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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Orlando Cepeda, baseball slugger known as the Baby Bull, dies at 86

San Francisco Giants star Orlando Cepeda steals home during the 6th inning to tie a game against the New York Mets, at Shea Stadium in Queens, on May 31, 1964. Cepeda, the “Baby Bull” who was one of the leading sluggers of his generation, and the second Puerto Rican-born player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, died on Friday, June 28, 2024. He was 86. (John Orris/The New York Times)

By Richard Goldstein

Orlando Cepeda, the second Puerto Rican native to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and one of the game’s leading sluggers of his time, from the late 1950s to the early ’70s, died Friday. He was 86.

His death was announced by the San Francisco Giants. The organization did not say where he died, but other reports said he died at his home in the San Francisco Bay area with members of his family nearby.

Playing for 17 seasons in the major leagues, mostly at first base but also in the outfield and, at the end of his career, as a designated hitter, Cepeda hit 379 home runs, had 2,351 hits, drove in 1,365 runs and had a career batting average of .297.

He was a unanimous selection as the National League’s rookie of the year with the Giants in 1958, their first season in San Francisco. He was also a unanimous choice as the league’s MVP in 1967, the year he helped lead the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series championship, and played in nine All-Star Games.

Cepeda’s father, Pedro, known as the Bull for his strength, was a professional baseball player, primarily a shortstop, who was called the Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico. Orlando Cepeda, a muscular 6-foot, 2-inch, 210-pound right-handed power hitter, became known as the Baby Bull.

While pitching in the Giants’ farm system, Juan Marichal, a future Hall of Famer from the Dominican Republic, was inspired by Cepeda and his fellow Latino players on the Giants.

“I would see Orlando Cepeda, Felipe Alou and Rubén Gómez on television,” Marichal once told The Associated Press. “I started learning what the major leagues were all about, and I hoped that one day I could be one of them.”

Marichal, who joined the Giants in 1960, said that Cepeda “was the type of player who had no fear, the type of player you wanted playing behind you.”

But Cepeda’s reputation was tarnished a year after his playing days ended.

He was arrested in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in December 1975 for his role in smuggling marijuana from Colombia and spent 10 months in federal prison.

The Baseball Writers Association of America, presumably taking his prison term into account, rejected him for the Hall of Fame in 15 years of balloting. It was not until 1999, and a vote by the Veterans Committee, that Cepeda made it to Cooperstown.

Cepeda had been revered in Puerto Rico nearly as much as Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder and the commonwealth’s first Hall of Famer, who died in a plane crash in 1972 while he was delivering earthquake relief supplies to Nicaragua.

But Cepeda’s drug conviction, in contrast with Clemente’s altruism, turned him into something of an outcast at home after his release from prison.

“When you play baseball you have a name and money and you feel like you’re bulletproof,” Cepeda told Sports Illustrated when he was about to enter the Hall of Fame. “You forget who you are. Especially in a Latin country, they make you feel like you are God. I learned that one mistake, in two seconds, can make a disaster that seems to last forever.”

Orlando Cepeda was born in Ponce, on Sept. 17, 1937. His father, though a baseball hero in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Caribbean, was a victim of the major leagues’ color barrier. He died in 1955, just before his son played his first game in the Giants’ farm system.

Cepeda hit .312 with 25 home runs for the 1958 Giants to win rookie of the year honors. Three years later, he led the league in home runs, with 46, and runs batted in, with 142, as part of a slugging lineup that also included Willie Mays, who died June 18 at age 93, Willie McCovey and Alou. Cepeda helped propel the Giants to their first pennant in San Francisco in 1962, but they were beaten by the New York Yankees in the World Series.

Plagued by knee injuries, Cepeda was traded to the Cardinals early in the 1966 season. The next year, he hit a career-high .325 and led the National League in RBIs, with 111, in capturing MVP honors. The Cardinals went on to defeat the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.

Cepeda played on the Cardinals’ pennant-winning 1968 team, and later with the Atlanta Braves, the Oakland Athletics and the Red Sox. He retired in 1974, after a single season with the Kansas City Royals.

He moved to Southern California in the mid-1980s, then embraced Buddhism while seeking a return to the baseball world. “From the moment I stepped into the temple, it changed my life,” he told AP in 1993. “It taught me to accept responsibility for my actions, not to blame others.”

Cepeda returned to the San Francisco area in 1987. He scouted for the Giants in 1988 and then became a member of their community relations department, speaking to young people through the years about drug and alcohol abuse.

But trouble arrived again in May 2007, when Cepeda was stopped for speeding in Solano County, north of San Francisco. Police reported finding cocaine, marijuana and hypodermic syringes in his car, but he was allowed to plead no contest to a charge of possessing less than 1 ounce of marijuana, and was fined $100.

The county district attorney, David Paulson, fired the prosecutor handling the case hours before the prosecutor was scheduled to resign, saying the decision to drop felony cocaine charges suggested that Cepeda had received favorable treatment because of his celebrity status.

Cepeda held the title of community ambassador in the Giant organization at his death. A list of survivors was not immediately available.

For all the years of being shunned in Puerto Rico, Cepeda won redemption when he was elected to the Hall of Fame. The Puerto Rican government brought him back for a parade in his honor. It began at the San Juan airport, where he had been arrested 24 years earlier, and passed through Old San Juan along streets lined by crowds.

The Giants retired Cepeda’s No. 30 two weeks before his induction into the Hall of Fame. In September 2008, they honored him with a bronze statue outside their stadium, AT&T Park (now Oracle Park). It stands alongside statues paying tribute to Mays, McCovey, Marichal and the pitcher Gaylord Perry. After all his travails, Cepeda was exceedingly gratified.

“When things like this happen to you,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle at the unveiling of his statue, “That’s when I say to myself, ‘Orlando, you’re a very lucky person.’”

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