Cepeda, Orlando: 1937—: Baseball Player

views updated

Orlando Cepeda: 1937: Baseball player

The life of Orlando Cepeda was played out in two very different places. One was on the baseball field where he demolished the competition, hitting a career average .297 consisting of 2,351 hits. He racked up 417 doubles, 27 triples, and 379 home runs all contributing to an outstanding 1,131 runs and 1,365 Runs Batted In (RBI). He was known to many as "Cha Cha" and "Baby Bull" and was legendary for being the spirit of the St. Louis Cardinals during their championship run in 1967. His life on the baseball field was one of glory and of honor. His second life, off the baseball field, was filled with turmoil and rejection. In 1975, a year after leaving the game as an immortalized player, Cepeda found himself standing before a judge on drug trafficking charges that lead to a five-year jail sentence in 1978. While Cepeda only served ten months of the sentence, the event tarnished his entire baseball career and effectively barred him from obtaining the holy grail of baseball, a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame, for over 15 years. But Cepeda fought back into the hearts of baseball fans and worked to rebuild his image throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Finally, in 1999, Cepeda was granted his long awaited spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee, but it was his change in personality and spirit that Cepeda was especially proud of. He told Sports Illustrated, "The biggest victories come over yourself, when you control your mind and your destiny. My life has been a drama of inner change."

Followed in Father's Footsteps

Orlando Manuel Cepeda was born on September 17, 1937, in the seaport city of Ponce, Puerto Rico. Like many Puerto Ricans during this time period, Cepeda lived with few physical possessions and had little formal education. Yet his life was filled with hope and inspiration, much of it stemming from his father, Perucho Cepeda. Perucho was a baseball player who excelled in the Caribbean leagues, playing on Dominican club teams alongside Negro League greats Satchel Paige, James "Cool Papa" Bell, and Josh Gibson. He was nicknameded the "Bull" and because he was a power hitter was known as "the Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico." But the Caribbean leagues were difficult for even the best players and as Perucho began to get older, he found himself moving around from team to team, often living in destitution away from his family, and what money he did not send back to his wife and children, he gambled away.

At a Glance . . .

Born Orlando Manuel Cepeda on September 17, 1937, in Ponce, Puerto Rico; son of Perucho Cepeda; married Annie (divorced 1973); married Nydia, 1975 (divorced 1984); married Marian Ortiz, 1985; children: Orlando Jr., Malcolm, Ali Manuel, Hector.

Career: Baseball player: San Francisco Giants, 1st baseman, 1958-66; St. Louis Cardinals, 1966-68; Atlanta Braves, 1969-72; Oakland Athletics, 1972; Boston Red Sox, 1973; Kansas City Royals, 1974; San Francisco Giants Organization, community representative and scout, 1990.

Awards: Rookie of the Year, 1958; Comeback Player of the Year, 1967; National League Most Valuable Player, 1967; Designated Hitter of the Year, 1973; Puerto Rican Sports Hall of Fame, inductee, 1993; Baseball Hall of Fame, inductee, 1999.

Address: Office San Francisco Giants, Three Com Park, San Francisco, CA 94124.

Perucho passed on his love of baseball to Cepeda at an early age and whenever he was not off chasing a job on a Caribbean league team, he was teaching Cepeda how to hit, field, and even pitch. Cepeda saw the prestige and honor that his father received from playing baseball, and commented to the San Francisco Chronicle, "When I was a kid, I wanted to be like my father. He was such a well-known person. In the morning, we used to go shopping. Every second, people stopped to say hello. I wanted to be a ballplayer just like him." Cepeda worked hard to make that dream become a reality, even going so far as to move to the United States, knowing little English and few people, to join a minor league team in Virginia. Shortly after Cepeda had moved to Virginia, Perucho came down with malaria and quickly deteriorated. He flew back to Puerto Rico when he heard the news, but found his father in a coma by the time he arrived. Perucho died on April 16, 1955, sinking Cepeda into a deep depression, one so great it almost prevented him from returning to the minor leagues. Cepeda's mother, however, would not let that happen. He told The Sporting News, "My mother said, 'You made a commitment to your father. Too, we have no money.' I was making $175 a month. So I flew back to Virginia."

