When Orlando Cepeda agreed to a one-year contract with the Red Sox on January 18, 1973, he became the first major league player signed expressly to become a designated hitter under the new American League rule. A veteran slugger with 15 major league seasons behind him, Orlando had been hobbled by painful knee injuries for several seasons, and he was ideally suited to perform exclusively as a hitter.
Cepeda was a long-time National Leaguer but he was no stranger to Red Sox fans. In 1967, Cepeda’s offense had led the St. Louis Cardinals to the National Pennant and into the World Series against the Impossible Dream Red Sox team.
Looking back 50 years, Orlando remembers, “When the Red Sox called asking me about being their designated hitter, I didn’t know what they were talking about. I said, ‘What’s a designated hitter?’ There had never been such a thing in baseball. With my knees, I couldn’t run but I knew I could still hit. It was a great thing for me.”
Orlando Cepeda was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1999. For long-time Red Sox fans, he will always be remembered as our first designated hitter.
The Baby Bull
Orlando Cepeda was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on September 17, 1937. His father, Perucho, was an outstanding shortstop in the Puerto Rican Winter League. Perucho was such an accomplished power hitter that he was often referred to as “The Babe Ruth of the Caribbean” and his nickname was The Bull.
Orlando was signed by the Giants at age 17, and he began a quick assent through their minor league system. Each winter he played in the Puerto Rican Winter League, and his emerging power earned him his nickname “The Baby Bull.” By age 19, he had reached the Triple-A level where he hit 25 home runs and drove in 108 runs for the Minneapolis Millers.
San Francisco Giants Icon
Orlando Cepeda arrived at the Giant’s spring training camp in 1958 as a non-roster player and left as their starting first baseman. Adding to the excitement for the 20 year-old was the Giants’ move to San Francisco after 75 seasons in New York.
The Bay Area embraced the Giants immediately and welcomed All-Star Willie Mays enthusiastically. But it was the rookie Orlando Cepeda who stole their hearts from day one. The Baby Bull homered against the Dodgers on Opening Day and Giant fans embraced him as their first home-grown star.
In his first MLB season Orlando was a unanimous choice as the National League Rookie-of-the-Year for 1958. He continued as an offensive force with the Giants for eight full seasons, but in May 1966, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals.
World Champion St. Louis Cardinals
Orlando Cepeda adjusted quickly to his new surroundings in 1966, and the following year it was clear that he had found a new home on and off the field. St. Louis won the National league pennant with ease and Cepeda was the unanimous choice as league MVP.
Going into the 1967 World Series, Red Sox scouts told pitchers that Orlando was the one guy they had to shut down. But Orlando went 0-4 against Jose Santiago in the opener, and Red Sox pitching held him to a .103 average during the hard-fought seven game series.
“I had played with and against Orlando in Puerto Rican Winter League for 12 years,” Jose Santiago recalled. “We were such friends we had him to our house for dinner before Game One. I told him ‘Orlando you are not going to get a hit off me tomorrow! He laughed and told me he would, but he went 0 for 4 because I knew how to pitch to him,'” Orlando laughed.
“I had played in the 1961 All-Star game at Fenway so I knew the wall. It was so close it was very tempting. In the 1967 World Series I was opening up too quick. When I said, ‘Orlando, just be yourself, use all fields,’ I was fine.”
Cepeda had a down year in 1968, and the Cardinals traded him to the Atlanta Braves before the 1969 season. Orlando bounce back with the Braves but by 1971, ongoing problems with his right knee caught up with him. When he injured his left knee in 1972, it appeared that his career was over.
The First Red Sox DH
The advent of the designated hitter rule in the American League in 1973, gave Orlando Cepeda a new lease on life. The Red Sox took a chance that a right-handed power hitter would be the ideal DH for a team playing half its games in Fenway Park
Cepeda began his career as a DH by going 0-11, but a ninth inning walk-off home run over the Green Monster against the Yankees in the third game of the season got him on track. Manager Eddie Kasko kidded Cepeda, who was challenged on the base paths by his balky knees, “You are lucky that didn’t hit the wall.” Orlando responded, “Maybe I would have had an inside-the-park home run!”
Orlando ended April with a .333 average and five home runs to pace the Red Sox offense. On May 3, 1973, his grand slam home run provided the margin of difference in a 6-2 win over the Rangers. Cepeda, who had grown weary of the media’s suggestions that he was over-the-hill, asked reporters after the game, “Am I still a question mark?”
