San Francisco, CA

From “Baby Bull” to Icon in Bronze: Remembering Orlando Cepeda at Age 85

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Orlando Cepeda was a hero in San Francisco, where he arrived in 1958.Ghetto9678 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

[Editor’s Note: Orlando Cepeda was among the former stars at Max Shapiro’s Braves Fantasy Camp in West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium in 1988, when I was one of the campers. He made an extremely strong positive impression. — Dan Schlossberg]

By Bill Pruden

Beginning in 1958 and continuing into the mid-1960s, there was no more feared hitter in the National League than Orlando Cepeda.

While a knee injury from which he never fully recovered impacted his overall career, Cepeda rebounded after losing almost a full year to the injury to again put fear in the hearts of American League pitchers when he finished his career as a designated hitter in the Junior Circuit.

And yet for all his baseball accomplishments in a career that was capped by his 1999 induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the life and career of Orlando Cepeda, who turns 85 years old tomorrow, was as much about perseverance and resilience, both on and off the field, as it was about his baseball accomplishments. 

Arriving in the major leagues to join the newly-relocated San Francisco Giants at the start of the 1958 season, the 20-year-old Cepeda, nicknamed the Baby Bull, took the National League by storm.

He had great baseball bloodlines as the son of Pedro Cepeda, often called "The Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico" and "Babe Cobb" because of his hitting prowess. He was also known as “the Bull,” giving Orlando the nickname of “Baby Bull.”

On a Giants team that finished third behind the defending World Series champions, the Milwaukee Braves, the young first baseman was a valuable complement to teammate Willie Mays as he hit .312 with 25 home runs and 96 runs batted in, a performance that earned him the National League Rookie of the Year Award by unanimous vote.

It was also the forerunner to a six-season run in which he was an All-Star from 1959-1964.  Indeed, in his first seven years in the big leagues, only once did Cepeda’s batting average fall below .300 (.297 in 1960).

During that same span he hit a total of 222 home runs and drove in 747 runs, topping out at 46 and 142, respectively, in 1961, a performance that earned him runner-up honors in the MVP vote behind Cincinnati Reds slugger Frank Robinson.   

But after injuring his knee diving for a ball in left field, his 1965 season consisted of 33 appearances, 27 of which were as a pinch-hitter. Cepeda’s career had reached a crossroads and raised doubts about his future. It also made it more difficult for the Giants to keep both of their hard hitting first basemen, Cepeda and Willie McCovey, in the line-up. Barely a month into the 1966 season, on May 8, the Giants traded Cepeda to the St. Louis Cardinals for left-handed pitcher Ray Sadecki.

Though initially shocked and upset at the trade, it offered Cepeda a fresh start. Embraced by his new teammates, he again became an offensive force, hitting .303 as a Cardinal over 123 games.

The following year, he took his game and his team to another level. Hitting .325 with 25 home runs and a league-leading 111 runs batted in, Cepeda was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player.

After the Giants’ disappointing near-miss of 1962, Cepeda celebrated his first World Series win as the Cards defeated the “Impossible Dream” Boston Red Sox in a seven-game classic.

While his offensive numbers — like those of everyone else — dropped in 1968, the “Year of the Pitcher,” Cepeda remained an offensive leader on a Bob Gibson-led Cardinal team that again reached the World Series, only to lose in the seventh game to the Detroit Tigers. 

Undaunted by his less-than-average 1968 effort, Cepeda arrived at spring training ready to rebound, but in a surprise move on March 17, he was traded to the Atlanta Braves for Joe Torre. Deeply disappointed at leaving St. Louis and concerned about playing in the South, he ultimately enjoyed the experience, taking solace in being reunited with his good friend and former San Francisco teammate Felipe Alou while also relishing the chance to play with the iconic Henry Aaron.  

