They Called Him “Cha Cha”

Orlando Cepeda hit 25 home runs, drove in 111 runs and batted .325 for the Cardinals in 1967.

(Baseball announced that Orlando Cepeda had won the N.L. Most Valuable Player award on this date in 1967.)

By Glen Sparks

Orlando Cepeda loved San Francisco. He took to the nightlife and frequented the city’s many jazz clubs. Cepeda, the son of a Puerto Rican baseball legend, kicked back and listened to Miles Davis and John Coltrane at the Black Hawk on Hyde Street. Cool music filled the air, and fog cooled the streets.

“Right from the beginning, I fell in love with that city,” Cepeda told Sports Illustrated writer Ron Fimrite in 1960.

The Giants had promoted Cepeda to the big club in 1958. It was the team’s first year on the west coast. Cepeda, just 20 years old during his rookie season, hit major-league pitching from the start.  Cepeda played nine seasons in San Francisco. He established himself as one of the game’s elite hitters.

It should have been a fun time. The Giants signed several Latin American players over the years. Shortstop Jose Pagan, like Cepeda, grew up in Puerto Rico. Brothers Felipe and Matty Alou, both outfielders, hailed from the Dominican Republic. So did pitcher Juan Marichal.

But, Manager Alvin Dark didn’t like that the Latin players spoke Spanish. Speak English only, he said. Dark, hired in 1960, also didn’t like that Cepeda and the others laughed a lot. You’re not taking the game seriously, he’d say. Cepeda broiled.

Oh, he kept hitting. He could always hit. Just like his dad could always hit. Pedro “Perucho” Anibal Cepeda began bashing baseballs around the Caribbean in the mid-1920s and kept going for more than 20 years. He had several chances to play in the Negro leagues in the United States, but he declined. U.S. segregation laws kept him on the island.

Orlando Manuel Cepeda Pennes, born on September 17, 1937, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, grew up close to the game. He began playing ball as a kid and served as batboy one season for the famous Santurce Crabbers. He, along with a handful of other Puerto Rican players, went to a big-league tryout camp in Florida in 1954. The New York Giants liked Cepeda’s line-drive swing. They signed him to a contract and paid him a $500 bonus.

Lonely at first as a minor leaguer in small-town America, Cepeda struggled. Soon enough, his bat heated up. He hit .393 for the Giants’ Kokomo, Indiana, farm club as a 17-year-old. He won a Triple Crown the following season, batting .355 with 26 home runs and 112 RBI for St. Cloud, Minnesota, of the Northern League.

The Giants promoted Cepeda to the big club out of spring training in 1958. The muscular right-handed hitter (6-feet-2 inches, 210 pounds) made a quick impression. By May 31, he had slammed 13 home runs.

Cepeda earned Rookie of the Year honors. The first baseman ended up with 25 home runs and 96 RBI to go with a .312 batting average and .512 slugging percentage. The Baby Bull, as some people called him (Baseball fans back in Puerto Rico knew Perucho as “the Bull.”), led the National League with 38 doubles.

The following year, Cepeda put up more big numbers. He hit 27 homers, drove in 105 runs and batted .317 with 35 doubles and a .522 slugging percentage. Cepeda enjoyed another good season in 1960 (24/96/.297) and really busted out in 1961. He topped the N.L. with 46 homers and 142 RBI.  Cepeda hit .311 and slugged .609.

Dark continued to be a problem for Cepeda. The ballplayer complained too much about a sore right knee, Dark told the press.  Cepeda, who had injured the knee during a collision at home plate in 1961, was sure that the skipper didn’t like him. The club also had another first baseman. His name was Willie McCovey. Big Mac earned Rookie of the Year honors in 1959, the year after Cepeda. The lefty hitter struggled against southpaw pitching, though. Cepeda split time between the first base and left field.

The Giants fired Dark after the 1964 season. By then, Cepeda had cracked 222 home runs and had a .309 career batting average. He was one of the game’s great stars. Unfortunately, new manager Herman Franks didn’t want to hear about Cepeda’s sore knee, either. Inevitably, Franks and Cepeda clashed.

Finally, Cepeda went under the knee in 1965. He returned late in the season and hit just .176 in 34 at-bats.  In the spring of 1966, McCovey was officially the Giants’ first baseman. San Francisco shipped Cepeda to St. Louis for pitcher Ray Sadecki on May 8. He hit .308 with 17 homers and 58 RBI in 123 games the rest of the way.

Cepeda won the National League Most Valuable Player award in his first full season in St. Louis. As a first baseman. The 10-year veteran slammed 25 home runs, knocked in 111 runs and batted .325 with a .399 on-base percentage. The Cardinals finished 101-60 and won the N.L. pennant. Orlando Cepeda laughed in the St. Louis Cardinals’ clubhouse. He joked around and manager Red Schoendienst smiled. He hit line drives, of course. Teammates called him “Cha Cha” after his love for jazz music. Life felt good in the summer of ’67.

“If I do all this (joking around) in San Francisco, they would give me a funny look all the time,” Cepeda said in a 1967 Sports Illustrated article.

The Cards went on to beat the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 World Series. It looked like Cepeda had found a comfortable home next to the Mississippi River. He only played two seasons in St. Louis, though. Cepeda slumped badly in 1968, finishing with career lows in home runs (16), RBI (73) and batting average (.248).  St. Louis traded Cepeda to the Atlanta Braves in the offseason.

Cha Cha played six more seasons in the major leagues. He hit 34 home runs for the Braves in 1970, his last big year in the majors. He also played for the Oakland A’s, Boston Red Sox and Kansas City Royals before hanging up the uniform. The 11-time All Star retired with 379 homers and a .297 batting average.

Life after baseball was rough for Cepeda. Police busted him in Florida in late 1975 for trying to move 170 pounds of marijuana. Cepeda served 10 months of a five-year sentence.

Upon release, Cepeda worked as a coach for a while and eventually moved back to the San Francisco area. He helped at Giants fantasy camps and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.  A statue of Cha Cha, the Baby Bull, stands near the 2nd Street entrance of AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Sources:

Orlando Cepeda SABR bio

Orlando Cepeda stats

Willie McCovey SABR bio

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One comment

  1. Paul R Laute

    Great article as always Glen. I remember we were allowed to watch the World Series during class on a black and white television. We received another great first baseman from the Giants, Jack Clark in subsequent years.

    Like

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