LOFFLIN: Hall Of Famers Spent Final Year In Royal Blue, Part 3

To read part 1 of this series, about Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew, click here.

To read Part 2 of this series, about Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, click here.

You can sponsor a page about your favorite player at the encyclopedic Baseball Reference Web site. Olando Cepeda’s page is sponsored by the children of Rosalind Skoff. Their inscription reads:

“In memory of my mom, Rosalind Skoff, who spent the summer of ’67 yelling at the radio, “C’mon, CEPEDA!” and then he would get the winning hit each time. Of course, she would be in the next room, too nervous to listen. A great memory. A great season.”

Orlando CepedaIf only the summer of 1967 in St. Louis, Mo., were all you had to say about the life and times of Orlando Cepeda.

In 1967, he drove in the most runs of any player in the National League, 111, so it may well have seemed he always came through for Mrs. Skoff. He hit 25 home runs; 37 doubles; and contributed 183 hits in 563 at-bats, a .325 batting average, a .399 on-base percentage — third in the league — and a hefty .525 slugging percentage — fifth in the league. He was selected the Most Valuable Player in the National League and the Cardinals, for whom he toiled, won the World Series.

If only 1967 was the whole story.

But, of course, it isn’t. And, though it’s often ignored, the Kansas City Royals play a role in the less heroic but terribly human side of the tragic drama that was the Baby Bull’s career and his life after baseball.

Here are some of the facts of his Hall of Fame career. This is a paragraph from a United Press International story about him in the Lodi California New-Sentinel on Dec. 12, 1974. You can find some incarnation of this paragraph – or this paragraph itself – in a dozen stories, sweet and sour, about the Puerto Rican star who pounded out a hit in nearly one-third of his big league at-bats.

“Cepeda, a power-hitting first baseman, was the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1958 and the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1967. He had a career batting average of .297, with 379 home runs and 1,365 RBI during 18 seasons with the San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves, Oakland A’s, Boston Red Sox and Kansas City Royals.”

‘CARAMBA! Aparicio, Cepeda Cut by Bosox’: headline, Pittsburg Post-Gazette March 27, 1973

Orlando Cepeda’s appearance in Royal blue was brief. He was signed on Aug. 6, 1974, from Yucatan in the Mexican League. He was released Sept. 19, 1974. He was a shot in the dark at a desperate pennant chase, a designated hitter experiment in a time when sportswriters still placed “designated hitter” inside quote marks or explained DH inside parenthesis.

It’s hard, at this distance, to tell exactly why a career .297 hitter was knocking in runs in the Mexican League, where, by the way, he had four dingers and 16 RBI in just 70 at-bats. Cepeda’s troubles began in spring training in Winter Haven, Fla., with the Boston Red Sox.

1973 had been a wonderful year for the right handed power hitter. The Red Sox rode the Baby Bull to a second place finish in the American League East that year when he hit .289 on 159 hits and provided 20 homeruns to the potent Boston attack. He went into spring training the following year confident he had found a home in the designated hitter league, assured – he said – by new manager Darrell Johnson, of his position in the lineup.

But Johnson used him sparingly in the early going of the spring exhibition season and despite good numbers, his day in the manager’s office arrived unwelcome on March 26. Along with aging shortstop Luis Aparicio, he was given his outright release. UPI said, simply, Manager Johnson, “elected to go with younger players.”

“New Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson,” the UPI reported, “called in both veteran stars after an exhibition game to give them the bad news that could mean the end of the baseball trail for each.” Aparicio was to be replaced by Rick Burleson and Johnson planned to give Cecil Cooper a look at designated hitter. “Sore-legged Cepeda” was on the market.

And, apparently, forgotten.

Cepeda later said he was not only surprised to be released, but surprised not to latch on somewhere else. “I was surprised that nobody else wanted me,” he told the AP. “I talked to the New York Yankees, Cleveland and the Chicago White Sox but I guess they thought I was making too much money.”

It’s just a guess, but the reason no one picked him up may have been his impolitic reaction to being released. While Aparicio was safely sanguine – “I’m not mad at anybody. Things like this have to come sooner or later,” – Cepeda was outraged.