Cepeda’s 1969 performance was an improvement over 1968 as he hit .257 with 22 home runs and 88 RBIs. However, it was in 1970 that the Cepeda of old returned with the right-handed slugger hitting .305 with 34 home runs and 111 RBIs. He started the 1971 season the same way before an injury to his other knee, followed by surgery, brought Cepeda’s season to a premature end after only 71 games.  

Now struggling on two bad knees, Cepeda saw limited playing time as the 1972 season got underway and on June 29, he was traded to the Oakland Athletics for another former All-Star, Denny McLain. 

Cepeda pinch-hit only three times for the A’s before his season came to an end and he was released. It appeared that the baseball career of Orlando Cepeda had come to an end. But fate -– in the form of a rule change — intervened. 

On January 11, 1973, the American League decided to undertake the designated hitter as a three-year trial run. With the onset of the experiment, there was suddenly a market for a capable hitter who could no longer hold his own in the field.

No one fit that description better than Cepeda, who was quickly snatched up by the Boston Red Sox. He then hit .289 with 20 home runs and 86 RBIs, a performance that earned him the inaugural Designated Hitter of the Year Award.

Despite his stellar effort, new Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson decided the team was going with younger players and released Cepeda.

Unable to latch on with another big-league team, he played briefly in Mexico before signing with the Kansas City Royals in August. But his time there was short-lived and after 17 seasons, that was the end of his distinguished career. He finished with a .297 batting average and 379 home runs, not to mention numerous honors and accolades.  

But baseball had been his life and now, out of the game, personal problems that had been building only worsened. Cepeda had married his first wife when they were both young and despite having had a child together, Cepeda’s continuing womanizing led to a divorce in 1973. 

While he remarried in 1975, in December of that year he was arrested upon taking delivery of 175 pounds of marijuana. Cepeda owned up to using marijuana but denied being a dealer. 

The damage to his reputation was staggering. A one-time hero in Puerto Rico, he and his family received death threats while at the same time his legal defense efforts left him in deep financial straits. 

Finally standing trial in 1978, Cepeda was found guilty and sentenced to serve 10 years in prison. He would ultimately serve 10 months in a minimum-security facility in Florida, but upon his release he struggled to support himself and his family. A move to California in 1984 only exacerbated the family tensions, resulting in another divorce.  

Finally, by his own account, Cepeda turned to Buddhism, a decision he said turned his life around. He took control of his life, accepted responsibility for the way he made a mess of things life and determined to go forward with a purpose.  He also married for a third time and his wife Miriam provided a new source of needed support.  

One of the first steps on his road back to respectability was his appearance at a Giants fantasy camp, where, to the surprise of most, he displayed an authenticity and humanity that was overwhelming. Giants officials were amazed, with one terming him "an approachable idol."

Indeed, Giants officials were so impressed that they offered him a chance to come back and work for them. With that offer, Cepeda entered a new chapter in his often- star-crossed baseball journey. 

Working as a roving scout and hitting instructor, the former MVP contributed on the baseball side while also serving as an ambassador for the team. Whether it was working with kids in inner-city schools or appearing in Puerto Rico, where he was again welcomed, Cepeda put the lessons he had learned in his own life into action, providing guidance based in experience to receptive youngsters and younger players.  

With the passing of years and with his life in order, the baseball establishment reassessed his baseball accomplishments. Showing a greater appreciation of all he had done, in 1999, a quarter-center after his last major-league at bat, Orlando Cepeda was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

And in 2008, 50 years after he had first donned a Giants uniform, the team unveiled a statue of the former slugger, immortalizing him in bronze outside AT&T Park. 

It was a fitting tribute to one of stars from the early San Francisco days, as well as a recognition of the way he had battled through adversity to again contribute to the community with whom he had long been associated. 

Bill Pruden is a high school history and government teacher who has been a baseball fan for six decades. He has been writing about baseball--primarily through SABR sponsored platforms, but also in some historical works--for about a decade.  His email address is: courtwatchernc@aol.com.

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