A Conversation With 1960s Slugger Jim Gentile, Part Two

This is Part Two of an interview with Jim Gentile, who played for five teams, primarily the Baltimore Orioles, from 1957-1966. Part One can be found here.


David Laurila: You mentioned Boog Powell earlier. What can you tell me about him?

Jim Gentile: “You could tell when he was 18 years old that he had all the makings. I knew he was going to be a first baseman after I watched him, because he had great hands. They put him in left field when he came up with us — that would have been ’62 — and he did a real good job.

“I didn’t have a very good year in 1963, so I kind of knew they were going to make a trade. They signed Hank Bauer to be the manager. All of us that were living in Baltimore — Jackie Brandt, Milt Pappas, and myself — went down to the ballpark and met with Hank. He gave us a big talk. I was asked, ‘You gonna be ready for this year?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ That night I get a phone call. I pick it up and [GM Lee] MacPhail says. ‘Jim, thank you for the great years you had with us. I just traded you to Kansas City. I think you’ll enjoy it.’”

Laurila: Were you surprised?

Gentile: “I was surprised I went to Kansas City — they usually made their deals with the Yankees — but I was lucky to meet a guy who became a dear friend of mine, Rocky Colavito. [Charlie] Finley said that he traded for the two of us because he wanted power. Well, it’s good to have power, but you’ve got to have pitching, too. A whole lot of clubs have proven that over the years. We weren’t very good. Anyway, I played there in ’64, and part of ’65. Last part of May, I was tied with Mickey Mantle for home runs, with 10, and Finley calls and tells me that I was sold to the Astros for $150,000, and two players [to be named later].”

Laurila: Changing direction a bit, which pitchers do you remember having a lot of success against?

Gentile:Pedro Ramos and Bill Monbouquette. I think I had eight home runs against both of them. I know that because there’s a gentleman in Baltimore who calls me and tells me these things. [Gentile told an entertaining story about a two-home-run-game against Monbouquette in an August Sunday Notes column.]”

Laurila: What do you remember about Ramos?

Gentile: “He was the Cuban Cowboy. We used to stay at the McAllister hotel, and he would come in with two guns strapped around his waist. You know, six-guns, like a cowboy. One time I hit a grand slam off him, he told me, ‘Next time, you better watch out!’ Heh, heh, heh. [Gentile went 22 for 49 with eight home runs against Ramos. He hit six home runs against Monbouquette.]

“Another time we were playing the White Sox, and Juan Pizarro was pitching. I didn’t face lefties too often, but that day I did. We were at Memorial Stadium and my first time up I hit one over the center field fence. Then I come up in the fifth inning and hit another one in the same spot. That was a thrill, because Pizarro could throw BBs. I see him the next day and he says, ‘I hit you in your big ass next time!’ He didn’t do it, though.”

Laurila: Who are the pitchers you just couldn’t figure out? In other words, who had your number?

Gentile: “I had a tough time with Whitey Ford and Ralph Terry. I remember hitting a grand slam off Terry when I was in Mobile, but once we got to the big leagues, he just had my number. The gentleman who calls from Baltimore once asked me, ‘Do you want to know how many times you struck out against Whitey Ford?’ I said, ‘Not particularly.’ He said, ’23.’”

Laurila: How did Ford get you out?

Gentile: “You know, I thought I could see the ball good against him, but… especially at Yankee Stadium. He’d throw me inside and I’d pull the friggin’ ball to right, foul, then he’d throw one on the outer part and I’d hit a nice long fly to center field. Back then it was 500 feet to the monuments, and Mickey Mantle would settle under it and catch it. I tried like hell to figure him out, but he was just one helluva a pitcher. He threw the ball where he wanted to almost every time. [Gentile went 6 for 52 against Ford, 6 for 50 against Terry.]”

Laurila: What do you remember about facing Dick “The Monster” Radatz?

