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Original Issue

The Babe Cobb of Puerto Rico

One of the best ballplayers in the Caribbean never got to the big leagues, but his son has kept the name going

Soon after burly Orlando Cepeda began pounding home runs for San Francisco in 1958, a myth arose to the effect that the so-called Baby Bull from Puerto Rico had been sired by a prodigious slugger known across the Greater Antilles as "the Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico." The truth is that Orlando's father—Pedro (Perucho) Cepeda—shared with Ruth little more than a taste for hard living. If an analogy must be drawn, Perucho was the Ty Cobb of Puerto Rico.

"Ah, well do I remember Perucho," says Se√±or Pedro Vàzquez, an erstwhile ballplayer and onetime president of the Puerto Rican Winter League. "One day we had him trapped between bases and he put his head down and flew at me with his spikes. Sssst! He cut off my pants from the waist down."

For a fact, Perucho was one of the finest, if not the very best, of the Caribbean Negroes born too soon to cash in on the day when the big leagues went bi-racial. Though broad-backed and thickset, he was sufficiently agile to play any position in the infield and outfield—he usually played shortstop. Twice he hit better than .400. Unlike Ruth, he did not hit the cuadrangular often, but he rattled the fences with line-drive doubles and triples. He also rattled the jaws of opposing players and fans with lefts and rights.

Indeed, the fans counted upon Perucho's towering temper to provide an added attraction and made a point of goading him into action. Playing for Santurce at age 44, only five years away from death from cirrhosis of the liver, Perucho cracked out a pinch-hit double in a game at Caguas, whereupon a fan in the third-base seats shouted, "Perucho, you are an old man! You cannot play!" The insult, like most of those Perucho heard, actually was hurled with cheerful affection, for Puerto Ricans exposed themselves to him in the same spirit that men run with the bulls at Pamplona. Perucho bolted from the field, socked the fan a terrific blow and was hauled off to jail.

"Ah, Perucho!" cried the desk sergeant and the lieutenant in charge. As usual, they clapped him on the back and sent him home.

Perucho's tiny wife Carmen, a nonviolent type, forswore the ball parks and could not be persuaded by her son Orlando to see him play until he was 20. After she had become a widow she remained puzzled by her husband's behavior. "Perucho would tell me, 'I love to fight. I have to fight.' "

For all his exertions, he was never paid more than $60 a week and had to moonlight with the San Juan water department to support his family. Yet he was a star among true stars, for in the 1930s, his ginger years, the great American Negro players—Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and the rest—played Puerto Rico by winter. However stiff the competition, Perucho found defeat so intolerable that no one dared speak to him after a loss.

On one such day Orlando and his older brother, Pedro Jr., tagged home from the park with their father. Marching head down to the bus stop, Perucho boarded a bus—the wrong one—in a blind rage. Pedro Jr. glanced at Orlando, who shrugged and put a finger to his lips. "We were too scared to say anything," says Orlando. "We just sat there in the bus and kept riding."

Orlando was a semicripple, hobbling on a badly bowed right leg, but at 15 he had the leg corrected by surgery and began to fill out, a powerful youngster. One day his brother came home and said, "Hey, Papa, you ought to sec Orlando play baseball. He has the power." Perucho was delighted, but he made it clear that as a father he would not have any of that catching-Bob-Feller-out-by-the-barn routine. "Nobody can teach you to play ball," he growled at Orlando. "If you are going to be a baseball player, be it by yourself."

So saying, he abruptly made Feller's father look like the soul of indifference. "Everywhere I played," says Orlando, "my father followed." Whenever Orlando fielded a ball incorrectly, Perucho would stampede from the stands shouting, "I showed you how to make that play!" In one game, after Orlando had committed an error and gone 0 for 2, Perucho shook his fist under his son's chin and warned, "You better do something, or else!" Orlando hit two doubles.

The son loved basketball, but Perucho made him throw his uniform, shoes and ball into the rubbish. "Baseball or nothing," declared Perucho. In the end his vigilance had a decidedly beneficial effect on the sandlot performances of Orlando and Pedro Jr. During one game Pedro was hit on the arm with a pitch, and Perucho dashed from his seat, challenging the pitcher to a fight. Says Orlando, "After that, you see, Pedro and me, we got very good pitches whenever our father was in the stands."

Nevertheless, Pedro became so terrified of making an error before his father's eyes that he gave up baseball, enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico and became an accountant.

Perucho played his last season at age 45 and soon after had to endure prolonged torture from his ruined liver. One day he went to the office of his former employer, Pedro Zorilla, who owned the Santurce Club and scouted for San Francisco. To Zorilla, Perucho said, "Take care of my kid." Soon after, in 1955, Zorilla took Orlando to a Giant tryout camp in Florida, where the Giants signed him for a $500 bonus. Perucho sighed and went to bed and died.