Orlando Cepeda Hall of Fame Campaign

Under new ownership in 1993, the San Francisco Giants decided to make a concerted effort to help former star Orlando Cepeda gain enough votes to be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  There were challenges to overcome.  Cepeda, a seven-time All-Star and the 1967 National League MVP, had never received more than 59.6% of the baseball writers’ votes—far short of the 75% needed to gain entrance to Cooperstown.  Many felt that his arrest and conviction for smuggling marijuana in Puerto Rico in 1976 had an adverse effect on his chances to make the Hall of Fame.

Beyond the challenge of overcoming that incident, we also recognized that the voters do not welcome any campaigning by clubs so the Giants could not be blatant with their promotion.

It was my recommendation to pursue Orlando’s candidacy on many levels.

First, we made a case due to his baseball accomplishments.  Through research, we discovered a great argument:  Of the 18 retired players who have hit more than 300 home runs and batted over .295, only Orlando Cepeda was not in the Hall of Fame.  I also made the case that his 379 home runs were more than Hall of Famers such as Joe DiMaggio and Ralph Kiner, his 1,365 RBI were more than Hall of Famer’s Hank Greenberg and Duke Snider, and his .297 career batting average was higher than Hall of Famers Carl Yastrzemski and Willie McCovey.  In addition, I pointed out that on a National League All-Star Team that included such superstars as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente, it was Cepeda who usually batted cleanup in the lineup.

Also, we addressed the “character” issue.  We asked this question to the voting media:  isn’t the real test of character how a person responds to his mistake?  Cepeda had already paid his debt to society by spending time in jail.  He had also made a deep commitment to community service, visiting inner-city schools and youth groups in the Bay Area as well as many other U.S. cities and explaining how he had made a very bad judgment and had paid dearly for it.  He encouraged youngsters—many in Spanish—to be goal oriented and avoid the traps he had fallen into.  As he would say, “You have no excuses to be somebody!”

Facing his final year of eligibility for Hall election by the baseball writers, we knew it was important to generate attention and tell Orlando’s inspiring story through the media.  We felt the best way to accomplish that without insulting the writers’ intelligence was to simply have Cepeda, a Giants’ community ambassador, accompany the team on some of its road trips.  In advance of those trips, I contacted key sports media to alert them that Cepeda would be on the trip in the event they might like to do a story.  Larry King and George Michaels in Washington, D.C., Furman Bisher in Atlanta, Stan Hochman in Philadelphia, and Bill Rhoden and Hal Bock in New York, among others, visited with “the Baby Bull” either at the batting cage before games or in studio.  Media momentum built as we neared the voting date.

At the same time, the Giants created an effective local vehicle for promotion by honoring Cepeda at the team’s Latin American Night.  T-shirts entitled “Orlando Belongs in the Hall” were sold, with proceeds going to the Roberto Clemente Latin American Athletic club, and post cards were distributed for fans to mail to the Hall of Fame in support of their hero.

When the 1994 voting was held, Cepeda garnered 335 votes (73.5%) his 15th and final year on the writers’ ballots to miss making the hall by only seven votes—the fifth-narrowest margin in history.  There was a silver lining to the near miss, however.  After having to wait five years for eligibility by the Veterans Committee, Cepeda was voted into Cooperstown in 1999.

Ray Ratto, the usually acerbic sports columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, paid me the highest compliment in his article that day:

“Whatever his qualifications for the hall might be, it can fairly be said that without renewed and energetic promotion from Giants vice president Bob Rose, the Cepeda candidacy would never have picked up the momentum it eventually achieved.”