WHAT A GEM!

Jim Gentile Had Smooth Glove, Big Stick
And Shared Grand Slam Record For 26 Years

By Todd Newville


The land of the rising sun was an appropriate place for former major league first baseman Jim Gentile to make his first big impact on unsuspecting pitchers.


Jim Gentile with Leon Wagner of the Angels.
A rising star in the minor leagues for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Gentile went on a tour of Japan with the big club in the winter of 1956. As he remembers it, he hit .460 in 19 games and led the Dodgers in just about every offensive category during that trip.

"A reporter from the Stars and Stripes newspaper asked (Roy) Campanella, 'What do you think of this Italian kid?'," recalled Gentile. "Campanella said, 'I think he's a diamond in the rough'."

The next season when Gentile reported for spring training in Florida, the Brooklyn clubhouse manager - Charlie "The Brow" Giovanni - erected a sign over Gentile's locker that read "Welcome Home Diamond Jim."

The nickname stuck, and when Gentile became a Baltimore Oriole in 1960, he started to live up to the tag. With his potent hitting and his slick fielding behind the bag at first, Gentile made others marvel at his abilities with both bat and glove.

Born in San Francisco, Gentile was a marvelous physical specimen during his playing days at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds. Gentile, now 65, lives in Edmond, Okla., with his wife Paula. They have two sons - Bo (29) and Tony (27).

"I was up and down with the Dodgers," said Gentile, who hit 208 homers in the minors. "They had Gil Hodges and there was no chance for me there. The Orioles bought me on condition. If I didn't make the big club, I went back to the Dodgers.

"(Baltimore manager Paul) Richards had 30 days to look at me and I had a terrible spring. Anything you could do to irritate a manager, I did it that spring - dropped balls, getting caught off base. But, he called me into his office before we went north to Baltimore and said 'Your stats are just too good. You can't be as bad as you look'."

No, Gentile wasn't as bad as he looked. In fact, he ended up having a great first year with the Orioles in 1960 and was a major factor in helping Baltimore finish second to the New York Yankees in the American League with an 89-65 record.


This giant wall plaque in honor of Jim Gentile hangs proudly behind the concession stand in center field of the Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City. (Photo by Todd Newville)


Jim Gentile with the Houston Astros.
Gentile sported a .292 batting average his first season in Baltimore with 21 home runs and 98 RBI. He also recorded a .993 fielding percentage with his mitt. Not bad for his first year as a full-time big leaguer. The best was yet to come, though.

It was 1961 when Gentile really became a vaunted slugger with Baltimore. That year, he hit a robust .302 with 46 home runs and 141 RBI. He also had a .428 on-base percentage and a .646 slugging average.

He tied for third in the American League in home runs with Harmon Killebrew of the Twins. Roger Maris (61) and Mickey Mantle (54) of the Yankees led the way in that department. He ranked fifth in batting and was third in on-base percentage behind Norm Cash of the Tigers (.488) and Mantle (.452).

Gentile officially ranked second to Maris (142) in RBI as he finished third in the voting for the MVP award behind New York's M-and-M boys. Last year, however, Gentile said a gentleman sent him some proof that he actually tied for the RBI lead with Maris.

In a game against the Cleveland Indians, New York's Tony Kubek reached base via a hit and was followed by a single to right field by Maris. As Kubek was headed for third, third baseman Bubba Phillips cut the ball off and tried to pick Maris off at first as the slugger made a big turn around the bag.

Phillips' throw went into the stands and Kubek scored on an error. Later in the game, Maris hit a home run.

"According to this guy," Gentile explained, "nearly all the box scores show Maris 2-for-4 with one RBI, but the official scorer turned in two RBI, so actually we tied for the RBI lead."


Jim Gentile (as he appeared on his 1965 Topps baseball card)

Gentile concedes that the record books may never be changed, but regardless, Gentile had a heck of season. Among his home runs were five grand slams, which tied Ernie Banks' 1955 total for the major league record.


Baltimore's Jim Gentile makes a play at first against the New York Yankees in 1962.
In addition, Gentile became the first player to hit grand slam home runs in consecutive innings. He did it during the first and second innings on May 9, 1961, at Minnesota.

"Everyone has one of those career years," said Gentile, who also hit 33 home runs with the Orioles in 1962 and 28 home runs with the Kansas City A's in '64. "It seemed everything went my way and I was always getting base hits at the right time. When men got on, I was getting base hits."

Gentile's 1961 home run total for the Orioles was a record for left-handed Baltimore sluggers until Brady Anderson clouted 50 homers in 1996. His '61 RBI total was also an Orioles club record for lefties until Rafael Palmeiro drove home 142 runs in '96.

The grand slam record that Gentile held jointly with Banks for 26 years was broken in 1987 by Don Mattingly when the Yankee first baseman sent six baseballs over the fence with the bases loaded. Gentile was happy to see Mattingly break the mark.

"I saw the game on TV," Gentile said. "It didn't really make me sad because everyone knows records are made to be broken. I held it for 26 years. I was happy to have all my records, but now somebody else has something to shoot for."

Besides a solid stick, Gentile possessed a smooth glove. Gentile, who ended up hitting .260 in his 9-year major league career with 179 homers and 549 RBI, also finished with a sparkling .990 fielding percentage.

In '63, Gentile led the Junior Circuit with a fabulous .995 fielding percentage. He made just six errors the whole season. However, first baseman Vic Power from Minnesota captured his sixth consecutive Gold Glove award that year at the position.

"It was the only year I thought I really had a chance to win a Gold Glove," said Gentile, who played in three all-star games with Baltimore. "Vic was a great fielder, though. He could handle that glove - no ifs, ands, or buts about it."

Hitting 40 or more home runs and driving in 140 or more runs in the same season is hard to do. Besides Gentile, it's been done only 67 times by 38 different players (through 2005.) Babe Ruth did it seven times, Lou Gehrig did it five times and Jimmie Foxx did it four times.

Mark McGwire (70 HR, 147 RBI), Sammy Sosa (66 HR, 158 RBI) and five other men accomplished the feat last year. McGwire and Sosa, of course, both broke Maris' single-season home run record during the '98 campaign. Gentile thought that was great.


Jim Gentile at work with his glove.

"The only way you can do that (40 and 140) is if the guys ahead of you get on base," said Gentile, who also played with the Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians. "Last year was the greatest thing that could ever happen to baseball and it was a great home run race between McGwire and Sosa.


Jim Gentile chats with the legendary Willie Mays prior to what is presumably an All-Star Game in the 1960s.
"People who didn't even follow baseball were interested in it. It was back and forth for a while and it was dramatic. It brought back a lot of fans and baseball needed that after the strike in '94."

Gentile is retired now, but he participates in the Orioles fantasy camp for adults the first week of February every year. He's also working this summer as an instructor at Tom Belcher's Chandler Baseball Camp in Chandler, Okla., for the eighth straight year.

From businessmen to little leaguers, Gentile gets to see all sorts of swings these days by fans wishing they could have played or hoping they can play major league baseball. The chances of any one of Gentile's "prospects" making it to the big leagues are slim to none.

But, then again, there aren't many diamonds in the rough like Gentile. He was a gem.



(Reprinted in its entirety from the August 1999 issue of Baseball Digest,
with stats on the "40-140 Club" updated reflecting 2005 season.)

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