No sooner had the Orioles' Brady Anderson hit his 46th home run than a message was recorded on Jim Gentile's telephone answering machine in Edmond, Okla.
"I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but Anderson just hit No. 46," said Tom Jaschik, a fan who had become a friend of Gentile's after meeting the former slugger at an Orioles Fantasy Camp.
Gentile hit 46 home runs for the Orioles in 1961, and until Anderson joined him, was alone in second place on the Orioles' all-time list behind Frank Robinson, who had 49 in 1966.
Gentile may soon get another call from Jaschik. With 140 RBIs, Rafael Palmeiro is on the verge of tying Gentile's club record of 141 in 1961.
"More power to him," Gentile said. "Hey, it's great just to be in the record book all these years. The Orioles have had some great players. Records are made to be broken. It's been 35 years, a long time."
Until Palmeiro's total rose into the 130s, no one had seriously threatened Gentile's record.
Frank Robinson never drove in more than 122. Boog Powell's peak was 121. Brooks Robinson had 118 in his Most Valuable Player year of 1964. No. 2 on the list was Eddie Murray, with 124 in 1985.
"They're great players, and I thought one of them would have broken it," Gentile said. "There are a bunch of stars on this team, so I'm not surprised Palmeiro is so close."
The key for Palmeiro, as it was for Gentile, is that there are a lot of good hitters on the club who obligingly get on base frequently. Just as Palmeiro has Roberto Alomar, Bobby Bonilla, Cal Ripken and Murray, Gentile had Brooks Robinson, Russ Snyder, Jackie Brandt and Whitey Herzog.
"It seemed like someone was always on second or third," Gentile said. "A hit drove them in."
Because he set the RBI record so long ago, Gentile is particularly glad that someone is threatening it. Palmeiro's chase introduces Gentile's name to a new generation of fans.
"Young kids now don't know who I am," said Gentile, 62, who is retired except for participating in the Orioles Fantasy Camp (for the past 11 years) and other baseball camps in Oklahoma.
"Even if they've heard of me, they probably think I'm dead. Kids say, 'Yeah, Palmeiro is going after the RBI record. Who's this guy Gentile?' It's great for kids to be able to identify with an old player this way."
The hitting records set in 1961, such as Gentile's and Roger Maris' 61 home runs, are sometimes considered tainted because talent was diluted that year, the first that the American League was expanded from eight to 10 teams and the schedule from 154 to 162 games.
The offensive records being set this year also raise a question: Is there a rabbit in the ball?
"Either the ball is juiced or the players are so strong," Gentile said. "Guys who were hitting 10 home runs are up in the 30s. I've seen a half-swing send a ball into the right-field stands.
"There's no question the players are stronger. They're millionaires who don't have to have another job during the off-season. They work out all winter on that expensive equipment under the stands and report to spring training in better shape than we did, ready to go from Day One."
Gentile's big season was peppered with highlights. He collected nine RBIs in the game in Minnesota in which he became the first player in major-league history to smash two grand slams in successive at-bats. In a third bases-loaded situation that day, he had a sacrifice fly.
In fact, Gentile got 20 of his RBIs on grand slams, hitting five to set an AL single-season record and tying Ernie Banks' major-league mark.
He had more than 80 RBIs at the All-Star break, prompting Orioles manager Paul Richards to exclaim, "Diamond Jim already has had quite a season."
Maris' winning of the RBI title with 142 cost Gentile money. The Society for American Baseball Research maintains that the New York Yankees' Maris mistakenly was credited by the official scorer with an extra RBI against the Cleveland Indians on July 5 and that Gentile and Maris should be co-leaders at 141. A run on which Maris received an RBI apparently scored on a throwing error.
"I wish I'd known that then," Gentile said. "The next winter [general manager] Lee MacPhail said if I had led the league in RBIs, it would have been worth an extra $5,000."
Pub Date: 9/24/96