When a knee injury robbed Orlando Cepeda of most of the 1965 season, no one was sure he would ever return to his status as one of the game’s best players.
But by 1967, baseball fans had their answer – as Cepeda led the St. Louis Cardinals to the 1967 World Series title.
On Nov. 7, 1967, Cepeda was named the National League’s MVP in a unanimous vote – becoming the first unanimous NL MVP since Carl Hubbell in 1936. Cepeda hit .325 with 25 homers and an NL-best 111 RBI that season, batting cleanup in the Cardinals’ powerful lineup.
In the World Series, the Cardinals defeated the Red Sox in seven games to clinch their second title of the 1960s. It was the crowning achievement of a 10-year run that saw Cepeda become one of the most respected players in baseball.
Born Sept. 17, 1937, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Cepeda burst on the scene in 1958 at the age of 20, batting .312 with 25 home runs and 96 RBI for the San Francisco Giants en route to being unanimously named the NL Rookie of the Year. In 1961, Cepeda led the league with 46 home runs and 142 RBI, finishing second in the MVP vote. He became the first foreign-born player in the modern era (post 1900) to lead his league in home runs.
“He is annoying every pitcher in the league,” said teammate Willie Mays during Cepeda’s rookie season of 1958. “He is strong, he hits to all fields and he makes all the plays. He's the most relaxed first-year man I ever saw.”
After helping the Giants win the National League pennant in 1962 with 35 homers and 114 RBI, Cepeda continued to perform at an All-Star level – until 1965, when he injured his right knee diving for a ball in left field. Cepeda appeared in just 33 games that season – 27 of which came as pinch hitter – and eventually underwent surgery.
Then, on May 8, 1966 – after appearing in just 19 games for the Giants that year – San Francisco traded Cepeda to the Cardinals for pitcher Ray Sadecki. An invigorated Cepeda hit .303 with the Cardinals in 123 games after the trade, then powered St. Louis to the title the following year.
Knee injuries, which had plagued Cepeda since his youth, continued to hound the slugging first baseman through the final seven seasons of his big league career. He retired following the 1974 season with 379 home runs, 1,365 RBI and a .297 batting average – along with 11 All-Star Game selections.
Cepeda was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1999.