Orlando Manuel (Peruchin) Cepeda Pe√±a, the pride of Santurce, San Francisco and Horace Stoneham, was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in Kokomo, Indiana and someday soon will take over the state of California if the natives don't watch out. This will occur not through any design of Cepeda's; it will just happen. Things are always happening to Orlando Cepeda.
This is an article from the May 23, 1960 issue
In two years in the big leagues, Cepeda has figured prominently in two riots, been sued by a cab driver, knocked cold as an Arctic char by a thrown ball and named Rookie of the Year, fined for dumb base running and elected to the All-Star team. He also lost his job and quadrupled his salary. This series of events has so endeared Orlando to San Francisco fans that Willie Mays, by contrast, is considered something of a staid has-been and Willie McCovey an upstart who has yet to prove himself. Cepeda and big league baseball arrived in town the same day—April 15, 1958, on which occasion Orlando hit a home run—and San Francisco has been in love with him ever since. If Cepeda would just learn to pronounce the name of the place in English, Sa-fra-seeko probably would give him the Golden Gate Bridge.
Even San Francisco sportswriters, who differ on almost everything, including the direction in which the wind blows at Candlestick Park, are agreed that Orlando is a nice boy. He calls Bob Stevens of the Examiner "Boob," and Bucky Walters of the News-Call Bulletin "Bulky," and Art Rosenbaum, executive sports editor of the Chronicle "Mr. Hot," but of course this is simply because Orlando is having trouble with the language. At least Boob and Bulky and Mr. Hot are pretty sure that is the reason. They are fond of describing him as a pixie, and if pixies have flat feet, muscles like a Santa Gertrudis bull and grow up to weigh 210 pounds, then Orlando is a pixie. Certainly he has a pixie face. On those rare occasions when he is unhappy, usually following an 0-for-4 day at the plate or when someone is so unkind as to boo him from the stands, gloom descends upon him like a San Francisco fog; his lower lip droops, his head hangs and he looks as if he were going to cry. When he is happy, however—and this is most of the time—everything on Orlando's face goes up: the corners of his mouth, the corners of his eyes, even his hairline and eyebrows and ears.
One reason that Cepeda is happy is that he, in turn, loves San Francisco. But then Cepeda loves almost everything: Puerto Rico, America, girls, automobiles, large gold wrist-watches, the Atlantic, the Pacific, money, sirloin steak, girls, fancy clothes and Hank Sauer, who is a nice fellow but not nearly so pretty as some of the other things. Only at airplanes and pitchers and people from Pittsburgh does he draw the line. "Thees," he says, "I no like." More than anything else, however, Cepeda loves to play baseball, and it is the way he plays baseball, with a boyish zest and enthusiasm that never seems to wane, which fascinates San Francisco the most.
ALL THE TIME HE TRIES
Despite his size, Cepeda can run like a deer and he loves to steal bases; sometimes the base should not be stolen and sometimes Orlando does not make it—but still he tries. He has stolen 38 in two years. He also loves to slide, even when there is no point in sliding. He plays left field, which is not really his position, like a man who learned by watching the Cardinals' eccentric Joe Cunningham, frequently occupying one spot while the ball descends in another. But at least he has great hands, and there is something to be said for a last-second, lunging catch. "It is a little bit," an amazed teammate once said, "like watching a man wrestle an alligator." He also has a very strong arm. And Orlando Cepeda can hit a baseball.
Only 22 years old now, Cepeda hit .312 and .317 his first two big league seasons, better than Willie Mays or Henry Aaron at the same stage, better than all but a few of the famed hitters of the past. He hit 25 and 27 home runs, drove in 96 and 105 runs, had 38 and 35 doubles. The most impressive feature of Cepeda's hitting, in fact, is his inexhaustible power. It is still possible to fool him with a good pitch and, because of the terrific cut he takes at a ball, he strikes out a lot: 84 times as a rookie, 100 last year. But when Cepeda connects, things happen; infielders cower, dents appear in outfield walls, baseballs disappear. On June 4, 1959, playing in Milwaukee, Orlando drove in seven runs in one ball game, hitting a single, a double and two home runs against Lou Burdette, Juan Pizarro and Carl Willey. The second home run was the first ever hit over County Stadium's left-field bleachers.
