In the game of baseball, the individual who serves in the shortstop position is often considered the best fielder on the team: a defensive creature, able to scoop, field, throw and catch any line drive or rocket hit their way. It is common for this type of player to be known for their glove and not for their hitting abilities, but in the history of the game, there is a select club of shortstops known for their bat as well as their glove. Some, like Honus Wagner, Ernie Banks, and Alex Rodriguez, are well known; others have been nearly forgotten, like Pedro Cepeda.
The first Puerto Rican superstar
Long before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Pedro “Perucho” Cepeda, aka «The Bull,” was one of Puerto Rico’s best baseball players, in a mythological era before the Puerto Rico Professional Baseball League was established. Due to the lack of clear statistical records at the beginning of his career, tales of the Bull’s supernatural abilities and prodigious power were embellished, until he took on the aura of a super-player with herculean strength. He was the first Puerto Rican superstar.
Pedro Anibal «Perucho» Cepeda was born in Cataño, Puerto Rico on January 31, 1906. Cataño, located in the north, is a small town not far from the city of San Juan, which borders the Atlantic Ocean.
A fearsome slugger
Almost 6 feet tall and close to 190 pounds, rugged and well built, Perucho was a marvelous athlete capable of playing shortstop, first base, and the outfield. He was an intense and aggressive runner, compared by some to Ty Cobb on the basepaths, and a magnificent hitter, capable of hitting with authority. A general in the playing field, managers respected him for his leadership and intensity. All those qualities were accompanied by a short temper.
Cepeda emerged as a real star in the sandlots of the island and abroad. He played ball during the mid-twenties in Puerto Rico, visited the Dominican Republic in 1927 for the first time and Venezuela in multiple occasions. He also played in Puerto Rico’s Professional League beginning with its first season in 1938–39, eventually playing for Guayama, Caguas, Mayagüez, San Juan, Santurce, and Ponce.
His hitting abilities were legendary in Latin America, gaining him the nickname “Babe Cobb” — like a hybrid of those two great players, he showed both power and tenacity. Juan Vené, the renowned baseball columnist, said, “As a child, I remember him hitting probably the longest homer in the history of the San Agustin Stadium in Caracas [Venezuela]. The ball went over the scoreboard located on the center field wall.»
He played for the Brooklyn Eagles
Looking for publicity, the Cincinnati Reds became the first major league team to set foot in the island of Puerto Rico in February of 1936. They planned to split their spring training between Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Florida. During that time, the island was hosting a tournament, with the Almendares from Cuba, team Ponce, and the Brooklyn Eagles (the short-lived Negro National League team) participating.
Once in Puerto Rico, the Reds measured their strength against all these teams. Perucho, who was playing for Ponce in the tournament, reinforced the Brooklyn Eagles in an exhibition game against the Reds. Playing first base and hitting 5th in the lineup, Perucho hit a bomb, good for three runs. The Eagles beat Cincinnati 10–4.
He was a Dragon
In 1937 Perucho was recruited to join the Trujillo Dragons in the Dominican Republic. The Dragons, often considered one of the best baseball teams of all time, was the infamous project of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo , who combined two existing teams and then added a group of Negro League stars to form a near-unbeatable squad. They had a roster that included Sam Bankhead, Cy Perkins, Silvio Garcia, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Cool Papa Bell—won the Dominican tournament against the Aguilas Cibaeñas.
The Dominican League was disbanded the following year; Perucho had meanwhile returned to Puerto Rico, and joined the Guayama Brujos in the newly founded Puerto Rico Professional League.
Desiderio de Leon, bat boy of that 1938–1939 Guayama Brujos championship team, remembers Perucho as an incredible athlete. «He [would]hit the ball safely for a hit, and while running toward the bases, he [would]do a backflip on a live game… The only other player I can compare a jump like that is Ozzie Smith…As good as he was he was also hot-headed. Some fans knew about his short temper and used to harass him from the stands. There was an occasion when a fan was mocking Perucho during a game. Perucho pointed at the fan while telling him, «I’ll catch you later.» After the game ended, Perucho went to the home were the fanatic lived. Found him hiding under the bed, took him out of the house and beat him up for being a big mouth.»
What a hitter!
