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Mudville: June 22, 2024 1:49 am PDT

Jim Gentile

Pee Wee Reese comes up to me and said, “Diamond, you’re playing!” I said, “No. I hit with the scrubeenies, I’m not playing.”

Anytime we can gas up the BallNine Time Machine and set it for the summer of 1961, it’s a special event.

West Side Story turned young street gangs to song, Joe Blow was cruising around Mudville in his Thunderbird with his best girl, blasting Del Shannon on his AM radio and Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were chasing Babe Ruth in the Bronx.

It was a glorious time on all fronts and in 2021, we’re celebrating the 60th anniversary of that magic.

Maris, of course, passed the Babe and fittingly took home the American League MVP for the second straight year, beating Mantle by a single vote. What you may not know was that just one vote separated Mantle from the third-place finisher as well.

That man, Jim Gentile of the Baltimore Orioles, joins us for a special two-part Spitballin’.

A big lefty first baseman, “Diamond Jim” was considered an MVP candidate with Mantle and Maris by belting 46 home runs and matching Maris with 141 RBIs to lead the American League.

Gentile, now 86, put those numbers up as a lefty in Baltimore, where Memorial Stadium was 309’ down the right field line and 446’ in right center. That was cavernous compared to Yankee Stadium, which was a cozy 296’ to the right field foul pole and a manageable 407′ to right center.

Before being selected to six All-Star teams, finishing second in the 1960 Rookie of the Year voting and his great 1961 season, Gentile’s path to the Majors was blocked by a young first baseman named Gil Hodges.

With no leverage, no free agency and no path to the Majors, Gentile pounded 140 home runs over five minor league seasons before finally getting a quick taste of Brooklyn at the end of the 1957 season.

In fact, he drew a walk his first Major League at bat pinch hitting for Sandy Koufax, homered off Hall of Famer Robin Roberts for his first Major League hit and was the starting first baseman for the Dodgers in the final game ever played at Ebbets Field. Not bad for a man that played in just four games that year!

People with this kind of connection to that era are an absolute treasure and as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the summer of ’61, let’s go Spitballin’ with Diamond Jim Gentile.

“When I tell people we had the Reserve Clause, they’re so surprised. Once you signed at 18 years old, you were theirs. You either quit, got sold or died.”

First basemen Jim Gentile, left, of the Baltimore Orioles and Harmon Killebrew of the Minnesota Twins pose with crossed bats during pre-game workout at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Md., April 15, 1961. Killebrew injured his left ankle in the ninth inning and had to be helped from the field. (AP Photo/William A. Smith)

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Gentile. It’s such an honor to talk to you, especially on the 60th anniversary of the summer of ’61. Let’s go back way before that though. How did you develop your love of baseball as a kid?

I grew up in San Francisco and went to Catholic School In the sixth grade, we decided to get a team together. We had a gentleman who owned a cleaning shop and he said if we bought the uniforms, he would sponsor us. You could go down to Roos Brothers and for $5 you got a pair of pants, shirts and socks. We had won the CYO Championship and that’s why we got that team together. We wanted to stay together and keep playing.

Did you have any favorite teams or players growing up?

When I was a kid, I sent away for pictures of the Boston Red Sox. Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Mel Parnell, Vern Stephens. Those guys. They sent white and brown phots of them and I had them all over my room. I didn’t know who they were though. The only time I really saw Major League Baseball was when the World Series came around. And it was always the same teams, the Yankees and Brooklyn.

I knew the Pacific Coast League front and backwards though. I used to come home from school and get the papers and go through the Coast League box scores. I would check to see what first baseman was the All-Star that day.

How did you end up signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers?

I played on a team called the Hersh Braves. I was a sophomore in high school but was already 6’3”, 190. I was playing on a team of college kids. We won the championship and in the championship game, I hit two home runs off a guy who pitched in A Ball that year. I was walking across the field with my grandfather and some guy yelled, “Hey you!” We turned around and he introduced himself as George Kennedy, a Pittsburgh scout. He asked if I was graduating, and I told him I was going into my sophomore year. He took down my name and left.

That’s when the scouts started to notice me. Our coach at Sacred Heart High School, Dick Murray, was a bird dog for the Dodgers. I had the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies offer me money. I got a $30,000 bonus in 1952. They didn’t know what I was gonna be though, a pitcher or first baseman.

You must have been pretty talented at both.

