Orlando Cepeda, San Francisco Giants Hall of Famer, Dies at 86

Orlando Cepeda, the San Francisco Giants first baseman nicknamed “The Baby Bull,” died Friday in his home. He was 86.

“MLB mourns the passing of Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda at the age of 86,” Major League Baseball tweeted. “Known as ‘Cha-Cha’ and ‘The Baby Bull,’ Cepeda slugged 379 home runs, batted .297, and made 11 All-Star teams over 17 seasons. He was unanimously selected as the NL Rookie of the Year in 1958 with the Giants. He was also a unanimous selection for the the NL MVP Award in 1967 when he helped lead the Cardinals to the World Series championship.”

Cepeda was the son of Puerto Rican baseball player Perucho Cepeda, who was not allowed to play in the major leagues because he was Black. Cepeda’s own career began after Pedro Zorilla convinced his family to send him to the United States to try out for the then-New York Giants. He passed the team’s tryout but was sent to the Salem Rebels.

He almost left the sport after his father died but was convinced to play for the Kokomo Giants, where he was assigned to third base. Cepeda’s player rights were eventually sold back to the New York Giants and he began to play first base for the team.

The San Francisco Giants brought Cepeda onboard in 1958, and he closed out his first season as the National League Rookie of the Year. After spending a few more seasons with the Giants, Cepeda was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1966. Though he was named the National League Comeback Player of the Year after his first season, his performance suffered throughout the following two seasons and he was traded to the Atlanta Braves in 1969.

Cepeda retired from baseball in 1974. He was arrested at San Juan International Airport for drug possession the following year after he attempted to pick up two boxes containing marijuana that had been flown in from Colombia. Cepeda served 9 months of a 5 year sentence, but was never able to fully shed his criminal conviction.

“Everything changed. They would still let you know what you did. They are never going to forget,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. “Every time my name was involved, they would bring it up. I have to live with that, but I didn’t hurt anybody. Whatever I did, I did to myself. It should be a lesson for myself and my family. Everything was blown out of proportion, but that’s life.”

In 1983, Cepeda converted to Buddhism. “I was introduced to Buddhism after I retired from baseball. Up until that point, the only thing I knew was how to play ball. When I quit playing in 1974, I felt empty. I didn’t know what to do,” he told the World Tribune. “My friend Rudy introduced me to Buddhist practice, and I told him, ‘I don’t need anything.’ I grew up Catholic. He told me to try it and see if it worked.”

Converting was a life changing decision, he added. “Almost instantly I felt my life change. Buddhism gave me everything.”

Cepeda was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.

The baseball great was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 17, 1937. Despite his father’s success in baseball, the family grew up “very poor,” he told Bernardo Ruiz. “My father [legendary player Pedro Cepeda]… was a great baseball player. In those days, a black player didn’t have a chance to play in the big leagues,” Cepeda explained. “So my dad used to go to Cuba, used to go to Dominican Republic, Venezuela… I think he went to Mexico one year.”

Cepeda’s survivors include his wife Nydia and 5 sons, Hector, Orlando Jr., Carl, Malcolm and Ali.

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