Monumental Orlando Cepeda: 1991 Puerto Rico and 1999 Cooperstown Hall of Famer

Orlando Cepeda (September 17, 1937, to June 28, 2024) was unique to the author, his second favorite Santurce Crabbers player in Puerto Rico’s Winter League (PRWL), after #22 Rubén «El Divino Loco» Gómez (1927-2004). A 13-year-old Van Hyning first met Orlando in December 1967 at Hato Rey’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium, home of the Crabbers and arch-rival San Juan (SJ) Senators. Fairly recently, Orlando was the 1967 National League (NL) MVP, helping St. Louis win the 1967 NL pennant and Fall Classic. Cepeda’s .325 BA, 25 HR, and 111 RBIs at age 30 followed his 1966-67 PRWL season, where Santurce defeated the Ponce Lions, four games to two, in the finals. Coincidentally, Orlando was born in Ponce, southern PR, where Games One-Two and Six were played. Paul Blair’s three-run HR off John Boozer in the ninth frame of Game Six gave the Crabbers a 6-3 win.

Cepeda is Surprised by Van Hyning’s Statistics at Bithorn Stadium (December 1967)

A documentary was filmed at Bithorn in December 1967. The author discovered that various big leaguers would fly to San Juan, PR, for this activity. He walked from the Hato Rey apartment building where his family lived (Condominio El Bilbao Apt. 804) to Bithorn on a Saturday. Allowed on the field, he met Orlando Cepeda. Van Hyning immediately told Orlando his age (30), height (6-2), and weight (210 pounds), 1967 BA (.325), SLG (.524), RBIs (111), and SB (11). «You run pretty good for a big guy,» said Van Hyning. «I first saw you play for the 1963-64 Crabbers when I was nine—you had a better BA (.368) than Tony Oliva’s league-leading .365 but didn’t qualify due to your 133 AB.» (Oliva had 208 AB for Arecibo that 70-game season.)

Impressed and surprised, Orlando alerted Van Hyning: «I will introduce you to my friend, Jimmy Wynn, who plays for the Houston Astros. Let’s see what you know about Jimmy.» Moments later, Orlando located 25-year-old Wynn. So, Van Hyning told Wynn, unscripted: «You hit 37 HR for [1967] Houston—very impressive for someone who plays half their games in the Astrodome. Your 107 RBIs were just four shy of Orlando’s 111…you are 5-9 and weigh 170—sportswriters call you the «Toy Cannon.» One Astros teammate is Mike Cuéllar, whom I saw pitch a 1964-65 game versus Santurce. You turn 26 on March 12, 1968, and played some games at age 21 for the 1963-64 SJ Senators. It’s very nice meeting you!» Orlando and Wynn laughed, and both warmly shook my hand and wished me well.

PRWL Playing Career

Pedrín Zorrilla signed Orlando to play for 1955-56 Santurce as Bill White’s first-base backup. Herman Franks managed the Crabbers to a 43-29 mark—won the regular season but lost to the Caguas Criollos in the finals. When Bill White was called into Military Service in November 1956, Orlando took over full-time at first. He only played for Santurce, retiring as a DH at 37 after the 1974-75 season. In 13 PRWL seasons, Orlando had a .323 BA, with 89 HR, 340 RBIs, and a .545 SLG. He is the only PR-born player who surpassed a career .300 BA and .500 SLG in PRWL history per https://beisbol101.com/jugador/orlando-cepeda/  He won a 1958-59 batting title (.368 BA), and two HR crowns—1957-58 (13-tied with Caguas’s Vic Power) and 1961-62 (19). Orlando is one of six PRWL players as 2x MVP (1958-59 and 1961-62).

Orlando played on PRWL champions in 1958-59, under Monchile Concepción, 1961-62 (skipper Vern Benson), briefly 1964-65 (manager Preston Gómez), and 1966-67, Earl Weaver. He played in two Caribbean Series (CS), February 1959 and 1960, plus three Inter-American Series (IAS)—reinforcing SJ in Caracas, Venezuela (1961) and Managua, Nicaragua (1964), plus winning it all with Santurce, February 6-14, 1962.