Perucho was the most feared hitter in those early days of the Puerto Rican professional league. He hit .325 in his pro career (third-best all-time in the league), winning two batting crowns along the way, and hit over .400 twice. In 1939 he was the first hitter to record six hits in a game and in 1940 the first to achieve seven runs batted in in a single game. The only thing standing in his way of a Triple Crown in that 1939-40 season was Josh Gibson’s three additional home runs.
In the 1940s Perucho was approached by Alex Pompez, owner of the famous New York Cuban Stars of the Negro National League, who tried recruiting him to play for his team. Despite repeated attempts, Pompez was not successful: Perucho wasn’t interested in experiencing the segregation laws of the era. Much later, his younger son Orlando (by then a baseball superstar in his own right) explained that his father’s temper would not have tolerated the racial injustice that was happening in North America.
During the 1930’s and for the most of the 40’s, baseball games in Puerto Rico were played Saturday and Sundays. That gave some flexibility for players to have a second job during the week making more money for their families.
That was the case for Perucho, who in the early 40’s started working with the San Juan Water Department while playing baseball during the weekends.
He introduced Josh Gibson to Orlando
During the 1945-46 season, the Santurce Baseball team stopped in Guayama, at the Cepeda’s home before heading to Ponce for a game. On that day Perucho introduced Josh Gibson to his son Orlando. Orlando still remembers his dad telling him «No one in baseball has ever hit the ball harder than him.»
Cepeda’s last season as an active baseball player came during 1949-50 in Puerto Rico. He played for the Ponce Leones baseball team alongside another legend, Francisco «Pancho» Coimbre. Orlando added «I remember going to numerous games that season with my dad. The relationship that my dad had with Pancho was one of mutual respect. Both players were relegated mostly to pinch-hit duties, and when the manager was calling for a pinch hitter, Perucho would tell Pancho, Is your turn, and Pancho will reply, no is yours until one of them would get up and grabbed a bat. They were like brothers.”
Perucho was 44 years old when he hanged his baseball spikes. He died 5 years later in San Juan due to cirrhosis of the liver.
Orlando had signed his first professional contract, with the New York Giants, only two weeks before Perucho passed. He used the bonus money he’d received to pay for his father’s funeral.
Preparation was the key
The younger Cepeda said “My dad was very strict with my brother and me. I don’t recall him ever talking to us about hitting or him giving me any help about it, but the advice I will always remember was him reminding us to always be prepared for the games ahead of time.”
In 1958 Orlando Cepeda won the Rookie of the Year award playing for the Giants, who’d moved to San Francisco that year. Historian Jorge Colon Delgado recalls Orlando sharing the memory of his first homer for San Francisco: As he rounded the bases, all he could think of was his father Perucho. Orlando added “The day I arrived to the stadium my parents were on my mind the whole time. After I hit the homer I knew my dad had to be very proud of me because of the long road it took me to get there.”
Father and son on the Puerto Rican All-Century team
In 1999 Perucho and Orlando were selected as part of the Baseball Team of the Century in Puerto Rico Professional League: the elder Cepeda as the best shortstop and Orlando as the best first baseman. They were the first father-son combination to win batting crowns in PR.
That same year, twenty-five years after the end of an impressive major league career, the Veterans Committee elected Orlando Manuel «Peruchin» Cepeda to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. The announcement brought joy to many in Puerto Rico—the “Baby Bull” had brought immortality to the family name. Orlando’s induction brought back memories of Pedro «Perucho» Cepeda, how time had forgotten him and how good he once was.
In 2009 a new permanent exhibit opened in the Hall of Fame with the title of ¡Viva Baseball! —an exploration of the strong connection between baseball and the Latin American countries of the Caribbean. Orlando Cepeda lost no time in making sure his dad’s legacy was not forgotten once again. He donated to the Hall the championship trophy his dad received when he won the 1931 Puerto Rico Insular Championship with the Juncos Star. In this way, Perucho has ended up in the Hall along with his famous son — to be forever remembered among the best of all baseball players.
*This article was first published in print in Road Grays magazine in February of 2019.
Escrito por Raúl Ramos twitter @ramosrauli
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Perucho Cepeda: The best baseball player you never heard of
Orlando Cepeda: How a HOF player carried his father’s legacy all the way to Cooperstown