Cepeda headed back to Boston as Red Sox honor DH

When the Boston Red Sox called Orlando Cepeda in December 1972

to inquire whether he would like to be their first designated

hitter, the unemployed, future Hall of Famer signed up

immediately.

”Boston called and asked me if I was interested in being the

DH, and I said yes,” Cepeda recalled Wednesday, attending the

series finale between the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco

Giants at AT&T Park. ”The DH got me to the Hall of Fame. The

rule got me to the Hall of Fame.”

He just had no idea exactly what he would be doing in the new

gig out East. The experiment worked out beautifully for Cepeda, who

played in 142 games that season – the second-to-last in a decorated

17-year major league career. The Athletics had released Cepeda only

months after acquiring him from Atlanta on June 29, 1972.

The DH is 40 years old this season, and Cepeda is headed to

Boston next month to help celebrate the anniversary. He will be

recognized at Fenway Park on May 8. The Red Sox are flying him

cross country for the ceremony. They had invited him for their

first home series of the season but his former Giants franchise was

honoring the reigning World Series champions at the same time.

”It means a lot,” Cepeda said. ”Amazing. When you think

everything’s finished, it’s only the beginning.” He recently

attended the Hollywood red carpet opening of the movie ’42,’ about

Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier.

Cepeda was the first major league player signed expressly to be

a designated hitter, according to the Red Sox.

”I didn’t know anything about the DH,” Cepeda said.

The 75-year-old Puerto Rican star nicknamed ”Baby Bull” also

will visit Boston-area hospitals to support victims of the marathon

bombings, though he hopes many will have made great improvements by

then.

”Whatever they need me to do, I will do,” Cepeda said,

acknowledging perhaps he could brighten someone’s day or bring on a

smile.

Cepeda said then-A’s owner Charlie Finley sent him a telegram to

call him within a 24-hour period or he would be released. Cepeda

didn’t meet the deadline. He played in just three games for Oakland

after the A’s traded for him on June 29, 1972, for pitcher Denny

McLain – who happens to be the majors’ last 30-game winner. Cepeda

was placed on the disabled list with a left knee injury, and both

of his knees would bother him for the remainder of his career. He

underwent 10 surgeries in all on the knees, sidelining him four

different years.

Cepeda had been a first baseman and outfielder before joining

the first class of baseball’s designated hitters under the new

American League rule.

”They were talking about only doing it for three years,” he

said. ”And people still don’t like the idea of the DH. They said

it wouldn’t last.”

The addition of the designated hitter opened up new

opportunities for players such as Cepeda and others from his era

who could still produce at the plate late in their careers but no

longer played the field with the spot-on defense of their

primes.

Cepeda was thrilled to have a fresh start, and he certainly

thrived in the new role. To be part of history as the much-debated

designated hitter position made its debut was another special part

of it that year.

Cepeda batted .289 with 20 home runs and 86 RBIs, starting off

strong with a .333 average and five homers in April. He drove in 23

runs in August on the way to DH of the Year honors. On Aug. 8 at

Kansas City, Cepeda hit four doubles.

”That was one of the best years,” Cepeda recalled, ”because I

was playing on one leg and I hit .289. And I hit four doubles in

one game. Both my knees were hurting, and I was designated hitter

of the year.”

Cepeda topped Baltimore’s Tommy Davis (.306, 7 home runs, 89

RBIs) and Minnesota’s Tony Oliva (.291, 16 HR, 92 RBIs) for top DH

honors, saying Wednesday: ”It wasn’t easy for me to win the award.

They had some great years.”

And it wasn’t until after the season that Cepeda could look back

and appreciate all he had accomplished that year – along with the

big part he played in history and change in the sport.

”I just did it,” he said of learning the DH. ”Every day, I

say to myself, how lucky I am, how fortunate I am, to be born with

the skills to play ball.”