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Historical Hot Stove
by Bruce Markusen
Previous Columns

Cooperstown Confidential Regular Season Edition - 10/27/3003

Re-Living The Red Sox And Yankees

Though there’s been little time to gain perspective on a remarkable turn of postseason events, here are a few random thoughts on baseball’s most recent game for the ages—Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series… I’ve heard a number of broadcasters and fans describe the seventh game between the Red Sox and Yankees as the greatest game they’ve ever seen, and while that’s a tempting description, the lack of drama during the first six innings of the game might dampen such high stature. Still, I can’t recall a game that contained as much tension and suspense from the seventh inning to the 11th inning, with hardly a moment to breath easy for fans of either team, culminating in one of the most unexpected home runs we’ve seen since the likes of that little bow-legged shortstop in 1978… Red Sox skipper Grady Little continues to take large doses of criticism for his decision to stay with Pedro Martinez through the middle stages of the eighth inning, when he had Alan Embree prepped and ready to face Hideki Matsui. While such criticism is certainly fair and reasonable, the calls for Little’s scalp as manager border on the absurd. How can one justify firing a man who has just taken his club further than any of his predecessors in 17 years, dating back to Boston’s ill-fated appearance in the ’86 World Series? The strategical and statistical critics of Little lose sight of the big picture; while he certainly has shortcomings as an in-game manager (see Game Two, when he failed to bunt with Gabe Kapler, who shouldn’t have been leading off in the first place), he has terrific strengths in player relations, creating the kind of unified clubhouse atmosphere that the Red Sox haven’t seen since the mid-1970s. Little’s players like and respect him, and they play extremely hard for him, which is something that can’t be said of all managers in an era where players often hold the upper hand in salary and influence with management. If the Red Sox fire Little, as some of Boston’s press corps would like to happen, they might gain a better strategist, but they’ll be hard-pressed to match this season’s succession of comebacks, a constant theme lived by a resilient team throughout both the regular year and the postseason… While we’re on the subject of Little, let’s give some credit to Pedro Martinez for his stand-up remarks and full support of his manager in the aftermath of Game Seven. As foolishly as Martinez acted in Game Three, he acted just as respectfully and professionally in the moments after the seventh game. When asked about Little’s strategic moves, Martinez begged the media to back off from criticizing his manager, and took full responsibility for what had transpired in the eighth inning. In an era when many players point the finger in other directions, Martinez clearly called for critics to “blame me,” and did so with sincerity and conviction… Of all the Yankee combatants who emerged from the dark side in Game Seven, I feel best of all for Aaron Boone, who has become target practice for such excessive internet vitriol and the focal point of such overdone running jokes that have long ceased being funny. Simply put, Boone’s combination of power, speed, and range at third base make him a much better player than what we’ve seen so far in Yankee pinstripes. His struggles are more a product of the difficulties in adjusting to a new league in the late season and the stress of playing in a pennant race than they are a true reflection of this bizarre belief that he’s somehow the next Celerino Sanchez. Mind you, he’s not Graig Nettles, but he’s a better and faster version of Scott Brosius, who was a fine complimentary player on several of the Yankees’ World Championship teams.

Thinking About The Baby Bull

One of the pleasures of working at the National Baseball Hall of Fame is the opportunity to meet and interview legendary players from a wide range of eras. Among the most accommodating and down-to-earth members of Cooperstown’s shrine is Orlando Cepeda, whom I first met circa 1997 at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst as part of a special course on baseball history. Orlando presided as the class’ guest speaker that day, discussing the difficulties that Latin American players of his era faced in making the transition to playing ball in the United States. In conversing with Orlando that afternoon and evening, I gained an appreciation for a man who had succeeded in turning his life around, after a series of personal problems, some self-inflicted and some caused by the racism of others.

In the mid-1970s, Cepeda found himself at rock bottom, addicted to illegal drugs, involved in drug trafficking, his marriage in ruins, and his days controlled by the rules of a federal prison. Now, some 25 years later, Cepeda has re-made himself, in large part because of a religious conversion that saw him become dedicated to the practice of Buddhism. He’s now a respected member of the baseball community, a full-fledged Hall of Famer who finally gained the approval of the Veterans Committee, and a man dedicated to imploring youngsters not to repeat the same mistakes that threw his own life into shambles.

