In the 1960s, the San Francisco Giants were poised to become the best team in baseball. Not only did their roster sport such fan favorites as Willie McCovey and Willie Mays, but the team had positioned itself to take advantage of the new wave of talent coming into the game — the Latino ballplayer.
The Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in 1947, opening the door to other players of color. “The Latin player then took the game to another level,” says Hall of Fame player and baseball executive Joe Torre. And nobody had more, or better, Latino players in the early 1960s than the Giants.
Pitcher Juan Marichal, for example, recorded a one-hitter in his very first major league start and won 20 or more games six times. Outfielder Felipe Alou, who grew up a three-hour drive from Marichal’s home in the Dominican Republic, joined the Giants along with his brothers, Matty and Jesus. Orlando Cepeda and Jose Pagan came north from Puerto Rico to play in the big leagues.
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“The Giants were the first team with so many black and Latino stars,” says Rob Ruck, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and the writer of the PBS documentary “The Republic of Baseball.” “Not only did they have the numbers, but four of them [Marichal, Cepeda, McCovey and Mays] went on to become Hall of Famers.”
Before Roberto Clemente and Muhammad Ali took center stage as politically savvy athletes of the era, before gloved fists were raised in protest at the Mexico City Olympics, the San Francisco “Latino” Giants made headlines of their own. In looking back, so much of the current era in baseball — in which nearly a third of major league players are Latin American — can be traced back to the 1960s San Francisco team.
Yet within the sport, and even for the larger world, the Giants remain a cautionary tale: a high-profile example of what can happen when prejudice derails a talented organization or team, when discord and distrust become everyday elements in a workplace. Instead of dominating the big leagues with their core of talented Latino and African-American players, the Giants were perennial also-rans for most of the 1960s.
“They had the potential to be as dominant as the Yankees were during the same period in the American League,” Ruck says. “Unfortunately, we will never know how good they could have been.”
THE BABY BULL
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Orlando Cepeda broke in with the Giants in 1958, the team’s first season on the West Coast. He homered against the Dodgers in his first big-league game and was named Rookie of the Year. That he would have been an instant star at the major league level shouldn’t have surprised anyone who knew his family roots. Cepeda’s father was Perucho “The Bull” Cepeda, a Puerto Rican baseball legend. Perucho refused opportunities to play in the U.S. Negro League because of social conditions in the South, but he was ultimately enshrined in the Puerto Rican Hall of Fame for his stellar performance in Caribbean baseball.
“Nobody was as good as my father back home in Puerto Rico,” Cepeda says. “I never came close.”
Perucho warned his son about American prejudice; nevertheless, Cepeda came to the U.S. to play professional baseball in 1955. From his start in the minor leagues, he endured racial taunts, pitches aimed at his head and opposing base runners sliding in spikes-high. As a 17-year-old, he split his first season between teams in the Mississippi-Ohio Valley and Appalachian leagues. Off the field, he encountered white and “colored” drinking fountains and restrooms for the first time, as well as restaurants, theaters and sections of local ballparks divided by race — the full power of Jim Crow.
“Have you ever seen the movie ‘42’ about Jackie Robinson?” Cepeda says. “I went through that.”
Most Latinos encountered segregation as soon as they arrived in America because most big-league clubs held spring training in Florida and most minor league teams played in small towns. The prejudice Cepeda encountered early in his career was a major reason he was happy to be called up to the big-league club in San Francisco in 1958. “Here was a place where I could be myself,” he recalls. “Right from the beginning, I fell in love with the city.”
On the Giants, Cepeda combined with Willie Mays to form the top power tandem in the game from 1958 to 1964. He quickly became a fan favorite, nicknamed “Cha-Cha” and “Baby Bull,” helping the franchise double its home attendance despite playing in the chilly confines of Candlestick Park. With Cepeda and Mays at the plate, and Marichal on the mound, the Giants had the ingredients for a championship team.
NEW MAN IN CHARGE
A change in leadership changed the clubhouse atmosphere. Manager Bill Rigney was fired during the 1960 season and replaced by Alvin Dark. The relationship between the new manager and his Latino stars soon became toxic.
“To be blunt, on many occasions, Alvin made my life a living hell,” Cepeda writes in his autobiography, “Baby Bull.” “Things got so bad at times that there were days I didn’t want to go to the ballpark.”
