Cha-Cha-Chatting with Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda

Today, we take the presence of Latino players in Major League Baseball for granted. Some of the biggest stars in the game are from Latin America, including Venezuela’s Miguel Cabrera, the Dominican Republic’s Robinson Cano and Puerto Rico’s Carlos Beltran. According to Fox News Latino, 24.2 percent of the players on 2013 Major League Opening Day rosters were from Latin American countries.

But before Miggy, Cano, Beltran, Roberto Alomar, Albert Pujols, Edgar Martinez, Pedro Martinez, Jorge Posada, Pudge Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Mariano Rivera and so many Latino baseball stars, there was Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda.

Close friends since their youths playing baseball together on the Santurce Cangrejeros (“Santurce Crabbers”), Clemente and Cepeda helped pave the way for future Latino baseball players as two of the first standouts from Puerto Rico in the 1950’s. The two men were bound by a determination to succeed despite not being able to speak English and while enduring discrimination as a new type of dark-skinned player (Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier just eight years before Clemente’s debut in 1955).

Clemente, who died tragically in a plane crash on December 31, 1972 while on a humanitarian relief mission to Nicaragua, was a superstar for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 until his death. During his 18-year career, he was a 15-time All-Star, a 12-time Golden Glove winner, a four-time batting champion, a two-time World Series champion (1960 and 1971), the 1966 National League MVP and the 1971 World Series MVP. He established many milestones for Latino baseball players, including becoming the first with 3,000 hits and the first to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973. Clemente’s legacy lives on through MLB’s Roberto Clemente Award for the player who “demonstrates the values Clemente displayed in his commitment to community and understanding the value of helping others.”

Cepeda (nicknamed “Baby Bull” and “Cha Cha”) starred for the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals during a 16-year career that included a Rookie of the Year award (1967), 11 All-Star appearances, one National League MVP award (1967) and a World Series championship (1967). A prodigious power hitting first baseman in his prime, Cepeda in 1961 became the first Latino to lead the league in home runs (46) and RBI (142). Cepeda was also the first high profile player to be signed specifically — by the Boston Red Sox — as a designated hitter when the rule was introduced 40 years ago in 1973. Cepeda was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999. Now 75, Cepeda works in community relations for the San Francisco Giants and proudly sports a 2010 World Series championship ring on his left hand.

At an event at The Parlor in New York City on June 27, Hennessy V.S. hosted an intimate evening with Orlando Cepeda and the Roberto Clemente Museum where guests had a special viewing of some of Clemente’s legendary baseball memorabilia, on display for the first time outside of Pittsburgh. Established in 2006, the Roberto Clemente Museum is dedicated to preserving the legacy of “The Great One” through the exhibit of photographs and artifacts.  Items on display included Clemente’s 1966 Gold Glove (his MVP season) and a San Juan Senadores jersey, the last one he wore before his death.

On this special Hennessy V.S. night to honor Latinos in baseball, I caught up with Cepeda to talk about his memories of Clemente, dealing with prejudice in the major leagues, Latino baseball players today and whether the National League will adopt the designated hitter.

Amanda Rykoff: Can you share some of your favorite memories of Roberto Clemente?

Orlando Cepeda: I’d known Roberto since 1952 when he was 15 and I was 11. Then he came to the states in 1954 and so in 1955 he brought me to the states because he knew me from when we played in Puerto Rico. I learned how to drive with Roberto. He bought a brand new car — a brand new Chevrolet Bel Air — so I learned how to drive his car. He was a good friend. I saw Roberto a couple of days before he got killed. We were talking a couple days before — on December 29.

Amanda Rykoff: What players today remind you of Roberto Clemente?

Orlando Cepeda: Nobody. He was really special. Nobody.

Amanda Rykoff: What Puerto Rican players today do you enjoy watching?

Orlando Cepeda: Oh yes. I like Molina from St. Louis. He was a bad hitter and he learned how to hit and now he’s a great hitter. And Carlos Beltran I like him very much. Not too many Puerto Ricans today, not like there used to be.

Amanda Rykoff: How is youth baseball in Puerto Rico different from when you played as a kid?

Orlando Cepeda: When I was growing up we don’t have facilities. I had a glove because my father was a baseball player. We didn’t have Little League, we don’t have anything. Baseball — nobody can teach you how to play ball. Nobody. You’re born with the skill to play ball and we were born with the skill to play ball.

Amanda Rykoff: You mentioned your father — Pedro “The Bull” Cepeda — a legendary Puerto Rican baseball player. What are your memories of watching him play?

Orlando Cepeda: My father was a very talented person. Very talented. Too bad that in those days he didn’t have a chance to play organized baseball because he was great. I knew that he had skills to play in the big leagues and do well.

Amanda Rykoff: You and Roberto Clemente were two of the first Latin superstars in the major leagues. Did you experience prejudice on the field?

Orlando Cepeda: Oh yeah. Have you seen the Jackie Robinson movie, “42”? I went through that. But things like that motivate me. I told my mother no matter what happened I was going to deal with that situation there. I didn’t know English, I didn’t know anything but I knew how to play ball. And the reason I came to the States was to play ball. Roberto told me, I remember we landed in Miami and we went to the Greyhound and he went to Ft. Myers and I went to Sanford. He said, “Remember you came here to play ball. Forget about being black. It’s gonna happen. So just put your head down and go.”

Amanda Rykoff: What is your role with the Giants today?

Orlando Cepeda: I’m working in community relations. I go to dinners, go to functions, go to schools. Whatever they want me to do, I do it. Spring training. Talk to the players since they have so many Latinos in the organizations. There are a lot of Latino players. Don’t wait until they start making big money, get them in the minor leagues when they don’t make money and there are so many temptations there. I try to talk to them.

Amanda Rykoff: You participated in the last game at the Polo Grounds, a Latin all-star game with Roberto Clemente, Luis Aparicio and others. Tell me about that game.

Orlando Cepeda: That was a great idea. The guy who put it together was Ira Levow. That was a great idea and we had a great time. Just say no more.

Amanda Rykoff: You were the first player to sign with a team to be a designated hitter. What are your thoughts on whether the National League should adopt the DH?

Orlando Cepeda: I’m shocked that they still don’t want to do it. I was reading a magazine when I signed with the Boston Red Sox and they said that he’s not going to last three years in 1963. And the reason I made the Hall of Fame was because of the designated hitter. I had a good year. I believe they’re going to have it in the National League because pitchers don’t like to hit. And they don’t like to run the bases. I hope they change their mind.