"This kid is going to be one of the big ones," says Hank Sauer, who was finishing up his long big league career when Cepeda joined the club and now works with the Giants as a scout and, occasionally, as a coach. "He has that exceptional power; you watch how the ball jumps off his bat. It only does that with the good ones; it really jumps. He can beat Mays to first base. He has a real good arm. And I've never seen a kid so eager to learn. He wasn't very happy when McCovey came along last summer and he had to move off first base. But I think he likes it out there now. He's going to be a good outfielder, too, someday; he just needs experience. He has a little trouble going back on balls hit straight over his head, and sometimes he's lazy. You know, he stands around for an inning or two without a chance and he begins to think about something else. Daydreaming. But he'll get over that. He learned to play first base, and he'll learn to play the outfield."
At the plate Cepeda stands up straight and relaxed, elbows away from his body, bat cocked close to his right ear. For two years he used an exaggerated closed stance, the left foot close to the plate, the right foot far back in the outside corner of the box. This produced tremendous, uncoiling action of the torso; it also placed Cepeda in a cramped position trying to handle an inside pitch, and major league pitchers needed only about 17 seconds to discover that. As a result, they were jamming him, pitching him tight. "When he was a boy," says Pizarro, who also comes from Santurce and used to play against Orlando in high school, "we used to pitch him high. Now you pitch him low and tight. You better not pitch him high." Cepeda's new stance is only a slight modification of the old; this spring he moved his back foot in toward the plate a bit in order to see all pitches better and get a freer swing. In Candlestick Park, where there is little point in trying to blast a baseball into the gale blowing in from left field, the new stance helps Cepeda pump more balls into right center. No right-hand hitter is going to hit too many home runs in the Giants' big new stadium, but Orlando's average, like that of Mays, will almost certainly climb.
Says Garry Schumacher, the Giant publicity man, who has been around all the good National League hitters of the past 40 years: "He's the closest thing to Rogers Hornsby I've ever seen."
BORN TO PLAY BALL
Cepeda has been playing baseball almost since he was born. His father, Pedro, who was called Perucho by adoring Puerto Ricans, was one of the island's most famous ballplayers, a hitter capable of batting .457 against good pitching, including that of Satchel Paige, even in the twilight of his career. Orlando, called Peruchin, would go around with his father to ball games all over the island, leaving his mother Carmen and an older brother, Pedro, back home in Santurce. Peruchin played so much baseball, in fact, at so young an age, that he developed a horribly bowed right leg. "Too much exercise too young," he explains now. An operation at the age of 15, from which Orlando still bears a great, angled scar just below his right knee, cured the condition; two months in the hospital and five months on crutches also added 43 pounds to Cepeda's weight. "When I go to hospital," says Orlando, "I no could heet the ball over the wall. When I come out, I heet heem over."
In the spring of 1955, when the son Orlando was 17 years old, the father Perucho asked his old friend Pete Zorilla, who ran the Santurce club, to take the kid to the States. At the Giant farm camp in Melbourne, Fla., Orlando was signed to a contract. At that same camp was another 17-year-old, a towering kid from Mobile named Willie McCovey.
That season of 1955 was the most miserable in young Peruchin's memory. He was just a baby, away from home for the first time. He was scared. He could barely understand the language. And then his father died, two days before Orlando's first game in organized baseball, from a sudden abdominal ailment. At Salem, where the Giants sent him first, Orlando had trouble with the manager. So the Giants moved him to Kokomo, a Class D club in the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League—and it was there that Peruchin grew up.
"I want to go home," he says now, "but I keep telling myself I have to stay. I have to make good for my father. And for my mother. I have to be a ballplayer. I want to be a good ballplayer. So I stay."
He led the league in batting with .393, hit 21 home runs and drove in 91 runs in 92 games. The next year, at St. Cloud, in Class C, he hit .355 26 home runs and had 112 runs batted in, leading the league in all three. Jumped to Triple-A in 1957, Orlando hit .309 at Minneapolis, with 25 home runs and 108 runs batted in. He wasn't even on the Giant roster in the spring of '58, but Horace Stone-ham insisted that this young Orlando Cepeda was going to be his first baseman.
