Cepeda, McCovey, and the Mother of All Asset-Squanderings

The 1958 San Francisco Giants, in their first season in their new hometown, displayed a bounty of young talent as rich any seen in history. The Giants’ roster in 1958 featured a future MVP and Hall of Famer, a future Cy Young Award winner, three future Gold Glove Award winners, and ten future All-Stars – and this is not including the 27-year-old future Hall of Famer Willie Mays, and not including yet three more future Hall of Famers developing in the farm system.

After slogging to dismal sixth place finishes in front of depression-era-sized crowds in New York in both 1956 and 1957, the Giants surged to third place in their first season in San Francisco. Though Seals Stadium had about half the seating capacity of the Polo Grounds, in 1958 the Giants enjoyed a total attendance that had been exceeded only twice in the franchise’s long history. Owner Horace Stoneham’s Giants beheld a future gleaming with auspicious possibilities, and unprecedented heights of prosperity.

What would unfold in the years to follow could hardly be described as failure. The Giants would win a pennant, would be a perennial contender, and would enjoy strong attendance for ten years. But it’s undeniable that things might have gone better, and things would have needed to go only slightly better for the Giants to win several pennants and pull off a dynastic run to rival those that John McGraw had achieved back in New York. Flushed with a pool of wondrous talent, the Giants struggled to make logical and firm decisions regarding how to deploy it, and through a series of extremely wasteful and sometimes pointless trades, they frittered much of the talent away. Stoneham’s regime – and it should be understood that Stoneham never employed a true General Manager; he oversaw all significant player personnel decisions personally – proved capable of creating a very good team. But under his management, the Giants were never able to become a great team.

Who’s On First?

Among the challenges the Giants of that era faced was a “problem” that every ball club should be so lucky to have: an overabundance of talent at first base. This issue first presented itself in the closing months of the 1958 season, when 24-year-old Bill White, a superb all-around player, returned to the Giants from military service to find his starting role assumed by 20-year-old Orlando Cepeda. While Cepeda was no match for White defensively – White would win seven Gold Gloves, Cepeda none – he was bigger and stronger than White, and he hit with a ferocious abandon that brought forth comparisons with such legendary free-swinging sluggers as Al Simmons and Joe Medwick. Cepeda was unanimously voted the National League Rookie of the Year in 1958.

Late in spring training of 1959, the Giants made a decisive move in deploying this depth of talent, by trading White to the Cardinals for Sam Jones, a veteran ace pitcher. However, this didn’t resolve their first base dilemma, because waiting in the triple-A wings was Willie McCovey. The 21-year-old McCovey blasted 29 home runs among 66 extra-base hits in 95 triple-A games in 1959, and in late July the Giants called him up to the majors.

McCovey, known even in those days as “Stretch,” was Central Casting’s ideal of a first baseman: 6-foot-4, left-handed all the way, a slow runner, and an awesome slugger. In five minor league seasons, he had never played any position except first base. Cepeda was 6-foot-2, right-handed, and quite fast for a big man; he had been a third baseman as well as an outfielder in the minor leagues. So it wouldn’t appear to be an especially perplexing decision to conclude that Cepeda should be shifted to make room for McCovey. Left field, the least demanding defensive position other than first base, would be a logical place to put Cepeda, but the Giants were already overstocked in the outfield: they had future All-Stars Jackie Brandt and Leon Wagner sharing left, and power-hitting Willie Kirkland platooning with future All-Star Felipe Alou in right, and of course the incomparable Mays in center.

The Not-So-Hot Corner

But at third base the Giants weren’t quite as strong. Jim Davenport was an excellent fielder (he would win a Gold Glove in 1962), but his hitting was mediocre. Cepeda had played nearly 150 games at third base in the minors, and he was still only 21 years old, a superb athlete whose complete skill profile was yet to be fully shaped. Giving Cepeda an opportunity to become a major league third baseman would appear to make a lot of sense: even if Cepeda’s fielding was poor, Davenport would still be on hand as a late-inning defensive replacement, and if Cepeda could manage to develop into anything approaching an average fielder at third, the Giants would have an asset of exceptionally rare value on their hands.

