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The brief Royals career of Orlando Cepeda

He do the cha cha with the bat.


After the advent of the designated hitter rule in 1973, American League clubs had to develop a plan as to who their DH would be. Some teams had an in-house option, such as Gates Brown with the Tigers or Tony Oliva with the Twins. Other teams went with aging hitters such as Tommy McCraw with the Angels, Orlando Cepeda with the Red Sox, and Rico Carty with the Rangers. The Royals initially opted for the in-house solution and shuffled their DH duties between Ed Kirkpatrick, Kurt Bevacqua, Carl Taylor, Gail Hopkins, Steve Hovley and Hal McRae to name a few. Manager Jack McKeon would even occasionally pinch hit for his DH, a practice I could never quite understand.

Eventually, mercifully, Hal McRae would emerge to claim the DH spot and, in the process, become one of the all-time best at the position. Before McRae grabbed the DH, the Royals dipped their toes into the aging superstar waters by signing Harmon Killebrew (106 games in 1975), Vada Pinson (218 games in 1974-75), and finally Orlando Cepeda, who appeared in 33 games in 1974. Pinson, a fantastic ballplayer in his prime, had enough left in the tank to play all three outfield positions plus time at first and the DH, but Killebrew and Cepeda were running on fumes when the Royals signed them.

Cepeda was born on September 17, 1937, in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has turned out many fabulous ballplayers over the years including Cepeda’s contemporaries Roberto Clemente and Vic Power then later such stars as Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, Juan Gonzalez, Yadier Molina, and Carlos Correa. Clemente is universally seen as the island’s best player, but Cepeda isn’t far behind. Cepeda’s father, Pedro Cepeda was a terrific ballplayer in his own right. The elder Cepeda earned the nickname “The Bull”. Thus, when Orlando finally made it to the big leagues, he became known as the “Baby Bull”.

Prior to his debut, Cepeda took a long and winding journey through the minor leagues. He started out in 1955 in Class D Salem, Virginia. That lasted for 26 games before he was transferred to Class D Kokomo (IN). In 92 games in Kokomo, as a 17-year-old away from home for the first time, he slashed .393/.434/.634.

That earned him a promotion to the San Francisco Giants’ Class C team in St. Cloud (MN) for the 1956 season and the Baby Bull continued to rake: .355/.406/.613. In 1957 he was at AA Minneapolis, where he slashed .309/.344/.508. The Giants, try as they might, could no longer ignore the fact that the kid could flat-out hit.

He made the Giants as a 20-year-old in 1958 and in 644 plate appearances stroked a cool .312/.342/.512 with 25 home runs, 96 RBI and a league leading 38 doubles. That production earned him a unanimous Rookie of the Year award and a ninth-place finish in the league’s MVP vote. But the Giants had a problem. They had another young slugger who played the same position, first base, as Cepeda. You’ve probably heard of him. A guy named McCovey. McCovey, the original Big Mac, made his debut in 1959 and won the league’s Rookie of the Year award. Imagine having those two AND Willie Mays. They also had 24-year-old Felipe Alou, who was a pretty good hitter in his own right. Talk about an embarrassment of riches.

To find at-bats for everyone, the Giants shifted Cepeda to third base, then later to left field. During his time in San Francisco, Cepeda often clashed with manager Alvin Dark, who ordered Latin players to stop speaking Spanish, among other indignities. A serious knee injury in 1963 hampered his mobility and spooked the Giants brass, so after nine years of thrilling the Candlestick faithful, Cepeda was traded to St. Louis in 1966 for Kansas City native Ray Sadecki. Cepeda fought through the pain and in his second season as a Cardinal he delivered a .325/.399/.524 slash with 25 home runs and a league-leading 111 RBI, which earned him his only MVP award.

Right before the start of the 1969 season, Cepeda was traded to the Atlanta Braves straight up for Joe Torre. Cepeda briefly thought about retiring, but after speaking with Hank Aaron decided to report. Those Brave teams also had some serious bats. Besides Cepeda and Aaron, they had Rico Carty, former teammate Felipe Alou and the young trio of Ralph Garr, Darrell Evans, and Dusty Baker. The trade worked out well for St. Louis as Torre made four All-Star teams and won the league MVP award in 1971 when he had a season for the ages.

Cepeda meanwhile just continued to hit. Age was starting to catch up to him. He was 31 when his Atlanta tenure began. In his four years in Hot ‘Lanta, Cepeda slashed .281/.343/.486.

In June of 1972, the Braves shipped Cepeda to Oakland in exchange for Denny McLain, a trade of two aging warhorses. McLain, the last pitcher to win more than 30 games in a season (and maybe the last ever to accomplish that feat), had nothing left. He appeared in 15 games for Atlanta then retired from the game. Cepeda reinjured his knee after only three games in Oakland and missed the remainder of the season after having surgery. The A’s released Cepeda after a clash with owner Charlie O. Finley. Finley seemed to clash with almost all his players, so this was nothing new. Cepeda once again contemplated retirement, but the Boston Red Sox called in January of 1973 with a proposition that he just be their Designated hitter. Cepeda, who also went by the nickname “Cha Cha”, had a bit of a revival in Boston. The first time I watched Bruce Almighty and saw Steve Carrell’s hilarious newscaster rant, I immediately thought of Cepeda.

