Orlando Cepeda, Hall of Famer known as the 'Baby Bull,' dies at 86

Orlando Cepeda, the charismatic “Baby Bull” who helped lead a new wave of Latin American stars into the major leagues, died Friday. He was 86.

Cepeda played 17 seasons in his Hall of Fame career, nine of them with the San Francisco Giants.

The love affair between Cepeda and the Giants was born right from the start. In the team’s first game on the West Coast after relocating from New York, on April 15, 1958, the powerful right-handed rookie from Puerto Rico belted a home run against the Dodgers to help power an 8-0 victory.

“The feeling was amazing,” Cepeda recalled long into retirement. “I remember when I rounded second base, Pee Wee Reese — who was my childhood idol — told me, ‘Orlando, nice going. Congratulations.’ And that blew my mind.

“That was the day my dream came true.”

Cepeda was on his way to earning Rookie of the Year honors that season, as well as a permanent spot in the hearts of Giants fans. He remained a popular figure in San Francisco well into his 80s, spending his last 33 years as a community ambassador for the team.

The Giants announced Cepeda’s death during Friday night’s game at Oracle Park. Fittingly, it was against the Dodgers, in a stadium where Cepeda’s statue now welcomes visitors outside the entrance gates.

“Our beloved Orlando passed away peacefully at home this evening, listening to his favorite music and surrounded by his loved ones,” his wife Nydia, said in a statement released by the Giants. “We take comfort that he is at peace.”

“That choked me up,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of seeing the announcement. “He was a gentleman. I don’t think there’s anyone in baseball that can say a bad word about Orlando. To lose two baseball greats, two great Giants, you can sense when that was announced, there was a somberness in the stadium tonight.”

No cause of death was given. Cepeda’s passing follows the death of his teammate and friend Willie Mays, who died June 18 at age 93.

“We lost a true gentleman and legend. Orlando was a great ambassador for the game throughout his playing career and beyond,” Giants chairman Greg Johnson said in the team’s statement. “He was one of the all-time great Giants and he will truly be missed.”

In 1,114 career games as a Giant, Cepeda hit .308 with 226 homers and posted an .887 OPS.

The outfielder and first baseman played for San Francisco until his ill-fated deal to the St. Louis Cardinals midway through the 1966 season. The Giants traded him for pitcher Ray Sadecki on May 8, 1966. It was a lopsided swap often cited as one of the worst trades in MLB history and an occasion Mays later recalled as “one of my saddest days in baseball. I felt he should have stayed with the Giants.”

Cepeda spent three seasons with the Cardinals and won the 1967 NL MVP Award while helping lead the Cardinals to the World Series title. By the time of his retirement in 1974, he had a .297 average with 379 home runs and 11 All-Star selections. He also played with the Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Royals, Boston Red Sox and Oakland A’s. Cepeda is one of only two players in NL history to win both Rookie of the Year and MVP unanimously, along with Albert Pujols, who won Rookie of the Year in 2001 and MVP in 2009.

But he is best remembered for his days with the Giants when he teamed with the likes of Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry to form one of the most star-studded powerhouses of the early 1960s.

Cepeda still owns the San Francisco-era record for most RBIs in a season, with his 142 in 1961. He also still ranks among the San Francisco career leaders in RBIs (fourth), home runs (fifth), hits (sixth) and runs (ninth).

“He’s built like an oak tree,” former Giants teammate Harvey Kuenn said. “When you see him grip the bat, you have the feeling he’s going to squeeze sawdust out of the handle.”

Born Sept. 17, 1937, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Cepeda came from a family that didn’t have much money, but they did have baseball. Cepeda’s father, Perucho “Bull” Cepeda, was the Babe Ruth of Puerto Rican baseball and famed for his long-ball prowess. He played with (and befriended) many of the Negro Leagues greats when they played in Latin America.

The first pro game Cepeda ever saw was in 1945, when his father played with Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. In fact, Paige used to visit the Cepeda house, as did Larry Doby and Roy Campanella.

But as great as Perucho was, he had no interest in leaving Puerto Rico to play in the Negro Leagues.

“He was afraid of the race thing,” Cepeda said in 2015. “He had such a bad temper. He said if somebody used a racial slur, he wouldn’t know what to do. So he didn’t want to come to the States.”

Instead, his son — the Baby Bull — made the leap. Orlando signed with the Giants in 1955. Three years later, he’d become just the second black Puerto Rican to play in the majors, after Roberto Clemente.

After his unanimous selection as Rookie of the Year in ’58, Cepeda kept rolling in 1959 (27 homers, 105 RBIs) and 1960 (24 homers, 96 RBIs). He blew the doors off in 1961 by leading the NL with 46 home runs.