“I’m really shocked and disappointed,” he told reporters at the time. “I really didn’t expect it because only a couple of weeks ago Johnson told me I was going to be his designated hitter. Somebody told me not to trust Johnson because he was two faced. I told him he didn’t want me right along, but he kept saying that was wrong. He didn’t play me too much down here because he didn’t want me to look too good.”

It’s true Johnson only used Cepeda in four games, and it’s true he had a home run, 5 RBI and hit .313 in those four games. It’s also true Cecil Cooper was hitting .400 when Cepeda was released. Johnson may also been thinking about the 24 times Cepeda grounded into doubleplays in 1973, leading the league in that rally-killing category. Cepeda saw it another way.

“It’s very difficult for me to figure out why he did what he did,” Cepeda told the Associated Press. “The only thing I can think of is he didn’t like me personally…. When he gave me the word, I told him I knew it was coming. I can’t explain it, but I just had a feeling.”

Ironically, Johnson gave Cepeda the word on a day in Winter Haven, Fla., when the Royals were in town, losing to the Red Sox 8-7 with Marty Pattin, Al Fitzmorris and Steve Mingori on the mound against the great El Tiante.

‘You could send him to the moon and he’d hit a line drive back down here …’ Amos Otis

When the future Hall of Famer arrived in Kansas City four months later optimism was everywhere. The Royals were in second place in the West, eight games behind Oakland and poised for a run. No one was more optimistic than Cepeda.

“With the Royals, I’ll just try to be myself and do what I’m capable of doing,” he told reporters. “This ball club can have a good winning streak. It can gain momentum. Eight games isn’t so far behind Oakland. I was with the Giants once they came from behind. It’s not impossible.”

Cepeda Brett
In 1999, Orlando Cepeda (left) was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame along with Royals legend George Brett (right).

Amos Otis, in the midst of a career year, rhapsodized starward. “I know he can hit… he’s like Rico Carty,” the Royals centerfielder told the AP. “You could send him to the moon, and he’d hit a line drive back down here.”

Eight games is a lot to be behind Reggie Jackson and Vida Blue but when you want to see the silver lining, you see the silver lining, even on a rainy Tuesday night on the prairie. “The old pro, whose major league career appeared over until Kansas City rescued him from the Mexican League over the weekend, made his debut with the Royals Tuesday night and hit two singles and drove in two runs in a 17-3 breeze past the Minnesota Twins,” an AP reporter declaimed.

“I realized tonight this is the only place to be… in the big leagues,” he said. “When you’ve been in the Mexican League, you know that’s true.”

Cepeda wasn’t the only one seeing the ball well in Kansas City that Tuesday night. The Royals racked up 20 hits and five walks, Cookie Rojas was 3 for 4, Frank White 1 for 2, Otis 2 for 4 with a home run, George Brett – hitting eighth – was 3 for 5 and catcher Fran Healy was 3 for 5.

Jack McKeon, his new manager, thought Aug. 6 “a great debut” and hoped his club could get a psychological lift from Cepeda. Get four or five games under his belt and see what he does, McKeon said. After beating up on the twins McKeon could see nothing but silver in the night sky. “The race in the AL West?” he asked. “We’re seven games behind Oakland, five in the loss column.” Apparently, he meant this to be positive.

Well, the next five games did give the Royals reason to hope. Between August 6 and August 14, McKeon’s club won eight and lost only two. On the night they trounced Minnesota, the Texas Rangers’ Ferguson Jenkins shut out Oakland on two hits for his 15th win. Blue Moon Odom gave up only one run, but lost. Worse, Oakland left Vida Blue in Minneapolis, hospitalized with chest pains. And, on the Royal’s side, Hal McRae was batting .306, seventh in the league; Otis was second in the league in triples and sixth in doubles; John Mayberry was fourth in the league in homeruns with 19; Fred Patek was fifth in stolen bases with 25; and Steve Busby was fourth in pitching at 16-9.

Across his first five games with the Royals, Cepeda had seven hits in 23 trips to the plate and drove in 10 runs.

With the streak was in full bloom, McKeon was overjoyed about the club’s Mexican League signing.

