One of the most talented, and yet misunderstood super-stars of his time, Greg Hoard remembers and profiles the National League Rookie of The Year, and MVP for the champion St. Louis Cardinals, Orlando Cepeda.
(Ed. Note: We’re pleased to share some of Greg Hoard’s best remembrances of the best stories, and best individuals to have played major league baseball. Some of them are generational, so well known were their deeds and names. Here’s one from the summer of 2015 on Giant and Cardinal great, Orlando Cepeda.)
CINCINNATI—The whole time we talked, I kept thinking about the first time I saw him. It had to be 1960, maybe ’61. I’m not sure about the date, but I am sure about the impression he made. Even to a 10, or 11-year-old boy, this guy was can’t miss.
It was a day game, Crosley Field. I remember watching and wondering how a team like the Giants could be flagging behind the Reds in the standings or anybody else. Didn’t seem to make sense.
Here was a club that had Willie Mays in his prime and a supporting cast that had to be the envy of most teams in the National League.
He laughed. “Seems so long ago,” he said. “Yeah, we had a good team, a real good team.”
He considered the memory for a moment then, almost as a realization, he added, “Maybe we were too good.”
They had a young Willie McCovey, who came off the bench that day long ago and hit a ball that we strained to watch as it left Crosley, cleared a parking lot, railroad tracks and landed on a highway way out beyond the bleachers in right.
“‘Stretch’ was something, and for a long time,” he said. “I wish I could have lasted as long as he did. Wasn’t many even close to the power ‘Stretch’ had. A very good man, too. Very good.”
They had Felipe Alou, a Mays look-alike, polished, smooth and productive, and Harvey Kuenn, the 1959 batting champ at .353, most conspicuous because of the size of his chaw.
“Looked like he had a damned egg in his mouth,” he said. “It seemed like it got bigger every day, like it was growing. Harvey was gettin’ up there by the time we got him, but he could still put the bat on the ball.
Jim Davenport had All-Star times at third, and there was Ed Bailey, the former Red and one of the funniest men in the world; and there was the man on the phone, who that day long ago at Crosley Field absolutely tore it up: Orlando Cepeda, “The Baby Bull”.
“That,” he said, with a soft laugh, “…that would be me, ‘The Baby Bull.”
All he did that day back when was hit line drives, one after another—the kind that would take paint off a barn door or the hide off the ball.
I don’t remember his line, but I do remember Cepeda hitting a liner at Chico Cardenas, the shortstop. It was the kind of line drive that freezes every one, especially the defender directly in its path. It’s baseball’s most plain and simple situation. You either catch the ball, or you suffer irreparable harm.
Cardenas caught the ball then examined his glove as if he was not sure he actually stopped the ball, or if it had just kept going. It was a sight straight out of Looney Tunes: Wile E. Coyote plays short.
Cepeda didn’t hit anything out of the ballpark that day, but when he came to the plate it was as if every defender was suddenly uncomfortable.
“Home runs are good,” Cepeda said, “but they are overrated. To me, the game was about putting pressure on the other guy (the opponent) getting on base, driving in runs, making contact—putting the ball in play with men on base.”
He was a money player and I could never understand why the Giants traded him. Mays and Cepeda seemed like the closest thing in baseball to Mantle and Maris.
For all the Giants’ wealth in talent, Cepeda seemed to be a San Francisco lifer. In a seven-year span beginning in 1958 when he was Rookie of The Year—batting .312 with 25 homers and 96 RBI—through 1964, Cepeda was without question one of the best in the game.
During that stretch, he averaged .309, 32 home runs and 107 RBI per season. His finest season in that run was 1961 when he hit .311 and led the league with 46 home runs and 142 RBI.
The following year, the Giants won their first pennant since 1954. Mays was spectacular. He hit .304, led the league with 49 homers and drove in 141 runs. Cepeda was right behind him: .306, 35 and 114. The general thinking—then and now—was why would anyone give a thought to breaking up this combination.
Yet, they did.
“We could see it coming,” Cepeda said. “Not then, so much, not in ’62, but as time went on: ’63, ’64, you could feel it coming. It wasn’t like when the Reds traded Tony (Perez). That was crazy, out of nowhere.
“We could feel this,” he continued. “It was like it was growing, and that’s not a comfortable thing…But, you do your job.”
And he did his job. In ’63 and ’64, he continued to turn in All-Star numbers: .316, 34, 97 and .304, 31, 97, respectively.
“But it came down to the fact we were crowded,” Cepeda said. “We needed pitching and nobody knew if I would come back from the knee injury in ’65. About everyone thought I was done…I wasn’t sure myself.”
The injury was one of the most severe in a series of knee problems for Cepeda. The crowd was around first base. The Giants had tried heartily to make either Cepeda or McCovey an adequate outfielder. They had even tried Cepeda at third, but through it all they were left with an inescapable conclusion: one or the other—Cepeda or McCovey—had to play first. There was no other acceptable solution.
Their need for pitching was apparent. By ’64, the Giants had Juan Marichal and a young and yet-to-be-proven Gaylord Perry. That’s about it. When Cepeda missed the ’65 season, the script was essentially written.
After beating the Yankees in the World Series in ’64, the Cardinals fell to seventh place the following year. “They felt like they needed a power hitter,” Cepeda said, “but they didn’t know if I was going to be able to give them anything.”
To those not that close to the situation, the trade was a shocker: Cepeda to the Cardinals for Ray Sadecki, a left-handed pitcher, who the previous season was 6-15 with a 5.21 ERA.
“Sometimes,” Cepeda said, a smile all over his voice, “…a trade can be good. Going to St. Louis, that was good for me.”
“Orlando was exactly what we needed,” said Hall of Famer Lou Brock. “He gave us power, but Orlando, he made things fun. He had fun. You could see it in his face—in his eyes.”
In ’66, Cepeda hit .303. He had 17 homers and 58 RBI in limited play. The following year, he led the Cards back to the series. He hit .325. He had 25 homers and 111 RBI. He was the unanimous National League MVP, just the second unanimous MVP in league history and the first since Carl Hubbell in 1936.
“Those were good times,” Cepeda said. “After that season, it seemed like it was a fight all the time—my knees. But it was good.
“I got a ring with St. Louis. The way was cleared for ‘Stretch’ in San Francisco. In most trades, there is some good. Not all.
“You are in Cincinnati, right? My friend, Atanasio Perez to Montreal? Tony, one of the best RBI men of all time? Come on. Loco. Crazy!”