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From Shame to Frame
William Nack
July 26, 1999
When Orlando Cepeda is inducted into the Hall of Fame this week, it will mark the end of a long comeback from disgrace and despair
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July 26, 1999

From Shame To Frame

When Orlando Cepeda is inducted into the Hall of Fame this week, it will mark the end of a long comeback from disgrace and despair

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On May 18, midway through Orlando Cepeda's day of introduction to the Baseball Hall of Fame—like all newly anointed members, Cepeda was getting a guided tour of the Cooperstown, N.Y., shrine before his official induction, which is on July 25—the Hall's curator, Ted Spencer, was leading him into a room whose entrance bore the legend PRIDE AND PASSION: THE AFRICAN AMERICAN BASEBALL EXPERIENCE. All afternoon the 61-year-old Cepeda had moved with pride and wonder from one exhibit to the next, from the mannequinlike statue of his friend and compatriot Roberto Clemente dressed in his Pittsburgh Pirates uniform number 21, to the center of the Hall itself: the gallery of wall plaques depicting, among others, the faces of his old teammates Juan Marichal, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey from the San Francisco Giants, and Bob Gibson and Lou Brock from the 1967 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. In a theater of the museum, Cepeda saw a video documentary of his life in baseball and watched, disbelieving, as the aging visages of Stan Musial and Ted Williams spoke in tribute to his leadership and hitting skills.

"Williams and Musial talking about me?" Cepeda whispered. "Incredible! They're my idols!"

Escorted to a basement storeroom, where he donned the requisite white gloves so as not to damage the Hall's buried treasures, Cepeda wielded one of Babe Ruth's bats. "All the Latin players, like Clemente and me, used this model, R43," he said. Next he spied Ty Cobb's tiny, tattered outfielder's mitt, with the hole in the center of it. Moving on, he saw a pair of spikes that had belonged to Cool Papa Bell, the Negro leagues outfielder with the legendary speed, and the talk of baserunning prowess jogged Cepeda's memory. "I saw Minnie Minoso score from first on a wild pitch!" he said.

Yet nothing he heard or saw that day matched the moment when Spencer led him into the room that honors the black experience in baseball. Turning to the curator and a small entourage of Hall administrators, Cepeda asked if they happened to have the photograph of the team that Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic dictator, sponsored in 1937. "It had all the best Latin and Negro league players," Cepeda said. "Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Papa Bell, Silvio Garcia...and my father." Perucho Cepeda, known as the Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico, was among the greatest Latin players of his day, an icon throughout the Caribbean until his death in 1955, at age 49, from malnutrition relating to malaria. Before he died, just as 17-year-old Orlando was leaving Puerto Rico for his first minor league stop, Salem, Va., he told his son, "You will someday be better than me, Orlando."

"Don't say that, Papa," the son protested. "I cannot be better than you."

No sooner had Cepeda asked about that old picture than the Baby Bull turned and faced a glass case containing Negro leagues star Buck Leonard's battered traveling bag, Josh Gibson's signed 1946 contract with the Homestead Grays and, wait a minute, voilà! There was the photo Cepeda had been telling them about. He named the players one by one. They were all in uniform, with C. TRUJILLO emblazoned across the front. Cepeda's finger pointed to the top row, to the second face from the right. "That's my father," he said.

It was one thing for Cepeda to hear Williams call him "one of the very best hitters in my years in baseball," but it was inexpressibly another to sec the old man, in Cooperstown, in a browning photo that was taken the year Orlando was born and depicted a kind of Hall of Fame itself. "It's amazing," Cepeda said. "I didn't know my father was here, in that picture, like he was waiting for me. What a surprise!"

Of course, after all he had been through, nothing much could really surprise him anymore. Almost from the day Cepeda retired, he began a long, spiraling descent into a maelstrom of personal difficulty. That he finally made it into the Hall of Fame in March, when the Veterans Committee voted him in, was more than he had come to hope for. Not that Cepeda lacked the numbers: a .297 career batting average, 379 home runs, 1,365 RBIs. He was the 1958 National League Rookie of the Year, the 1967 MVP and a seven-time All-Star. Just five years ago, when the Baseball Writers of America rejected him for the 15th and last time (he fell seven votes shy), he was the only eligible player with an average above .295 and more than 300 homers who was not in the Hall.

No, it wasn't the numbers. On Dec. 12, 1975, a year after retiring from baseball, Cepeda was arrested at San Juan International Airport after claiming two packages sent to him from Colombia that contained, according to authorities, 170 pounds of marijuana. At the time Cepeda did not admit that he smuggled any marijuana, but he says now that he had agreed to pick up five pounds for use by himself and friends. "I learned that one mistake, in two seconds, can make a disaster that seems to last forever," Cepeda says. "I made a huge mistake. Bad judgment. Bad friends. Stupidity."

Over the next 24 years Cepeda's life became an odyssey. First it was one of suffering, denial and escape from reality, of drifting away from friends and family, and feeling the humiliations of jail and of ostracism in his homeland. Then came a slow, painstaking religious conversion, and the prodigal son's return to San Francisco and the Giants. All of which culminated in his election to the Hall and his triumphant homecoming in Puerto Rico.

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