Year Inducted: 1999 (Veterans Committee)
Some players are lucky. Most are born in good neighborhoods, with good families and get well paid for playing a kids game and stay relatively healthy over their careers. Then, there are those who have to come from poverty (either in this country or a foreign one), work twice as hard, battle countless injuries, and can somehow not only achieve greatness, but the highest accommodation of all with a Hall of Fame Induction. That is the Orlando Cepeda story.
Cepeda came from a poor part of Puerto Rico and became a nearly instant star with the Giants, when he was the unanimous NL Rookie of the Year in 1958. Cepeda spent the rest of his 17-year career crushing the baseball, slashing .297/.350/.499 with a wRC+ of 131. He would club 379 home runs, 417 doubles and 27 triples while driving in 1365 runs and scoring 1131 times. Obviously an excellent hitter, Cepeda wasn’t a great base runner. Like his fellow Giant first baseman Willie McCovey, Cepeda was a moderately above average runner (but he did steal 142 bases), and also poor defensively. Also like McCovey, both of these abilities were augmented by a knee injury.
Cepeda hurt his knee initially sliding into home plate in 1961. Although he continued to hit well, it took a long time afterwards for him to be an even average fielding first baseman again. The knee injury also complicated his relationship with his then-manager Alvin Dark. Dark and Cepeda had several incidents, both public and private, where the skipper would accuse Cepeda of not hustling or not wanting to play. Cepeda would try to tough out the knee injury, but by 1965 he couldn’t put any weight on it. What made matters worse, McCovey was going full force at the time, so Cepeda had lost his role as the primary first baseman. Eventually, he got traded to the Cardinals, where there was an open spot at first base, and his career was suddenly rejuvenated. He went on the win the MVP in 1967, providing all the offense that Bob Gibson would need to lead the Cardinals to the World Series. Eventually traded to the Braves, Cepeda had another resurgance in his career. Ultimately, his knees both buckled and his career was in danger. After a year as the Red Sox DH, he found himself in KC, where he finished his career.
Cepeda had to overcome a lot of pain and unfortunate stigmas to become a Hall of Famer. Many people may be surprised to see him rank ahead of McCovey, despite the latter’s superior home run totals. However, Cepeda didn’t have nearly a prolonged decline phase as McCovey had, and were similar in value despite McCovey playing in 5 more seasons. Also, while neither would be great fielders, Cepeda was slightly better defensively while they were almost identical on the base paths. Both, however, were great players and equally deserving of enshrinement-even if Cepeda was overlooked by the BBWAA and had to be voted in by the Veterans Committee.
Stay tuned for the next update.
On deck 9/12/16: We bounce back to the outfield and back to Pittsburgh to cover the player who had one of the greatest short careers of all-time.