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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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"I just wasn't ready mentally," Cepeda says. "I know I could've played leftfield if I'd put my mind to it, but I was only 21 years old and very sensitive. Friends and other players kept telling me I should demand to play first. It was all pride with me. And ignorance."

"I could understand his reluctance," Rigney says. "But Cepeda was the better athlete, so I thought he could make the move to another position more easily. But he would come up to me and say, 'Beel, I the first baseman not the leftfielder.' What could you do? He was the most popular San Francisco Giant. It was very hard not to like Orlando Cepeda. But this became an unresolvable situation."

Unable to resolve it, Rigney was replaced 61 games into the 1960 season. McCovey slumped to .238 that year and Cepeda to .297, and the Giants finished a disappointing fifth. In '61, Cepeda reluctantly split his time between first and the outfield but had his best season at the plate, leading the National League with 46 homers and 142 RBIs. Then, in 1962, he returned to first base full-time as the more tractable McCovey, his arms flapping in pursuit of fly-balls, played leftfield like a giant flamingo.

But the Giants won the pennant, and Cepeda stood on deck when McCovey's scorching line drive found Bobby Richardson's glove for the final out of the seventh game in a thrilling World Series with the Yankees. The Giants were managed that year by Alvin Dark, a man who, by his own admission, was no fan of Latin players. And Cepeda felt the sting of his manager's scorn. "I think he was a vicious man," Cepeda says. "I hurt my right knee in 1962 and played two years in terrible pain just to prove to that man that a Latin could play hurt. I never said a word about being injured, and that was a mistake."

In 1965 the knee gave out; he played only 33 games that season. McCovey returned to first base and hit 39 homers. It was clear to new manager Herman Franks that the bag was not big enough for both, and in May '66 Cepeda was traded to the Cardinals for a lefthanded pitcher, Ray Sadecki, who had won 20 games two seasons before. It was an infamous trade: Sadecki won only three games for the Giants that year; Cepeda hit .303 for St. Louis and then, in '67, was the league MVP as he led the Cards to the pennant and a seven-game World Series triumph over the Boston Red Sox. Cepeda had been vindicated, but the hurt remained. "I was bitter and mad at the world after the trade," he recalls. "I loved San Francisco. I thought I would play my whole career there."

That career, bedeviled by bad knees, played itself out in Atlanta, Oakland. Boston and Kansas City; Cepeda retired after the '74 season at the age of 37. Over his 17 years in the majors, he averaged .297 with 379 homers and 1,365 RBIs—figures that compare favorably with those of many Hall of Fame sluggers.

But Orlando Cepeda is not in the Hall of Fame, and his chances of getting there grow dimmer with each passing year. He has never received as much as 50% of the vote in his 12 years of eligibility; 75% is required for election. Cepeda would like nothing more at this stage of his life than to join old teammates McCovey, Mays and Juan Marichal in the Hall, and he feels he deserves the honor. He also realizes that many voters may have passed him over year after year for reasons that have nothing to do with baseball.

A Giants scout spotted the talented young Orlando Cepeda in Puerto Rico in 1955 and signed him at the age of 17 for a $500 bonus. The day before Cepeda's first pro game, with a Class D team at Salem, Va., his father, Pedro, died at age 48 of malaria. Orlando returned home and paid for the funeral with his bonus money.

Pedro Cepeda, called Perucho, had been renowned as "the Babe Ruth of the Caribbean." "He was a great player," says Orlando. "In Puerto Rico, he was very big. When I was a kid, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson used to come to my house for dinner. It was wonderful for me."

Though devastated by Perucho's death, Orlando returned to Virginia to begin his career. "I was only 17, and it was tough. I lived in the black part of town, and on Sunday mornings I'd hear the people singing gospel music in the church across the street. I'd sit by the window in my room listening, and I'd cry from misery and loneliness. I don't know how I ever got through that time, but I know now that you've got to go through hardships when you're young to make your life meaningful later on."

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