Forty-five years ago, Orlando Cepeda appeared in his first major league game, culminating an unusual minor league journey that had actually seen him released during his first professional season. The following excerpt tells the story of Cepeda’s first season with the San Francisco Giants, where he began to carve out a Hall of Fame resume:

Horace Stoneham had already made up his mind that he wanted to see Cepeda play every day for his team in 1958. With the Giants having relocated from the East Coast to the West Coast, Stoneham wanted new players and a new identity for the team. But San Francisco manager Bill Rigney still had to be convinced about Cepeda. After all, Rigney had several contenders for the Giants’ first base position. The group included veteran Whitey Lockman, who was near retirement, and a top minor league prospect named Willie McCovey.

Orlando reported to the Giants’ spring training base in Phoenix, Arizona. Looking a bit clumsy in his baggy new uniform, Cepeda worked out with a team that featured an array of talented young players, along with several veteran stars onto the field. The group of established all-stars included center fielder Willie “The Say Hey Kid” Mays, one of the greatest all-around players in the game, and Dominican right-hander Juan Marichal, perhaps the greatest Latin American pitcher ever.

Marichal and Mays were proven players. Cepeda was not. Although The Sporting News had labeled him the best rookie prospect in the National League, he had never played a game above Triple-A. Still only 20, he had plenty to learn about the subtleties of playing major league baseball.

Cepeda’s chances of winning the first base job had improved a bit, what with the power-hitting Bill White still serving in the U.S. Army. White, the Giants’ starting first baseman two years earlier, had missed all of the 1957 season while in the military. White’s continuing absence left Cepeda, Whitey Lockman and Willie McCovey as the front-runners for the position. Cepeda and McCovey had the most talent, but Lockman had experience and knowledge on his side.

Cepeda understood that he could use some advice from Lockman, one of the team’s longtime veterans. Throughout spring training, Lockman taught Cepeda what he knew about playing first base. Bill Rigney asked Lockman to keep a close eye on Cepeda and keep him updated on the youngster’s progress.

Several days later, Rigney asked Lockman about Cepeda. Lockman replied that the rookie was a “year away.” Rigney thought out loud. “A year away from what?” In baseball terminology, a “year away” is a phrase usually meant to describe young players who need more training in the minor leagues. In other words, according to Lockman’s report, Cepeda might not be ready to play for the Giants until next season. So who would play first base in 1958? And what would Rigney tell his boss, Horace Stoneham, who wanted to see Cepeda playing for the Giants right now?

After a brief pause, Lockman clarified his “year away” comment to Rigney. He said that Cepeda was “a year away from the Hall of Fame.” Rigney smiled, realizing that Lockman had been making a play on words. The manager didn’t have to wonder about first base anymore. He also didn’t have to worry about what he would say to Horace Stoneham. The owner’s choice, Orlando Cepeda, would be the Giants’ first baseman on Opening Day.

Others shared the opinions held by Stoneham and Lockman. Frank Lane, the general manager of the Cleveland Indians, called Cepeda the best young player he’d seen in years. Lane had seen Cepeda torment his Indians during spring training, going 3-for-4 with four RBIs in his debut.

On April 15, the Giants started the season in front of a packed crowd at Seals Stadium, their new home ballpark. With the first pitch just five minutes away, Orlando finally signed his first major league contract. It would pay him the grand sum of $7,000. Coming from such a poor upbringing in Puerto Rico, it seemed like a king’s ransom.

Playing in his first major league game, Orlando had the misfortune of facing the undisputed ace of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was hard-throwing right-hander Don Drysdale, who had earned a reputation as one of the game’s most intimidating pitchers. He liked to throw pitches toward the inside part of home plate, often knocking down batters who stood too close to the plate. Drysdale was especially tough on right-handed hitters, thanks to a tricky side-arming motion that hid the ball from the batter’s view.

Given Drysdale’s reputation and Cepeda’s lack of experience, no one would have been surprised if Orlando struck out three or four times in his major league debut. Taking his first major league at-bat against one of the game’s most feared pitchers, Orlando grounded into a double play. It was a tough way to start his career in the big leagues.

