Catching Up With ... ex-Oriole Jim Gentile
Each Tuesday in The Toy Department, veteran Baltimore Sun sportswriter Mike Klingaman tracks down a former local sports figure and lets you know what's going on in his/her life in a segment called "Catching Up With ..." Let Klingaman know who you'd like him to find and click here to check out previous editions of "Catching Up With ..."
The Oriole hitter with the hurricane swing turns 75 on Wednesday.
Happy birthday, Diamond Jim. What’s the best gift for someone your age?
"To live to be 76," Jim Gentile said.
In the early 1960s, he was Baltimore’s tempestuous slugger, a fiery first baseman with a whip-like cut that battered the air and roused the crowds, contact or no. Watching Gentile flail was as entertaining as seeing his home runs soar out of Memorial Stadium. Strikeouts begat tantrums, broken bats, smashed water coolers and ejections. But if Gentile’s ire prepared the city for the coming of Earl Weaver, his muscle lay the groundwork for Frank Robinson’s arrival.
For four seasons (1960-63), Gentile’s lefthanded stroke powered the Orioles, including the monster year of 1961 when he hit .302 with 46 home runs (including five grand slams) and 141 RBI. Though he placed third in voting for American League MVP behind New York’s Roger Maris (61 homers) and Mickey Mantle (54), Gentile’s prowess barely dented the Orioles’ purse. He held out for a $10,000 raise to $30,000.
His rips were so fierce that Gentile was once fitted with a sponge on his hip to keep from hurting himself on his backswing.
"I looked like the hunchback of Notre Dame," he said. "One time I took a swing and the bat hit the sponge, bounced back and hit the catcher in the mask."
The sponge came off.
He still receives stacks of mail from youngsters who write, My grandfather says you were the greatest. Gentile signs gratis, though he now tweaks his signature so he can tell the fans from the schemers.
"I don’t like sending someone an autographed picture and have it show up on eBay," he said.
His prize keepsake: a photo from the first 1961 All-Star Game showing Gentile and five other AL sluggers: Maris, Mantle, Rocky Colavito, Harmon Killebrew and Norm Cash. All of them signed the picture, which hangs in Gentile’s home in Edmond, Okla.
He made history that year, hitting grand slams in back-to-back innings at Minnesota. First time up, Gentile drove a Pete Ramos fastball over the center field fence. Moments later, he parked a Paul Giel screwball into the stands in right.
"When I returned to the dugout, (manager) Paul Richards -- who never talked much -- looked at me and said, ‘Son, I don’t think that’s ever been done.’ "
Later, Gentile added a sacrifice fly, giving him nine RBIs for the game -- an Orioles record matched only by Eddie Murray in 1985.
"The thing is, I got no sleep the night before that game," he said. "In St. Paul, I knew three brothers who owned six bars between them and we stayed out until 6 a.m. When we got to the ballpark, I thought, ‘God almighty, I don’t know if I can do this.’ "
He did. Gentile’s 34-ounce bat now hangs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The man nicknamed by Brooklyn Dodgers’ catcher Roy Campanella, who called him "a diamond in the rough," is part of the lore of Cooperstown.
Now retired, Gentile spent the last three years managing and coaching in an independent minor league. Married 43 years, he has five kids, three grandchildren and good health.
"I never hurt myself with that swing, which someone once compared to that of a Cuban worker cutting down banana stalks with a machete," Gentile said.
Coaxed into a batting cage by his granddaughter last month, he took a few swings for old time’s sake.
"I hit a couple, then put the bat down," Gentile said. "I’d just as soon say, ‘Well, we used to ...’ "