From Virginia Cepeda moved on to play for a minor league team in Minneapolis. It was here that Giants scout Tom Sheehan first saw Cepeda play first base. As Jim Davenport, one of Cepeda's former teammates in both the minor and major leagues, told the San Francisco Chronicle, " Tom went back to the Giants and said, 'I don't know about this Davenport kid, but you've got a first baseman down there who's going to make it to the Hall of Fame someday.'" Cepeda was soon courted by the Giants, and by 1958 he had signed a contract to play in San Francisco.

Won Rookie of the Year

Cepeda's rookie season was spectacular, starting with his first Major League game with the Giants against the Dodgers. At only his second-at-bat, he hit a homerun that scored the winning run for the Giants. He would go on to belt out 24 more homers that season, bring in 96 runs, and bat an impressive .312. These numbers along with his amazing fielding skills garnered Cepeda the Rookie of the Year award and thrust him into the limelight for Giants fans as well as baseball fans across the country.

Cepeda would not disappoint his fans in the coming seasons, continuing to excel and craft his game. In 1961 Cepeda had one of the most outstanding years of his career, leading the entire Major League with 46 homeruns and 142 RBIs. This performance allowed Cepeda to outshine many players that season, including teammate and veteran Willie Mays, who many still felt was the best player on the Giants during that time period. Giants manager Bill Rigney called Cepeda on the Latino Legends in Sports website, "The best young right-handed power hitter I've ever seen."

Unfortunately for Cepeda, the Giants went through a rotating succession of managers, not all of whom were as excited about Cepeda's skills as Rigney. First there was Alvin Dark, who served as Giant's general manager in the early 1960s, and he made statements often of how he felt that black and Latino players were inferior to white players. Following him was Herman Franks, a man many people feel crippled Cepeda's career in San Francisco by moving him from first base to the outfield where Cepeda began to have knee problems from an injury that he sustained by diving for a ball. This knee injury would bench Cepeda for all but 33 games in the 1965 season and was ultimately the reason he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1966 even though he was still hitting close to, if not over, a .300 batting average per season.

Helped Cardinals Win Championship

For the next three years, Cepeda succeeded greatly with the St. Louis Cardinals, helping the team to win the World Series in 1967. Although he hit well during the regular season, boasting a .325 batting average and hitting 111 RBIs, he went three for 29 at the plate during the seven games of the World Series. But as many teammates and fans knew, Cepeda was the heart and soul of the St. Louis team. According to the Sporting News, "After nearly every victory, Cepeda, climbs onto a truck or table and leads his teammates in cheers or cranks up Latin music on a record player. Says teammate Dal Maxvill: 'Even if he's gone 0-for-4, and we win, he gets on the trunk and leads the cheers.'" Because of his amazing play during the regular season as well as his spirit that held his "El Birdos"Cepeda's nickname for the Cardinalshe was easily elected as the National League MVP, the first unanimous selection for the award ever made. He helped them to return in 1968, but after gaining three games on the Detroit Tigers, they lost the final three games of the series.

In 1969 the Cardinals owner Gussie Busch decided to restructure the team, immediately sending Cepeda to the Atlanta Braves. Many Cardinals fans were distraught at the thought of "Cha-Cha" playing for another team, and many blamed this move for the reason that the club was not able to even compete for a pennant for close to 13 years. In Atlanta Cepeda performed well at the plate, but his knees continued to give him problems. He was also beginning to become one of the older players on the field and training camps and constant traveling were beginning to take a toll on him. Between 1972 and 1974 he was traded three times, first from Atlanta to Oakland, then to Boston, and finally to Kansas City where he finished out the 1974 before declaring that he was going to retire. By the time he retired, Cepeda had played in seven All-Star games, sported a World Series ring, and had been dubbed the best Latino player since Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, who had died in a 1972 plane crash.

