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Remembering Orlando Cepeda, an International Baseball Legend

 Matt Tallarini - World Baseball Network  |    Jun 30th, 2024 5:46pm EDT

Puerto Rico Hall of Fame first baseman Orlando Cepeda passed away on Friday, June 28, in Concord, Calif., at 86.

Cepeda was born on September 17, 1937, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and was nicknamed ‘The Bull” due to his father, Pedro “Perucho” Cepeda being a baseball legend on the island.  

Cepeda made his Major League Baseball debut on April 15, 1958, for the San Francisco Giants in the organization’s first year on the Pacific Coast.  

He signed his first major league contract at 20 years old, 10 minutes before making his big league debut against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Candlestick Park. He earned $7,000 for the season, and in the same year, he won the National League Rookie of the Year Award and was ninth in voting for the NL MVP.  

 Cepeda played 17 years in Major League Baseball with the San Francisco Giants from 1958-66, the St. Louis Cardinals from 1966-68, the Atlanta Braves from 1969-72, the Oakland Athletics in 1972, the Boston Red Sox in 1973, and the Kansas City Royals in 1974.  

Cepeda was an 11-time All-Star from 1959-64 and in 1967, won the NL MVP in 1967, led the NL in home runs in 1961 with 46, and led the NL twice in RBIs in 1961 and 1967.  

Cepeda is in a triumphant category, with Albert Pujols, Frank Robinson, and Mike Trout as the only players in MLB history to win both the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards unanimously.  

He was the first Puerto Rican-born player to be selected for the MLB All-Star Game in 1959 and to play two positions: first base and left field.  

Cepeda won one World Series with the Cardinals in 1967, when they beat the Red Sox in seven games.  

Cepeda was inducted into the Puerto Rican Baseball Hall of Fame in 1993 and Cooperstown in 1999 through the Veterans Committee. 

Cepeda is one of five Puerto Rican-born players to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, along with Roberto Clemente in 1973, Roberto Alomar in 2011, Ivan Rodriguez in 2017, and Edgar Martinez in 2019.  

Cepeda made his mark in his professional baseball career while playing in Puerto Rico for the Cangrejeros de Santurce organization in the Puerto Rico Winter League. He signed with the organization in 1955. In the same year, he went to a tryout held by the New York Giants and signed for $500.00.  

Pedrin Zorilla, the owner of the Cangrejeros de Santurce, convinced Cepeda’s family to purchase an airplane ticket so he could participate in the New York Giants tryout. Shortly after, he passed the tryout and was assigned to Class-D Sandersville for the 1955 season.  

Cepeda was transferred to Class-D Salem in the Appalachian League and did not play in a game with Sandersville.  

Cepeda had trouble adapting to playing in the United States because he did not speak English and encountered discrimination due to racial segregation under the Jim Crow laws in the 1950s. 

Shortly after Cepeda was transferred to Salem, Zorilla called him to say that his father was in critical condition.  

A few days after Zorilla and Cepeda spoke, Cepeda’s father passed away on April 27, 1955, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, from contracting malaria at the age of 49.  

Cepeda had to pay his father’s burial expenses with his $500 signing bonus from the Giants.  

Cepeda returned to Salem to start the 1955 season and played in 26 games, hitting .247 in 111 plate appearances, ripping 23 hits, six doubles, one triple, one home run, 16 RBI, one stolen base, 13 walks, and 24 strikeouts before he felt depressed, which affected his performance and almost wanting to quit playing baseball.  

Zorilla convinced Cepeda to play for Class-D Komodo in the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League after almost committing to returning to Puerto Rico.  

Cepeda finished the 1955 season in Class-D Komodo and batted .393, playing in 92 games with 407 plate appearances, rocking 147 hits, 23 doubles, two triples, 21 home runs, 91 RBI, five stolen bases, 25 walks, 61 strikeouts, and a 1.067 OPS before playing in his first season on the island in the winter leagues. 

Cepeda was with the Cangrejeros de Santurce franchise from the 1953-54 regular season. He played for an amateur championship team in Puerto Rico and went on to play against an All-Star team from the Dominican Republic, which Zorilla attended.  

Zorilla attended the game in the Dominican Republic to scout another player, and after seeing Cepeda play, he became interested in him. 

Cepeda was the Cangrejeros de Santurce batboy from 1953-55 before playing in the 1955-56 winter league season.  

He played 13 seasons in Puerto Rico with the Cangrejeros de Santurce from 1955-62, 1966-68, 1971-72, and 1974-75.   

