What Jim Gentile represents, among other things, is (1) the finest buy the Baltimore Orioles ever picked up at the baseball bargain counter and (2) one of the most colorful personalities in the history of a franchise that has been in business for 41 seasons.
Gentile qualifies as a top contender in any contest that attempts to define what an unforgettable character is supposed to represent. Often his own worst enemy, he had a temper that would self-destruct, exploding him into temporary orbit. There were arguments with umpires, confrontations with the front office and, yes, even a dugout fight with his manager.
The Los Angeles Dodgers had exhausted their patience . . . and contract options. He was hitting home runs by the bushel in their farm system and after eight years decided they owed him a major-league chance, but with another organization. So the Dodgers, not wanting to give him the chance to retaliate against them in the National League, told the Orioles they could have him for a 30-day free look.
It was a deal general manager Lee MacPhail couldn't turn down. The Orioles would take Gentile to spring training in 1960 and, if retained, the cost of his contract would be $25,000. Manager Paul Richards was initially opposed to having him around but MacPhail, on the week camp opened, asked coach Eddie Robinson "to see if you can get Paul to like Gentile a little bit."
But Gentile produced a dreadful exhibition showing. He batted .216, had only four RBIs and zero home runs. It was Gentile's feeling he wouldn't be coming to Baltimore. "As a matter of fact," he said today, while in in the city for a weekendOriole Advocates card show, "I remember running into Sparky Anderson, when he was managing Toronto in the International League. He mentioned 'a big first baseman is going to be available and I'm wondering if that big first baseman would play for me?' I told him if you mean me then, of course, I'd play for you."
Gentile did not expect Baltimore to be his next travel destination coming away from camp. He was stunned, but pleased, when Richards decided to keep him another 30 days because the Orioles got an extension on the deadline for paying the $25,000 ** to the Dodgers. Richards promised Jim he'd get at least 150 at-bats and then make a final decision. When Gentile heard that, he replied, "Well, that's all I can ask."
The opportunity of a challenge brought out the best. If he was going down, it wouldn't be without swinging. And how Gentile could do that. His stroke was so full and the follow-through so complete that he pounded his own back with the whip-lash. The Dodgers feared the constant bruising he gave his own shoulder area might lead to a cancerous condition.
As a first baseman, he could handle the mitt with finesse, had excellent footwork around the bag, especially adept on low throws and, being a converted pitcher, had an exceptional arm. So, objectively, he could do everything but run.
That wasn't necessary because Gentile drove the ball for distance. His home run power had been proven in every classification but the majors. And he was to do it there, too. In four years as an Oriole he had seasons of 21, 46, 33 and 24 home runs. It was in 1961 that he drove in 141 runs, still a club record, and finished one RBI behind Roger Maris of the New York Yankees.
But Ron Rakowski, a statistician in suburban Chicago, researched every box score in 1961 and his findings prove Maris was credited with an RBI that erroneously gave him the crown. Actually, according to Rakowski, Gentile and Maris should share the title with 141 and Rocky Colavito in second place with 140.
It's remembered that Gentile was tagged, by those sitting in judgment, as a "bad actor and a playboy."
"Look, I never got in fights, except when I played for St. Paul and my manager, Max Macon, and I had a battle. Max said I didn't have my head in the game; that I was looking up in the stands. But there's another story to that. It was silly.
"But the Dodgers didn't want to hear my side of why it happened. The only version that counted was what Macon told them. That was wrong. When I didn't play well or booted a ball, it ate away at me. It tore me up inside. I never bothered anyone else. Ask Russ Snyder or Rocky Johnson. They used to dress alongside of me in the clubhouse. Now about the playboy stuff, I don't know how that started."
Gentile had to be spoofing. Then he smiled and explained, "Yeah, I liked to go out once in awhile. I had a few friends down on The Block in Baltimore and would meet them for a couple of drinks now and then. I always wanted to dress nice. I still do. That's when they started calling me 'Diamond Jim.' "
Some of Gentile's fits of anger were stupendous. Once he was struck out by Early Wynn on a high fastball that seemed questionable. Returning to the bench, he emptied the rack, spraying bats all over Comiskey Park in Chicago. Finally, Richards came up behind Gentile to get him out of his blind rage.
"What are you doing, boy?" asked Richards, who grabbed Gentile by the back of his belt and told him to go to the dressing room, but first insisted he quietly get himself together. Another time, after going 0-for-4 in Cleveland, a distraught Gentile opened a beer, unusual for him, and slumped in front of his locker.
He was lost in a trauma of torment. "I hardly ever drank beer but this time I had one. I was sulking, whatever you want to call it. I finally got up to take a shower. Richards dressed across from me and came over and said, 'Son, don't worry. You had a bad game, but it'll be a good one tomorrow; don't get so upset.' Then I looked down and realized some of the guys placed 10 empty beer bottles near where I had been sitting. I guess Richards thought I was turning into a drunk or something."
Gentile, now 61 and married, lives in Edmond, Okla., and insists his all-time hero is Gus Triandos, the former Orioles catcher who will be with him as another card show signee. Jim Gentile admits he may have been late maturing, but he learned to laugh at himself, which is a quality, discovered belatedly or not, that makes everything about life more tolerable.