Then, on December 12, 1975, everything changed for Cepeda. Cepeda arrived at the San Juan airport after attending a baseball clinic in Colombia. When he went to retrieve two packages he had sent with his luggage, San Juan police confiscated the packages and found 170 pounds of marijuana in them. Cepeda was arrested for smuggling marijuana with the intent to distribute and was immediately put in jail. The trial dragged out in Puerto Rico over the next two years, but finally, in late 1977, a judge found Cepeda guilty of the trafficking charge and sentenced him to five years in jail.

Lost Respect of Fans and Baseball Community

To many fans, the guilty verdict shattered the image of the fun-loving and honorable Cepeda that they had known on the baseball field. Many could not understand why he had done it. But as Cepeda said to Sports Illustrated, "When you play baseball, you have a name and money and you feel like you're bulletproof. You forget who you are. Especially in a Latin country, they make you feel like you are God." The damage to Cepeda's image was swift and harsh. Many Puerto Ricans took his crime as a personal slight against the country. As Mariano Diaz, one of Cepeda's closest friends told Sports Illustrated, "So Orlando was judged. He no longer walked with Clemente. To the people, it was like Roberto was pointing down at Orlando and saying, 'Bad boy! You sinned, and you disgraced your people.'"

Cepeda only spent ten months in jail during 1978 and was released on good behavior, but even though he had served his time to the government, his penance to the baseball community had just begun. As he told Sports Illustrated, "I learned that one mistake, in two seconds, can make a disaster that seems to last forever." Cepeda had lost everything by going to jail, including his car, his land in Puerto Rico, and his wife as well after being hit with a paternity suit over a child he had fathered out of wedlock. Cepeda sunk into a deep depression and found that work was scarce for a baseball player who was out of public favor.

Another low point for Cepeda came in 1984 when he was kicked out of Dodger Stadium while watching batting practice and catching up with some of the players. According to the Dodgers security, the team did not want to be associated with Cepeda in any form and that included anyone seeing him in the stadium when he wasn't a paying customer. Cepeda has admitted in interviews that it was at this moment that he almost gave into his despair and ended his life, but thoughts of his son, Orlando Jr., whom he had custody of, saved him. He told Sports Illustrated, "I lay in bed and thought, He depends on me. I'm the only one he has." From that point on, Cepeda began to look for a way to turn his life around.

Buddhism and Wife Changed Outlook

Between 1984 and 1987, Orlando found two very important things. The first was the Buddhist sect Nichiren Shosu, which taught him to deal with the bitterness and anger that he was feeling. The second was his third wife, Mirian Ortiz, a Puerto Rican native he had met while in New York. It was she who first suggested that they move to San Francisco to return to a place where Cepeda had shone as a player. Cepeda, of course was reluctant to go, figuring he would receive the same reaction from fans in San Francisco that he had received in every other part of the country. It wasn't until Giants Magazine publisher Laurence Hyman visited Cepeda in 1986 and invited him to attend a game at Candlestick Park that Cepeda was convinced that he could win back fans. Cepeda attended the game and was received by fans wanting autographs, to shake his hand, and looking to get pictures with him. Shortly after, Cepeda and his wife boxed up their things and moved permanently to San Francisco.

In 1987 the Giants organization hired Cepeda to work for their community relations staff. He worked in the community encouraging students to stick to school and sports and not take the paths of drug use and gang membership. The next year, he worked as a scout for the Giants and began to develop young players. By the 1990s, he was not only scouting for the Giants, but he represented the organization around the United States and internationally as well. He was especially effective in Puerto Rico where he rebuilt his image as a public speaker and a goodwill ambassador for the Giants. Cepeda credited his success with these endeavors directly to "the fans and the Giants who stood by me," according to the Sporting News.