Never a fan of Candlestick Park, Cepeda told author Steve Bitker, “I believe it would have been 65 or 70 home runs in any other ballpark. But I learned not to complain about it. Mays never complained. Willie McCovey never complained. I knew it was hard to play there, but I just had to go ahead and do it.”

Cepeda was a hit off the field, too. San Francisco’s lively nightlife suited his taste. Cepeda, who became known as “Cha-Cha,” once walked into a North Beach jazz joint to find Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly and John Coltrane playing. When the trio saw the Giants’ first baseman, they began improvising a musical tribute. Thus was born the Latin jazz classic “Viva Cepeda!”

Cepeda continued to play at an All-Star Level in 1962, helping the Giants win the pennant with 35 homers and 114 RBIs.

Cepeda was on deck when McCovey famously lined out to New York Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson for the final out of the ’62 World Series. As McCovey strode to the plate, Cepeda was planning on being a hero.

“Felipe Alou was standing right behind me, and I told Felipe, ‘They’re going to walk him.’ I thought they were going to pitch to me, and I was ready,” he said. “How many times in your career are you going to have a chance to go to the plate with three men on base in Game 7 of the World Series against the New York Yankees?

“So I thought, I’d better do something.”

Instead, McCovey hit a searing low-liner for the final out of the Yankees’ 1-0 victory.

More frustration awaited Cepeda after his playing days. Police arrested him in 1975 when he went to the San Juan International Airport to claim a package. Cepeda has said that he accommodated a friend by allowing him to include 170 pounds of marijuana in a box being shipped to Puerto Rico.

Cepeda was convicted of distributing drugs and sentenced to federal prison, and people subsequently turned their backs on him.

“I blew it,” Cepeda told San Jose Mercury News sportswriter Ron Bergman in 1999. “I made a huge mistake. When Roberto Clemente died, they said in Puerto Rico, ‘At least we have Orlando Cepeda alive.’ So when I let everybody down, they got very mad. We are hard on people who mess up.”

Ultimately, Cepeda found peace by becoming a Buddhist, something he addressed extensively in his autobiography, “Baby Bull: From Hardball to Hard Time and Back.”

“Before I practiced Buddhism, I used to blame everybody for what happened to me,” he wrote. “Through my practice, I’ve learned that winning in life is not the absence or avoidance of problems. They will always be there. … I acquired the tools to take on whatever life presents me, each and every hurdle, and become stronger and wiser in the process. … I had learned to take the good with the bad and put the past behind me.”

Cepeda also found a new lease on his baseball life when Peter Magowan bought the Giants in 1993. Magowan made a point of connecting Cepeda back to the franchise.

“When he took over, he told me right from the start: ‘We’re going to do everything possible to get you into the Hall of Fame,’” Cepeda said.

Powered by Magowan, the Giants launched a Heisman-style hype campaign to propel Cepeda into Cooperstown. Early in his eligibility, Cepeda languished as low as 10.1 percent on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot. He peaked in 1994 when he reached 73.5 percent, seven votes shy of election.

The Giants eventually swung the Veterans Committee, and Cepeda was inducted in 1999.

“I lost my mind. I couldn’t believe it,” Cepeda said in 2015. “It’s hard to explain the feeling that you have when they call and let you know you’re a Hall of Famer.”

Jane Forbes Clark, the chairman of the Baseball Hall of Fame, issued a tribute to Cepeda late Friday night.

“Orlando Cepeda’s unabashed love for the game of baseball sparkled during his extraordinary playing career, and later as one of the game’s enduring ambassadors,” she wrote. “We will miss his wonderful smile at Hall of Fame Weekend in Cooperstown, where his spirit will shine forever, and we extend our deepest sympathies to the Cepeda family.”

In 2004, he was one of four men to receive the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association’s Achievement Award, the MLBPAA’s highest alumni honor. He was joined by Jim Bunning, Al Kaline and Roger Maris.

The Giants expressed their heartfelt condolences to his wife, Nydia; his five children, Orlando Jr., Malcolm, Ali, Carl and Hector; his nine grandchildren and his one great-granddaughter as well as his extended family and friends.

“This is truly a sad day for the San Francisco Giants,” said Larry Baer, Giants president and chief executive officer. “For all of Orlando’s extraordinary baseball accomplishments, it was his generosity, kindness and joy that defined him. No one loved the game more.”

The Athletic’s Fabian Ardaya contributed to this report.

(File photo of Cepeda at spring training: Getty Images)

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