With their stylish portraits and lime-green highlights, the 1963 Fleer star cards were a distinctive series. One of these icons, #64, pays homage to Orlando Cepeda. He's pictured on the card's face in his most familiar uniform, half-smiling -- a charismatic star in his prime. On the back, below his vital stats, we learn that Cepeda's teammates called him the "Baby Bull" in tribute to his strength and the savage power of his swing. Besides being a power hitter, Cepeda was consistent. During a 17-year career, he batted .297 lifetime, including .300 or better, nine times.
Bursting onto the scene in 1958 (the Giants' debut out West after moving to San Francisco from New York), the fledgling outfielder posted impressive numbers -- .312 average, 25 homers, 96 RBI, 188 hits, a league-leading 38 doubles -- and was the unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year. Over his first five seasons, Cepeda batted .309, despite shifting from the outfield to first base in 1961. That year, when Yankee stars Maris (61) and Mantle (54) combined for 115 home runs, Cepeda also put up prodigious numbers -- leading the National League in homers (46) and RBIs (142). When the knee injury that would plague the rest of his career struck in 1965, Cepeda resurged to win Comeback Player of the Year honors in 1966, the same year the Giants traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Ray Sadecki.
1967 was a watershed year for Cepeda. Batting a career best .325 with 25 homers and a league-leading 111 RBIs, he was the unanimous pick for MVP. While the rest of his career was less impressive (he became a much-touted designated hitter after re-injuring his knee in 1971 and saw service briefly for the Braves, A's, Red Sox, and Royals), he still showed flashes of his old power. Ending his career with 379 homers, his 1,365 RBIs placed him 48th on the all-time list -- just ahead of great Oriole third baseman Brooks Robinson (1,357).
However, as Cepeda's career waned, he made bad choices. He spent too much time in discos, lost large sums of money on soured deals, and became involved with illegal drugs. His career accomplishments seemed forever tarnished after he served a ten-month prison term for marijuana possession/smuggling. Admission into Cooperstown's ranks -- despite credentials the equal of Hall member George Kell and several others -- seemed a pipedream in 1993 after Cepeda missed induction by seven votes in his final chance to be elected by the writers. Cards bearing his likeness -- even that once-coveted 1963 Fleer icon -- could be had for a pittance.
All that changed on March 2, 1999 when the veterans committee finally inducted "The Baby Bull" to baseball's shrine. Besides his teammates on the 1962-1966 Giants (Marichal, Mays, McCovey and Gaylord Perry), the jubilant Cepeda joins 3,000-hit club member Roberto Clemente as the only native Puerto Ricans to make the Hall.