St. Louis Cardinals

Orlando Cepeda belongs to the Giants, but in St. Louis 'Cha-Cha' is El Birdo numero uno

St. Louis Cardinals' first baseman Orlando Cepeda is pictured in 1967.
St. Louis Cardinals' first baseman Orlando Cepeda is pictured in 1967. AP

In San Francisco, Orlando Cepeda is the "Baby Bull."

The slugging Puerto Rican played nine of his 17 seasons there, won a Rookie of the Year Award there, had his familiar uniform No. 30 retired there, had his statue unveiled outside AT&T Park there.

And on his bronze plaque in Cooperstown, he’s wearing a Giants cap.

In all fairness, Cepeda belongs to San Francisco baseball.

But he holds a valued place in St. Louis baseball lore, too, if only for two-and-a-half fleeting, but magical seasons.

Cepeda arrived in St. Louis in 1966 with a midseason trade for pitcher Ray Sadecki, a 20-game winner just two years earlier. Within a year, the Cardinals won 101 games and were World Series champions.

There were three other Hall of Famers on the roster that season, including Lou Brock (who hit a surprising 21 home runs while stealing 52 bases and scoring 113 runs), Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton. They had one more in the dugout (manager Red Schoendienst) and another in the front office (Stan Musial was the general manager that year).

And that makes no mention of Curt Flood, Tim McCarver, Roger Maris and all the rest. The Cardinals stacked.

But Cepeda was no doubt the difference-maker.

Consider this: In 1966, the Cardinals ranked dead last in the 11-team National League with 3.5 runs scored per game. In '67, their first full season with Cepeda batting cleanup, they ranked first with 4.3 runs per game.

The lineup was otherwise essentially the same — Maris (.261, nine home runs, 55 RBIs) replaced Charley Smith (.266, 10 home runs, 43 RBIs). Cepeda, meanwhile, batted a career-best .325 and knocked in a National League leading 111 runs to go with his 25 home runs.

Orlando Cepeda
Orlando Cepeda waves to Busch Stadium fans during a 50th anniversary celebration of the 1967 World Series championship. AP

Remember, this was 50 years ago, when baseball was dominated by the pitchers. It was still two years before Major League Baseball lowered the pitcher’s mound to level the ground for the hitters. That came thanks to Gibson’s 1.12 ERA in 1968.

Back at Busch Stadium III in 2017, for a golden anniversary celebration of the clubs’ eighth World Series title, Cepeda said that for all its great players, the Cardinals of ‘67 didn't have a standout star.

“Nobody was special,” he said. “Nobody was better than anybody else.”

That’s a nice and humble sentiment to be sure, but not really true.

There was, after all, only one National League Most Valuable Player that season. It was Cepeda, who to that point was the only player to have won Rookie of the Year and the MVP by unanimous vote.

Moreover, the 1967 Cardinals will be known forever more as the "El Birdos" because they assumed Cepeda’s big, wide-smiling and enthusiastic personality.

That World Series ring is the only one of his career. So is the MVP.

And he earned those here. In St. Louis.

Cepeda, 80, suffered a heart attack on a golf course near his Bay Area home Feb. 19. He’s made significant progress in his recovery, USA Today reported a week later, and as of March 28 was "getting stronger every day" according to SF Gate. Updates from his rehabilitation facility have been slow to come ever since.

The baseball world will forever remember the 11-time All Star as one of the Giants' all-time greats, and San Francisco will lay its rightful claim to the Baby Bull.

In St. Louis, though, "Cha-Cha" will always be El Birdo numero uno.

From the Eads Bridge to the Golden Gate, we wish him the very best in his recovery.

Todd Eschman is the sports editor of the Belleville News-Democrat. He can be reached at 618-239-2540 or teschman@bnd.com.
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