Search

THE HEART OF A GIANT

Oct. 16, 1991
Oct. 16, 1991

Table of Contents
Oct. 16, 1991

Dateline: The Author Returns To Yesteryear To Report On A History-Making Football Game
Bob Cousy
Orlando Cepeda
33! Lakers
  • In November of 1971, the Los Angeles Lakers went on a roll. Twenty years later, their 33-game win streak is still the longest in pro sports history

Fait Elkins
Lenglen Vs. Wills
A Call To Arms
What If?

THE HEART OF A GIANT

Orlando Cepeda and San Francisco fell in love in 1958. The romance wavered but never died

Dressed in a San Francisco Giants road uniform with his old number 30 on the back, Orlando Cepeda is taking a break from his pitching chores at the Vida Blue Baseball Camp in Palo Alto, Calif.

This is an article from the Oct. 16, 1991 issue Original Layout

"Did you play with Willie Mays?" a young camper asks him.

"For almost nine years," Cepeda says.

"Wow!"

"How many home runs did you hit?"

"Three hundred and seventy-nine."

"Wow!"

"How old are you, kid?"

"Eleven."

"Wow! Hey, you play beeootiful. Who do you like, the Giants or the A's?"

"The Giants. The A's are too stuck up. Rickey Henderson wants too much money, and Jose Canseco has a bad attitude."

Cepeda smiles wearily. "No, no, they're really good guys when you get to know them. I guess that's the trouble. People watch you play, but they don 'I get to know you. They don't know you as a human being."

He was "the Baby Bull," "Cha-Cha" the dancing master, and he made San Francisco his personal playground in the Giants' first year in town. It was Orlando Cepeda, the new kid, the rookie, and not the established star, Willie Mays, who first won the hearts of San Franciscans in 1958 after the Giants had come west from the Polo Grounds and Manhattan. In that first season, at least, Mays was still regarded as a New Yorker, and because he was such a private man, he didn't get around town as much as San Franciscans would have preferred; in San Francisco, they like their heroes visible.

Cepeda was all over the place, earning his nickname Cha-Cha as he danced and pounded the conga drums at the Copacabana or swayed to the sounds of Dave Brubeck at the Blackhawk. Cepeda was an exciting young presence, a Latin charmer, and the city embraced this 20-year-old Puerto Rican as if he were a native son.

It was a good time for new faces in a new big league city. Giants manager Bill Rigney figured he had little to lose gambling on such newcomers as Jim Davenport, Willie Kirkland, Bob Schmidt. Leon Wagner and Felipe Alou, since he had done no better than sixth place with tired veterans in the Giants' last season in New York. When Cepeda reported to training camp in Arizona in the spring of '58, with three brilliant minor league seasons behind him, his chances looked promising.

Bill White, who had been the team's regular first baseman, was serving in the military, and Whitey Lockman, who had played in White's stead in 1957, was winding down a long career. Rigney asked Lockman to work with the big rookie that spring and after several days asked Lockman for a progress report on Cepeda. "Too bad," Lockman replied, "but the kid's a year away."

"A year away?" said a disheartened Rigney. "My god, a year away from what?"

"From the Hall of Fame," said Whitey. Lockman could have had no idea how sadly ironic that remark would eventually prove to be.

San Franciscans in 1958 were no strangers to the national pastime. This was a community where once three Pacific Coast League teams—the San Francisco Seals, the Mission Reds and the Oakland Oaks—had played, a place that had already sent scores of homegrown sons to the majors, including eventual Hall of Famers Harry Hooper, George (Highpockets) Kelly, Harry Heilmann, Joe Cronin, Chick Haley, Tony Lazzeri, Ernie Lombardi, Lefty Gomez and the Yankee Clipper himself, Joe DiMaggio. The expression "sandlot baseball" was even coined in this city where generations of youngsters grew up playing on sandy lots swept by winds off the Bay and the sea.

The Giants played their first two West Coast seasons in 23,000-seat Seals Stadium, a gleaming white jewel of a park first opened in 1931, before moving on to Candlestick Park. Bay Area fans had been expecting big league baseball since the end of World War II, and when it finally did arrive, an otherwise sophisticated town went collectively off its rocker. And by playing his rookies, Rigney gave fans the pleasure of creating their own heroes rather than accepting inherited stars. If Mays in the beginning suffered from this parochialism, newcomers like Cepeda luxuriated in the radiant glare of instant celebrity.

