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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 ...’ "

Comments

Jim Gentile is easily the nicest individual I have ever met! He is also the nicest member of the Oriole Family that I have ever had the chance to meet. He and his wife Paula served as best man and maid of honor for my father and step-mother's wedding in Baltimore in 1998. Thanks for the update

Wow, what a slugger. I saw him play in Baltimore and I remember those back to back grand slams listening to the game on a small radio in my grandfather's house. Thanks Mike.

When I lived in Lincoln Nebraska in the 1980's at the University of Nebraska I bought a perfectly new (unused) Jim Gentile first-basemens mitt that I got for 1 dollar at Goodwill store--I still use that Gentile mitt today....funny tie-ins with the past!

gentile was a really defensive first baseman. i remember gentile pich hitting for marv breeding in the first game of a twi-night double header and hitting a grand slam. one of the worst trades the o's ever made was trading gentile for norm siebern of k,c,

Mike, Thanks for the update on Jim. As usual, some good stuff, especially the part regarding his slams in back-to-back innings. (His story was fitting: A Ruthian thirst prior to a Ruthian feat!)

Jim was one of my favorite Orioles as a boy. He was one of the players along with Brooks who helped turn the O's into a winning franchise in the early 1960s. I was sorry to see him get traded before the team would win it all in 1966, but I guess he was deemed expendable with a certain guy waiting in the wings nicknamed "Boog."

I recall meeting him when he made an appearance at Sacred Heart Church in Glyndon. He was very gratious with the many children that turned out to see him. Thanks, Jim, stay healthy!

JIM WAS MY FIRST FAVORITE ORIOLE.I ALSO WONDER WHY HE WAS TRDED FOR NORM SIEBURN.DOES ANYONE KNOW WHY?

In the '60s our family had season seats in the field box area dead even with first base (Section 38). We were close enough to the field to hear some of the exchanges between Diamond Jim and the opposing first base coach and the umpire. Especially on close plays at first that didn't go our way. Suffice it to say that Jim was a competitor in every sense!

Jim was a great pickup for the Orioles. He bounced around the minors for years and no one would give him a chance.The a orioles did and the rest is history.

In 1960 Jim platooned at first. Was it with Walt Dropo? Also , was Chuck Estrada the beneficiary of 4 or even all 5 of those grand slams? Truly, Diamond Jim was one of the greatest Orioles. His splits at 1st base looked painful.

Just a great player . Thanks for the update on Jim I wish him the best he provided me with a lot of joy watchin the orioles in those days

Diamond Jim is one of a kind. I've had the privilege to get to know Jim through his active participation in the Orioles Fantasy Camp. He is truly one of the nicest professional athletes - nope, one of the nicest individuals, that I've ever met. Thanks for writing about Jim on the day he celebrates his 75th birthday!

Now 57, as a youngster and die hard Senators fan, I used to HATE Jim. Years later I began to attend the Orioles Fantasy Camps and had Jim for my manager for several years. I really gained appreciation for what he had done in his career. He STILL has the fight and competitiveness even as a manager in the Fantasy Camps. Happy B-Day, JIm

Without a doubt my favorite old Oriole! (Any chance he can be scheduled for Os Alumni Autograph Session?) My first time in box seats as a kid was a game in late September when they were honoring Steve Barber for getting 20 wins. Diamond Jim had made any error and a heckler was giving him a hard time. What did he do? He sat down on 1B bag and took off a shoe and held it in the air saying something like "maybe I should use this". Everyone laughed. 1961 was a monster year for him and it put the Os on the map. HB and thank you Diamond Jim!

I played for Diamond Jim at the Orioles Fantasy Camp. He was a great coach and treated all of the campers with respect. My best memory is after returning home from Florida and receiving a call from Mr. Gentile thanking me for playing for him. What a Gentleman.

One of the greatest Oriole players of all time. A real super star!

One of the greatest Oriole players of all time. A real super star!

Thanks for the update on Diamond Jim. He was one of my favorite O's. Loved his hitting and those unusual stretches at first base (which I tried to imitate when I played first base).

