years ago. But what a long, strange trip it has been.

Orlando Cepeda,
2003 Topps Fan Favorite


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