Orlando Cepeda

How Orlando Cepeda finally was elected to the Hall of Fame

Almost 25 years after his playing career ended, Orlando Cepeda wept with joy when he learned that on March 2, 1999, that he finally had been elected the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee.

“It’s hard to explain the feeling … I’ve been ready for this for 17 years,” Cepeda said. “When they told me I was selected, I lost my mind.”[1]

The phone call informing Cepeda of his election came from his former Giants teammate, Juan Marichal, a newcomer to the Veterans Committee.

“Juan was crying with me,” Cepeda said.[2]




“As a rookie on the Veterans Committee, I’m glad Orlando got in in my first year,” Marichal said. “He was a good human being and he was the type of player who had no fear, the type of player you wanted playing behind you.”[3]

Cepeda’s 17-year major-league career began with the Giants, where he won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1958. Three years later, he finished second in the MVP voting as he led the NL with 46 homers and all of baseball with 142 RBIs. In 1962, Cepeda and the Giants won the NL championship but fell to the Yankees in seven games.

The following spring, Cepeda suffered a preseason knee injury. Though he played through the pain with a .316 batting average, 34 homers, and 97 RBIs, Cepeda’s knee injury ultimately led to his trade to St. Louis. With Willie McCovey also on the roster, the Giants had two future Hall of Fame first basemen, and Cepeda’s knee made it impossible for Cepeda to serve as a long-term solution at another position, like the outfield.

On May 8, 1966, the Giants agreed to send Cepeda to St. Louis in exchange for lefthanded pitcher Ray Sadecki. Cepeda hit .303 with 17 homers and 58 RBIs for the Cardinals that season, but made his biggest impact in 1967, when he hit 25 homers and led the National League with 111 RBIs on his way to unanimous MVP honors.




“Orlando loved being a Cardinal,” Bob Gibson wrote in 2015. “For one thing, he was allowed to play his countless Latin records and speak Spanish—although Julian Javier was the only one who could speak it back—in the clubhouse. Those things had been forbidden in San Francisco’s. Nor was our clubhouse divided into ethnic cliques like San Francisco’s.”[4]

During the Cardinals’ 1967 world championship campaign, Cepeda was the heart and soul of the team he affectionately referred to as “El Birdos.” As George Vecsey described it:

He was more than the trusted cleanup hitter. Orlando was the life of the party.

The Cardinals would club somebody into submission and troop back into their clubhouse. First thing you knew, Orlando’s soul music was blasting from the phonograph and Cepeda was standing on a chair.




Who wins the game?” he would shout.

“El Birdos,” the Cardinals would respond in their pidgin Spanish.

“What’s the magic word?” Cepeda would ask.

“Nuts to Herman Franks,” the Cardinals would respond. Then they would be free to take their shower or open their beer. Orlando was satisfied.[5]




In 1968, dubbed “the year of the pitcher” due to the dominance of hurlers such as Bob Gibson, Cepeda’s numbers dipped. He hit just .248 with 16 homers and 73 RBIs, and on March 17, 1969, the Cardinals traded Cepeda to the Braves for Joe Torre.

“In 2 ½ years (in St. Louis), I accomplished so much,” Cepeda said. “I came to identify with the Cardinals.”[6]

Cepeda went on to play six more seasons with the Braves, Athletics, Red Sox, and Royals. After the 1974 season, Cepeda retired with a .297 career batting average, 2,351 hits, 379 home runs, and 1,365 RBIs. Altogether, he had been named an all-star 11 times.

Based on his on-field performance, Cepeda likely would have been voted into the Hall of Fame much more quickly, but in 1975, he was arrested while trying to pick up 160 pounds of marijuana in his native Puerto Rico. He spent 10 months in jail.[7]




“I think that probably did prevent him from being voted in by the writers,” said Allen Lewis, a retired sportswriter and member of the 1999 Veterans Committee. “Sure, he made a mistake and served time, but since he got out, he’s spent most of his time helping people.”[8]

The incident not only damaged Cepeda’s reputation in the United States but turned many of his Puerto Rican fans against him as well.

