A Conversation With 1960s Slugger Jim Gentile, Part One

Jim Gentile’s big-league career was filled with peaks and valleys. Short in duration — seven full seasons preceded by two cups of coffee — it was bookended by a lack of opportunity. In between, Gentile was a beast with the bat. From 1960-1964, the slugging first baseman logged a 139 wRC+ and made three All-Star teams. His 1961 campaign was Brobdingnagian. Playing for the Baltimore Orioles, “Diamond Jim” slashed .302/.423/.646 with 46 home runs and 141 RBIs — the last of those numbers being noteworthy for more reasons that one. Five decades later, it made his bank account just a little bit bigger.

Gentile — now 86 years young — reminisced about his bygone career over the phone earlier this summer.

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David Laurila: You were signed out of (a San Francisco) high school by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952. What was that experience like for you?

Jim Gentile: “Well, we didn’t have a draft. Once you graduated, you hoped your phone rang. I knew I was going to get signed, it was just a matter of with who. I talked to the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Phillies, and then the Dodgers scout came over last. We had dinner with him at the house, and we liked their offer. I signed for a bonus of $30,000 with a Double-A contract. Once I got a big-league contract, I got $7,500 more.

“This was in June of ’52 and they said, ‘Let’s wait until ’53; then you can go out to spring training.’ So I was home, and around August they called and said that one of the pitchers in Santa Barbara — that was the California State League, Class C — had gotten hurt. Would I like to go down there and see what professional baseball was like?

“I walked into the clubhouse, and [manager] George Scherger met me. We talked, then he handed me a baseball and said, ‘You’re pitching tonight.’ [San Jose] had just signed two guys for $80,000, and Marty Keough for $125,000. They were all my age, but starting out in Class C. I pitched against them. I had a no-hitter for seven innings, then they beat me in the eighth inning, The score was 3-2.”

Laurila: So your first professional game went pretty well…

Gentile: “Yes, but after that it was ‘Get the married men off the infield,’ because they started hitting me all over the place. I won two and lost six. The two I won, I won with my own home runs, so when ’53 came around they asked if I wanted to pitch or play first. I said, ‘I really like to hit, so let’s try first base.’ They put me at first, and that’s where I stayed.

“I went to spring training in ’53 with Fort Worth, in Vero Beach, Florida. And I had one hell of a spring. I don’t know why, but I’d play with Fort Worth in the morning, and then they’d say, ‘Hey, we want you to play a game with Montreal.’ So sometimes I’d play again that night. They put me all over. They didn’t know what to do with me. I guess they wanted to see what I could do.

“They ended up sending me to Pueblo in the Class-A Western League. I stayed there all year and hit 34 homers with 109 RBIs. I hit .270 and led the league in home runs.

“The next year I went to [Double-A] Mobile and played in 30 games. I was leading the league, along with Ray Shearer, with eight home runs, but [manager Stan] Wasiak didn’t think I could do it. He called me in the office and said, ‘I’m getting Norm Larker back, so I think you ought to go back to Pueblo; I’m not sure you can keep it up for the whole season.’ So I went back to Pueblo and hit .314 with 26 home runs. I drove in 99.”

Laurila: You ended up hitting 245 minor-league home runs, in large part because you were blocked by a lot of really good players at the big-league level…

Gentile: “Well, not a lot. Just Gil Hodges. Heh, heh, heh.”

Laurila: Having a perennial All-Star at your position obviously wasn’t an ideal situation…

Gentile: “They didn’t change their infield for years. They had Hodges at first, Jackie Robinson at second, [Pee Wee] Reese at short, and [Don] Hoak at third. [Jim] Gilliam was there, too. They had Carl Furillo and Duke Snider in the outfield. [Roy] Campanella was the catcher. All they couldn’t get was a regular left fielder. They must have had 12 guys out there.”

Laurila: When you finally did get called up (in September 1957), your first at-bat came as a pinch hitter for Sandy Koufax.

Gentile: “Yes, in Chicago — Wrigley Field. I remember walking up to the plate and hearing “Hi Jim, how you been doing?’ The catcher was taking to me. I thought, ‘Who the hell is this?’ Well, it turned out to be Charlie Silvera. He’s from my part of California. I didn’t know he was there — he’d been with the Yankees how many years? — and he’s talking to me. I finally said, ‘Hey, I’ve got to hit here.’ He shut up, and I drew a walk.

