Friday, November 21, 2014

Diamond Jim Gentile: A Baseball Player Who Knew How to Wait

          If patience is a virtue, Jim Gentile may have been the most pious man in baseball history. Despite averaging 30 home runs a season in the minors, he waited 8 years for his shot at the major leagues. He later waited 49 years to learn that he had led the American League in RBIs during one of the most storied hitters’ seasons in the annals of baseball.
          Listed at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Gentile was considered a behemoth in the days before weight training and PEDs. Signed out of high school by the Dodgers in 1952, he was stranded in the farm system with no chance of advancement, having the misfortune of being stuck at first base behind perennial All-Star Gil Hodges, one of the most respected men in baseball. At the time, certain teams, particularly the Yankees and Dodgers, stockpiled massive talent on their minor league teams, reasoning that it was better to bury the players than to let other teams have them and have to compete against them. And so Gentile had to content himself with bludgeoning minor league pitchers. He was given the nickname Diamond Jim by Roy Campanella (who said he was a diamond in the rough) after he led the team in hitting during a Dodgers’ postseason tour of Japan in 1956.

          Gentile’s fortunes changed drastically when Paul Richards of the Orioles was able to pry him loose from the Dodgers in 1960. Actually, by this time, the Dodgers felt so little of the 26-year-old and his chances that they offered him to Richards with the understanding that they would take him back for a refund if Richards didn’t like him, no receipt required. I got a chance to talk to Diamond Jim from his Edmond, Oklahoma home in 2012. He spoke about how close he came to missing out on the major leagues altogether. “The Orioles took me on a trial basis in the spring of 1960,” he said. “The understanding was if they didn’t like me they could send me back. There were 5 first basemen in camp that year and I had a terrible spring, just terrible. Everything you could do wrong, I did.  I knew they were going to send me back. The night before we broke camp I had dinner with Sparky Anderson. He was going to be managing Toronto that year for the Dodgers and he said he was told to expect to get a hard-hitting first baseman. I told him, ‘That’s me.’ I told my wife to be ready to go back to the minors. I was planning on trying one more year and then giving it up.”

          Even though Gentile had been was less than impressive in Florida, Richards decided to keep him. “Richards called me in and said, ‘Son, you can’t be as bad as you look. I need power. You hit 210 homers in the minors, so you must be able to hit. I’m gonna give you 150 at bats here to see what you can do.’” It turned out to be a wise decision. Gentile hit 21 home runs with 98 RBIs in 1960. The next year, he turned in a monster season: a .302 batting average, 46 home runs and 141 RBIs. That was the year of the great Maris-Mantle home run chase, of course, and the M & M boys took most of the headlines. Gentile finished third in the home run derby (and in MVP votes). Maris, with 61 home runs and 142 RBIs, won the MVP award.

            The last name was one of the great misnomers of baseball. An intense competitor, he was anything but genteel on the field. Wearing his emotions on his sleeves, he was known for his volatile temper; he was given to splintering bats, flinging helmets and storming umpires. Jim Gentile never got cheated on a swing in his life--his cuts were so violent that he occasionally bruised his own back by hitting it with the bat on his follow-through. The threat of fines, by the league and his own managers, did little to curb his enthusiasm. Once after being fined $50 by the American League for a dispute with an umpire after being thrown out on the bases, he promptly hung a donation box on the bulletin board in the clubhouse. Oriole players, perhaps afraid to walk past the hulking first baseman without at least making a show of digging in their pockets, dutifully contributed. Gentile happily informed reporters that he had collected $1.48 from his buddies to help pay the fine.

          Gentile found a home in Baltimore. Fans, who can sense indifference in players and detest it, loved Diamond Jim for his obvious competitive fire and also for his friendliness around town. At the time, Baltimore had a small-town atmosphere in which fans and players freely mixed as equals—many players lived close to Memorial Stadium and often walked to the games, chatting with fans along the way. The power hitting got him some national exposure also. “I got a Vitalis commercial and one for Grape Nuts with my two sons,” he said. “Also, there was a one-shot commercial for Marlboro that was just terrible. I didn’t even smoke.”

          Gentile made the All-Star team in 1960, 1961 and 1962. The first one was a thrill, even though he was somewhat overshadowed by the bigger names in the dugout. “[All-Star manager Casey] Stengel didn’t even know my name. He pointed when he wanted me to go in and said, ‘Get me that guy from Baltimore who swings so hard.’”

           May 9, 1961 Gentile entered the record books when he hit two grand slams in consecutive innings (the first and second) in Minnesota. The outburst even impressed his notoriously hard-to-impress manager. “Richards normally didn’t say anything, but when I came back to the dugout after the second one, he looked at me and said, ‘Son, I don’t think that’s ever been done.’” He finished the game with 9 RBIs and the Orioles won 13-5.

            Shortly after I talked to Gentile, I spoke to former Oriole pitchers Wes Stock and Chuck Estrada. Stock never got over the injustice of Gentile’s grand slam onslaught coming while Estrada was on the mound and not himself. “I roomed with Chuck Estrada,” Stock said. “I never let him forget that. How lucky can you get? He was up 9-0 after two innings. I told Gentile, ‘I could win 20 games if you hit two grand slams a game for me.’ But he never did. I hope Estrada sends Gentile a case of beer every year on the anniversary of that game to thank him.”

          Whereas in 2014 a major leaguer hitting .288 with 37 home runs and 105 RBIs is rewarded with a 13-year, $325 million contract, Gentile was a bit more modestly compensated for his 1961 season of .302-47-141: he was given a $10,000 raise to $30,000. Oriole general manager Lee MacPhail generously told Gentile that he would have given him a $5,000 bonus if he had led the league in RBIs.

          In 2010, during a SABR check, it was discovered that Roger Maris had been wrongfully credited with an RBI in a game on July 5, 1961 when a run scored on an error. Maris had finished with 142 RBIs. When they officially changed it, Gentile became tied with Maris for the league lead with 141.  After the mistake was corrected, the story of the promised bonus resurfaced. In August of 2010, Gentile was invited to throw out the first pitch and participate in a ceremony before a game at Camden Yards. Andy MacPhail, Orioles President of baseball operations and grandson of Lee, presented the 76-year-old Gentile with an oversized check for $5,000 (Gentile was so excited to get the check that he forgot to throw out the first pitch). And so Jim Gentile became the first 76 year old to celebrate a major league RBI championship. It had been a long time in coming. But then, Jim Gentile was a man who knew how to wait.

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