The planet-rattling roars at the All-Star Game were for Willie Mays and Henry Aaron. For Houston's Cesar Cedeno, 21, the most anonymous league-leading .358 hitter in baseball history, Atlanta was merely new testimony to his triumphant obscurity. Mays was decorative in center field, and though he got no hits fans were wary when Cedeno (suh-dane-yo) replaced him. Aaron put the Nationals ahead with his home run, but had Cesar not ripped a savage single to left just before, Henry would have had 1) no tying run on base and 2) maybe no home run, because there were two out. For this, Cedeno, typically, got one paragraph on page eight of the Houston Post's sports section.
At last count Cesar had 44 RBIs, 115 hits, 31 stolen bases, 67 runs scored, 23 doubles and 14 home runs. Although he does get some recognition in Houston—the obstreperous scoreboard has taken to calling the Astrodome "Cesar's Palace"—the rest of the republic is not rendering unto Cesar what is Cesar's.
It would be hard to imagine this kind of neglect in preexpansion days. Here is an outfielder in his second full season who has a Rogers Hornsby batting average and ranks in the top 10 in four other departments (home runs, runs scored, stolen bases and hits). All things taken together, he can run, throw, field and hit perhaps better than anyone else. So shed some salt for Cedeno—now, before his salary soars.
Astro Domo Harry Walker, who has managed Roberto Clemente, said even before the season opened, "Roberto was the best player I've ever had, but Cesar should do more in his first four years than Clemente ever did. He has the cat-quick wrists all great hitters have. He has bat control. He hits to all fields. He has no major fault. Instead of hiding from his mistakes like most young players, he likes to talk about them, which is a good sign."
Perhaps fellow Santo Domingan Jesus Alou, the only other Latin on the club and a pretty fair hitter himself, best describes what it's like to be 21 and a Cesar Cedeno: "When you're like Cedeno, you got so much talent in you, you don't even know how much. I think sometimes more just pops out and surprises even Cesar."
Cedeno does admit to surprise. Four years before he came up to Houston, where he hit .310 his first season, he was not yet playing baseball regularly. "When I was 15, I was still sitting on the bench in a Santo Domingo junior league," he says, "and we only played on Sundays. I probably hadn't played as many as 100 games when I was signed.
"I didn't start playing baseball until I was 11. My father didn't want me to. We had a store, and he wanted me to take care of it, but my mother bought me a glove and spikes, and pretty soon I was playing too much. I had the same feeling any American has. When he finds something he loves to do, he's content to do it all day, every day."
In his first tryout with the Astros, Cedeno hit seven balls out of the park. They gave him $3,000 and sent him to Covington, Va. in the Appalachian League. "There are not many Spanish speakers in Virginia," Cedeno says drily, "but when you're young, everything new is interesting. I worked hard to learn English. I watched TV—cowboy movies and cartoons. I learned English from The Flintstones."
In his first game at Covington, Cedeno got five hits. In 36 games he batted .374. They're still talking about him in Covington. After more seasoning in the lower minors, the Astros gave him a try at Triple A Oklahoma City in 1970. Cesar went berserk. He hit .373, with 14 home runs, 14 doubles and nine triples in the first 54 games. He hit two grand slams in two days. Houston called him up before the sweat was dry. They're still talking about Cedeno in Oklahoma City.
The big leagues barely put a dent in Cedeno's hitting and his base-stealing was better than ever—17 in 90 games. If he hadn't had what for him constitutes a sophomore slump—a .264 average in 1971—they'd be discussing him in Cooperstown.