Jim Gentile Part II
The honest truth, I would love to be playing now and putting those millions in the bank...
we left Jim Gentile after Part I of last week’s interview, the big first baseman was finally getting his first chance to prove himself in the Majors after spending seven years stuck behind Gil Hodges in the Dodgers system.
What did Gentile do with that chance?
In just 384 at bats, he belted 21 home runs, had 98 RBIs and batted .292 with a .903 OPS. He was selected as an American League All-Star, finished second in Rookie of the Year voting and 15th in the AL MVP voting.
Believe it or not, Gentile topped that the next season in 1961. We’re celebrating the 60th anniversary of that great summer and Gentile’s legacy in Part II of a special Spitballin’.
Sixty years ago this summer, Gentile terrorized American League pitching to the tune of 46 home runs and 141 RBIs.
In just about any other season, that display of power and production would have captivated the baseball world. The only issue was that 200 miles to the north, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were chasing Babe Ruth and their own slice of immortality.
While the eyes of the baseball world may have been on The Bronx, the hearts of Orioles fans belonged to Gentile. The popular lefty led the Orioles to 95 wins, the most in franchise history to that point in time. The only other time the franchise had topped 90 wins was in 1922 when they were still the St. Louis Browns.
For his efforts, Gentile finished third in AL MVP voting, one vote behind Mantle and just two votes behind Maris, who of course passed The Babe on the final day of the season.
Gentile is much more than those great seasons in Baltimore though. He’s a fantastic example of what hard work and perseverance can produce. He may have gotten down when he was buried in the Dodgers fam system, putting up big year after big year with little chance to advance quickly and no leverage to leave the franchise, but when he got his chance, he made the most of it.
It’s a timeless lesson that today’s young athletes could certainly use.
He’s a great role model for young athletes to have, so let’s go Spitballin’ once again with Diamond Jim Gentile.
“Next day, the guy called and said he’d give me the bat back for $50. I told him where he could stick that and hung up on him.”
Thanks for joining us again, Mr. Gentile. We left off last week talking about the 1960 season and how you got your first chance to prove yourself. In 1961 you had that huge year. You were in a platoon the year before. How did you win the first base job outright?
We started out doing the same thing as the year before; I platooned at first with Walt Dropo. We went into Minneapolis and I hit grand slams in back-to-back at bats, the first guy to ever do it. When we got home, they let Dropo go and [Orioles manager] Paul Richards told me I was going to play regular.
As you were having your own great 1961 season, Mantle and Maris were doing the same for the Yankees. As an opposing player, what were your thoughts about what they were doing? Were you too focused on your own play to be concerned?
When you picked up a newspaper, you couldn’t help but see what “M and M” were doing. It didn’t bother me that I was having this big year and they were too. I never paid much attention to my stats until it got to the end of the year. I just wanted to have a good year and stay up; that’s what I was focused on.
A lot of guys had good seasons. Look at [Harmon] Killebrew – he had 46 homers and didn’t get a lot of publicity either. But at the end of the season, I got one on them. They had a night to honor me, and I got a 1961 Corvette!
Wow that’s some unbelievable prize! How did that come about?
Out of the clear blue sky, they told me they wanted to have a night to honor me. They gave me different gifts like an oil painting and other things. All of a sudden; they said they had one more gift and this clown comes out driving this old beat-up car, making noise and blowing up. They said, “Here’s your car!” Everybody got a kick out of it. Then they drove out with a ’61 Corvette. The only problem was I couldn’t fit in it. I was too big and, my legs were too long, but I really appreciated it.
Roger Maris (left) and Jim Gentile during a 1961 game between the Orioles and Yankees.
What happened with the car since you were too big to drive it?
I drove it all the way down to Portsmouth. [Orioles catcher] Hank Foiles was showing me how to get out of town and I was following him. He stopped and he didn’t have any taillights. I ran up the back of his car. Every time I went from the accelerator to the brake, I hit my knee on that great big steering wheel.
