Tuesday, January 18, 2011

#83 - Orlando Cepeda

So while there have not been a lot of BoSox so far in this set (that will change fast) this is the second Hall of Famer Red Sox in a row. It is also the second last card for each guy in a row. And it is the first card with Designated Hitter as its position. Plus after a pretty good run it is also the second slanted card in a row. The Baby Bull deserves better than that!Especially after his big comeback season in '73. Orlando's knees were pretty much toast by the end of the Sixties and he was able to put in only one full season in the Seventies before the DH rule came along and gave him a one-year resuscitation. With a chance to rest his legs between at bats Orlando posted arguably the best season of any DH in its rookie year (at least the best outside Tommie Davis) in a season that may have helped seal his HOF legacy a few years down the road.

This shot is taken in Oakland just a few feet from where Frank Duffy's of a few cards ago was. The site is a little ironic since Orlando's '73 card was as an A (that looks pretty weird, ending the sentence that way). And who is that behind him? My vote says Carlton Fisk since the guy has some pretty big calves, but what do I know? Well, I do know a little about Orlando Cepeda.

Orlando "Cha Cha" Cepeda has had about as colorful a history as anyone in this set. He was born in Puerto Rico to a dad, Pedro, who was an island legend in baseball. His father reportedly wouldn't play in the States because he found them too discriminatory. Through his dad and a couple local ballclub owners some of the younger black MLB players - like Willie Mays - would come down and play a little winter ball in PR. On one of those trips Orlando joined them in traveling the island and got viewed by some Giant personnel. They then signed him to a minor league contract when he was 17 in 1955. Unfortunately the team he was assigned to was from Virginia and Orlando had to deal with some Jim Crow crap; at the same time his dad died, so he had a terrible first month plus, hitting only .247. The Giants moved him up to Kokomo and the change helped huge as he hit nearly .400 the rest of the year. After he moved up a level to C ball in '56 (he hit .355 with 26 homers), the Giants wanted him to go to B ball. Orlando balked and the Giants put him in Triple A where he hit over .300 with 25 homers and over 100 RBIs. That got him to the majors in '58.

Playing first base for the now San Francisco Giants in his rookie year, Cepeda hit .312 with 25 homers and 96 RBIs, winning Rookie of the Year. In '59 he moved to the outfield to make way for the next ROY, Willie McCovey. But the hitting didn't stop. In '60 his numbers were only a slight discount to his rookie ones. In '61 he had a monster year with 46 homers with 142 RBIs while hitting .311 but lost MVP to Frank Robinson. The next season the numbers were ONLY .306/35/114 so at contract time in '63 the Giants wanted to cut his pay. Baseball was different before free agents. Cha Cha also suffered reputationally: he had bad knees and they were getting worse on the astroturf. He thought he was playing hard; a lot of others thought he was loafing it. After two more big years, by the end of the '64 season, Orlando had 222 homers, 747 RBIs and an average of around .310 in seven seasons and he was only 27, on pace to have one of the biggest careers ever.. But in '65 the knees really went south and he either did or did not get them operated on, depending on the source of the story. It was also around this time that self-medication, in the form of marijuana, became included in the retinue. What for sure happened was that Orlando missed nearly the entire season.But rested up for '66 he started strongly but he and his manager, Herman Franks, were so at each other's throats that Cha Cha was sent to St. Louis that May for Ray Sadecki.

While Cepeda's power numbers were down big the rest of the way for the Cards, he finished at over .300 and may have won Comeback Player of the Year for someone (not the "official" one given out by The Sporting News, however; that went to Phil Regan in '66). He DID grab MVP in '67 for sure, leading the Cards to a Series victory with a .325 average, 25 homers, and 111 RBIs. But along with a lot of guys, he fell hard in '68 and after the season went to Atlanta for Joe Torre. In 1970 he put up his last great numbers. In '71 the knee struck again and he barely got in half a season. Then early in '72 he went to the A's for Denny McLain, played a game and then went on injured reserve. After an argument with Charlie O he was released. The Sox then signed him exclusively as a DH and after his big season they released him during spring training in '74. Orlando played some ball in Mexico and then signed mid-season with the Royals, put up mediocre numbers and was done. In the end he hit .297 (with a .350 OBA), with 379 homers, and 1,365 RBI's. He played in seven All-Star games. After failing to make the Hall on writer votes, he was elected in '99 by the Old-Timers.

Orlando had a tough time after baseball initially: too many drugs and too many women. In '75 he was busted for accepting a bunch of pot at the airport. Sentenced to five years, he served 10 months. He lost pretty much all his money and even got booted out of Dodger Stadium in '84. With the help of the Giants, though, he turned himself around, first as a scout and then as a goodwill ambassador. I would say that was the more meaningful comeback.

No room for star bullets, but we get another parentheses. And after all my whining, thanks to reader Smedcards I now know to what it refers. It is the player's maternal name (his mom's maiden name) which is common to be included in a full Latin name. Mystery solved! The cartoon is ironic in a bad way; it was playing hoops that Orlando first damaged his knee.

Two more guys that just missed each other as teammates:

1. Cepeda and Lou Brock '66 to '68 Cards;
2. Brock and Dave Giusti '69 Cards.

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