"Hey, Rig," said Whitey Lockman one day in Phoenix to Bill Rigney, the Giant manager. "This kid Cepeda is three years away."
"Three years away?" said Rigney, appalled.
"Yeah," said Lockman. "From the Hall of Fame."
The first season in San Francisco, Cepeda lived with Pitcher Ruben Gomez, and it was Gomez who entangled Orlando in the two infamous brawls. The first occurred in Pittsburgh in May. Gomez hit Bill Mazeroski with a pitch, Vernon Law later dusted off Gomez, the umpire warned Law, Pirate Manager Danny Murtaugh came out to argue and ended up in a fight with Gomez. Just another baseball hassle. But Gomez was something special to Cepeda—a fellow Puerto Rican and a boyhood idol since Orlando was 4, when Gomez was already a good athlete and one of the big kids in the neighborhood. When the rest of the Giants poured onto the field to back Gomez up, Cepeda detoured by the bat rack and came out armed.
If Willie Mays hadn't tackled him, there is no telling how many skulls he might have crushed. Later Orlando was sorry, very sorry, after it had been explained to him that ballplayers do not fight with bats in the big leagues. He was also $100 poorer. And in Pittsburgh, Orlando will never win the most popular player prize.
RESCUED BY POLICE
The second incident came that winter, in Puerto Rico, during a playoff game at Mayaguez. Again Gomez hit a batter. Cepeda backed him up in the argument and the fans began to boo. They showered Orlando with fruit and bottles and cans of beer, causing him to miss a pop fly. So Orlando picked up the ball and threw it into the stands. Later he said the ball hit a railing and bounced back; a man, who said he was no railing, pointed to the knot on his head. Anyway the crowd got so out of hand that the game was forfeited to Santurce, and Cepeda and Gomez had to be escorted from the park by police. "Those people in Mayaguez crazy," says Cepeda. "Last winter, when I go back there to play a game, they want to keel me. I no go back there any more." Actually, Orlando has no intention of playing any more winter league ball in Puerto Rico anyway. "The first two years I have to play," he says, "or everyone theenk I swell-headed. Now they weel onderstand that I am joost tired."
While in Puerto Rico after his first big league season, Orlando bought a new house for his mother and became engaged. The girl, a lovely 17-year-old named Annie Pino, still attends high school near San Juan. When will they get married? "I no know," says Orlando. "We get married in November, I guess."
Gomez was traded to the Phils before the '59 season, and last year Cepeda lived with a Puerto Rican friend, not a ballplayer, in a small, carpetless, bare-walled flat over a grocery store on Irving Street, surrounded by hi-fi speakers and the screech of Cuban music, cha-cha-cha and modern jazz. Now that his salary has climbed from the $7,500 major league minimum to $10,000 in midseason of '58 (a voluntary gesture on the part of the Giants) to more than $15,000 in '59 and in '60 to almost $30,000, Orlando has bought a new Pontiac Bonneville hardtop and moved into a fashionable apartment on Pacheco Street, out near Golden Gate Park. Although he considers Willie Mays, who mothers him to a certain extent and calls him "Chico," and Willie Kirkland and Willie McCovey his friends, like most ballplayers from the Latin American countries he does not look upon any of the American Negroes as his real "boadies." This accolade is reserved for other Puerto Ricans like José Pagan and Bahamans and Venezuelans like Andre Rodgers and Ramon Monzant. Much of the time he does not run around with other ballplayers at all, for San Francisco is now full of both Puerto Ricans and Americans who want to be the famous young slugger's friends.
Despite his father's early death, Orlando has had good financial advice. Such men as Guigo Otero, a former basketball star and now a highly respected lawyer in Santurce, and Rafael Pont-Flores, a big, jolly man who is known as the Grantland Rice of Puerto Rico, have looked after him well. "He was ready to sign for anything this year," says Otero, "but I suggested he hold out awhile for $30,000."
"Why not?" says Pont-Flores. "Stoneham is making a lot of money and some of it should go to Cepeda. The Giants are not going to win a pennant without Peruchin."