The Corvette was made of fiberglass. I split the fender and the cops came. They put that thing back together with Band-Aids so I could drive home. Back then, you had no power steering or power brakes. I finally said, “Thank you, this was very nice, but I am gonna get killed in this thing.” It was a beautiful car, but I had to give it back.
That’s such a great story! Looking back on Mantle and Maris 60 years later, what are your reflections on the season they had?
What Maris did was really something. The pressure he faced was unbelievable. After the season, Killebrew, Maris and myself went on a home run hitting contest tour through the South. Maris still had holes where his hair fell out, but it was growing back. He talked about the season a little bit, but not much. I just would say to myself, “Man I know how hard it was to hit 46 homers, forget about 61.” How about that he hit it on the last day of the season too?
How about your own season in ‘61? Six decades later, what are your thoughts?
Everything came together for me. Unless you’re a Ted Williams or a Mantle or [Stan] Musial and do it every year, for us regular players, every once in a while, you have a career year and 1961 was it for me. I was even surprised. Jiminy Christmas it seemed that whenever I got a good pitch to hit, I hit it and it went a long way. People come up to me and say that was because of expansion, but that wasn’t the case.
Los Angeles had all Major League pitchers on their roster. There weren’t many AAA pitchers that were brought up. Look at it this way. Four of us hit over 40 homers, one hit 50 and one hit 60. Do you know how many hit 30 besides us? None. Six of us hit over 40, but the next guy was Bobby Allison with 29. It wasn’t like everyone was hitting homers that year, despite what people say.
It was just one of those things though for me. Nothing was different. They didn’t change the baseball or give us maple bats. It was just one of those things. I wish I could explain it, but it seemed like when I got a pitch to hit, God was on my side. I always believe everyone has a career year and that was mine – and I thank God I had it. The next year, we came back down, and I hit 33 homers, Maris hit 34, Mantle hit 30. I’m grateful I had that season; I got to meet so many great people because of it.
There were so many great people to meet. I really love that era where the 50’s and 60s blended into each other. What did you think about the era in which you played?
The honest truth, I would love to be playing now and putting those millions in the bank, but I look back and I played against the best. Some of them are still friends. I talk to Carl Erskine every once in a while. There’s only about 12 or 13 original Dodgers still left. That was the greatest time to play. That was baseball. The people loved you and used to write you great letters. They still do, I still get cards to sign, and my wife and I are always surprised. Now though, the letters say, “My grandfather told me you could really hit a ball a long way!”
Playing in the 50s and 60s was just wonderful. When I talk to people, I tell them I played against Ted Williams in the last game he ever played when he hit a home run in his final at bat. I played the last game at Ebbets Field, I got to play in six All-Star Games.
That’s so great. There were just so many incredible careers ending around that time and others just beginning. There were so many legends playing.
I got to rub shoulders with some of the greats, like Stan Musial. But you know, we didn’t talk to them when we were playing. When I played the Yankees, I never talked to Mantle or Maris. The only guy I would talk to was Berra. He would start talking to you and you’d have to tell him, “Yogi, I’m trying to hit up here!” Killebrew and I became friends because of the home run tour. I’m still dear friends with Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson and Ron Hansen.
Jim Gentile Sr, Jim Gentile III and Jim Gentile Jr. at a 2021 Orioles game. (Photo courtesy of Bo Gentile)
You mentioned last time that you met Boog Powell when he was just 18. He was the first baseman after you in Baltimore. How did that transition happen?
Well, I knew Boog Powell was coming up. He came up in 1962 and played the outfield. He was a first baseman though; anyone could see it. He’s got great hands and a great glove, but they put him in left. In ’63, I hit 24 homers and he hit 25. I drove in 72, he drove in 74. They decided to trade me while they can. I was supposed to be traded to the White Sox, the White Sox would make a deal with the A’s and the A’s would send Norm Siebert to the Orioles.
