What he did: Cedeño may rank as one of the great “What If?” players in baseball history. Not long after Cedeño debuted with the Houston Astros in 1970, Leo Durocher declared him the next Willie Mays. And while the centerfielder had power good for 199 homers and speed that netted him 550 steals to go with a .285 batting average, he didn’t come close to reaching his Hall of Fame potential. In fact, Cedeño received just two votes out of 430 ballots in 1992, the only year he was eligible for Cooperstown with the writers. Many things hurt his cause, including: 1) A reckless temper and style of play that led to injuries and legal problems; 2) Playing his best years in the cavernous Astrodome; 3) Having his career in the 1970s and ’80s, no great time for hitters.
Era he might have thrived in: With his speed and contact, Cedeño would have appealed to Branch Rickey. Cedeño might not have had the temperament to stand in for Jackie Robinson at Rickey’s behest and stoically break baseball’s color barrier in 1947. But assuming we suspend disbelief about Cedeño’s dark skin color keeping him from the majors prior to this, he might have been a hit with Rickey’s other dynasty, the Gashouse Gang-era St. Louis Cardinals of the 1930s. And considering he’d be playing with future Veterans Committee head Frankie Frisch, who famously enshrined several of his teammates, Cedeño’s place in Cooperstown would probably be assured.
Why: The projected numbers speak for themselves. In 1972, Cedeño hit .320 with 22 home runs, 82 RBI and 55 steals, his OPS at .921, among the best ever by a Houston starter in the Astrodome years. On the 1931 Cardinals, these numbers convert to a .349 batting average, 25 home runs, 100 RBI, 62 steals and a 1.001 OPS. Cedeño might need to play right field since Pepper Martin and Chick Hafey wouldn’t be going anywhere, but otherwise, nothing would prevent Cedeño from playing a vital role on a championship team. He’d also be a young player in an offensive golden age, playing for a general manager who might help his attitude, too. That or he’d be just another one of the boys on those Cards, a fun-loving, hard-drinking club.
Are the projected numbers infallible? I doubt it. While Rickey signed players in part for foot speed and the Cardinals stole a lot of bases for their era, 114 in 1931 alone, it seems unlikely Cedeño could go for 62 steals that year. Granted, Ben Chapman led the American League with 61 steals in 1931, but it was somewhat aberrational. From the dawn of the Live Ball Era around 1920 to Luis Aparicio and Maury Wills revolutionizing the base paths 40 years later, stolen bases were a largely forgotten art in the majors. Frisch led the National League in 1931 with 28, and that’s not even the lowest total for a leader in that generation. All the same, Cedeño could have a shot at 30 steals. A 40-40 season more than a half century before Jose Canseco doesn’t even seem out of the question.
There’s also a question of whether a 21-year-old Cedeño could find a spot in St. Louis’s batting lineup. Rickey famously developed his teams through his farm system and rarely brought up young starters or kept old players around. The ’31 Cardinals exemplify this: Aside from 25-year-old shortstop Charlie Gelbert and 36-year-old third baseman Sparky Adams, every starter was in his late 20s or early 30s. Still, there were occasional exceptions, like Johnny Mize who became the Cardinals’ starting first baseman as a 23-year-old rookie in 1936. Perhaps Cedeño could follow his lead. Regardless, Cedeño would shine whenever he got his moment with those Cardinals.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.
Others in this series: Al Simmons, Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Billy Beane, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Bobby Veach, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Chris von der Ahe, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Don Drysdale, Eddie Lopat, Elmer Flick, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gavvy Cravath, George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Hugh Casey, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jack Morris, Jackie Robinson, Jim Abbott, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Major League (1989 film), Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Ollie Carnegie, Paul Derringer, Pedro Martinez, Pee Wee Reese, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Crawford, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Vada Pinson, Wally Bunker, Wes Ferrell, Will Clark, Willie Mays