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THE HEART OF A GIANT
Ron Fimrite
October 16, 1991
Orlando Cepeda and San Francisco fell in love in 1958. The romance wavered but never died
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October 16, 1991

The Heart Of A Giant

Orlando Cepeda and San Francisco fell in love in 1958. The romance wavered but never died

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"The Giants. The A's are too stuck up. Rickey Henderson wants too much money, and Jose Canseco has a bad attitude."

Cepeda smiles wearily. "No, no, they're really good guys when you get to know them. I guess that's the trouble. People watch you play, but they don 'I get to know you. They don't know you as a human being."

He was "the Baby Bull," "Cha-Cha" the dancing master, and he made San Francisco his personal playground in the Giants' first year in town. It was Orlando Cepeda, the new kid, the rookie, and not the established star, Willie Mays, who first won the hearts of San Franciscans in 1958 after the Giants had come west from the Polo Grounds and Manhattan. In that first season, at least, Mays was still regarded as a New Yorker, and because he was such a private man, he didn't get around town as much as San Franciscans would have preferred; in San Francisco, they like their heroes visible.

Cepeda was all over the place, earning his nickname Cha-Cha as he danced and pounded the conga drums at the Copacabana or swayed to the sounds of Dave Brubeck at the Blackhawk. Cepeda was an exciting young presence, a Latin charmer, and the city embraced this 20-year-old Puerto Rican as if he were a native son.

It was a good time for new faces in a new big league city. Giants manager Bill Rigney figured he had little to lose gambling on such newcomers as Jim Davenport, Willie Kirkland, Bob Schmidt. Leon Wagner and Felipe Alou, since he had done no better than sixth place with tired veterans in the Giants' last season in New York. When Cepeda reported to training camp in Arizona in the spring of '58, with three brilliant minor league seasons behind him, his chances looked promising.

Bill White, who had been the team's regular first baseman, was serving in the military, and Whitey Lockman, who had played in White's stead in 1957, was winding down a long career. Rigney asked Lockman to work with the big rookie that spring and after several days asked Lockman for a progress report on Cepeda. "Too bad," Lockman replied, "but the kid's a year away."

"A year away?" said a disheartened Rigney. "My god, a year away from what?"

"From the Hall of Fame," said Whitey. Lockman could have had no idea how sadly ironic that remark would eventually prove to be.

San Franciscans in 1958 were no strangers to the national pastime. This was a community where once three Pacific Coast League teams—the San Francisco Seals, the Mission Reds and the Oakland Oaks—had played, a place that had already sent scores of homegrown sons to the majors, including eventual Hall of Famers Harry Hooper, George (Highpockets) Kelly, Harry Heilmann, Joe Cronin, Chick Haley, Tony Lazzeri, Ernie Lombardi, Lefty Gomez and the Yankee Clipper himself, Joe DiMaggio. The expression "sandlot baseball" was even coined in this city where generations of youngsters grew up playing on sandy lots swept by winds off the Bay and the sea.

The Giants played their first two West Coast seasons in 23,000-seat Seals Stadium, a gleaming white jewel of a park first opened in 1931, before moving on to Candlestick Park. Bay Area fans had been expecting big league baseball since the end of World War II, and when it finally did arrive, an otherwise sophisticated town went collectively off its rocker. And by playing his rookies, Rigney gave fans the pleasure of creating their own heroes rather than accepting inherited stars. If Mays in the beginning suffered from this parochialism, newcomers like Cepeda luxuriated in the radiant glare of instant celebrity.

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