“I’d actually gotten called up the year before, but never got to play. I had a really bad groin. I was getting undressed after taking infield with the second string, and they saw that my leg was black and blue from my hip all the way down to my ankle. They got the doctor and he said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to go to bed; you’ve got to get off this leg.’ So they sent me down. I’d been in the big leagues one day.”

Laurila: Your numbers in the minors that year were pretty impressive.

Gentile: “Yes, I went to the Texas League and had 40 home runs, drove in 115, and hit .296. Then they asked me to go to Japan with them. In the 19 games there, I led the team in everything — home runs, RBIs, batting average. Buzzie Bavasi says to me, ‘Now go home and stay in good shape, because we’re going to give you a good shot at first base.’ He said they were going to move Hodges over to third and give me a chance at first. Well, that never happened. It was the same old malarkey of playing one or two games in the early part of the spring, then I’d sit around. Next thing I knew, they were sending me down.”

Laurila: Did you ever ask to get traded?

Gentile: “So many times. In fact, when I was playing with St. Paul in 1959, Hal Newhauser [at the time a scout for the Orioles] came up to me in Charlotte and said, ‘We’ve been trying to buy you for three years, but they keep asking for too much.’

“I thought they were going to trade me that spring. I was in Vero Beach and Bavasi told me, ‘Bill Veeck just took over the White Sox and he wants to make a trade for you; pack your bags and be ready to go when we fly to Chicago [to start the season].’ I said ‘OK,’ and packed my bags. So I’m sitting in the lobby, waiting to get on the bus to the airport, and all of a sudden Max Macon comes up and says, ‘Where are you going, Jim?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m flying to Chicago.’ He said, ‘No, I just got out of Buzzy’s office and they can’t come to terms on who they’d trade for you.’ So instead of getting traded, I ended up spending the year in St. Paul.”

Laurila: That October, you finally did get traded…

Gentile: “I was playing winter ball — I played six years straight of winter ball — and Joe Altobelli came up to me one day in Panama. He said, ‘Hey Diamond, welcome. Congratulations.” I said, ‘For what?’ He said, ‘You got sold to Baltimore.’ I said, ‘What? No one told me.’ He said, ‘Yeah, this morning.’

“It so happened that I’d hit a home run in the All-Star game down there [in Panama] but then I popped something in my ankle and got bone chips. They had to send me home. After I got home they finally called me and said, ‘Yes, we sold you to Baltimore.’ I talked to Lee MacPhail on the phone and he said he was really happy to have me. Then I find out it was just a look-see, 30 days. It was go to spring training, and if they wanted to keep me I could stay with the big club until cut down. If they didn’t like me I’d go back to the Dodgers for $25,000.

“I actually had a terrible spring training. We had five first baseman: Walt Dropo, Bobby Boyd, John Powers, Boog Powell — an 18- or 19-year-old Boog Powell — and myself. Paul Richards wanted to play all of us, so we didn’t play very much. I figured I was going to get sent back, but he called me in the office the day before we were going to leave for Baltimore and said, ‘Son, I don’t think you’re as bad as you look. I need power. I want power on first base, so I’m going to give you 120 at-bats. If you hit you’re going to be my first baseman.’”

Laurila: At that point you were approaching your 26th birthday and had gotten just over 30 big-league plate appearances…

Gentile: “Well, my friend Roy Campanella had always told me, ‘Look, you’re going to get a shot. You’ve got to be prepared, so when you get that shot, make sure you can take advantage of it. Don’t give up.’ That’s what he told me.”

Laurila: What else can you tell me about Campanella?

Gentile: “He was a nice guy. When you’re a rookie and you join a big league club, they’ve got their cliques already. They’ve been together for 10 years, for Pete’s sake. It just so happened that when I went to Japan I was hitting, and Roy would talk to me. He was the one who gave me my nickname, ‘Diamond Jim.’ The newspaper ‘Stars and Stripes,’ asked him, ‘What about this Italian kid who’s hitting so well?’ He said, ‘Diamond in the rough.’ That just stuck.