“I’d like to go back to May in the season – with Cepeda,” he told the AP, adding with Cepeda in the lineup across the first four months, Oakland would be chasing Kansas City. “We started this hitting spree the day Cepeda got here… I think getting Cepeda was a psychological lift. We weren’t getting the key hits, and this guy comes along and shows us how.”

McKeon’s club won both ends of a doubleheader against the Angels the Sunday before Cepeda’s debut with an off-day Monday. They beat the Twins again Wednesday but lost Thursday. Milwaukee came to town and they took three in a row, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They lost in Detroit Monday but won the next two behind Fitzmorris and Busby. They lost Friday in Baltimore, won Saturday and lost Sunday… and the streak, and the season, was over.

The Royals closed the season with just 14 wins against 31 loses, including an 8-game losing streak, followed by a win, and a 7-game losing streak. When the fog cleared only the Angels had a worse record in the American League West. The optimism of being “just” seven games back of Oakland was buried 13 games out of first behind a 77 win – 85 loss season. With Orlando Cepeda in the lineup, the Royals plummeted from second place to fifth place.

And Cepeda plummeted with them. He had just 16 more hits in the remaining 28 games and he drove in only eight more runs. He ended the 1974 season batting just .215, 82 points below his career average.

‘…all my plans went down the drain…’

As bad as the last month of the 1974 baseball season was for the Kansas City Royals, the next three years of Orlando Cepeda’s life were exponentially worse. When he left baseball, he was, apparently, broke. And, naturally, he was in tax trouble. It’s a good guess, given what transpired, he had a drug problem.

Because, 15 months after he retired from the Royals, drugs did become a major problem for Mr. Cepeda.

On Dec. 12, 1975, at about 10 a.m., Cepeda and a long-time friend, Herminio Cortes, parked Cepeda’s Mercedes and Cortes’ Chevy at the San Juan International Airport freight terminal. They went inside and picked up two cartons and two suitcases bound from Colombia packed with 165 pounds of marijuana and loaded them in their trunks. Right behind them were three customs agents.

The morning ended with Cepeda and Cortes, who played in the Puerto Rican League, led away in handcuffs to the federal court building. Cepeda was later placed under house arrest, given the weekend to raise $5,000 — 10 percent of his $50,000 bond –, $2,000 more than the value placed on the marijuana the two men were charged with importing for sale. Wire reports described Cepeda as appearing “extremely nervous” when he walked into the courthouse. The Associated Press reported a friend of Cepeda and a former major league ballplayer, who asked not to be identified, agreed to raise the bail.

“I am not a rich man so I cannot be out of that amount of money for too long,” he told the AP, “but I am willing to lend it for a few days.”

A year later, Dec. 3, 1976, a jury deliberated seven hours before returning a guilty verdict against Cepeda. On Dec. 16, he was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000.

During the four-day trial, Cepeda maintained his innocence, even taking the witness stand to answer questions. He argued he had been tricked into taking possession of the boxes. He thought they had baseball equipment in them, he said. He did not need money, he said. However, a treasury department employee testified Cepeda had not paid state taxes for three years.

“What really hurts me is that this was in my own island,” he told the AP after the trial.

By June 29, 1980, he was a free man and back in baseball, having spent 10 months in a minimum security jail on the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. When he emerged from prison, he was a little more careful with the press than he had been seven years earlier when the Boston Red Sox sent him packing. But only slightly. “I had a lot of friends before I went to prison,” he told the AP. “But now I don’t have so many friends.”

Then he went for the upbeat. “The ones I have… they are what America’s all about… America showed me a lot; it’s a lot like me, actually. I’m sympathetic to the underdog, the guy who’s down. He’s the man who can really sue help… It wouldn’t do any good to talk bad about Puerto Rico. It’s over with. I love my country and I always will.”

From there, Cepeda set about resurrecting his baseball resume. He became a hitting instructor for the Phillies then the White Sox. “I never thought I’d be back in baseball,” he said in the AP article. “When I retired I wanted to set up a health spa in Puerto Rico. But all my plans went down the drain.

“This is my life. This is where I feel free and relaxed. This is where I want to be forever. When I die, I hope I’m on a baseball field.”

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