By Chris Haft
According to legend, the St. Louis Cardinals’ team bus was ready to depart for the ballpark du jour one afternoon without slugging first baseman Orlando Cepeda on board. Right-hander Bob Gibson, St. Louis’ resident Hall of Famer-in-waiting, would have none of this.
“This bus isn’t leaving,” Gibson said, “unless Cepeda is on it.”
That reflected Gibson’s regard for Cepeda’s indispensable presence in the lineup. In fact, Cepeda had this powerful effect throughout most of his 17 big league seasons.
Here’s a look at 10 defining moments or events in Cepeda’s career.
1) Instant favorite
April 15, 1958
Cepeda and the Giants made their San Francisco debuts on the same day in the Major Leagues’ inaugural regular-season game on the West Coast. The 20-year-old first baseman quickly won the fans over by drilling a fifth-inning homer off Don Bessent in the Giants’ 8-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In another apocryphal story, Giants coach Whitey Lockman started a Spring Training conversation about Cepeda with manager Bill Rigney. “Too bad the kid’s a year away,” Lockman said. “Away from what?” asked Rigney, who already knew that Cepeda would play regularly. “From the Hall of Fame,” Lockman replied. Cepeda launched his Cooperstown bid by hitting .312 with 25 homers, 96 RBIs and a team-high 38 doubles to win the National League’s Rookie of the Year Award.
3) Tough road to glory
Various campaigns were launched on Cepeda’s behalf to strengthen his bid for election to baseball’s Hall of Fame. But in 1994, his final year of eligibility on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot, he fell seven votes short. Cepeda’s supporters remained faithful, and in 1999, a Veterans’ Committee vote earned him entry into Cooperstown. At the time, Roberto Clemente was the only other Puerto Rican in the Hall.
Cepeda consistently ranked among baseball’s most formidable hitters until a knee injury limited him to 33 games in 1965. From 1958-64, he averaged 32 homers and 107 RBIs per season while hitting .309. His most prodigious year in this stretch was 1961, when he amassed 46 homers and drove in 142 runs. He finished second in the league’s Most Valuable Player balloting to Cincinnati’s Frank Robinson.
5) Series star
Oct. 15, 1962
Cepeda’s best performance in 22 postseason games occurred in Game 6 of the World Series, when he went 3-for-4 with a run scored and two RBIs in the Giants’ 5-2 triumph over the Yankees. This tied the Series at three games apiece and set up the drama of Game 7, which the Yankees captured, 1-0. Cepeda was on deck when Willie McCovey lined out to second base with runners on second and third to end the Series.
6) Fresh start
May 8, 1966
Despite Cepeda’s prowess and popularity, the Giants traded him on this date to St. Louis for left-hander Ray Sadecki. McCovey’s increased influence and the Giants’ inability to wedge both sluggers simultaneously in the lineup prompted the swap. Cepeda hit .303 in 123 games with St. Louis over the remainder of the season.
Able to manage his knee troubles, Cepeda simply did everything for the Cardinals, batting .325 with 25 homers and a league-best 111 RBIs. He won MVP honors unanimously, becoming the league’s second player to do so (New York’s Carl Hubbell achieved the feat in 1936). Cepeda also led the Cardinals to the World Series, where they outlasted Boston in seven games.
Following a stint with Atlanta (1969-72) and a cameo appearance with Oakland, Cepeda signed with Boston and received Designated Hitter of the Year honors for batting .289 with 20 homers and 86 RBIs. Cepeda’s list of home run victims that season included Nolan Ryan (twice), former Giants teammate Gaylord Perry, 283-game winner Jim Kaat and Yankees relief ace Sparky Lyle, who yielded a game-winning clout.
9) Lucky foursome
1958-64, 1967, 1969, 1973
With his final homer of ’73, a three-run smash off Cleveland’s Tom Timmermann on Sept. 25, Cepeda became the first player to hit at least 20 home runs for four different teams. The cap on his Cooperstown bust sports a Giants “SF” logo.
10) Immortalized in bronze
Sept. 6, 2008
On this date, the Giants unveiled a statue of Cepeda near the entrance to Oracle Park at Second and King streets. The bronze work by sculptor William Behrends complements the likenesses of four other San Francisco-era Hall of Famers: McCovey, Gaylord Perry, Willie Mays and Juan Marichal.