Placing a power hitter with limited defensive skill at third base was not an unprecedented or even an unusual move in 1959. Harmon Killebrew, a less graceful athlete than Cepeda, would play 150 games at third that season, and a total of 792 over his long career. Pittsburgh slugger Frank Thomas – the first Frank Thomas — 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, was shifted to third base from the outfield at the age of 27 in 1956, and would play extensively at third through 1960. Bob Elliott was converted from an outfielder to a third baseman in his seventh professional season, and he would win the 1948 N.L. MVP award while playing third. In 1964, the Phillies would introduce 22-year-old rookie Richie Allen to the position at the major league level, and though he led the majors in errors, he was voted Rookie of the Year.

In more recent years, sluggers such as Pedro Guerrero, Bobby Bonilla, and Albert Pujols have stepped up to the challenge of playing third. Under Stoneham’s own authority, the Giants had moved Mel Ott to third base in 1937, and Sid Gordon in 1948. Most boldly of all, it would be Stoneham’s Giants in 1972 who would undertake the project of converting 23-year-old Dave Kingman — at 6-foot-6 the most ungainly of all of these sluggers — into a third baseman, a position at which he would play 154 major league games.

None of these moves yielded a slick-fielding third baseman, but that was never expected. In every case the choice was made in order to allow the ball club to get another big bat into the lineup, the calculation being that runs gained at the plate would outnumber runs conceded in the field. In every one of these cases except arguably one – Kingman’s – the move turned out to be a positive one for the ball club, and a career-enhancing skill gained by the player. Cepeda had defensive aptitude equal to most of these players, and he had played more minor league third base than many of them. With proper coaching and patient encouragement, a serious, sustained effort by Cepeda at third base may very well have paid off handsomely for the Giants.

Instead, what happened was this: when McCovey was brought up, Cepeda shifted to third base for four games. He handled a total of eight chances at third, made three errors, and the Giants abandoned the idea forever. Cepeda moved to left field for the remainder of 1959. Jackie Brandt, who had never played third base at any professional level, was given a shot there instead. Brandt was a good fielder (in fact, the National League’s Gold Glove left fielder in ’59), and with time probably would have developed into a decent third baseman, but it didn’t happen right away – Brandt’s fielding percentage at third was .818 — and there wasn’t much point in making this move anyway. Brandt wasn’t that much better a hitter than Davenport; by playing Brandt at third and Cepeda in left rather than vice-versa, the Giants weakened themselves defensively at two positions rather than one, and gained only Brandt’s 739 OPS in the lineup instead of Davenport’s 644. The Giants soon figured this out, and down the stretch Brandt mostly sat on the bench while Davenport returned to the hot corner.

Babying the Baby Bull

The Giants’ unwillingness to persist with Cepeda at third base was caused by more than his committing three errors in his first four games. The primary issue was Cepeda’s plain disapproval of the concept. It wasn’t simply that Cepeda lacked confidence in his ability as a third baseman — he described himself there as “a butcher” — the larger issue was that Cepeda was never happy playing anywhere other than first base, and he was not shy about letting the team know it.

It’s understandable that the Giants would elect to not press the issue with their young star by forcing him to re-learn a challenging defensive position in the heat of a close pennant race, and so putting him in left field for the closing weeks of 1959 makes sense. But the way the ball club dealt with the issue of where to play Cepeda following 1959 was not so sensible. First, they didn’t insist upon re-engaging the third base project in the more sheltered and instructional environment of winter ball or spring training; Cepeda would never play another inning at third. But neither did they commit Cepeda to a full-time role as a left fielder. Even in late 1959, with McCovey hitting .354 and winning (unanimously, just like Cepeda) the Rookie of the Year award, the Giants found every opportunity to get Cepeda back to first base, in the late innings and on the few occasions when they sat McCovey down against a left-handed pitcher. In 1960 and 1961, they rotated Cepeda back and forth between the outfield and first base on a day-to-day basis. Through it all Cepeda freely expressed his dissatisfaction with his status as anything other than the regular first baseman.