Gentile: “Dick could throw, and he was as big as a mountain. I didn’t hit him very well either [1 for 19 with 12 strikeouts]. I remember one time I was facing him and the count was 3-2. For some reason it looked like they were going to walk me — the catcher stood up and stepped outside — but the next thing I knew, he came right back. Radatz throws the fastest ball I’ve ever seen, and it’s right over the plate. I knew I was out. But then the umpire says, ‘Ball four!’ I think it caught all of us off guard.”

Laurila: Was Radatz the hardest thrower you faced?

Gentile: “He threw hard, but probably not. Ryne Duren threw pretty good. Sam McDowell was another. ‘Sudden Sam’ could really throw.”

Laurila: You mentioned Rocky Colavito a few minutes ago. Which other teammates do you remember fondly?

Gentile:Gus Triandos was a good friend of mine. He’s from San Francisco and went to Mission [High School]. I’m from San Francisco and went to Sacred Heart. He was four years ahead of me, but I’d watched him, and read about him in the papers. When I got to the Orioles, he was there and we became friends. Him and Walt Dropo. And there’s another dear friend of mine, Bobby Boyd. He was the first baseman for the Orioles, and I didn’t think he’d talk to me because I was trying to take his job. But he was the nicest guy, and he’d help me any way he could. He’d tell me what this pitcher throws, and this that and the other.

“I had a lot of good teammates, but for most of the guys back then it was a job. We didn’t have music in the clubhouse. We didn’t have beer in the clubhouse. When the game was over, if we won you’d say, ‘Nice going’ to everybody. Then you’d take a shower, get dressed, and you went home. Then you showed up at two o’clock the next day and it was ‘Here we go again.’ It was like punching a clock.”

Laurila: You spent time with the Houston Astros toward the end of your career. There were some good young players on those teams.

Gentile: “Oh, yeah. Joe Morgan, Jimmy Wynn. Rusty Staub. You know, they had a great ballclub coming up. Walt Bond was the first baseman there, and I got real friendly with him. He told me about pitchers in the National League. When I was playing and he wasn’t… you know, your teammates are your teammates. But on the road, when you went out it was mostly with whoever you roomed with. Of course, I don’t think they even have roommates anymore. Guys get single rooms.”

Laurila: Your final season was with the Indians…

Gentile: “Yes, I ended up Cleveland. They picked me up from Oklahoma City. Birdie Tebbetts told me he was going to make me a pinch-hitter because I came off the bench swinging, but it just so happened that a month after I went there, he retired. So I got sent down to the minor leagues. Then Mr. Quinn called me. He said, ‘Bill White hurt his leg playing squash, so we need a first baseman until he gets well.’ He said they were picking me up, but didn’t have room for me on the roster. Once they did, I’d come over [from the Indians] and be on the roster. This was the Phillies.

“Right before we broke camp, [Philadelphia manager] Gene Mauch called and said they wouldn’t have room for me after all. They decided they were going to go with an extra pitcher instead. I think they had Johnny Briggs to play first base, and maybe Tony Taylor, so I’d be going to Triple-A.

“I drove from Clearwater to San Diego, and when I got there I saw Quinn in the lobby. He wouldn’t know me by sight, so I walked up to him and introduced myself. I asked him about my contract and he said, ‘Well, you’re a minor leaguer now, Jim. You have to go talk to so-and-so.’ Then he walked away.

“Ed Leishman was the general manager. We shook hands and he said, ‘Well, here’s your contract.’ It was for $10,000. I said, ‘Wait, what?’ I’d been making $30,000, for Pete’s sake. I didn’t know what to do. Anyway, I ended up playing two years down there, the second year more or less as a player-coach. Then I got an offer to go to Japan, so I called the Phillies and told them I’d like to have my release, so I could go over there. They were very nice. They said, ‘We’ll be glad to do that… for $5,000.’ I had to pay them $5,000 for my release!”

Laurila: What was it like playing in Japan?