Carrell, “And I do the cha-cha like a sissy girl. I the.. cha-cha.”

I only saw Cepeda play once and that was during that 1973 Boston season. The Red Sox came into this game with a 60-52 record, only two games out of first in the East, yet in fourth place. The Royals sat at 65-50, the best record in the American League but only one game up on Oakland.

Yes, in just four and a half seasons the Royals had gone from being a brand-new expansion team to having the best record in the American League in August! That’s what I call a successful process.

Anyway, this game, known to me as the Carl “Bleeping” Yastrzemski game, ended with the Royals winning 3-to-2 behind a strong performance by Steve Busby and Hal McRae. Cepeda stroked a single in his first at-bat, which was a relief. The night before he had lacerated the Royals with four doubles. My uncle Larry took a break from his Hamm’s long enough to snap this photo of Cepeda for me. It was a warm evening, as August in KC tends to be, and my father and uncle were putting down about a beer an inning. Towards the end of the game, the beer vendor just stayed close to our seats. An easy sale.

Cepeda had a strange and somewhat frightening occurrence take place in May of 1973 in a game against the White Sox in Chicago. On May 8, a White Sox fan named Roberto Iglesias goaded Cepeda into a fight during the seventh inning. The police recap says that Iglesias ran onto the field, shouted obscenities in Spanish, and attacked Cepeda in the Boston dugout. Iglesias was later interviewed by legendary Chicago columnist Mike Royko and offered a very different and hilarious account of the encounter.

According to the Royko column, and I quote, Iglesias blamed the fracas on “high temperature of the Latin blood, both his and Cepeda’s.” Iglesias, age 33, who worked in a North Side electronics plant, said as Cepeda was walking back to the dugout after the first inning, he said to him, “Cepeda, I’m sorry friend.” “See for a Latin player, I like to see him hit. This is my brother you know? So that’s why I told Cepeda I’m sorry he didn’t hit, see?”

“He didn’t get no-hit again in the 4th inning. I tell him again: “I’m sorry friend.” “He say to me, and this is all in Spanish, “sure my friend, why don’t you shut up, you mother______.”

“So, I tell him: you don’t call me a mother________, you mother________ son __ _ _____!”

After a similar encounter in the sixth inning, the two agreed to meet under the stands and settle the dispute, mano a mano. Iglesias was 5’7 and 155 pounds. Cepeda was listed at 6’2 and 210.

Back to Iglesias’ account according to Royko: “So we have a fight, hitting everywhere, in the chest, in the stomach. Then we get locked up together like a dance. The ushers come and jump on me and stop the fight. The policeman grabs my arm and handcuff me and they take me to the police station. I try to tell the big guy chief what happen, but he say: You shut up, you mother______.”

Royko asked Iglesias what would happen the next time Boston comes to Chicago. Will there be a rematch? Iglesias replied, “No, why should we? He is a good guy.”

You gotta love White Sox fans.

At the age of 35, Cepeda garnered 608 at bats and slashed .289/.350/.444 with 20 home runs and 86 RBI for Boston and even picked up some down-ballot MVP votes. The Sox surprisingly released Cepeda prior to the 1974 season. He was playing in Mexico when the Royals came calling in early August.

The 1974 Royals were trying to keep pace with powerful Oakland when Cepeda made his debut on August 6. Cepeda collected two hits and drove in two runs in his first game, as the Royals defeated the Twins 17-3. Cepeda was a bit of a lucky charm early on as the Royals won 8 of the first 10 games he appeared in. The Baby Bull drove in 12 runs in his first six games including a 5 RBI outburst on August 9, leading the Royals to a 13-to-3 thrashing of the Milwaukee Brewers at Royals Stadium. Cepeda hit the final home run of his storied career on August 14th at Tiger Stadium, an eighth-inning solo shot off Luke Walker. He picked up a few more RBI, including one in his final major league at-bat, when he stroked a ninth-inning single off Rollie Fingers, which sent the game to extra innings, a game the Royals eventually won by a score of 4-to-3.

As with all players, Father Time remains undefeated and at 36, Cepeda had held on, and excelled, longer than most. The Royals released Cepeda on September 27 and his great career was over.

In retirement, Cepeda had a few run-ins with the law, including a 1978 drug bust for marijuana that looks like a case of law enforcement overreach, and later, a gun charge. He spent ten months in jail followed by time in a Philadelphia halfway house. In 1987, Cepeda had a reunion with the Giants, which led to a scouting position and later a position as a Goodwill ambassador. In 1999, the Giants retired his number 30 and in 2008, the team unveiled a statue of the Baby Bull, joining his former teammates Mays, McCovey, and Juan Marichal with that honor.

In 1994, he narrowly missed election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, missing by seven votes. Finally, in 1999 he was elected by the Veteran’s committee, joining Clemente as the only Puerto Ricans in the hall.

Over his 17-year career, Cepeda slashed .297/.350/.499 with 2,351 hits, 379 home runs and 1,365 RBI all good for an OPS+ of 133. He hit over .300 in ten seasons and came close in another three years. It’s hard to say what he could have done on healthy knees.