In 1962 the Giants gave in to Cepeda’s wishes. Manager Alvin Dark announced that spring, “McCovey will play left field for us this year, and maybe a little first base. Cepeda is my regular first baseman. There will be no more running Orlando on and off first base every day.” This proclamation was an odd one in two ways. In the first place, it was Dark himself who had orchestrated the daily “running on and off” in 1961; if this was such a bad way to handle Cepeda, Dark had no one but himself to blame. Second, the choice of “Stretch” McCovey to play the outfield, with the much more agile Cepeda occupying first base instead, went against all common baseball sense.

Using Cepeda at third base would have best accommodated the needs of the team, but failing that, there was simply no reason for Cepeda not to be able to be an adequate, if not a superior, defensive left fielder. Playing left field on a regular, sustained basis, with Mays giving him ample assistance from center field, it’s simply preposterous to conclude that Cepeda could never have handled the position. Killebrew, Hank Greenberg, Ralph Kiner, and Willie Stargell all played extensively in left field, and all were elected to the Hall of Fame. Cepeda had the athletic ability to play left field at least as well as any of them.

He didn’t, for two reasons. He didn’t make the effort, and the Giants didn’t insist that he do so. Cepeda – boisterous, outspoken, and prodigiously talented – intimidated the Giants. Instead of focusing on the needs of the team, and making a decisive commitment accordingly (in short, by demonstrating forceful leadership), the Giants vacillated with Cepeda for three years, and then finally caved in to his selfish demands.

The Whipping Boy

Through all this the Giants were completely disregarding the best interests, not only of the team in general, but of their other prodigious young talent: McCovey. Perhaps simply because McCovey was quiet, the Giants never seemed to be concerned with how Cepeda’s complaints must have felt to him. When the Giants moved McCovey to the outfield in 1962-64, he went without a murmur of protest, and gave his best effort, although to no one’s surprise he was a horrible defensive outfielder: he had no range and posted a fielding percentage of .947 in 275 games. His lack of grace and aptitude in the outfield prompted the description of him there as “a huge flamingo flopping around.”

Overall, the Giants’ mishandling of the young McCovey could scarcely have been more complete. Overly fearful of undermining Cepeda’s confidence, they were quite the opposite with McCovey. When McCovey fell into a slump in 1960, the Giants benched him, and then sent him back to the minor leagues for a while. He was strictly a platoon player at first base in 1961, and in 1962, banished to the outfield, he rarely started at all, eking out just 229 at-bats.

It wasn’t until 1963, four years after his sensational rookie debut, that finally he was made an everyday player. As Bill James wrote in his Historical Abstract, “McCovey is probably the only truly great player to have been platooned for several years at the start of his career.” Through the seasons of 1960-62, McCovey endured frequent boos and insults from the San Francisco fans and even more frequent abuse in the press. In their 1962 book The Giants of San Francisco, Art Rosenbaum and Bob Stevens entitled their chapter on McCovey “The Whipping Boy,” and described the dynamic this way: “… even when he had nothing more to do with it than merely show up, he was blamed in some quarters for stalling the Giants’ drive to an eventual pennant,” yet through it all, McCovey “maintained a discreet, gentlemanly mien.” It was McCovey, rather than Cepeda, whose career was genuinely stalled, and who might have rightly complained about the manner in which he was deployed.

The Coup de Grâce

One alternative always available to the Giants was to trade either player, and convert his value into equivalent value at some other position, such as pitching or middle infield. A soundly crafted trade, along the lines of the Bill White deal, would have been a reasonable choice. Instead, when the Giants finally traded Cepeda to St. Louis in May of 1966, the choice they exercised in resolving the situation was their poorest judgment yet.