"Right from the beginning, I fell in love with the city," Cepeda says. "There was everything that I liked. We played more day games then, so I usually had at least two nights a week free. On Thursdays, I would always go to the Copacabana to hear the Latin music. On Sundays, after games, I'd go to the Jazz Workshop for the jam sessions. At the Blackhawk, I'd hear Miles Davis, John Coltrane....

"I roomed then with Felipe Alou and Ruben Gomez, but I was the only one who liked to go out at night. Felipe was very religious and quiet, and Ruben just liked to play golf, so he wasn't a night person. But I was single, and I just loved that town. I'd stay three or four weeks after the season ended, just to enjoy it. I can't believe bow lucky I was to be in San Francisco in those days. San Francisco seemed to me then like a small New York. It had the same music, the same entertainment. It was just easier to get around. Oh, everything there was a perfect fit for me."

And as a young star of the Giants, even thing was at his fingertips. In the eyes of the adoring populace, the Giants could do no wrong. Win or lose, they were front-page news—not merely sports-page news—in the five leading Bay Area papers, their every triumph trumpeted as if it were V-J Day or Dewey at Manila. Everybody went to the ballpark, including the doyennes of hidebound San Francisco society, who fluttered into their box seats beneath preposterous sunbonnets. The great DiMaggio was a frequent visitor to Seals Stadium. So too, of course, was Mayor George Christopher, who had campaigned successfully to lure the team west. Police Chief Frank Ahern, an ardent fan, died of a heart attack watching a Giants-Dodgers game in September '58. Every day, busloads of fans from the hinterland were dropped at the ballpark gates at 16th and Bryant streets. The city's teeming bars and restaurants were alive with Giants chatter.

San Francisco was a much more cohesive city in the '50s, a far different place from the fractious metropolis it has since become. Its citizens shared common passions, common heroes—the brilliant disc jockey Don Sherwood; columnist Herb Caen; symphony conductor "Papa" Pierre Monteux; opera director Kurt Herbert Adler; sculptor Benny Bufano; bordello proprietress Sally Stanford; bartender Gene Baskett; football stars Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny and Joe Perry.

It was a big noisy village, and the Giants, fronted by their gregarious man-about-town, vice-president Chub Feeney, fit right in. Even the traditional Giants-Dodgers enmity had traveled well, assuming an altered identity as an extension of the existing rivalry between the two mutually antagonistic California cities.

In an obvious but happy trick of scheduling, the new Los Angeles Dodgers and the new San Francisco Giants opened the 1958 season together on April 15 before a packed house of 23,448 at Seals Stadium. The Giants routed Dodger starter Don Drysdale and won 8-0 behind the shutout pitching-of Ruben Gomez. In his second at bat in his first major league game, Cepeda clouted a homer over the rightfield fence. It was the beginning of a long love affair between a man and a city. The Baby Bull was an anointed hero. It seemed as if the cheering would never stop.

Cepeda and Willie McCovey had broken in at the same time with the Giants organization in 1955, and though Cepeda, new to the states from Puerto Rico, spoke no English, and McCovey, a painfully shy youngster from Alabama, spoke hardly at all, the two developed a friendship built in no small part on mutual respect. The hitch was this: They both played first base.

Cepeda got to the big leagues first, however; the Giants finished third in '58, and Cepeda was unanimously voted Rookie of the Year after hitting .312 with 25 homers and 96 RBIs. By the time McCovey joined the team, on July 30, 1959, the Baby Bull looked to be the first baseman for the next 15 years. But McCovey, fresh from a huge half season in the Pacific Coast League, started at first base in his Giants debut. Cepeda was moved to third.

McCovey's debut was a remarkable one. Off future hall of Famer Robin Roberts, he had two triples and two singles in four times at bat in a 7-2 Giants win. He was to hit .354 for the season and succeed Cepeda as Rookie of the Year. The young Giants finished a strong third, just four games behind the first-place Dodgers. And Rigney, with Mays, McCovey and Cepeda at the heart of his batting order, began having visions of a pennant in 1960. The trouble was, two of those sluggers played the same position, and one of them, Cepeda, didn't want to play anywhere else.

Third base, where his range was limited and his throwing erratic, didn't work for him at all. The experiment there lasted only four games in '59, and Cepeda was then moved to leftfield. While his bat didn't suffer—he would hit .317 with 27 homers and 105 RBIs that season—his Latin pride had been wounded. And despite his impressive numbers and his immense popularity, he would, somewhat to his own amazement, become a figure of controversy.

"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."

It was 20 years later that Cepeda, newly retired from baseball, returned to Puerto Rico with big plans. He was going to build a health spa, start some youth baseball camps and do clinics throughout the Caribbean. He was married for the second time and the father of three sons.

