The 100 Greatest Cardinals: 41-50
NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 37: ORLANDO CEPEDA
Orlando Cepeda was the “Baby Bull” long before he arrived in St. Louis.
It was anickname he inherited from his father, Pedro, a professional baseball player in their native Dominican Republic, but which he cemented in legend as a member of the San Francisco Giants.
Cepeda played nine of his 17 major league seasons in San Francisco. He won his National League Rookie of the Year Award there, had his uniform No. 30 retired there, saw a larger-than-life statue of himself dedicated at the ballpark there. And in the Hall of Fame Gallery in Cooperstown, New York, the smiling likeness of the Baby Bull cast on his bronze plaque is topped with a Giants cap.
For all the accolades he rightfully earned in the City by the Bay, it was during three fleeting seasons with the Cardinals that Cepeda realized some of his greatest success.
Even in his heyday with the Giants, Cepeda continued to play in the Puerto Rican professional league during the winter months. While training with his team, he aggravated a recurrent knee injury that bothered him throughout the 1964 season and, in fact, throughout the rest of his career. But he kept the pain to himself because of his strained relationship with manager Alvin Dark, who thought he was just being lazy.
He still batted .304 and hit 31 home runs, but his homemade elixir of alcohol and cannabis could mask the pain for only so long. The following season, injury caught up him, as did his secrecy. While the hobbled Cepeda was limited to just 34 at bats, and in dutch with management for his refusal to play left field, Willie McCovey belted 39 home runs as the new first baseman.
A month into the 1966 season, San Francisco traded the 28-year-old Cepeda to the Cardinals for left-handed pitcher Ray Sadecki. Initially disappointed by the swap, he still managed to bat .303 in 123 games for the Cardinals and was named the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year.
There were three other future Hall of Famers on the Cardinals roster in 1967, including Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton. They had one more in the dugout in manager Red Schoendienst and another in the front office with Stan Musial, who took on the general manager’s role for a year. This makes no mention of Curt Flood, Tim McCarver, Roger Maris and all the rest.
The Cardinals were stacked, but Cepeda was the difference-maker.
Consider this: In 1966, St. Louis ranked last in the 11-team National League with 3.5 runs scored per game. In ‘67, the Cardinals’ first full season with Cepeda batting cleanup, they ranked first with 4.3 runs per game. Apart from Maris (.261, nine home runs, 55 RBIs), who replaced Charley Smith (.266, 10 home runs, 43 RBIs), the lineup was otherwise the same.
Cepeda, meanwhile, batted a career-best .325 and knocked in a National League leading 111 runs to go with his 25 home runs. This was during an era when baseball was dominated by the pitchers and two years before Major League Baseball lowered the pitcher’s mound to level the ground for the hitters, courtesy of 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 1967 didn’t have a standout star.
“Nobody was special,” he said. “Nobody was better than anybody else.”
It was a nice and humble sentiment, but not entirely true. There was, after all, only one National League Most Valuable Player that season, and it was Cepeda, who to that point was the only big leaguer to have won Rookie of the Year and the MVP by unanimous vote. Frank Robinson, Albert Pujols and Mike Trout have since joined him in that exclusive club.
Moreover, Cepeda managed to leave the Baby Bull behind on the West Coast and find a new identity as “Cha Cha” in St. Louis. And that group of Redbirds, having assumed Cepeda’s cheerful Latino personality, will be known forever more as “El Birdos.”
“Without Cepeda, we are down with the Pirates, and look where they are,” third baseman Mike Shannon told Sports Illustrated at the time. “It’s not just his statistics. It’s also what happens in the clubhouse. It’s intangible.”
El Birdos went on to defeat the Boston Red Sox and American League Triple Crown winner Carl Yastrzemski in a seven-game World Series. They repeated as NL champs in 1968, but became the first team to cough up a three-game advantage in the World Series when Detroit rallied back for the title.
Cepeda was once again surprised when, in the middle of spring training in 1969, the Cardinals traded him to Atlanta for Joe Torre, another future Hall of Famer who would also win an MVP in St. Louis. He played six more season and earned MVP votes with the Red Sox in 1973 as the first player signed exclusively to be a designated hitter.
Remembering the Baby Bull as one of the Giants’ all-time greats, it was the veterans committee that punched Cepeda’s ticket to Cooperstown in 1999. But, for those three memorable seasons wearing the Birds on the Bat, St. Louis will remember “Cha-Cha” as El Birdo numero uno.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1966-68
.290 in St. Louis | All-Star | WS ring | MVP ‘67 | 11.0 WAR | HoF ‘99
TOP 100 SCORE: 3.47