“In 1955, the unaffiliated Appalachian League Salem Rebels began playing at Salem Municipal Stadium,” says Deadball Baseball. “The team included future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda.” Cepeda was an amateur free agent, freshly-signed with the New York Giants for a reported $500.
Cepeda got transferred to the team in Salem, Virginia. He had trouble adapting because he did not speak English, according to “Baby Bull: From Hardball to Hard Time and Back,” co-written by Cepeda with Herb Fagen. He also encountered discrimination due to the racial segregation under the Jim Crow laws.
Shortly after this move, his father became very ill, from malnutrition relating to malaria. Cepeda’s 1999 interview with Sports Illustrated tells us that just as Orlando was leaving Puerto Rico for Salem, Perucho told his son, “You will someday be better than me, Orlando.”
Perucho “The Bull” Cepeda, known as the Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico, died at forty-nine. Impressions of his playing days reveal that he was good enough to be a major leaguer, but pre-Jackie Robinson, a dark-skinned Latino in the 1920s and ’30s had no such option.
His father’s death and the resulting depression did not help Orlando’s performance with the Class-D Salem Rebels. He wanted to quit and return to Puerto Rico, but a family friend convinced him to continue his career.
He played twenty-six games there before being assigned to the Kokomo Giants in the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League. Still not eighteen years old, “Cha Cha” had few problem in Kokomo. Cepeda hit for a league-best .393 average, with 91 RBI in 92 games. He would be with the big league Giants at age twenty.
Upping the ante, Cepeda homered off L.A. Dodger great Don Drysdale in his first major league game. Baseball luminaries like Ted Williams gave public tribute to Cepeda’s talent on the diamond.
“Of the 18 retired players who hit more than 300 homers and batted over .295 for their career, only Cepeda wasn’t in the Baseball Hall of Fame until March of 1999,” according to Cepeda Sports. For fans of the ’58 ROY and ’67 MVP, the honor was a long time in coming.
What held Cepeda back from being elected earlier, despite lofty numbers, were perceptions stemming from his personal issues. He admittedly had lived a hedonistic life, his family suffered, and finally he was sentenced to prison time because of drug associations.
After his release, MLB teams shunned him, not wanting a convicted drug offender leaning against the batting cage, talking to their players. Some of baseball’s fans, and Puerto Ricans who had looked for Cepeda to continue Roberto Clemente’s humanitarian work and be a national statesmen, felt let down.
The ice began to melt when he was voted into the HOF, along with a class that included Nolan Ryan and George Brett. “It’s hard to explain the feeling when they told me I was selected,” Cepeda said at the time. “I’ve been ready for this for seventeen years.”
The all-time greats in every sport usually shows signs of greatness early. Orlando Cepeda was a young player who shot through Salem like a comet. One of the best parts of minor league ball is the brushes with greatness.