We might forget that St. Cloud, beginning in the heady post-WWII years, had a minor league baseball club with major league affiliation. Future Hall of Famer Cepeda passed through. The St. Cloud team was called the "Rox." The St. Cloud area is distinguished for its quality of granite. It has also been distinguished for having a party school college. The administration of that college (or University) has been working doggedly to eradicate its dubious image. To the extent: no more Homecoming. That's drastic and it shows just how determined that institution is, led by President Earl Potter.
Orlando Cepeda was a mere 20 years old when he reached the major leagues in 1958. The Latino phenom homered off Don Drysdale in his first major league game. He was a San Francisco Giant, on the same roster as Willie Mays. Cepeda and Mays both played with the Minneapolis Millers on their way up. Back in about 2007, Barbara Flanagan wrote a column in which she remembered interviewing Mays in 1951. Amused, I sent an email to David Brauer of Minnpost saying "anyone who can remember interviewing Willie Mays in 1951 should probably be retired."
A procession of future superstars indeed graced our Twin Cities in the days before we got real major league baseball. And in St. Cloud, fans could celebrate the likes of Cepeda, Lou Brock and Gaylord Perry passing through - Hall of Famers all. It's a chapter of Central Minnesota history that might be drifting away from us.
I wrote a blog post for my companion website that explores deeply the background of the St. Cloud "Rox." You may click on the permalink below, and thanks for reading. - B.W.
I recently posted on Tommy Davis, the notable Los Angeles Dodger of the early 1960s. Davis and Cepeda had something in common. Both were sidelined for most of the 1965 season due to injury. After that, both moved on to teams other than the one where they made their first substantial impact. Davis became a pure journeyman for reasons I haven't been able to understand.
Cepeda bounced around to an extent too, but he made a big enough impact with St. Louis to become solidly associated with that red color. This he did with one big season. It was 1967 when the U.S. was at the height of its Viet Nam war misery. If I remember correctly, Jose Feliciano did the National Anthem for one of the '67 World Series games in a manner that many straight-laced older Americans didn't like. Think of Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino."
Baseball played forward through all the social tumult - a real testament to its part in America's fabric. I remember a documentary about the generation gap in which a man was interviewed about his younger days, and he said baseball was the only thing he and his father could really talk about with a feeling of commonality. That stuck in my mind. I came from a generation gap family too. I never felt I really knew my father, who served in the Pacific Theater of World War II. That was "the good war." My generation got bequeathed "the bad war."
Baseball survived WWII on FDR's insistence. It survived the culturally tumultuous 1960s. But it could not survive, really, the labor strife of the 1990s. Baseball had to "look the other way" and allow PEDs so that some musclebound players could hit homers to bring fans back to the game. Some of these players were "thanked" by being disallowed into the Hall of Fame. It's a brutal world.
Orlando Cepeda led the St. Cloud Cardinals to the 1967 World Series title. He was named National League MVP in a unanimous vote, becoming the first unanimous N.L. MVP since Carl Hubbell in 1936. He hit .325 with 25 homers and an N.L.-best 111 RBIs, as the Cards' cleanup hitter.
I liked the Cardinals when I was a kid, I suppose partly because they represented the Midwest. But in the old days, when train travel was the norm, St. Louis was "the west." Chicago too. Out west we had the Pacific Coast League, technically a minor league but with talent comparable to the majors. Who wouldn't want to live in California? Finally the majors moved out West, leaving New York City with just one team, the Yankees, for a while.
Minnesota Twins fans will remember our 1967 season as perhaps the most heartbreaking in team history. We were edged out at the end by Carl Yastrzemski and his Boston Red Sox. As a kid I was absolutely devastated. The '67 World Series saw Cepeda and his Cardinals defeat the Red Sox in seven games.
I have always associated Cepeda with the 1960s, the richest baseball decade in my memories. But Cepeda was an impact player before the '60s began, as he batted .312 with 25 home runs and 96 RBIs for San Francisco in 1958. He was unanimously named Rookie of the Year. In '61, Cepeda led the N.L. with 46 home runs and 142 RBIs, and he was second in the MVP voting. I was six years old in 1961, the year Roger Maris hit all those home runs in the A.L. I first started collecting baseball cards in 1963. Many of them were off cereal boxes.
By '62, Cepeda was a most established superstar. The '62 campaign saw the "Baby Bull" hit 35 home runs and drive in 114 runs, helping San Francisco to the N.L. pennant. Cepeda was injured in '65 when he dove for a ball in left field. He required surgery.
It was in May of 1966 that Cepeda was traded to St. Louis for. . .Ray Sadecki. No superstar, Sadecki, although he had a long career as a rather capable pitcher. Cepeda appeared invigorated. He batted .303 with the Cardinals in 123 games. The stage was set for '67, Cepeda's prime year.
Cepeda dealt with knee problems through much of his career. His final seven seasons were particularly affected. He retired after 1974 with 379 home runs, 1,365 RBIs and a .297 average. He was chosen an All-Star seven times. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1999.
Oh, I haven't mentioned his stance yet. I'll let Roger Angell do the talking here: "I cannot understand how Orlando Cepeda, the Giants' slugger, ever hits a pitch. At the plate, he stands with his hands and the bat twisted back, almost behind his shoulder blade, and his vast riffles look wild and looping. Only remarkable strength can control such a swing."
"Riffles?" I remember when Angell, of The New Yorker, described our Metropolitan Stadium as an "airy cyclotron." Hey, he's with The New Yorker.
Let's understand something about batting stances in general: They are almost entirely cosmetic, and if you evaluate a batter's swing in slow motion through the whole process, you'll see that all hitters really begin their swing from the same position. Did you think Carl Yastrzemski began his swing from that position with the bat held up high? Or that Dick McAuliffe could really begin his swing from such a zany position? No. It's cosmetic, maybe even based on superstition.
Juan Marichal's leg kick as a pitcher was psychological. Maybe it intimidated the batters. A little leaguer who tries copying this stuff would be frustrated. It is not what it appears to be.
Cepeda got in trouble with drugs once but he rehabilitated his image. I hope this talented fellow has never forgotten his stint in St. Cloud, Minnesota, the "Granite City."