At the All-Star break Cepeda led the Red Sox with 14 home runs. In early August, Orlando drove in six runs in a 9-4 win over the Kansas City Royals. Remarkably, the slow-running Cepeda had four doubles in the game. Cepeda laughs remembering that game, “Louis Tiant said that I ran four inside-the-park home runs into four doubles!”
At the end of the 1973 season Orlando Cepeda ranked among the Red Sox offensive leaders in most categories. Despite his balky knees he was tied with Carl Yastrzemski for the team lead in doubles (25). His strong showing earned him Designated Hitter of the Year honors, and he finished 15th in the AL MVP race.
Orlando says, “I’m very proud of winning the first DH award and winning it in that year. There were some great DHs that year like Tommy Davis [Orioles] and Tony Oliva [Twins.] That was a real honor.”
Orlando Cepeda is recalled for his power-hitting in 1973, but it was his role in the clubhouse that leaves a lasting memory. Peter Gammons wrote, “Everywhere that Cha Cha [his nickname since he broke in with the Giants] goes he is surrounded by music. ‘I have more than 7,500 records. To be ready for the game, to concentrate, you have to relax’” Cepeda told Gammons.
And Orlando felt that Boston was a friendly city. “I made some really good friends in Boston. Buddy Le Roux [Red Sox trainer at the time] was a really good friend. This is the last town I’m playing in. When the Red Sox feel they don’t need me and I can’t play any more, I will retire,” Orlando said.
Looking back over the years, Orlando still feels the same way about our city. “I loved my year in Boston. The people were friendly to me wherever I went. I used to love to eat in the seafood restaurants. The owners, chefs, wait-staff all took great care of me.”
Orlando Cepeda Today
In 1987, Orlando Cepeda rejoined his first major league baseball team, the San Francisco Giants. He did some scouting for the team and then shifted to professional development. Over time he became a goodwill ambassador for the Giants and a leading community relations spokesperson.
In 2008, the Giants erected a nine-foot statue in his honor outside of AT&T Park. His statue stands alongside the statues of Giants’ greats Willie Mays, Juan Marichal and Willie McCovey. San Francisco had fully embraced their first home-grown baseball star.
“I have nothing but good memories of 1973,” Orlando emphasizes. “I had a good year and contributed, and I had great teammates like Luis and Yaz, all of them really. I think that one extra strong year put me into the Hall of Fame.”
Portions of this article appear in the First Edition of Red Sox Magazine. To subscribe to Red Sox Magazine and read the full article click http://mlb.mlb.com/bos/fan_forum/magazine.jsp
On this Opening Day, I well remember the 1973 opener at Fenway, a sunny, chilly, windy day. Ron Blomberg came up in the top of the first for the Yanks and drew a walk off Luis Tiant. I think the bases were loaded, giving him an RBI. Yanks scored 3 and I remember saying to my friend, “No problem. This is a hitter’s day.” Sox got 20 hits winning 15-5, but as you mentioned, the collar for Cha Cha (0-for-6). When the Sox got him, I felt a sense of lightness, a lingering good feeling with the team finally getting away from its stodgy, uptight reluctance to present baseball as if it were fun. Of course, as we know, 1967 did a lot (almost everything) to change the atmosphere, but for those of us who wrote about the team, covered them, or hung around Fenway in those days, there was a “clubby chill” to anyone who wasn’t considered part of the “family.” I had my in through Ken Coleman then the PR guys — Bill Crowley, George Sullivan, and Dick Besciani, especially Bresh, but guys like Johnny Orlando would throw icicles. Tommy McCarthy was like that with me at first, but later came to be a sweet guy. Orlando just brought a song with him, inside the clubhouse, in the dugout, and out on the field. I think he, Tiant, and Aparacio were instrumental for a lot of that lift.
Did you know that Orlando Cepeda was almost not anyone’s first DH. He was good friends with Roberto Clemente. In 1972 Roberto asked Orlando to go with him on that relief flight for the earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Orlando had to turn his friend down. Oakland had just given Cepeda is unconditional release. He wanted to remain in Puerto Rico rehabbing his legs from surgery and hoped to sign with a new team.
December 31, 2022 will mark the 50th Anniversary of Roberto Clemente’s death on that fatal flight.