February 6-14, 1962 IAS at Sixto Escobar Stadium

Santurce (8-1) recorded the most wins of any CS or IAS champion. They prevailed over Caracas (5-4), Mayagüez (4-5), and Marlboro (1-8). This four-team IAS was the last pro baseball event at Sixto Escobar Stadium. Bob Gibson won twice for the Crabbers, and Orlando Peña was chosen MVP. Craig Anderson had a win and a save. The All-Star Team was: C-Charlie Lau, Mayagüez; 1B-Jim Frey, Caracas; 2B-César Tovar, Caracas; 3B-Miguel de la Hoz, Santurce; SS-Ted Obregón, Caracas; RF-Orlando Cepeda, Santurce; CF-Tony González, Santurce; LF-Al Pinkston, Marlboro; RHP-Orlando Peña, Santurce; and, LHP-Terín Pizarro, Santurce. Vern Benson was the All-Star Manager.

PR Professional Baseball Hall of Fame Ceremony in Ponce, October 20, 1991                                                                     

The author attended PR’s first pro baseball Hall of Fame Ceremony, at Inter-American University, in Ponce. Ten were inducted, including Orlando, his dad (Perucho Cepeda), Roberto Clemente, Rubén Gómez, Terín Pizarro, and Bob Thurman. Thurman was pleased to see Orlando, his 1955-58 Crabbers teammate. «I treasure our time together,» stated Thurman. «We had some very good [Santurce] teams.» Pizarro had a pleasant time, seated at the same table with Orlando and the jovial Vic Power, another inductee. «Orlando, Rubén, and I were idolized by Santurce fans,» said Terín. «I’m from Barrio Obrero in Santurce, which is full of Crabbers fans.»

Veterans Committee Vote plus Lunch with Orlando and Diana D. Zorrilla

Orlando’s 1999 was remarkable. He received a phone call from ex-SFG teammate Juan Marichal on March 2, notifying him that he made it. The special Veterans Committee included Yogi Berra, Marichal, Stan Musial, and Bill White. Joe L. Brown, ex-Pittsburgh Pirates GM, chaired it, voting in umpire Nestor Chylak, Frank Selee, and Negro Leagues ace pitcher Smokey Joe Williams. The Induction Ceremony took place on July 25, 1999—George Brett, Nolan Ryan, and Robin Yount were honored with Orlando, Chylak, Selee, and Smokey Joe. Later that year, Diana Zorrilla—Pedrín’s widow—invited the author to lunch at her Calle Bouret#506 home in Santurce, with Orlando as a featured guest—a memorable experience for all.

Pedrín Zorrilla’s November 9, 2005 Centennial

The author was part of a special panel at Pedrín’s Centennial, at the PR Bar Association, Miramar section of Santurce, on November 9, 2005. Orlando, Eduardo Figueroa, Monchile Concepción’s son, Ramiro Martínez, Rafael Bracero, Harry Rexach, Ed Figueroa, Jorge Colón Delgado and the author spoke on Pedrín’s (1905-1981) legacy. Orlando gave the author a «thumbs-up» when Van Hyning noted Bill White’s influence on him (Cepeda) with Santurce.

Orlando’s 1959 Spring Training Lunch with Ty Cobb

Ponce native Luis Rodríguez Mayoral recalled that Orlando was invited to lunch by Ty Cobb, in Phoenix, in March 1959. Orlando was effusive in his praise of the «Georgia Peach.» Cobb opined that the «Baby Bull» had a «great future,» having been the 1958 NL Rookie of the Year. Thus, Cobb showed his class and goodwill. (He has been unfairly portrayed in the past, but the author found out that Cobb’s charitable giving funded a health facility in Royston, Georgia, plus financially assisting many ballplayers of his (Cobb’s) era. Cobb died in Atlanta on July 17, 1961, when Orlando had his best season. Table I shows that Orlando is one of nine big-league players who had a single season with a .300 plus BA, 45+ HR, 140+ RBIs, and 10+ SB.

Table I: Nine Players with Major League Seasons of .300 BA-45+ HR-140+RBIs-10+SB

PlayerTeamSeasonAgeBAHRRBIsSB
Babe RuthNYY192126.3785916817
Lou GehrigNYY192724.3734717310
Babe RuthNYY192631.3724715311
Babe RuthNYY193035.3594915310
Lou GehrigNYY193128.3414618517
Alex RodríguezNYY200731.3145415624
Orlando CepedaSFG196123.3114614212
Albert BelleCLE199629.3114814811
Sammy SosaCHC199829.3086615818
Ken Griffey Jr.SEA199727.3045614715
Willie MaysSFG196231.3044914118
Andrés GalarragaCOL199635.3044715018
Ken Griffey Jr.SEA199626.3034914016

Source: Baseball-Reference.

Special thanks to Orlando Cepeda, RIP. Thanks to Luis R. Mayoral, Terín Pizarro, Bob Thurman, Jim Wynn, and Diana D. Zorrilla. Jorge Colón Delgado did the editing and photo layouts.

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