While Cepeda was giving a baseball clinic in Colombia, a taxi driver suggested that he could provide Cepeda with "some really good stuff." Cepeda had smoked marijuana on occasion—strictly, he insists, to be sociable. "I have never been addicted to anything in my life, smoke or drink," he says. "But back then, I was having trouble coping without baseball. I guess I had too much time on my hands." He says he asked the cabbie for just enough of the good stuff for himself and a little more for some of his friends back home. He thought no more about it.

On Dec. 12, 1975, Cepeda appeared at the San Juan airport to retrieve two boxes from Colombia that were addressed to him. He says he never actually saw the marijuana package, "but they say it weighed anywhere from 60 to 125 pounds." He was arrested for importing an illegal substance. "The next four years were a nightmare," he says. "I have only myself to blame. Whatever happened to me was my fault, but I lost everything—car, home. My wife, Nydia, had to go on welfare." After a 1976 trial in federal court, he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. On the island where his father had been a god, he became a pariah. He had disgraced the family name.

Cepeda was released after serving 10 months; he was humiliated, despondent and broke. Eventually he came to the melancholy conclusion that on this island "there was nothing for me. Puerto Rico is a small place. They had not forgotten, and they had not forgiven." In 1984, he moved to Los Angeles and opened a baseball school, but it soon failed. An autobiography, High & Inside, didn't sell. Nydia—"a good woman who suffered right along with me"—divorced him. He was separated from his four sons. He had friends on the Dodgers, but the team was not happy about their associating with him. He stopped going to games at Dodger Stadium, exiled from the game he loved.

"In L.A., nothing worked," he says. "I was clean and trying to do better in life. I had made one mistake, and I suffered for that. I had hurt myself, my family, my friends. I was going through a kind of hell. I was depressed, angry. I was blaming everybody for what was going on. I looked terrible. All the garbage I'd accumulated in life was heaped around me. And then...everything changed."

Cepeda, in jogging clothes, sits before his Buddhist Gohonzon scroll. From a hook, he reads aloud: "As one grows older, he tends to lose his lively spirit and his hope for the future. Also, one tends to complain more. If this happens, most people will see their life and faith lose vigor. You should not let the strength or splendor of your faith waver, no matter how old you become."

One night in L.A. in 1984, Cepeda was talking with Rudy Regalado, a Venezuelan-born drummer who was shocked by his friend's downcast state. He suggested that Orlando join him at one of the meetings of his Buddhist sect, the Nichiren Shoshu. Cepeda, a nonpracticing Catholic, became an instant convert. He found new friends and a philosophy that seemed most miraculously to smooth the rough spots in his life, to curb a burgeoning persecution complex. He began chanting regularly and practicing the tenets of the Nichiren Shoshu religion. In Buddhism, he learned, "you don't blame anybody. Any problems in your life, you alone have created. You learn that even thing that happens in life is you. Only you can make the changes. Buddhism cleared the air for me. I discovered that winter always turns to spring."

Spring came soon for Cepeda when he met his future wife, Mirian, a Puerto Rican from New York. "I was chanting for a good woman," he says, "and she shows up at my doorstep." In 1986 he met a publisher named Laurence Hyman, who was interviewing former Giants players for a story. "I was perplexed that no one seemed to know where Orlando was," says Hyman. "I found him in L.A. and was instantly struck by what a dynamic, charismatic and knowledgeable person he was and how unchallenged he seemed to be. I told him I just couldn't believe he was wasting away in Southern California, that he wasn't living in the north where people remember him fondly. Come back, I told him, and something good will happen."

That July, Hyman persuaded Cepeda to join him for a game at Candlestick Park, a place he had not visited since the Giants traded him—banished him, in his view—20 years earlier. "He was very nervous," says Hyman, "but no sooner had he walked through the gate than people began rushing up to him to say hello and tell him how important he had been in their lives. He was in a state of emotional shock. I knew then he'd come home again."

Hyman calls the wildly diverse crowd that hangs out with Cepeda "Orlando People. "And they are at Candlestick Park this chilly evening, impressively eclectic, sharing Mezzanine Box 68 with Orlando and Mirian. Cepeda, crowned by a suede cowboy hat, circulates among his guests looking for all the world like the happiest man in the ballpark, which he probably is.