Made Hall of Fame Run

It seemed as if the community of fans had come to reaccept and respect Cepeda, but the baseball community was a good deal slower. Even thought the Giants had opened their doors to him, many people in Major League Baseball (MLB) felt that Cepeda could never regain his former status as a man of character, integrity, and good sportsmanship. Because of this, Cepeda was often not invited to play in games with former All-Stars or other MLB events. And most importantly, Cepeda was denied the highest honor the MLB can award, entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Eligible since 1979, Cepeda was on the ballot of possible entrants since that time and for many years got very few votes from those in the baseball community.

But Cepeda began to sway those naysayers as well, and his vote totals began to rise. Needing 75 % of the votes to gain induction to the hall, fans of Cepeda began to campaign for his entrance to the hall in the 1990s. His work for the community of San Francisco as well as his work to promote sports as a way to stay away from bad influences began to outweigh his past transgressions. Year after year, Cepeda would receive more and more votes, but he could never seem to get quite near enough to the magic number of 318. The Hall rules state that once a player has been on the ballot for 15 years, he must be taken out of consideration, and as 1993his fifteenth yearapproached, many of Cepeda's fans became fearful that the silent ban on the once great baseball player would keep Cepeda out of the hall forever. When all of the votes were counted in 1993, Cepedawho earlier that year had been inducted into the Puerto Rico Sports Hall of Famefound himself seven votes short of the 318 votes.

Cepeda was disappointed by the fact that he was not included, saying to the San Francisco Chronicle, "In fact, I was very negative about the Hall of Fame. When they used to mention it to me I would say, 'I don't need the Hall of Fame. Everything is politics,' even though deep inside I knew I wanted to be there." But there was still hope. After a three-year waiting period, a Veterans Committee was allowed to induct any player who could no longer be voted in, and Cepeda's name was added to the list in 1996. Many fans and baseball critics alike felt that Cepeda would never be inducted to the Hall since the list was extremely long and many people in the community would never be able to reconcile with his actions.

All of these critics were silenced in 1999 when Cepeda learned that he had been selected by the Veterans Committee for entrance to the Hall of Fame. As he said to the Latino Legends in Sports website, "It's hard to explain the feeling when they told me I was selected to the Hall of Fame. I've been ready for this for 17 years. I've been through good things, bad things, but I was blessed to be born with the talent to play baseball." When Cepeda went to the Hall of Fame to be inducted, he found that his picture would be hanging with many other great players of ethnicity in the Hall, including his father Perucho Cepeda.

Cepeda currently lives in San Francisco and continues to work with new players and as a representative for the San Francisco Giants. He has written a book about his life, entitled Baby Bull: From Hardball to Hard Times and Back, that he hopes will help many people to look at his life as a whole and see not only the mistakes he made, but how people can reform from the traps that they fall into. He also continues to stress the importance of family and heritage, and how everything is relative to those strong backgrounds. According to the Latino Legends in Sports website, he said in his acceptance speech at the Baseball Hall of Fame, "I'm proud to be a Puerto Rican and I will be a role model to the people of my country."

Selected works

(with Herb Fagen) Baby Bull: From Hardball to Hard Times and Back, Taylor, 1999.



The Complete Marquis Who's Who, Marquis Who's Who, 2003.


Library Journal, February 1, 1999, p. 95.

San Francisco Chronicle, July 23, 1999.

Sports Illustrated, June 14, 1990, p. 14; July 26 1999, pp. 74-77.

Sporting News, January 10, 1994, pp. 33-34; January 31, 1994, p. 7; March 1, 1999, p. 63; July 26, 1999, pp. 26-29.


"Cepeda, Orlando M.," Hickok Sports, www.hick oksports.com/biograph/cepedaor.shtml (June 27, 2003).

"Orlando Cepeda," Baseball Library, www.baseball library.com/baseballibrary/ballplayers/C/Cepeda_ Orlando.stm (June 27, 2003).

"Orlando Cepeda," Baseball-Reference, www.base ball-reference.com/c/cepedor01.shtml (June 27, 2003).

"Orlando Manuel Cepeda," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (June 27, 2003).

"Orlando Manuel Cepeda," Latino Legends in Sports, www.latinosportslegends.com/cepeda.htm (June 27, 2003).

Adam R. Hazlett