Cepeda had 1,846 at-bats with the Cangrejeros de Santurce, smacking 89 home runs, 597 hits, 108 doubles, 17 triples, and 345 RBI.  

Cepeda led the Puerto Rico Winter League in average, hitting .362 in the 1958-59 season and in the 1957-58 season with 13 home runs, 45 RBI, 49 runs scored, a .571 slugging percentage, and pounding 72 hits.  

Cepeda is one of six players in the Liga de Béisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente to win the regular season MVP twice in 1958-59 and 1961-62.  

He batted over .300 plus in the PRWL 11 times.  

After the 1958-59 winter league season, when the Cangrejeros de Santurce won the PRWL championship, the Giants offered Cepeda a $12,000 contract, which he refused and instead asked for $20,000. After the negotiations, the Giants front office and Cepeda settled on $17,000. 

Cepeda played in eight seasons for San Francisco after his rookie year in 1958 and was traded to St. Louis in exchange for pitcher Ray Sadecki in May of 1966 in the middle of their series at Sportsman’s Park.  

Cepeda helped the Cardinals reach the World Series twice in his career, in 1967 and 1968, before he was traded to Atlanta before the start of the 1969 regular season in exchange for Joe Torre, who was headed to St. Louis.  

He played for the Braves from 1969 to 1972, when he was traded to Oakland in July 1972 for pitcher Denny McLain.  

Cepeda, after playing a week with the Athletics, landed on the injured list and was out for the remainder of the 1972 season due to having his second knee surgery.  

Cepeda remained in Oakland for the final three months of the 1972 season before returning to Puerto Rico.  

When he returned to Puerto Rico, Cepeda received a telegram note from Athletics owner Charlie Finley. Finley told Cepeda that if he did not respond within the next three days, he would be released from his contract in Oakland.  

Cepeda did not contact Finley then and decided to retire from baseball.   

During the 1973 regular season, the American League implemented having the designated hitter for the first time. 

Boston contacted Cepeda during the 1973 offseason and told him that he would only be used as the designated hitter for his role with the organization. He was the first player in MLB history to sign a contract and only had a role as a designated hitter.  

Cepeda won the Outstanding Designated Hitter Award in 1973 while playing in 142 games and batting .289 with 608 plate appearances, ripping 159 hits, 25 doubles, 20 home runs, 86 RBI, 50 walks, 81 strikeouts, and a .793 OPS.  

Nearing the end of his career, he played in Liga Mexicana de Beisbol during the 1974 regular season with the Leones de Yucatan and batted .213. He played in 28 games with 98 plate appearances, rocking 17 hits, one double, four home runs, 17 RBI, 14 walks, and 13 strikeouts prior to returning to the United States and signing with Kansas City.   

Cepeda only played in 33 games with the Royals before calling it quits during the 1974 season.  

He batted .215 with 117 plate appearances, recording 23 hits, five doubles, one home run, 18 RBI, nine walks, and 16 strikeouts with Kansas City before his retirement.  

His stats after his 17-year MLB career were 2,124 games, with 8,695 plate appearances, dialing 2,351 hits, 417 doubles, 27 triples, 379 home runs, 1,365 RBI, 142 stolen bases, 588 walks, 1,169 strikeouts, and .849 OPS.  

Cepeda belongs to 14 halls of fame, which is the most by any Puerto Rican athlete: the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 1990, the Puerto Rico Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991, the Laredo Latin American International Sports Hall of Fame in 1995, the Santurce Hall of Fame in 1997, the Puerto Rico Sports Hall of Fame in 1993, the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999, the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2000, the Guayama Hall of Fame in 2000, the Ponce Hall of Fame in 2001, the Cataño Hall of Fame in 2002, the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum Hall of Fame in 2002, African American Ethnic Sports Hall of Fame in 2007, the San Francisco Giants Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Latin American Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010.  

Cepeda was the fifth Latin American-born player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999. 

“I wanted to leave a lasting legacy in the game of baseball. I wanted to be remembered as someone who made a difference,” Cepeda said in one of his famous quotes.  

Cepeda will be forever honored in international baseball history and will always have the same impact Clemente had on the island of Puerto Rico until this day and for many years.  

Photo Credit: Orlando Cepeda, fist baseman for the San Francisco Giants, has played in eleven All-Star games and three World Series.

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Matt Tallarini - World Baseball Network
Matthew (Matt) Tallarini is the Founder and Chief Correspondent for the World Baseball Network.