Fortunately for Cepeda, Drysdale lasted only three and two-thirds innings that day. So when Cepeda came to bat for the second time in the game, he faced reliever Don “The Weasel” Bessent instead. Although he was also a right-handed thrower, “The Weasel” wasn’t nearly as tough on right-handed batters as Drysdale. He also didn’t throw as hard as Drysdale. After working the count to three balls and one strike, Cepeda went smartly with one of Bessent’s change-ups and drove a ball on the fly toward right-center field. The ball carried, and carried some more, clearing the right field fence at Seals Stadium for a 390-foot home run. In the long history of professional baseball, only a handful of players had managed to hit home runs in their first major league games. Cepeda had just joined that elite group.

The opposite field home run, which helped the Giants post an 8-0 win against their rivals, made him an instant hit with the hometown fans. It was also a sign of good things to come. Cepeda continued to hit well during the early weeks of the season. Giants’ farm director Carl Hubbell, a onetime pitching great and Hall of Famer, called him the best young player he’d seen since Willie Mays came to the majors. “And in some respects he might even top the ‘Say Hey Kid,’” Hubbell added in his conversation with The Sporting News. Others in the organization joined in the chorus heralding Cepeda. Bill Rigney called him the “best young right-handed power hitter” he’d ever seen. Although such praises were well-intentioned, they sometimes raised expectations to an unfair level. Hubbell and Rigney probably didn’t mean to do it, but they had just placed some additional and unneeded pressure on their rookie slugger.

Fortunately, the pressure didn’t bother Orlando during his first summer in the major leagues. He remained confident. “I see no pitch yet I cannot hit,” he told reporters over and over. No pitch seemed to faze him, whether it be a fastball, curve ball or slider. “He is annoying every pitcher in the league,” Willie Mays told Jack Orr of Sport Magazine. “He is strong, he hits to all fields… He’s the most relaxed first-year man I ever saw.” Cepeda hit for both power and average throughout the summer, helping the Giants stay in the pennant race until the final days of the season. If not for their sub-.500 play in August and September, the Giants might have finished even higher than their surprising third-place tally.

Like most rookies, Orlando also made his share of mistakes. Most of his miscues seemed to come on the bases, when he tried to take an extra base. He had good speed—having been clocked the fastest of all the Giants in spring training—but didn’t always seem to understand the limits of his running ability. At times, he didn’t pay attention to his third base coach, who was warning him to stop. In one game, Cepeda foolishly tried to advance from first to third base on a ground ball, but was thrown out. Furious over the baserunning error, Bill Rigney yelled at Cepeda, criticizing him in front of the rest of the team. He even threatened to send the rookie first baseman back to the minor leagues. Rigney’s angry reaction so upset Cepeda that he started to cry. Orlando even considered quitting the team and going home. After he had some time to think, he reconsidered and stayed with the Giants. He hit well in his next game, and kept on hitting.

Orlando finished his first big league season with 96 RBIs. He also batted .312, the seventh highest figure in the National League. He stole 15 bases, surprising those who expected such a big man to be a slow runner. Accomplishments like those made him popular with the fans, who voted him the Giants’ “Most Valuable Player.”

Cepeda’s popularity with the fans was startling. In fact, he seemed more popular in San Francisco than Willie Mays, the team’s best player. There were several reasons that explained the fans’ loyalties. For one, Mays had become a star during his years in New York, prior to the team’s move to the West Coast. In the meantime, Orlando was San Francisco’s star. And while Willie was a private person who preferred to keep to himself, Orlando seemed to enjoy talking to reporters, who in turn wrote favorable stories about him. He also liked to visit public places—like music and dance clubs—throughout San Francisco. “Right from the beginning, I fell in love with the city,” Orlando told Ron Fimrite of Sports Illustrated in a1991 interview. “On Thursdays, I would go to the ‘Copacabana’ to hear the Latin music. On Sundays, after games, I’d go to the ‘Jazz Workshop’ for the jam sessions.” At places like these, Orlando met and talked to many people. Thanks to his outgoing personality and frequent smiles, he made many friends—quickly.