My junior year I made the East-West All-Star Game that was put on by The Examiner. They played it at Seals Stadium. I had a good game but didn’t get a hit. My senior year, I pitched in the East-West game and I pitched nine innings and struck out 17. They thought I was gonna be a pitcher, but I knew nothing. I threw harder than most, but I didn’t have a curve or anything.

When it came time to sign, the teams all offered about the same and I decided to go with Brooklyn. That’s how I got there, but if you gave me another shot, I wouldn’t have gone there. I didn’t know Gil Hodges was so young and so good.

That’s a tough guy to be stuck behind, especially in the 1950s when players didn’t have any rights really. What was it like performing so well in the minors, but having no place to go?

When I tell people we had the Reserve Clause, they’re so surprised. Once you signed at 18 years old, you were theirs. You either quit, got sold or died. You didn’t have any leverage. You did what you were told and went with it. If you were like me and signed with the Dodgers behind Gil Hodges, you didn’t go anywhere for seven years.

You have seven years of options and they used them all on me. My first year they sent me to A Ball when most guys went to D Ball. I led the league with 34 homers and led in RBIs and hit .270. Not only did I have Gil Hodges ahead of me, but I had Norm Larker and Rocky Nelson. In Fort Worth I hit 40 home runs, but it didn’t do me any good.

Rough road for sure, but you made it through. What was it like to finally get up to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, even if it was just a few games?

The first game I played in the Big Leagues we were in Chicago and I pinch hit for Sandy Koufax and walked. I didn’t play again for four or five games. Pee Wee Reese comes up to me and said, “Diamond, you’re playing!” I said, “No. I hit with the scrubeenies, I’m not playing.” He said, “Yeah, they changed the lineup.” We were playing the Phillies and were in Ebbets Field. Six different guys from that game are in the Hall of Fame.

I was kind of nervous, but I didn’t have time to get real nervous because he just told me before the start of the game. The first time up I was safe on an error. The next time up, I was against Robin Roberts and I hit a home run off the facing of the centerfield upper deck for my first Major League hit.

The funny thing is, because of that game I had with 17 strikeouts back in 1953, I won a trip to the World Series. It was the Dodgers against the Yankees. When I got there, they didn’t have any tickets, so they stuck me up in the upper deck in centerfield. It was the same spot that I hit that shot off Roberts. It was funny. I actually thought about that when I rounded first. Wow, that hit right where I sat.

Wow, that’s incredible. Pretty great to say your first Major League hit was a homer off a Hall of Famer.

You know, when I was with the Orioles, he signed with us. He had this beautiful sketch someone made of him pitching and he signed it and gave it to me and said, “Now you won’t forget who you hit your first home run off of.” It was wonderful; quite a thing for him to do.

That had to be pretty gratifying to do that after spending so many years in the minors.

Well, I spent six years in Winter Ball and seven years in the minors. I went to Japan with them in ’56 and I led them in everything. Home runs, RBIs, batting average. Buzzie Bavasi called me and told me to stay in shape because they were gonna give me a shot at first base. They wanted to move Gil to third. It never happened. I got there in the Spring and played a couple of Spring Training games, but when it got down to the last eight or nine games, Gil started to play, and I got shipped out.

I read about that tour and how you became close with Roy Campanella. Could you talk about your relationship with him?

Well, for some reason, he talked to me. I got depressed. After seven years in the minors, you get depressed. If I got ticked off, he would come over and talk to me. He would say, “Look, you’re gonna get your shot; you just have to be ready and take advantage. It takes time, so you have to stay in the right frame of mind.”

That’s when he gave me my nickname too. We were over there, and I had a good game. Stars and Stripes wrote something about me, and Roy called me “Diamond Jim.” We weren’t dinner buddies all the time, but whenever he saw me, we would talk. He would check in and see how things were going and how I was doing. It turned out great that he gave me that nickname though. By the Grace of God, I lived up to it!

Baltimore Oriole Jim Gentile, New York Yankee Elston Howard, and Detroit Tiger Norm Cash compare bats near the batting cage prior to the 1961 All-Star Game at Fenway Park.

It’s amazing you have all these stories with the Dodgers, yet you only played four games in Brooklyn. Looking back, what was your overall experience like with the Dodgers?

