It was a case where two teams were trying to unload what they thought was a fading talent. In this instance – and it was a rare one – both teams gained a hitter who proved he had plenty of hits left in his bat.
The key season was 1968 – not a particularly good one for Orlando Cepeda or Joe Torre. (To be fair, 1968 – the “Year of the Pitcher” – wasn’t particularly outstanding for most of the hitters in either league.)
Cepeda was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1967. As the first baseman for the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, Cepeda batted .325 (the highest batting average of his career and the sixth best in the league) and led the league with 111 RBIs. His 25 home runs were his highest total since 1964 with the San Francisco Giants, where he had strung together seven outstanding seasons (averaging 32 home runs and 107 RBIs) before a chronic knee injury limited him to 33 games in 1965. He had been traded to the Cardinals 19 games into the 1966 season.
In 1968, Cepeda batted a career-low .248 with only 16 home runs and 73 RBIs. Now 30, Cepeda had the Cardinals wondering whether they had seen the best they would get from the “Baby Bull.”
The Atlanta Braves were wondering the same thing about their catcher, Joe Torre. An All-Star every year from 1963 through 1967, Torre’s best season came in 1966, when he hit .315 with a career-high 36 home runs. He drove in 101 runs while scoring 83.
After averaging 28 home runs and 97 RBIs from 1964 through 1966, with a combined .310 batting average, Joe Torre batted .277 with 20 home runs and 68 RBIs in 1967. The 1968 season returned even less from Torre’s bat: a .271 batting average with only 10 home runs and 55 RBIs. In addition, Torre had become a liability in throwing out base stealers. Plus his active support of the Players’ Union and Marvin Miller had estranged him from the Braves’ management.
For both the Cardinals and the Braves, the even-up swap of Cepeda for Torre seemed like a low-risk deal. That deal was made a month into spring training, on March 17, 1969.
It turned out to be a good transaction for both teams, though perhaps not immediately in the case of Cepeda. He had a good year for the Braves in 1969, batting .257 and finishing second on the team (to Hank Aaron) in home runs (with 22) and runs batted in (with 88). Then Cepeda’s bat regained some of its old juice in 1970, when he batted .305 with 34 home runs and 101 RBIs. At age 32, it would be the last time in his career when he topped 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in a season.
Torre found a home in St. Louis, and it wasn’t behind the plate. He played only 17 games at catcher for the Cardinals in 1969, and 144 games as Cepeda’s replacement at first base. Torre batted .289 with 18 home runs and 101 RBIs, and then hit .325 with 21 home runs and 100 RBIs in 1970.
But Torre’s best was yet to come. In 1971, he led the major leagues in batting average (.363), hits (230), total bases (352) and runs batted in (137). Torre was selected as the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1971.