Orlando Cepeda, Hall of Famer and baseball's 'Baby Bull', dies at 86

Orlando Cepeda, one of baseball's most dangerous hitters in the 1950s and 1960s who played in three World Series but whose ascent to the Hall of Fame was slowed by a drug conviction after his playing career ended, died Friday. He was 86.

The San Francisco Giants and Cepeda's family announced the death through a statement posted on the Giants' website, but provided no further details. A moment of silence was held on the scoreboard at Oracle Park during the halftime of the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Associated Press reports.

With his powerful bat and exuberant playing style, Mr. Cepeda became an instant star as a 20-year-old newcomer with the Giants in 1958, the franchise's first year on the West Coast.

He hit a home run in his first game and won Rookie of the Year honors in the National League. He became a favorite among San Francisco fans, even ahead of star outfielder Willie Mays.

Mr. Cepeda was nicknamed Baby Bull after his father, Pedro, a Puerto Rican baseball star known as “El Toro.” His teammates nicknamed him “Cha Cha” because of his love of lively Latin music and his gregarious demeanor.

“You've got to remember that when the franchise moved from New York, Orlando was the most popular player,” team owner and managing partner Peter Magowan told The New York Times in 1993. “Orlando played great. He was an all-around player. He got our fans interested in the team.”

In the early 1960s, the Giants had one of the most formidable lineups in the N.L., including Mays, Mr. Cepeda and a third Hall of Fame slugger, Willie McCovey. During each of his first seven seasons, Mr. Cepeda, who batted right-handed, hit at least 24 home runs and drove in at least 96 runs. He finished his swing by waving his bat above his head.

His most productive season was in 1961, when he led the N.L. with 46 home runs and 142 RBIs, finishing ahead of Mays and other stars including Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks.

In 1962, Mr. Cepeda was the centerpiece of a Giants team that finished the regular season with 101 wins and 61 losses – the same record as their arch-rival Los Angeles Dodgers. In the deciding game of a three-game playoff, Mr. Cepeda hit a sacrifice fly to tie the score 4-4 in the ninth inning. The Giants won 6-4 and clinched the NL pennant, but lost the World Series to the New York Yankees.

When McCovey lined out in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7, Mr. Cepeda was on deck as the Yankees battled to win the series in a deciding contest.

During their years in San Francisco, Mr. Cepeda and McCovey alternated between playing left field and first base, which annoyed Mr. Cepeda, who believed he should have been the full-time first baseman. He also played through pain after injuring his right knee in a collision at home plate against the Dodgers in 1961.

Mr. Cepeda said his manager, Alvin Dark, never realized the severity of his injury and hinted that Mr. Cepeda was not playing hard enough. Dark also ordered the Giants' Latin American players to stop speaking Spanish and listening to music in the clubhouse. Mays, the team's superstar, had to intervene to prevent a revolt against the manager.

“He treated me like a child,” Mr. Cepeda said of Dark in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 1967. “I'm a human being, whether I'm blue or black or white or green. We Latinos are different, but we're still human beings. Dark didn't respect our differences.”

Mr. Cepeda appeared in only 33 games before undergoing surgery on his damaged knee in 1965. He was moved to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1966, where he was placed at first base and became the NL's comeback player of the year. He emerged as the vocal leader of a team that included future Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Steve Carlton.

In 1967, Mr. Cepeda won the Most Valuable Player Award with a career-high .325 batting average, 25 home runs and a league-high 111 RBI. He helped lead the Cardinals — “El Birdos,” as he called them — to the World Series, in which they beat the Boston Red Sox in seven games.

“It's not just his stats,” teammate Mike Shannon said at the time. “It's also what happens in the clubhouse. It's intangible. I can't really explain it. Orlando is an iconic player, and we have that — other clubs don't.”

Although Mr. Cepeda's batting average declined in 1968, the Cardinals returned to the World Series but lost to the Detroit Tigers in seven games. He was then traded to the Atlanta Braves, for whom he slammed 34 home runs in 1970. He later played for the Oakland Athletics, Boston Red Sox and Kansas City Royals.

He retired in 1974 with 379 home runs and a lifetime average of .297, including nine seasons at .300 or better. His accomplishments normally would have earned him an induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but in 1975 Mr. Cepeda was arrested at San Juan International Airport while attempting to recover two boxes that allegedly contained 170 pounds of marijuana.

He was convicted of possessing marijuana with intent to sell and sentenced to federal prison. He was released in 1979 after serving 10 months.

His reputation was tarnished in Puerto Rico, where he was hailed as the island's greatest baseball hero following the death of Pittsburgh Pirates star Roberto Clemente in a plane crash on December 31, 1972.

“I made a huge mistake,” Mr. Cepeda told the San Jose Mercury News in 1999. “When Roberto Clemente died, the saying in Puerto Rico was at least we have Orlando Cepeda alive. So when I let everybody down, they got very upset. We're very emotional people. We're hard on people who mess up.”

Orlando Manuel Cepeda Penes was born on September 17, 1937, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and grew up in San Juan. His father, Pedro “Perucho” Cepeda, was known as the “Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico” and played on Caribbean All-Star teams alongside baseball's Negro League stars such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell.

The younger Mr. Cepeda excelled at baseball and basketball during his youth and signed with the New York Giants in 1955. His father died just before he was to play his first professional game for a minor league team in Salem, Virginia. Mr. Cepeda spent his $500 signing bonus on his father's funeral and had to be persuaded to return to Virginia to continue his baseball career.

“I was only 17 years old and it was very hard for me,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1991. “I lived in the black part of town and on Sunday mornings I would hear people singing gospel music in the church across the street. I would sit by the window in my living room and listen and cry with sadness and loneliness.”

Nevertheless, he quickly advanced through the minor leagues and reached the major leagues in just three years.

After a drug conviction in the 1970s, Mr. Cepeda struggled for years to rebuild his life. He became a Buddhist and attended a game in San Francisco in 1989. He proved so popular with fans that the Giants appointed him as a goodwill ambassador, a position he held until his death.

His marriages to Ana Hilda Pino and Nidia Fernández ended in divorce. His third wife, the former Mirian Ortiz, died in 2017 after 26 years of marriage. Survivors include five children born from his marriage and other relationships.

For years, Mr. Cepeda was denied induction into the Hall of Fame, citing his drug offenses. (He was also fined $100 in 2008 for possessing a small amount of marijuana.)

In 1994, his 15th and final year on the Hall of Fame ballot, Mr. Cepeda needed 342 votes to reach the 75 percent threshold for election. He fell short by seven votes.

He finally gained induction from the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee in 1999. He was the second Puerto Rican to be elected, after Clemente. The Giants retired his No. 30 jersey and dedicated a statue of Mr. Cepeda at the entrance of the team's stadium in 2008.

He was also liberated in San Juan, where a parade was held in his honor.

“The greatest victories come when you control your mind and your destiny,” Mr. Cepeda told Sports Illustrated in 1999. “My life has been a drama of inner transformation.”

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