Swapping Cepeda, a 28-year-old six-time All-Star, six-time .300 hitter with 225 career home runs, straight up for Ray Sadecki, a 25-year-old pitcher with two winning seasons out of six in the majors, and a 4.16 career ERA, was a stunningly bad move from a pure value-for-value exchange perspective. It is true that Cepeda was coming off of knee surgery, and so his health status wasn’t certain — although that certainly suggests that trading him right then, when his market value was at a low point, was highly questionable timing. But Sadecki was coming off a disastrous 6-15, 5.21 campaign; the notion that Cepeda’s market value was truly that low is laughable. Cepeda would win an MVP award while with the Cardinals, and in turn be traded by St. Louis for another future MVP, Joe Torre. Sadecki would compile a 32-39 won-lost record with a 98 ERA+ in four seasons with the Giants, and in turn be traded for a utility infielder, Bob Heise.

The Giants, who had been nosed out of the pennant by the frustratingly narrow margins of three games in 1964 and two games in 1965, would fall short in 1966 by their tiniest deficit yet: one and a half games. If ever one single transaction could be said to have cost a team a pennant, Cepeda-for-Sadecki would be it:

- Sadecki allowed 82 runs in 105 innings for the Giants in 1966; the pitcher whose place he took in the Giants’ rotation, Bob Shaw, allowed 53 runs per 105 innings after being sold to the Mets.

- The player who primarily replaced Cepeda in the Giants’ lineup, Ollie Brown, created 33 runs with a 622 OPS in 386 plate appearances; Cepeda for the Cardinals had an 831 OPS and created 56 runs per 386 plate appearances.

- This swing factor of 52 runs (29 pitching runs, and 23 batting runs) was certainly accountable for more than the 3 additional wins that would have meant the pennant for the Giants.

And, this is a conservative estimate, given that had the trade not been made:

(a) One-ninth of Sadecki’s post-trade potential opponents would have been the slugging Giants rather than the light-hitting Cardinals.

(b) One-ninth of Shaw’s post-sale potential opponents would have been the light-hitting Mets rather than the Giants.

and

(c) Cepeda would have batted more times than Brown did for the Giants, reducing the playing time of even less productive Giants’ outfielders, such as Jesus Alou (587 OPS), Len Gabrielson (574 OPS), and Cap Peterson (590 OPS).

(Given that the Giants’ and the Cardinals’ pitching staffs, minus Sadecki, were of approximately equal strength in 1966, and the Candlestick and Busch Stadium park factors weren’t dramatically different, Cepeda’s batting performance in 1966 would probably have been about the same if the trade hadn’t been made.)

I Think I’d Better Go Lie Down For a While Now

For more than half a decade, the Giants never managed to fully leverage the value they might have from Cepeda and McCovey, two extraordinary sluggers. And finally the organization compounded its folly by committing its most daft choice yet.

We Giants’ fans have many, many “what might have been” episodes of regret. But in all of baseball history, few are more aching than this one.

References & Resources
The Alvin Dark quote, Cepeda’s reference to himself as “a butcher” at third base, and obviously the description of McCovey’s “Whipping Boy” status with the Giants all come from the book, The Giants of San Francisco, by Art Rosenbaum and Bob Stevens (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1963). It’s a terrific read, intelligent and pulling few punches, far superior to the fluff one often sees in this genre. If you can find it in a used book shop, it’s well worth picking up.

No biography of Horace Stoneham has ever been written, which is a shame, given Stoneham’s remarkable and fascinating 50+ years on the major league baseball scene. When Stoneham is mentioned, it’s all too often as a dismissive caricature of a bumbler or a drunk. Such superficial renderings of Stoneham fail to comprehend his warmth, and his shrewdness.

The best profile of Stoneham to be found is probably the piece by Roger Angell, in Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977)

The marvelous book by John Helyar, Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995), is guilty of the rather condescending treatment of Stoneham. To be fair, in the late 1960s/1970s period in which Helyar finds Stoneham, he was not nearly as sharp as he had been in previous decades — witness the basis of this article.

Charles Einstein’s wonderful Willie’s Time (New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1979) does provide a more nuanced glimpse of Stoneham, who in his complicated decades-long relationship with Willie Mays was generous and compassionate as well as oblivious and insensitive.

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