Unlike other players, Cepeda always seemed to be thinking about the people who attended San Francisco’s games. An incident during his rookie season typified his fan-friendly nature. During a game at Seals Stadium, Cepeda chased a pop fly into foul territory. He raced toward the railing that kept fans in the stands and out of the field of play. As he neared the railing, a fan reached out with his hand and caught the ball. Several ballpark security men surrounded the fan, wanting to eject him from the ballpark for interfering with a ball that might have been in play. The security guards were about to do so when they heard a voice yelling in their direction. “No, no, no,” shouted Cepeda, who felt the fan was simply doing the natural thing by trying to catch the ball. Orlando pleaded with the security guards not to eject the fan, who was finally allowed to remain in his seat.

Cepeda also impressed the baseball writers who voted on the National League’s post-season awards. They unanimously selected him as the league’s “Rookie of the Year” Award, given to the top first-year player. It seemed The Sporting News had been justified in calling Cepeda the top rookie prospect in the National League prior to the season.

Offering his reaction to the news, Cepeda hoped the “Rookie of the Year” Award would send a favorable message to youngsters in his native Puerto Rico. “I hope my good fortune,” Cepeda told United Press International, “will encourage my fellow Puerto Ricans to try to excel in sports—particularly baseball.”

Pastime Passings

Johnny Klippstein (Died on October 10 in Chicago, Illinois; age 75; prostate cancer): Klippstein posted a record of 110-118 as a durable right-handed starting pitcher during the 1950s and sixties. A well-liked veteran of 18 major league seasons, Klippstein debuted with the Chicago Cubs in 1950. He eventually appeared in two World Series, once with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1959 and later with the Minnesota Twins in 1965. Klippstein, who was married to the niece of former major league pitcher Dutch Leonard, passed away while listening to Game Three of the National League Championship Series between the Cubs and the Florida Marlins.

Red Barbary (Died on September 27 in Simpsonville, South Carolina; age 83): Barbary accrued only one at-bat in his major league career, appearing briefly for the Washington Senators in 1943. Formerly a star in South Carolina’s textile leagues, Barbary was considered an excellent catching prospect while with the Charlotte Hornets of the Piedmont League. In 1991, he won election to the Greater Greenville Baseball Hall of Fame.

Josh Gibson Jr. (Died on September 10 in Homewood, Pennsylvania; age 73): Although best known as the son of Hall of Fame catcher Josh Gibson, the younger Gibson also played in the Negro Leagues. Gibson Jr. became interested in a career in professional baseball while serving as a batboy for one of his father’s teams, the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Despite the protestations of the elder Gibson, who did not want his son to face the same kind of racial prejudice that he had endured in the Negro Leagues, the younger Gibson pursued his dream and played for the Homestead Grays in 1949 and ’50. Unfortunately, Gibson Jr.’s career was cut short by an ankle injury, which he suffered while sliding into a base. After his playing days, Gibson formed the Josh Gibson Foundation as a way of honoring his father and providing youngsters with a chance to play youth baseball. In one of his last public appearances earlier this season, Gibson Jr. traveled to PNC Park in Pittsburgh, the home park of the Pirates, to take part in a ceremony honoring players from the Negro Leagues.

Jim Pruett (Died on July 29 in Waukesa, Wisconsin; age 85): A veteran of nine major league games and 13 at-bats in the 1940s, Pruett played for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s. After his 17-year professional career came to an end, Pruett eventually returned to baseball, working as an usher for nearly two decades at Milwaukee’s County Stadium, the home of the Brewers until the team’s recent move to Miller Park. Pruett had played for the Brewers in 1943 and ’44, when the team was still a minor league franchise.

Cooperstown Confidential writer Bruce Markusen is the author of three books on baseball, including A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s (ISBN number 1-878282-23-9), which is available at www.amazon.com and at many major bookstores, including Borders Books. Markusen has also writtenThe Orlando Cepeda Story and Roberto Clemente: The Great One. A fourth book, The Kid: The Life of Ted Williams, is scheduled for release in the spring of 2004.


by Bruce Markusen

 

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