At 87, baseball is still paramount in former Orioles slugger Jim Gentile’s life. There are stacks of fan mail to answer, some of which begin, “My grandfather tells me you could really hit ... “ Two years ago, he took some cuts in a batting cage to show a friend how it’s done. And, watching games on TV, when he sees a home run straining to reach the seats, Gentile shakes his head.
“You never saw one of mine fall in the first row,” he’ll say.
Who’s to argue? Gentile’s first home run as an Orioles rookie in 1960 was a doozy, a 475-foot blast that cleared the 31-foot center-field wall in Washington’s Griffith Stadium — a feat achieved by only four others, Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Larry Doby and Ted Williams. In 1962, in Boston, Gentile parked a fastball 450 feet away in the center-field bleachers, one of the longest homers ever hit at Fenway Park.
For four years in Baltimore, the dapper first baseman known as “Diamond Jim” wowed crowds with his hurricane swings, monstrous wallops and stormy outbursts that left a trail of broken bats, shattered water coolers and bullied umpires in their wake.
In hindsight, he says, “I might have kept my mouth shut a bit more. I got thrown out of a few games, but I’m both Irish and Italian, so what do you expect?”
Sixty years ago, Gentile made big league history, hitting back-to-back grand slams in the first and second innings of a game at Minnesota. The odds of doing that, a mathematician concluded, were 6,581,192-to-1. Moreover, Gentile recalled, he’d caroused until dawn the night before.
“I was out with three brothers who owned six bars between them in St. Paul,” he said. “They dropped me off at my hotel at 6 a.m. I showered, shaved and got on the bus to go to the ballpark. Batting practice kind of woke me up, and I had a good day.”
His first bases-loaded home run soared 430 feet; the second, 410. When Gentile returned to the dugout, manager Paul Richards, a man of few words, met him on the steps.
“He said, ‘Son, I don’t think that’s ever been done before,’” Gentile said. His 34-ounce bat is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
That 1961 season was his best: 46 homers, 141 RBIs and a .302 average. He hit five grand slams, then an American League record, and finished third in the Most Valuable Player voting behind New York’s Roger Maris, whose 61 home runs broke Ruth’s long-standing record, and Mantle, his Yankees teammate, who hit 54.
For Gentile, it was a pinch-me summer, one that he’ll cherish forever.
“Every once in a while, your average ballplayer is going to have his year, and mine was in ‘61,” he said.
He led the third-place Orioles to 95 wins, their best season yet. That September, the club held a night in his honor, gifting its star a white convertible Corvette with red leather seats.
“It was a great car but I was 6-foot-3, with long legs, and couldn’t fit in the damn thing,” Gentile said. “Every time I moved my foot from the gas pedal to the brake, my knee hit the steering wheel. I loved that Corvette, but when I ran into the back of [catcher] Hank Foiles’ car, I had to let it go; I’d have gotten killed in that thing.”
Now he drives a Ford F-150 pickup around town in Edmond, Oklahoma. The once-flashy dresser who’d pack seven suits for an Orioles road trip likes to kick back in a Stetson hat and cowboy boots. A six-time All-Star, he still keeps tabs on old teammates (”I call Brooks Robinson and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him”) and shares the tales that accrued during a nine-year big league career.
“My wife says, ‘You don’t remember what you had for breakfast, but if someone calls to talk baseball, you can go back to the first year you played in 1952,’“ he said before launching into a story from his Orioles days.
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“Once, after a game in Kansas City, I was sitting at my locker having a beer when the manager called me over. Richards said, ‘Look, son, you’re gonna have good days and bad days, so don’t worry about it.’ I said, ‘OK,’ but I didn’t understand [his concern] until I turned and saw eight beer cans under my chair that other guys had snuck in there to make Richards think I was getting sloshed.”