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March 9, 1999

Orlando Cepeda and the Hall of Fame

A closer look at Cepeda's credentials

by Steven Rubio

Major league baseball came to San Francisco in 1958 when the Giants, with Willie Mays, joined the Dodgers on their move west. Despite Mays' undeniable brilliance, local fans wanted a hero they could call their own, and Mays carried New York baggage with him. So when a 20-year-old rookie named Orlando Cepeda hit a homerun on Opening Day, he became an instant favorite for many fans. In his first seven seasons, Cepeda clubbed 226 homers, hit better than .300 six times, led the league in HR and RBI in 1961, and kept his OBP around .360. Because of these and other accomplishments, most baseball fans in San Francisco were elated at Orlando's recent selection to the Hall of Fame.

Cepeda suffered through knee problems that seriously affected the remainder of his career. He was traded to St. Louis, where he had the greatest season of his life in 1967. He led the league in RBI, a beloved category to MVP voters, and posted the highest OBP of his career (.403). He was touted as the clubhouse leader on the World Champions. There were plenty of other outstanding contributors on the Cardinals (among Cepeda's teammates having strong seasons were Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Tim McCarver, and Steve Carlton), but there were also plenty of other outstanding performances in the league that year. Roberto Clemente led the league with a .357 BA; he also led the league in hits, scored 103 runs, knocked in 110, pounded 23 homers and won a Gold Glove. Future stathead darling Ron Santo led the league in walks, hitting .300 with 31 homers, a .401 OBP and slugging .512, while setting a then-record for assists by a thirdbaseman while winning a Gold Glove. Dick Allen led the league in OBP and was second in SLG. But in a sport where Andre Dawson wins MVP awards, you can't be shocked that the RBI leader on a championship team is named MVP, and indeed, Cepeda won the award.

But there's more: Cepeda was the unanimous choice. Every single voter looked at Lou Brock and Curt Flood and Tim McCarver, looked at Roberto Clemente and Ron Santo and Dick Allen, and every single voter came to the same conclusion: Orlando Cepeda was the league's Most Valuable Player.

As a confirmed stathead, I hate to say this, but that sure sounds like a helluva lot of clubhouse influence. That's so much clubhouse influence that I believe we need to consider it when evaluating Orlando Cepeda's status as a Hall of Famer.

Cepeda recalls an earlier time in baseball history. Every generation of baseball fans falls victim to useless nostalgia, looking backwards to the days when the game was "better" because we were in our youth. Such nostalgia always calls on a supposed innocence that engulfed the times before things got "worse." But in the case of fans like myself, raised in the last decades before the stathead revolution, we are looking backward to a time that was different not only in our memories but in reality, a time of actual rather than supposed statistical innocence, when one rarely heard of On-Base Percentage, and stats to measure offensive prowess like Equivalent Average were decades away from being developed. A player like Orlando Cepeda, with lots of homeruns and a high batting average, was lauded by all, because we were largely innocent of the weaker parts of his game (to be specific, OBP). There is no turning back; we know what we know, and so the Cepeda-like players of today are recognized not only for their positives but also their negatives. Juan Gonzalez is a tremendous slugger, but his career OBP of .339 gets taken into consideration by knowledgeable fans when he gets evaluated, as it should. Cepeda played before we really knew how damaging a low OBP was, and perhaps in our innocence we imagined the Baby Bull to be a better player than his career .353 OBP suggests. I know I was innocent, for I was one of those who knew in 1958 that Orlando Cepeda was my favorite player.

Some people never learn. Bruce Jenkins, in the San Francisco Chronicle, attacks "the numbers critics" because "they never saw Cepeda play." Jenkins, who gets to vote for the Hall of Fame each year, argues that "the numbers are damn near irrelevant. It's more of a gut feeling." He demonstrates precisely what he means by this later in the same column when he writes that Tony Womack "gives Arizona a dynamic leadoff man." This kind of ongoing mediocy needs to be criticized at every instance.

I'm not sure I would have voted for Orlando Cepeda for the Hall of Fame. But Orlando Cepeda was not Joe Carter, and the necessity for pointing out the follies of the likes of Bruce Jenkins shouldn't force us into the kind of entrenched thinking which underestimates Cepeda just to make a point. After making adjustments for era, Cepeda's career numbers are even more impressive, making him in my eyes just short of Hall of Fame performance. That makes that 1967 MVP vote crucial, precisely because it goes against our usual thinking. We all know that brainlock is common amongst MVP voters, but complete brainlock is extremely rare. Something was different about Cepeda's '67 than about Andre Dawson or other silly examples of RBI=MVP. I don't know what it is; I mistrust generalities about "leadership" as much as anyone. But that's why Cepeda is an interesting case, and it's why ultimately I have fewer reservations about my favorite baseball player making the Hall of Fame than I have about players like Phil Rizzuto.

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