Among the Orlando People in attendance tonight is Armando Peraza, a Cuban in his 70's who is one of the finest of all jazz conga drummers. Sitting next to him is Mike Galo, a Nicaraguan-born former bantamweight boxer who quit the ring undefeated in 1962 and has been selling men's clothes at some of San Francisco's more fashionable haberdasheries ever since. He is here with his wife, Lorena, and her sister, Gloria Eckstein, who is the proprietress of Beale Street, a downtown nightclub. Says Galo. "I met Orlando at the Copacabana back in '58. He was soooo big in the Latin community here then. They loved him. I still love him."

Also in the box is Wayne Menicucci, president of the 300-member Orlando Cepeda Fan Club. The back of his jacket is emblazoned with a list of his hero's accomplishments: 1958 Rookie of the Year, 1966 Comeback Player of the Year, 1967 National league Most Valuable Player, 1973 DH of the Year. Menicucci teaches physical education at Rohnert Park Junior High School, about 45 miles north of San Francisco. "I grew up in the Mays-Cepeda-McCovey era, "he says. "I'm 46 now, but I'm still in awe of Orlando. He's done two assemblies at our school, and let me tell you, I've been there 24 years and I've never heard such ovations for a speaker. The man is amazing."

In 1987 Cepeda appeared in a Giants "fantasy camp" and met Giants vice-president Pat Gallagher. "Of all the ex-players we had there," says Gallagher, "Orlando was the approachable idol. I couldn't believe it; I kept waiting for the flaws to show in that great personality. But there were no flaws. He is such a genuine person, such an emotional person, that you feel like' hugging him. You get this sense that people just want to love him. I asked him if he'd he interested in coming hack to work for the Giants."

Cepeda was hired in January 1989 as a "special assistant for player development," but the job has evolved into more of a goodwill ambassadorship, with Cepeda representing the Giants at banquets, at hospitals, at youth camps. At the end of his first season on the job, Cepeda anxiously asked Gallagher, "I low am I doing?"

"How're you doing?" Gallagher replied. "I'll tell you how. You're going to throw out the first ball in the first playoff game at Candlestick." And with 62,065 fans watching, Cepeda stood on the mound before Game 3 of the 1989 Championship Series between the Giants and Cubs "with tears streaming down my cheeks. I was crying because I knew I was where I belonged. Oh, it was so beautiful to he wanted again. It makes you feel you've accomplished something after all."

In 1990, Cepeda was elected to the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, joining Mays, McCovey, Marichal and Joe DiMaggio there. There is one more Hall to go.

Orlando Cepeda and Armando Peraza are on conga drums and Ray Cepeda—"We are not related, but we could be"—is at the mike with his electric guitar. They are jamming outdoors at San Francisco's Aquatic Park. The bay glistens behind them, and the Golden Gate Bridge soars above an approaching jog. Orlando, at 240 pounds, dwarfs his fellow musicians. He laughs and shakes with the rhythm, his great hands pounding the tubular-shaped drum. A curious crowd has gathered, and soon they begin dancing to the Latin beat; they are blithely unaware that the big man on drums was once a famous ballplayer. As the music swells, Rodney Byrd, a street saxophonist who has been working a nearby corner, decides to join in.

Byrd recognizes Orlando. "Hey, man, Orlando Cepeda! How about that?"

Orlando, his hands a blur, nods and smiles.

"Hey, Orlando, I used to live next door to Bobby Bonds down in Riverside."

"We played together, "says Orlando.

"Right," says Byrd, lifting his horn. "And now you and I are playing together."

"Man," says Orlando, beaming, "now I'm playing with everybody."

PHOTOJOHN ZIMMERMANIn June 1959 the radiant Cepeda was the Giants' I most popular player, both on the field and on the town.PHOTOCOURTESY OF ORLANDO CEPEDAThe talented young Cepeda carried on a family tradition in Puerto Rico.PHOTOCOURTESY OF ORLANDO CEPEDAMcCovey (left) and Cepeda shared a bat with Ernie banks in '59—and first base.PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTSIn '64 the Baby Bull pounded 31 home runs; hut less than two years later he was shipped out of town.PHOTOHERB SCHARFMANCepeda (30) celebrated a Game 3 win over Boston in '67 with (from left) Tim McCarver, Nellie Briles and Julian Javier.PHOTONEIL LEIFERThe world champion Cardinals and manager Red Schoendienst were boosted by an MVP season in '67 from Cepeda (in pink).TWO PHOTOSCRAIG MOLENHOUSECha-Cha gets a grin from his old mate Mays and finds the beat with his new sidekicks Peraza (in cap) and Ray Cepeda.PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEA despondent Cepeda found comfort in the teachings of Buddhism and now chants at the shrine in his California home.FIVE PHOTOS