“Then I went to St. Paul [in 1959]. I come into the clubhouse and they’ve got this big glittery sign over my locker, ‘Welcome, Diamond Jim.’ It was like a movie. I went out and hit two grand slams. The name stuck for the rest of my career.”

Laurila: You hit really well with the bases loaded once you got to the big-leagues (.400/.453/.729 with six grand slams in 86 PAs). Why do you think that was?

Gentile: “My main thing was I wanted a ball that I could get in the air. If I hit it on the ground, it was probably a double play. That’s one thing I hated: hitting into double plays. And remember, back then the strike zone was from the knees to the armpits. Most of the guys, when they wanted to get you out, tried to throw the high fastball. I got to where I could hit the high fastball pretty good.”

Laurila: Early in the 1961 season you hit grand slams in back-to-back innings against the Twins.

Gentile: “Well, that was like a movie, too. Here I am with the Orioles and they didn’t really pay attention to ‘Diamond Jim,’ but then I hit the two grand slams, and drove in another run with the sacrifice fly. That was nine ribbies. I think they started to realize I could be a good teammate.”

Laurila: Is that the highlight of your career?

Gentile: “I would think so, yes. I had other good days where… in 1960, we played Kansas City and I hit a grand slam and a [three-run homer] to put us in first place. So I had some good days, but I also had an awful lot of bad days.”

Laurila: Everyone who plays in the big leagues does.

Gentile: “Yes, and one thing is that I could never just forget. I guess that’s why a lot of managers said that I was hard to handle. I never gave a manager a bad time, and I never had any trouble with my teammates. But if I didn’t hit, I was quiet. That’s just how I was. I also didn’t run around the clubhouse and yip and holler after I went 3-for-5 with a home run, but we lost. When we won I was good. But when we lost, or I’d gone 0-for-4 with a couple of strikeouts, I couldn’t just let it go. That was my problem. I’d maybe sit in front of my locker, thinking about that game, a little longer than I should. Some managers didn’t care for that, I guess.”

Laurila: In the Kansas City game you just mentioned, the grand slam and three-run homer came in back-to-back innings. Both were off of Dick Hall.

Gentile: “And then we ended up becoming teammates. That old turkey is a helluva guy. I just happened to have a good day. I’m sure if you looked it up, there were a lot more time I faced him and didn’t get a hit. I don’t know. [Gentile went 4 for 14 with two home runs and five strikeouts against Hall.]”

Laurila: You probably remember your big-league debut like it was yesterday…

Gentile: “It was 1957. The Dodgers brought me up and I had just taken infield with the ‘scrubbeenies.’ I was sitting at my locker and the captain came up and said, ‘Hey Diamond, you’re playing today.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ He said, ‘Yeah, we changed the lineup.’ I believe I was hitting fifth or sixth.

“We were playing the Phillies, and Robin Roberts was pitching. First time up, I hit a groundball and reached on an error. Next time up I got to 3-2 against him and hit the facing of the upper deck in Ebbets Field. My first hit was a home run.”

Laurila: You hit 46 home runs with the Orioles in 1961. Not only that, you were the American League’s co-leader in RBIs. There’s a good story that goes with that…

Gentile: “What happened is that when I signed my contract before the ’62 season, McPhail said, ‘If you were to lead the league in RBIs, that might be worth $5,000 more.’ Well, when the season ended they said [Roger] Maris was ahead of me — he had 142 and I had 141 — but some newspaper guy went back over the whole season and saw where Maris got an RBI he shouldn’t have. So we tied.

“[In 2010] the Orioles asked me to come back to Baltimore to throw out the first pitch. When I went out to the mound, there was no catcher, no ball, no nothing. I’m just standing there, and all of a sudden here comes Lee McPhail’s son with one of those great big checks you get when you win a golf tournament. It was for $5,000. What a great surprise that was.”

Laurila: Did you get to throw out the first pitch, as well?

Gentile: “Yeah, a girl finally came on and gave me the ball, and I threw it.”

Laurila: Did you throw a strike?

Gentile: “I reached the plate, but it was a little off to the left. That’s OK. It was a great day. It was a really nice day. I thanked the organization profusely.”

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Part 2 of the interview will run tomorrow.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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jamed

Amazing! thanks for this!