Monday, December 5, 2022

1986 Sportflics Decade Greats: 1960s first basemen


A day after the Hall of Fame finally inducted one of the best first baseman of the 1990s, here are three of the best of the 1960s.

The players: Few teams have had two players come up at the same time at the same position with Hall-of-Fame talent. In 1958, Orlando Cepeda made his major league debut as the Giants first baseman and won the Rookie of the Year award, hitting .312 with 25 HR, 96 RBI and a league leading 38 doubles. The next year, Willie McCovey made his major league debut, pushing Cepeda to the outfield and winning his own Rookie of the Year award, despite making his debut on July 30. In just 52 games he put up eye-popping numbers, .354, 13 HR, 38 RBI.  Cepeda stayed in the outfield in 1960 and 1961, the latter season leading the NL with 46 HR and 142 RBI. Cepeda was not happy about playing the outfield, so in 1962 he returned to first base while McCovey was put in left field. Cepeda was a much better defensive first baseman, and many Giants fans feel that this move was a big mistake. Still, McCovey emerged as a consistent star, leading the NL with 44 HR in 1963. Cepeda lost most of 1965 to injury, freeing McCovey to return to first base, and the next season the Giants traded Cepeda to the Cardinals for Ray Sadecki. Both players had fine 1967 seasons, particularly Cepeda who led the league with 111 RBI. But from 1968-1970, while Cepeda struggled to hit consistently with the Cardinals and then the Braves, McCovey was the best hitter in the National League, leading the league in slugging and OPS all three seasons, with two HR and RBI crowns. The 1970s saw a rapid decline for Cepeda, and a slower one for McCovey. Cepeda would end his career with brief stops in Oakland, Boston and Kansas City, while McCovey spent some time in San Diego and Oakland before ending his career where it started with the Giants.

Meanwhile in the American League, the Washington Senators had a talented young infielder named Harmon Killebrew. He made his major league debut at the age of 18 as a second baseman in 1954, but did not become a regular until 1959, playing third base and left field and leading the AL with 42 HR in his first full season. Throughout his career he shuttled back and forth between LF, 3B and 1B, eventually playing more games at first. He had a low batting average for the era, and did not even hit a lot of doubles (never hit .290 or had a 30 double season). However, he hit a ton of home runs, six times leading the AL and with 573 for his career. As his career progressed, his batting eye did too, and he went from someone who struck out 100 times a year to someone who walked 100 times a year. Killebrew would have fit in very well with how baseball is played in 2022. Killebrew played 21 of his 22 seasons with the Senators/Twins franchise, ending his career with one season with the Royals in 1975.

The men: Cepeda was often argumentative with teammates and managers, and his refusal to move off of first base is considered by some to have stunted the development of the much quieter McCovey. McCovey and Killebrew were both considered gentlemanly and good leaders of men. Though each player stayed involved in baseball to some extent after their careers, each had some difficulties navigating the post-retirement world. Killebrew made some bad financial decisions and was in debt and bankrupt for many years. McCovey, along with Duke Snider, was convicted of tax fraud for failing to report income from baseball card shows. Most prominently, Cepeda was arrested in Puerto Rico in 1975 for smuggling drugs into the country from Colombia; he was subsequently arrested again for pointing a gun at a man. He eventually served ten months for drug possession. However, each man is considered to have fully recovered from their setbacks and spent the rest of their lives living not only as model citizens but in giving back to their communities. The 85-year-old Cepeda still lives in the SF area, while Killebrew and McCovey passed away in 2011 and 2018, respectively.

My collection: As a vintage collector, these three are all players who it is great to get cards of, because they were big stars. But, as they were generally overshadowed by bigger names from their era, it's generally not too difficult to get ahold of some. In terms of Topps base cards, for Cepeda I have 1959, 1964, 1967, 1968, 1970, and 1972-1974. For Killebrew I have 1964, 1966-1968, 1970 and 1972-1975. For McCovey I have 1964, 1968, 1970, 1973-1980. Topps didn't make a card for him in 1981, but I have the one that Fleer made.


  1. This is one of those sets that has interested me but I never see in the wild.

  2. I haven't looked for a while, but of the three, I would have to think that Cepeda's cards are still the cheapest, and therefore the easiest to acquire.