Orioles Should Do Right by Jim Gentile
"Yeah, I saw that," he said. "My son called me this morning and told me. It caught me off-guard. But it'll be something my kids and grandkids can look back on and see I did something.
"I'm excited about it, but I wish it would have happened about 40 years ago."
Actually, it happened 49 years ago. For the record, Jim Gentile just became the first 76-year old grandfather to win an AL RBI title. He did it in 1961.
Let me explain: That was the year Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle had the race to see who could break Babe Ruth's record 60 homers. When Maris hit No. 61 on the final day, he also had batted in his 142nd run, winning the league RBI title for the year.
But researcher Ron Rakowski discovered several years ago that Maris had been mistakenly credited with an RBI one day that year when the run actually scored on an error. Baseball has finally agreed to take away that RBI, leaving Maris at 141. That's how many Gentile hit that year for Baltimore.
For 49 years, he thought he'd lost that RBI race by one. Now, he won it.
Gentile had to laugh Wednesday. He had nearly been written off as a career minor leaguer back then. He barely made the Orioles in 1960, and in 1961 he made just $15,000 while piling up all those RBIs.
After that, he negotiated a new deal with Baltimore general manager Lee MacPhail, doubling his salary to $30,000.
"We argued over the contract," Gentile said. "I remember MacPhail, at the time I signed the contract, said that if I had led the league in RBIs, it would have been worth $5,000 more."
Gentile's baseball career was resurrected this week. I don't know the man, and really don't know much about him at all. And that's the point. No one does.
Think about what he said. He's glad that his grandkids now will be able to see that he did something. See, Gentile was great in 1961, finishing third in the MVP voting behind, of course, Maris, then Mantle.
Yet, Gentile's story is lost in the narrative of one of baseball's most romanticized years.
"It was a big thing, the M and M boys," he said. "They deserved it. They were both outstanding players. There always has to be also-rans."
I would like to make a suggestion here: How about if the Orioles hold a day to honor their new RBI king, a guy who did have a role in a major moment in baseball history, but one that was lost for nearly half a century.
How about they give him that $5,000 while they're at it? Or use it to set up a college fund for his grandkids? Or maybe just give a $5,000 donation in his name to a charity of his choice?
Come on, Orioles. Just do it.
And guess what? Baltimore's president of baseball operations now is Andy MacPhail, son of Lee, the guy who told Gentile that the RBI title would have been worth $5,000.
I know it's not the same as breaking Ruth's record. In some ways, the story is even better that in the big picture of baseball history, it probably doesn't mean much. But it means plenty to one guy who weaves well into the fabric of baseball.
And a guy like Gentile has so many stories to tell. Amazing how one stat error from 49 years ago can allow those stories to come back out.
"I was with them at the All-Star Break," Gentile said, talking about the home run race with Mantle and Maris. Harmon Killebrew and Rocky Colavito were pounding homers that year, too.
"We were at 26 or 27. I got to September, and that always seemed to be my worst month. I think I hit three of four. When I got to 46, I really wanted 50. Back then, only five or six guys had hit 50. Geez, if I could hit 50, I could leave my name on something."
He finished with 46, also a .302 batting average and, of course, 141 RBI.
Yet in the movie "61*," which came out in 2001 and told the tale from 40 years earlier, Gentile said his name wasn't even mentioned. I kind of thought it had, actually.
"No," he said. "They didn't talk about Killebrew, didn't talk about anybody but Maris and Mantle."
Did that upset you?
"No, no, no, no, no, no," he said. "It was fine. It was just perfect. They were two great guys, great players. Mickey could have been the greatest of all time if he didn't hurt his knee. Maris had a beautiful swing. He wasn't going to hit a ball 450 feet like Mantle.
"I wasn't worried about them, anyway. I was worried about myself. No jealousy. We had a good time together."
A good time together?
"When the season was over, I went on a home run hitting tour through the South with Maris, Mantle, Killebrew. We went to Durham, Wilson, Greensboro. We'd take 20 swings, sign autographs, take 20 more swings."
Gentile was a big man, especially for pre-steroid times, at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds. He was a left-handed first baseman and spent eight years pounding homers in the Dodgers' minor league system. He managed only a few Major League at-bats for the Dodgers, in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. Times were different, and teams had way more control over a player's career than they do now. The Dodgers had star Gil Hodges on first base, no room for Gentile and no desire to let him leave. So he stayed in the minors.
"We didn't have agents," he said. "I kept saying, 'How about selling me?' They kept sending me back."
And he kept hitting homers. Also, water coolers and umpires, though the umpire thing, he said, was an accident.
He told of the time in Spokane when he punched a water cooler, and they weren't the plastic ones like they have now, but glass ones. His left ring finger was just hanging there. They took him to the hospital and basically sewed it back on.
He was out for six days.
There was another time, in the majors, that he struck out, and as he walked back to the dugout, he flipped the bat over his shoulder. The umpire yelled at Gentile, saying he had thrown it at him. Gentile went back to yell at the ump, and another player, Bob Aspromonte, was standing there between them to keep order.
One huge mistake: Aspromonte was carrying his bat.
"I grabbed Bob's bat and said, 'You think I threw that one? How about this?'"
Gentile said he didn't really mean to hit the ump with that bat. He threw it down on the plate, and the bat bounced back up and, well, it led to a suspension.
Anyway, the Dodgers finally sold him before the 1960 season to Baltimore on what he called a 30-day look. After 30 days, if the Orioles didn't like him, they could get their money back from the Dodgers.
"I had a terrible spring," he said. "I dropped everything they threw me. I didn't hit. I just knew they were going to send me back.
"Next morning (Orioles manager) Paul Richards called me in and said, 'Son, you just can't be as bad as you look. Two-hundred and eight home runs in the minor leagues? I need that power ... You've got 29 days to prove you're my first baseman.'"
The first game, he said, he got a hit and started two double-plays in the field. The paper wrote the next morning that "my fielding was excellent and I had surprised 36,000 people by getting a hit."
The next game, he hit two homers. Game after that, four RBI. Gentile made the All-Star Game that year.
In 1961, he said, people in Baltimore would ask for his autograph. And at the end of the year, the Orioles gave him a Corvette. He didn't fit in the thing and didn't know how to drive it.
He smashed it right away, a police officer using bandages to put the bumper back on, then got rid of it before the thing killed him.
He had a few more good years after that, but nothing like 1961. He went to Japan for a season, but got hurt and didn't play much. He spent years coaching and managing in the minors. In 2008, he was the batting coach at the Schaumburg Flyers in suburban Chicago.
The players had no idea who he was until they looked him up on the web one day.
Gentile lives in Edmond, Okla. and talks about his grandkids. He is loaded with stories that would have been lost if not for a stat error 49 years ago.
Time for the Orioles to honor those stories again for their new, 76-year old RBI season-champ. How about Jim Gentile Day? The Orioles don't have anything else to celebrate, anyway.
Just don't give him a Corvette.
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