Gentile: “I played for a team in Osaka, the Kintetsu Buffaloes. Opening Day we were in Fukuoka, and my first time up I popped out. Then I went out to the infield for defense, and a guy hits a pop-fly toward the dugout. I run over, and on my last step I caught my spike and twisted my ankle. I hobbled back to the dugout after the third out, and told them I can’t play, that I can’t run on this, and they took me out of the game.

“The next day I went to what I’d call a medicine man. He wrestled with me on the mat. He pulled my leg, grabbed it, and everything else. Then he wrapped it. He put something like cement on my ankle, all the way up to my knee. He wrapped it in this rice paper, I stood up and it slid down into my shoe.

“I told him, through my interpreter, ‘I’ve got to go to the hospital.’ They took x-rays, and I had ruptured my Achilles tendon. They put me in a cast. I had a contract where they couldn’t release me, so I just sat at home. Once I got well, I only got about 90 at-bats. The manager didn’t like ‘gaijin’. He wanted all Japanese on his team, so he mostly just wanted me to pinch-hit. I hit eight home runs in those 90 at bats.”

Laurila: One of your teammates with Kintetsu was Masahiro Doi. He had 465 home runs in Japan.

Gentile: “Oh yeah. He was our top hitter, that’s for damn sure. And he drove a Mercury! He was the only one I knew who had an American car — a great big American car. The thing is… baseball was going pretty good in Japan. Don Blasingame and Lee Thomas were playing for one of the teams over there. Thomas ended up being the General Manager of the Phillies. They used to call him Mad Dog.”

Laurila: Speaking of general managers, you were once traded for Bill Lajoie. He went on to have a long career as an executive.

Gentile: “Yes, Lajoie and Willy Miranda. That was the trade with the Dodgers. There have been so many… you know, I’ve had a lot of people ask me to write a book. I’ve told them the name of it would be ‘A Day Late and a Dollar Short.’”

Laurila: Being blocked by Gil Hodges at the beginning of your career, and all that…

Gentile: “Well, that’s the thing, and I’m not the only one crying about it. There were so many guys in my shoes. Remember, when we signed in the ‘50s, they had D, C, B, A, Double-A, and Triple-A. When you went to Vero Beach in the spring, you had all these guys running around. So it was it was tough. You had a lot of guys to battle to get ahead.”

Laurila: And there was no reserve clause…

Gentile: “Exactly. If you were in one of the big organizations, guys would get stuck. They’d have no shot. A lot of guys would play four or five years, then realize they weren’t going anywhere. I feel sorry for the way we were back then. I mean, I loved playing baseball, but if you had somebody ahead of you… and it wasn’t just Gil Hodges. I had Norm Larker ahead of me. Rocky Nelson. If they didn’t move, you didn’t move. You can sit here and cry over spilled milk, but that’s just the way it was back then. That’s why I would love to write a book. I would let everybody know… I mean, so many players would get to A-ball and decide, ‘You know, I should just get married. I should just retire.’”

Laurila: You probably should write a book…

Gentile: “I’ve talked to a couple of people, so I’m thinking about it. But I have no no regrets. It makes me mad that I didn’t get a shot sooner, but maybe I’d have gotten a shot sooner and fallen flat on my face. I don’t know. Maybe I needed those years in a minors. I spent two in A, two in Double-A, and three in Triple-A. Seven years is a long time.”

Laurila: Had there been a designated hitter back then, maybe you’d have gotten to the big leagues sooner, and stayed there longer…

Gentile: “Oh, boy. I dream of that. It would have been perfect for me. Perfect. The game was just different when I played. I was watching some of the Texas Rangers game yesterday, and my god, that strike zone is like a stamp. It’s from the belt to the knees. My goodness. When I played it was from the knees to the arm pit.

“So the game is different, but more power to them. The players today are so good. It’s also wonderful the money they’re making. But gee, I look back and we made $6,000 as rookies. As soon as the season was over, you had to get a job. But again, I have no regrets. That’s just how it was.”

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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3 years ago

Love the insight and perspective. More of these type of articles/interviews, please!