Glancing Back, and Remembering Orlando Cepeda
If you want to understand how really good a ballplayer Orlando Cepeda was in his prime, consider this: for more than six years, he kept a future Hall of Famer – who would produce 521 career home runs – out of the starting line-up.
That player was the great Willie McCovey, one of the most feared hitters in National League history, and deservedly so. But in the early 1960s, McCovey wasn’t good enough to displace Cepeda from first base in the Giants’ starting line-up.
Though remembered as a slugger himself, Cepeda (nicknamed “The Baby Bull”) was actually a well-rounded ballplayer. He was signed by the Giants in 1955, and was San Francisco’s starting first baseman by the beginning of the 1958 season. He was the National League’s Rookie of the Year that season, hitting .312 with 25 home runs, 96 RBIs and 15 stolen bases. He also led the league with 38 doubles. His second season was even better, hitting .317 with 27 home runs, 105 RBIs and 23 stolen bases.
In 1961, Cepeda led the league in both home runs (46) and RBIs (142) while hitting .311. He finished second in the MVP voting to Cincinnati’s Frank Robinson. From 1960 through 1964, Cepeda batted a combined .307, averaging 34 home runs and 109 RBIs per season.
During weight training following the 1964 season, Cepeda injured a knee, and tried playing through the injury without telling team management. Knee surgery sidelined him for most of the 1965 season, and in 1966 the Giants traded Cepeda to the St. Louis Cardinals for left-handed pitcher Ray Sadecki, a 20-game winner two seasons before. The Cardinals got the better end of the deal, as Cepeda’s bat rebounded with the gradual improvement in the health of his knee. For the Cardinals in 1966, Cepeda hit .303 with 17 home runs and 58 RBIs in 123 games.
In 1967, Cepeda captured the National League’s Most Valuable Award as the offensive leader of the pennant-winning Cardinals. He hit .325 with 25 home runs and a league-leading 111 RBIs. His power numbers slipped to 16 home runs and 73 RBIs as the Cardinals repeated as National League champions in 1968. However, in the 1968 World Series against the Detroit Tigers, Cepeda hit two home runs with six RBIs.
In the spring of 1969, Cepeda was traded to the Atlanta Braves for catcher-first baseman Joe Torre. His 22 home runs and 88 RBIs played an integral role in the Braves’ divisional championship. The following year, Cepeda had his last strong season, hitting .305 for the Braves with 34 home runs and 111 RBIs. He retired in 1974 after stops in Oakland, Boston and Kansas City.
In 17 seasons, the 11-time All-Star finished with 379 home runs and a career batting average of .297. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.