Before the arrival of Juan “Igor” González, Carlos Delgado, and Carlos Beltrán the player who exemplified Puerto Rican MLB power-hitters was Orlando Cepeda.
Cepeda, who was nicknamed “The Baby Bull” and “Cha-Cha”, and along with the late Roberto Clemente represented the very best in Major League Baseball coming from Latin America and specifically Puerto Rico, as the duo played on different teams but were the source of Puerto Rican pride. “Peruchín” Cepeda was one of the most prolific home run hitters of this time and we celebrate him on Black History Month.
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico (September 17, 1937), Cepeda made his major league debut in 1958 with the San Francisco Giants and immediately demonstrated his quality by finishing with a .312 average (188 hits in 603 at-bats) with 38 league-leading doubles, 25 home runs and 96 RBIs, and was unanimously named the National League Rookie of the Year.
It was the beginning of a great career that was at times hampered by injuries. With the Giants he shone for seven spectacular seasons by firing 222 homers and driving in 657 runs. He was the first Latino to win a home run title in a season, dispatching 46 in 1961 and that same year led the National League in RBIs with 142.
However, a right knee injury limited him to just 34 at-bats in 1965 when he hit .176 with a home run and five walks, and although he recovered the next year, after 19 games he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, finishing with a combined .303 average, 20 home runs and 73 walks.
1967 was a special year for Orlando Cepeda. He hit for .325 average with 37 doubles, 25 home runs and 111 RBIs, helping the Cardinals clinch the World Series title. In addition, he was awarded Most Valuable Player of the National League.
The next year the Puerto Rican’s numbers dropped (.248, 16 HR, 73 RBIs) although St. Louis reached the World Series which they lost to the Detroit Tigers, and before the 1969 campaign began, he was traded to the Atlanta Braves where he had some solid years.
In 1972 he was traded to the Oakland Athletics and subsequently played with the Boston Red Sox (1973) and Kansas City Royals (1974), ending his 17-year career as a seven-time All Star with 2,351 hits, including 417 doubles and 379 home runs, and a lifetime average of .297 and slugging percentage of .499.
After his retirement he was embroiled in legal trouble, including a prison sentence for drug possession, which affected his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame with voting conducted by the Baseball Writers Association of America.
In his final year of eligibility (1994) he received 335 votes, falling within seven votes of his election, but five years later he received the call through the Veterans Committee to join fellow Giants players Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Dominican Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry at the Hall in Cooperstown, New York.
“This is a dream come true,” Cepeda said upon receiving the news about his induction into the Hall of Fame. “From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank all the committee members who voted for me. I also want to thank all my family and friends who never stopped believing in me. This honor is for them as well.”
On July 25, 1999, along with fellow inductees Robin Yount, Nolan Ryan, and George Brett, Cepeda took his place among the legends in the “Hall of the Immortals”, thus becoming the second Puerto Rican to receive that highest of honors bestowed to the greats in baseball.