When Look magazine said in 1960 that Cepeda might just be the best right-handed hitter in the game, Dark undercut him, saying that the Latino slugger would never be the team player that Mays was. Ruck calls Dark “the worst possible manager for this particular team.”
Dark even ordered his Latino players not to speak Spanish in the dugout or clubhouse. “I asked him, ‘Why can’t I speak my language?’” Cepeda says. “And Dark said, ‘Some of the other players were complaining that they cannot understand what you’re talking about.’ I told him, ‘When I first came to America, we didn’t know what anyone was talking about either.’”
Felipe Alou, who would later manage the Giants himself, remembers Dark as “a very nice man” who was “totally separated from the reality of the world.” Alou told the manager that it was inconceivable for him not to speak Spanish with his brothers and teammates Matty and Jesus. “How could I explain that to my parents?” he says.
Marichal says he had no personal problems with Dark, but when the manager saw the Spanish-speaking players laughing and talking, “he couldn’t comprehend what was going on. And that was the start of all the trouble on the team.”
Even with tension between Dark and his Latino players, the Giants appeared set up for a long, successful run, with Marichal, Cepeda, Mays and the Alou brothers heading into the primes of their careers. They even finished first in the National League in 1962. But off-field problems proved to be too difficult to ignore and overcome.
After the season, Alou, Marichal and other Dominican players played a series of exhibition games in the Dominican Republic against a team of Cuban baseball stars who had been exiled from their country following the rise of Fidel Castro. But baseball Commissioner Ford Frick said the MLB hadn’t authorized the contests and fined the players $250 apiece — big money in those days, long before baseball’s salary explosion.
Frick’s punishment was too much for Alou, who declared that the powers in baseball didn’t understand “that these are our people and we owe it to them to play for them.” He expanded on such issues in a first-person story for Sport magazine in November 1963, in which he urged the commissioner’s office to hire someone who understood Latino culture. Alou said many Latino players felt like outsiders in the U.S., despite years of playing in the major leagues.
“We play ball in this country, we spend the greater part of the year in this country,” he told sportswriter Arnold Hano. “We have many friends in this country, our names are in the American papers, and we become well known to many Americans, but though we are in this country, we are not a part of this country. We are strangers.”
Alou’s first exposure to prejudice had come early in his career. Signed by the Giants in 1955 and initially assigned to a minor league team in Lake Charles, La., he was left without a team when the league disbanded the Lake Charles and Lafayette ballclubs because they had dark-skinned players on their roster. So the Giants’ front office sent Alou to Cocoa, Fla., where he strongly considered going home to the Dominican Republic. But Alou hung on and eventually led his minor league with a .380 batting average and 21 home runs, on his way to joining the major league team, along with Cepeda, in 1958.
Latino players faced prejudice in the majors as well. Alou remembers going to a restaurant in Pittsburgh with Cepeda early in their careers. “We were dressed very well,” he says. “… The head waiter came up and said, ‘You looking for a job? We have nothing for you.’ We told him we wanted to eat. He wouldn’t let us inside.”
The Sport article apparently angered the Giants front office. Shortly after the story appeared, Alou was traded to the Milwaukee Braves. “I think that was one of the biggest mistakes the Giants ever made,” Marichal says.
Even without Alou, the Giants found themselves back in contention in the summer of 1964. They were in second place, one game behind the Phillies, when Newsday columnist Stan Isaacs caught up with Alvin Dark. Having lost seven of nine games, the Giants’ manager singled out Cepeda and Jesus Alou for “dumb” base-running mistakes.
Dark couldn’t leave it at that, though, telling Isaacs that “Negro and Spanish-speaking players on this team … are just not able to perform up to the white players when it comes to mental alertness.”
While the team would remain competitive, finishing in second place five consecutive seasons, the damage was done. The Giants wouldn’t return to the postseason until 1971, and by then Cepeda and Dark were both gone. The controversial manager was fired in 1964, though he eventually led the Oakland Athletics to a pair of divisional titles and a World Series championship in 1974. Along the way, Dark became more comfortable with the new face of baseball. After all, the A’s stars included Reggie Jackson, who described himself as “a black kid with Spanish, Indian and Irish blood,” and Cuban-born shortstop Bert Campaneris.