When you’re a rookie, usually you don’t say a thing in the clubhouse. But the Dodgers took you in as part of the family. When Don Demeter and I came up in 1956, Don played and hit a home run. Pee Wee Reese wrote up on the board, “Just 59 more Don!” Meaning 59 to catch Babe Ruth. Things like that kept us all together. The last game at Ebbets Field, Campy brought shrimp and beer for everybody in the clubhouse and we had a great time.

It was just a great bunch of guys. The people were fun, and the atmosphere was great. You had the band in the stands and Hilda [Chester] and I saw things that I had never seen before. I really enjoyed it.

That’s a pretty historical claim to fame, being the starting first baseman in the last game at Ebbets Field. Did you recognize the history of it then?

To me, it was just another game I got to play. But for the guys who had been there ten years, it was quite emotional. For me, I hadn’t been there that long. It was enjoyable to spend time there, but it wasn’t the same for me as it was for Pee Wee and Gil and the guys.

It’s an amazing piece of history and I really love hearing first-hand accounts of that experience. As great as that was though, you were traded to the Orioles and were going to get a chance to play. What did you think about leaving Brooklyn?

I was playing winter ball in Panama and Joe Altobelli walks up to me. He goes, “Diamond, congratulations.” I said, “For what?” He said, “You don’t know? You got sold to the Baltimore Orioles.” I figured he was pulling my leg. I told him that nobody told me, and he said he read it in the Sporting News. He was right.

I went to Spring Training and as I was about to walk in the clubhouse, the door opened, and it was Brooks Robinson. He says, “Where you been Jim! I’ve been waiting four years for you.” We played against each other in the Texas League.

On a new team, you always worry about what number you’re gonna get. You’re figuring if you’re 99, you’re probably not going to make the club. I thought about it all the time before I went to Spring Training. I got to my locker and saw number four. I thought, “Holy Cow, I have a shot here.” I always wanted to wear four, but Duke Snider had it.

That must have been great to feel like you finally had your chance to make it as a full-timer in 1960.

Well, I went out on the field to first base and there was Walt Dropo, who was the 1950 Rookie of the Year, John Powers, a good power hitter from Pittsburgh, Bobby Boyd, the original first baseman and one of the nicest guys you can meet, there was an 18-year-old Boog Powell and then me.

I looked everybody over and thought, “Boy, I’m in trouble.” You had Boyd, a hell of a first baseman. Dropo who was a power hitter. I thought they’d move Powers to the outfield. Boog, I figured maybe he was a couple years away. I figured I had to beat three guys out. Then I went out there and had a terrible Spring.

Oh man. They must have stuck with you because you had a great 1960 season.

The last game we played we were in West Palm Beach playing Kansas City. It was about the seventh inning and we were losing 2-1. I hit a double with a guy on second to tie it. Gus Triandos hit one to the outfield and I’m sprinting around third base with what should have been the winning run. I got home, they threw it to third, and I was out. I missed third. Our manager Paul Richards had this vein in his neck when he was mad and, well, I just thought, “Oh my God.” I figured I was done because as part of the trade, they could return me to the Dodgers with cash.

The last day I was told to see Paul Richards. He was standing up with his back turned to me looking at the wall. I walked in and he looked over his shoulder. He said, “Son, you can’t be as bad as you looked this Spring.” I thought I was dead. I said, “I have no excuse, I just don’t have good Springs.”

Richards said, “I need power. I’ll give you 120 at bats, if not more, for 27 days. If you hit, you’re my first baseman. If you don’t, I’m sending you back.” I was happier than hell, at least I was leaving camp. The plan was for Dropo to play against left handers, and I would play against right handers.

Even in a platoon like that, you had an incredible season. You were on the All-Star Team, runner-up for Rookie of the Year and tied with Yogi Berra for 15th in MVP voting.

I got used a lot on defense too. If Dropo would start against Whitey Ford, I would come in on defense later. It worked out alright. I only got up 384 times but hit 21 homers and 98 RBIs. I had 98 RBIs with three games to go. I had all the guys in the newspaper tell me if I drove in 100 runs, they’d vote for me for Rookie of the Year. But I had to get to 100 because Ron Hansen, our shortstop, was gonna get the vote.

We get to Washington and Jim Kaat and Jack Kralick pitch, a couple of lefties. I only played one game out of the three. It was fine with me, even though I would have liked to drove in 100. Ron Hansen had a great year though. He deserved the Rookie of the Year.

Join us next Friday for Part II as we continue our conversation with Jim Gentile. We remember his historic 1961 season, what he thought of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, the great players he played with and against and much more.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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