The White Sox and A’s couldn’t get together, so MacPhail sold me straight to the A’s, which I enjoyed because I roomed with the greatest guy, Rocky Colavito. We became real close friends, but I used to have to tell him, “For Pete’s sake, stop driving in all the runs! Leave some on base for me.”
I met so many great guys playing. Remember Dick Stuart with the Red Sox? He was a very good friend of mine, we played against each other in high school. I have a quick Dick Stuart story for you.
Go ahead, we’d love a good Dick Stuart story!
I was playing for Kansas City and he was in Boston. He yells at me, “Diamond, how ya’ hittin’?” I said, “Straight up. They’re not going anywhere.” My bat I used was the Vern Stephens, S2, 35 inches, 34 ounces. Dick threw me this bat. I pick it up and it was 36 inches long. It felt good. Now Dick always signed his bat, “Dick 66 Stuart” because he hit 66 home runs in the Western League. First pitch I hit lands in the bullpen. Couple ground balls and then I hit one over the bullpen. The bat felt great.
I go to throw it back to him and he says, “Keep it!” Now I don’t know if there’s an unwritten rule where if someone gives you a bat, you’re not supposed to use it when you’re playing against them. I only had one S2 left though, so I used Dick’s bat. I took a piece of tape and put it around the handle an inch up, so it was a 35.
Paul Monboquette was pitching, and I hit two home runs off him. Now we go to LA and I went 3-for-5 with a home run and five RBIs. When I get a bat like that, I take it and put it in my locker, and nobody touches it. They asked me to go on the radio though and I figured the bat boy would put it in the bat bag and I’d get it tomorrow.
Next day, I come in and there’s no bat. I thought the guys were pulling a trick on me. I get to the bat boy and ask where my bat was. I told him it was the bat with the tape around the handle. He says, “Oh, my friend came by and asked for a bat and it probably was yours.” Next day, the guy called and said he’d give me the bat back for $50. I told him where he could stick that and hung up on him. Here it is 60 years later, and I still think of that bat!
Oh man, the guy was holding your bat for ransom?! Do you have any other stories that you’d like to share?
Well, in 1961 Maris beat me by one RBI for the American League lead. Years later, a sportswriter in Chicago went over every game and found that Roger had an RBI that he shouldn’t have gotten. They put it before the Elias Sports Board and they saw where he got the RBI on an error, so they officially took away an RBI and had me and Roger tied for the lead.
Back then, Lee MacPhail had told me in contract negotiations that if I had led the league in RBIs, I would have gotten $5,000. In 1989, they brought me back to Baltimore and surprised me with a check for $5,000. I thought I was going to throw out the first pitch. I went to the mound and there was no ball. Next thing I knew, here come’s Mr. MacPhail’s son with a great big golf check for $5,000! It was wonderful, they didn’t have to do that. Some people say, “What about the interest!”
Mr. Gentile, this has been an incredible conversation. It’s always amazing to talk to someone who played with and against guys like Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson. Congratulations on the 60th anniversary of your amazing 1961 season. You really are a great piece of history. I just wanted to ask you what your final thoughts are looking back reflecting on your career.
Looking back, I had a reputation for being moody. That comes from seven years in the minors, and you can’t help it. The Dodgers would say, you had to run, hit and throw better than the guy ahead of you, or you don’t move. When I got up to the Big Leagues, I wanted to stay there. But I would act the same when I went 0-for-4 as I did 4-for-4. I always shook everyone’s hand and told them, “Nice goin’.” I might sit in my locker longer if I went 0-for-4 though. But that’s because I’d think about it. I’d sit there thinking, “Gee, I had that pitch to hit.” Some people took that as being moody, but I was really just thinking about the game. I wanted to stay.
To play in the 50’s and 60s was as good as you could get. The players you got to play with, my God. I got to play with Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. All the Dodgers, Erskine, Hodges and Reese. Don Zimmer. I can go back and keep calling off names. I did 30 years of the Orioles Fantasy Camp. That was a lot of fun and I met a lot of nice people. I am very happy to have played when I did and had the career that I did.