It was because of Jim Gentile that I got interested in baseball age 11 1961. My first letter to the editor got published by the Baltimore Sun when, as a broken-hearted youngster, I angrily asked how such a great star could be traded away. My father and uncle screamed in front of the tv when the Colts won in overtime 1957 but I jumped up and down and screamed every time Diamond Jim hit a homer.

I will never forget May 9, 1961! When Diamond did what no other hitter had ever previously done before, I was so excited, I never missed another Oriole radio or TV broadcast for years. He is also my favorite Oriole of all time and my dear friend as well. It took Elias Sports over 45 years to finally give him his rightful recognition as the co-RBI leader in the American League that year with Roger Maris who had previously been credited with one more RBI than he actually had. I cherish the friendship we have developed with him, his wife Paula and family, and my wife Mindy and I look forward to may more years of their friendship and wish Jim the happiest and healthiest birthday ever. How fitting that "Diamond" Jim is celebrating his 75th birthday which is symbolized as a "Diamond' Anniversary! We love you Jim!

Steve & Mindy

Thanks to Diamond Jim for a lot of great moments.

Diamond Jim taught me the most important lesson in life. Go at whatever you want with everything you got. His helicopter swing, his first base stretch - he was everything a kid who needed hero could ever want. In my office there are 3 pictures, Diamond Jim, Brooks and Johnny U. Most people know the last 2, but very few remember who was #3 in the hunt for 61. I do

Can someone help me out here? I was entering adolescence at the time, becoming intermittently aware of baseball. The Orioles hadn't yet become my religion of choice but I knew that Jim Gentile was their slugger. I had heard about broken bats before, but seem to recall a game in which he supposely broke the BALL on one of his connections. Did that really happen, or was it childhood imagination?

Jim Gentile was my first baseball hero, I never understood why the O's traded him for Norm Sieburn (does anybody out there remember why?). Then my favs were Luis Aparicio, Stu Miller, and some guy named Brooks.

I remember watching and/or listening to Orioles Baseball with my grandfather in Damascus, Maryland, and being amazed at this big guy who belted home runs and played first base.

I got to meet Jim Gentile at the All Star game held at Camden Yards up in the bar at club level between home plate and third. He was such a nice man. Being nearly 40 years old, I still babbled like a kid telling him how he was my first childhood baseball hero and I was so hurt when he was traded to KC. I remember him laughing and saying how he wasn't too happy about it, back then, too!

I really want to thank everyone. It's nice to be remembered.

Jim Gentile

I remember being out in the backyard of my Baltimore home as a 9-year-old and talking to the neighbor who was working in his cucumber garden and listening to the two-slam game against Minnesota and being amazed. After 48 years, that memory is still very fresh in my mind - one of my first MLB memories.

Met Diamond Jim at a baseball card show. Talked with him for a long time afterwards. He was kind, patient and answered all my questions. Also, saw him play here in Oklahoma City when he was sent down by the Astros. A true gentleman.

During all star week in San Francisco in 61 or 63 A couple of us kids were seeking auto graphs at the St. Francis Hotel where the American league was. We found his room, knocked and was welcomed by the nicest guy wearing a towell. He invited us in called room service for cokes and had a nice conversation. A nice memory of a nice guy

I want to congratulate "Diamond Jim" on his belated RBI title and the ceremony honoring him at Camden Yards tomorrow night. I'm sorry I won't be there. I remember as a young boy seeing a play I believe was against Chicago where Luis Aparicio went to his right deep into the hole, back-handed a grounder and turned and leaped in one motion and threw to Jim who reach out in his famous "Gentile stretch" (Chuck Thompson would call it) just in time to get the runner at first base (as pictured above). New York fans now marvel at Derek Jeter for making the same play but I think it was Aparicio who did it first. Though he might have learned it from someone earlier. Anyway I sure would like to see film from those early Oriole teams. Especially 1960 when they had a great season although I was just getting into watching baseball and really didn't understand it that well. Again best to Jim and all his Oriole team mates from my youth. They left me with wonderful memories.

PS Thanks for the website. It's great to be able to catch up on all the retired players.

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