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.”