Dark had nothing but praise for Campaneris, calling him “the best offensive shortstop since Pee Wee Reese,” the Dodgers star of the 1950s who played alongside Jackie Robinson.
One wonders how far such compliments might have gone with the Latino Giants.
‘A DOUBLE MINORITY’
Today, 17.6 percent of the U.S. population is Hispanic or Latino, according to the Pew Research Center. In America’s national pastime, nearly 30 percent of those on the field now hail from Spanish-speaking lands. (African-Americans make up just 8.5 percent of major league rosters.)
Researchers in education, politics and industry have studied this sea change within baseball’s demographics, attempting to measure the impact of the game’s assimilation of minority players as an analogy for change in the larger society. But many academics believe that, even today, Latin players continue to struggle with what Roberto Clemente, the star Puerto Rican right fielder of the Pittsburgh Pirates, once described as a “double minority” — singled out for being both black and from another country.
Felipe Alou’s best friend on the Giants was Jose Pagan, who, like Cepeda, came from Puerto Rico. Even though Pagan was an American citizen, Alou saw that his teammate encountered many of the same problems he did. “This means that Puerto Ricans find themselves closer to other Latins than to Stateside players,” Alou wrote in his Sport essay. “It makes foreigners out of a country’s citizens.”
Adrian Burgos Jr., author of “Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line,” points out that African-American ballplayers “were much more familiar than foreign-born Latinos with navigating the idiosyncrasies of and regional variation in racial practices in the United States. They were angered when darker-skinned Latinos shunned them inside or outside the clubhouse, or when Latinos did not turn to them for guidance.”
Meanwhile, the white power structure, inside and outside baseball, sometimes has seemed oblivious to the challenges faced by players of color. As writer Richard Rodriguez, who grew up in Sacramento, writes, “It was as though White simply hadn’t had time enough to figure Brown out.”
A CHANGE OF SCENERY
The Giants continued to break up their Latino contingent. A month into the 1966 season, Cepeda was traded from San Francisco to the St. Louis Cardinals. His knees had deteriorated due to a weightlifting accident several seasons earlier that he hadn’t told Giants management about. “Because I knew that the team would give me flak, I didn’t tell a soul other than my wife,” Cepeda says. To help alleviate the pain, he began to smoke marijuana – a habit that eventually cost him dearly.
Moving to St. Louis, Cepeda found a ballclub and organization that embraced diversity. The Cardinals, who would reach the World Series three times during the 1960s, winning twice, took great pride in having white, black and Latino stars in their everyday lineup. “We were the rainbow coalition of baseball,” says Bob Gibson, the team’s African-American star pitcher.
The Cardinals won the World Series in 1967, and Cepeda was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player. “That’s as satisfying a season as I ever had as a player,” he says.
After his playing career ended in 1974, Cepeda returned to Puerto Rico. With Roberto Clemente’s death in a plane crash less than two years before, Cepeda was the island’s reigning baseball hero. But after he was arrested at San Juan Airport in 1975 for smuggling marijuana from Colombia, he became an outcast. His name was removed from neighborhood ballfields. He lost TV commercial deals. Crowds for his baseball clinics dwindled.
“With one stupid decision, everything changed,” he says. “My life became a struggle.”
Cepeda was sentenced to five years in the minimum-security federal prison at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. There, he served 10 months, cleaning toilets and doing laundry, until he was paroled.
Life on the outside continued to go downhill for Cepeda. His marriage fell apart, and he lost his job as coach and scout with the Chicago White Sox. Uncertain about the future, Cepeda turned to Buddhism and attended meetings of the Nichiren Shoshu sect, which employs a chanting mantra to cleanse the mind and soul.
“It helped me to learn not to blame anybody anymore,” he said. “When you chant, you connect yourself to the universe.”
In 1999, Cepeda was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. And he returned to the Giants. Now 80, he has been one of the team’s community ambassadors for more than two decades, visiting hospitals, schools and senior citizen centers in the Bay Area, where he makes his home.
“Wherever I go, I tell people never to give up,” he says. “I tell them about Roberto Clemente … the courage of Felipe Alou. I tell them about myself and what I had to go through. I tell them to be somebody. Make a difference.”