“I think one of the reasons people got so down on him was that in the 1970s, when all that happened, there were only two main guys in Puerto Rico, Roberto Clemente and my dad,” said Orlando Cepeda Jr. “I was just a little kid, but my uncle told me that every day he played, the radio stations down there would report how he did, so his problems really affected people.”[9]

It certainly seemed to affect Hall of Fame voters. The closest Cepeda came to being elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America came in 1994, when he missed election by seven votes. It was his final year on the BBWAA ballot.




“Orlando is a good human being,” Marichal said. “I felt so bad when he missed by seven votes … because I know what this means to him.”[10]

Finally, in 1999, it took a Veterans Committee that included former Cardinals stars Stan Musial and Bill White to place Cepeda among baseball’s immortals. He was elected alongside pitcher “Smokey” Joe Williams, 19th-century manager Frank Selee, and former American League umpire Nestor Chylak. The Veterans Committee selections were inducted that July alongside Nolan Ryan, George Brett, and Robin Yount, who were elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America.

“I didn’t know this would be so great,” Cepeda said. “I’m no saint, but people will get to know me as a person now. That’s very important to me.”[11]

Indeed, the people who already knew Cepeda were happy to see him elected to the Hall.




“He’s been a long time waiting. It should have happened a long time ago,” Gibson said. “I don’t know the rhyme or reason for any of this stuff. Sometimes I wonder why I got put in the way I was, but better late than never. I tried to call him today but I couldn’t get him. He probably was running up and down the street with no clothes on yelling and screaming like that kid in ‘Home Alone.’”[12]

“Everything he accomplished, he did so by driving through those injuries,” Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck said. “He had to work harder than anyone else on the field because of the condition of his knees. In addition to being a leader on that ’67 club, he was one of the most fearless hitters at the plate I’ve seen since I’ve been broadcasting.”[13]

In San Francisco, the Giants marked the occasion by announcing the retirement of Cepeda’s No. 30 jersey. Cepeda’s plaque in the hall depicted him wearing a Giants cap.

“I’ve had a lot of good things and bad things happen in my life, but this is the moment that erases everything,” Cepeda said. “It’s a great day for baseball, the Cepeda family, and Puerto Rico.”[14]

Cepeda joined Clemente as just the second Puerto Rican elected to the Hall of Fame.





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[1] Associated Press, “Cepeda at last voted to Baseball Hall of Fame,” Belleville News-Democrat, March 3, 1999.

[2] Dwight Chapin, “Giant push gets Cha-Cha in Hall,” San Francisco Examiner, March 3, 1999.

[3] Dwight Chapin, “Giant push gets Cha-Cha in Hall,” San Francisco Examiner, March 3, 1999.

[4] Bob Gibson with Lonnie Wheeler (2015), Pitch by Pitch: My View of One Unforgettable Game, Kindle Android Version, Retrieved from Amazon.com, Page 53.

[5] George Vecsey, “Now Cepeda Has His Vindication,” Newsday, November 8, 1967.

[6] Mike Eisenbath, “Cepeda savors Hall of Fame selection,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 3, 1999.

[7] Associated Press, “Cepeda at last voted to Baseball Hall of Fame,” Belleville News-Democrat, March 3, 1999.

[8] Associated Press, “Cepeda at last voted to Baseball Hall of Fame,” Belleville News-Democrat, March 3, 1999.

[9] Dwight Chapin, “Cepeda took bumpy road to Hall,” San Francisco Examiner, July 23, 1999.

[10] Associated Press, “Cepeda at last voted to Baseball Hall of Fame,” Belleville News-Democrat, March 3, 1999.

[11] “Cepeda continues to turn life around,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 23, 1999.

[12] Rick Hummel, “Cepeda deserved honor long ago, Bob Gibson says,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 3, 1999.

[13] “Cepeda continues to turn life around,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 23, 1999.

[14] Mike Eisenbath, “Cepeda savors Hall of Fame selection,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 3, 1999.

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