Friday, July 30, 2010

Jim Gentile awarded 1961 American League RBI crown almost 50 years later

At age 76, Jim Gentile has moved into the record books. He now owns his rightful share of the 1961 RBI crown due to the work of some faithful researchers. No, the Orioles didn't put Gentile in the way-back machine to have him add to his league leading RBI total in 1961; however, SABR records committee chairman Lyle Spatz found that Ron Rakowski discovered the official scorer of the July 5, 1961 game between the Indians and Yankees erroneously gave Roger Maris two RBIs instead of the one that he earned that day.

Forty-nine years later the change has become official, much to Gentile's chagrin.

“Well, I wish it would have happened 49 years ago, but you know I guess they have these people that go back and check things," Gentile said via telephone from his home in Edmond, Oklahoma. "I was told of this 15 years ago, but nothing was ever done. I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to it. A sportswriter told me that he had gone back and checked and found where the error was made, the scorekeeper sent in two instead of one. I said, 'Well that's fine, but there is nothing you can do about that now.' I guess they decided to change it. It's nice, nice for my kids and grand kids. They can look it up years from now and say that my granddad did something.”

Jim Gentile / Topps
The year 1961 holds a special place for baseball fans, as Roger Maris made baseball history by surpassing Babe Ruth's single season home run record with 61 round-trippers. For Gentile, it earmarked a career year long after toiling in the minor leagues.

“It seemed like just about everything clicked," he said. "It seemed like when I hit a ball, it went out of the park. Everything was going right.”

With six players hitting over 40 home runs that season, some fans speculated to Gentile that the surge in power was caused by the addition of the Los Angeles Angels to the American League. Gentile strongly refutes that claim.
“People asked me over the years about the home runs [that season], and that it was on the account of the league being expanded with L.A., it made the pitching easier. For years, I said, 'Maybe you're right, I don't know.' Now I tell them, 'If six guys hit over 40 homers and the six are all home run hitters, now the seventh place home run hitter should be hitting in the 30s right?' Has anyone checked to see who that was? It was Bob Allison, he hit 29. I think he hit 25-30 home runs every year. If it was so easy to hit, why wasn't he in the 30s or other guys in the 30s? It just happened that those six had career years more or less; it was a career year for Maris right? I asked a sportswriter, 'If the seventh hit 28, how come there was nobody who hit over 30 that year?'”
Gentile had a long climb to the big leagues, as he started out as a pitcher and first baseman in Class C Santa Barbara after signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952. He quickly discovered that there was a tremendous difference in having success as a pitcher in professional baseball compared to facing high school lineups.

“I signed in 1952 out of high school," he said. "I got a good bonus as a pitcher. I wasn't a pitcher. I could throw hard. I didn't know anything about a curve ball. In high school, you know you could throw hard and get away with it. They sent me to Santa Barbara. I didn't do well as a starter. I did better as a reliever and I still only had a three-something ERA. The next year they asked me if I wanted to come back as a first baseman or pitcher. I told them I would come back as a first baseman.”

After a few seasons of leading his clubs in home runs and RBIs, Gentile thought that management would deem him worth of a look in Brooklyn. He recalled a spirited exchange with general manager Buzzie Bavasi that was typical of the an executive attempting to shuffle a crowded minor league system.
"In 1955 they send me to Class AA Mobile," Gentile recalled. "I lead the league in RBIs, hit 28 homers and batted .290. I go to Spring Training in 1956 and they send me to Double-A again — Fort Worth! I asked Buzzie why. These are the things they tell you. He said, 'You played in the Southern League and they use a 97 ball.' And I said, 'Yeah?' And he said, 'Well that ball takes off.' So after three years, I'm a little cocky, I say, 'Look, I'm going to hit 25-35 every place I play.' Buzzie said, 'Well at Forth Worth, you won't because the wind blows in over right field, you won't hit it.' He made a deal, for every home run that I hit over 25, he'd give me $100 and every point that I hit over .300 he'd pay me $100. I hit .296 but I hit 40 home runs. He paid me the $1,500!”
The next season held tremendous significance for both Gentile and the New York baseball faithful. Nineteen-fifty-seven marked the last season that the Dodgers and Giants would call New York their home. For Gentile, it was the humble beginnings of a nine-year big league career.

“They brought me up in 1957," he said. "I was sitting in my locker after infield and all of a sudden, the captain Reese came up to me and said, 'Diamond, you're playing.' I said 'What!?' He said, 'Yeah Diamond, you're playing today.' We were playing the Phillies and Robin Roberts. First time up, I was safe on an error. The second time up, we were ahead by one and I hit my first home run off of him, upper deck center field in Ebbets Field. Years later in Baltimore, someone made a pencil drawing of Roberts pitching and he signed it for me and said, "So you won't forget who you hit your first home run off of.' I have it hanging in my office.”

Gentile had another cup of coffee in 1958 with the newly minted Los Angeles Dodgers, but didn't fare well in the cavernous Los Angeles Coliseum. By that point, he knew a change of scenery was imminent.

“I knew the handwriting was on the wall," he said. "I was hoping they were going to trade me.”

The Dodgers almost granted his wish during the following spring training. He recounted an exchange with Bavasi that had him set to go to the Chicago White Sox until Bill Veeck pulled the plug at the final hour.
“In 1959, he traded me to the White Sox," Gentile said. "He told me, 'Bill Veeck took over the White Sox, and he wanted to trade for you. When we go to Chicago, you come with us on the Brooklyn plane.' That day, I'm sitting in the lobby at Vero Beach and my bags are packed. Max Macon, the manager of St. Paul walks by and says, 'Where are you going?' I said, 'Buzzie told me to take the Dodger plane, I'm going to Chicago.' He said, 'No, I was just talking to Buzzie, and Veeck says he doesn't want to make the trade until he really has control of the club, so you are supposed to work out with us until the trade is made.' Well, no trade ever came around and I spent the whole year at St. Paul. The thing that got me was that in 1959 when I didn't get traded, the White Sox and Dodgers were in the World Series. I was sitting home thinking, I was supposed to be with one of them!”
At the end of the 1959 season, Gentile finally was able to move on, via a trade to the Baltimore Orioles. This too wasn't without a hitch, which seemed to be a constant in Gentile's career until this point.

“Instead of trading me outright, they traded me on a look-see, a 30-day look," he said. "If I don't make it, I come back and they get $25,000 back. We had five guys at first base, Boog Powell an 18-year-old phenom, Walt Dropo, Bob Boyd, Johnny Powers, and me.”

Amidst all of the competition, Gentile got off to a slow start in spring training. He thought for sure that he was going back to the Dodgers.
“I had a terrible spring and the night before they were going to tell us who was going to Baltimore, Sparky Anderson called me," Gentile recalled. "He was managing Toronto. We were talking and he said, 'Jim, the Dodgers feel they're going to get a hard hitting first baseman back in a couple of days.' I said, 'Pardon, that's me!' He asked if I wanted to play for him, as long as there were no tantrums or tearing up clubhouses. I told him I'd play for him, but with eight years in the minors, I'm probably going to be labeled as a career minor leaguer. I'd play one year and then I'd like to try to go to Japan. For some reason Paul Richards then calls me in to his office and says, 'Son, you can't be as bad as you look. You have 208 home runs in seven years, with that power, I really need you on first base. You only have 36 times at bat in three years with the Dodgers. I'm going to give you 150 times at bat. On the 29th day, if you are hitting, you stay with me, if not, I'm going to send you back to the Dodgers.' Once the season started, things started to click."
Gentile finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting to teammate Ron Hansen. Years removed his playing days, he is still referred to as “Diamond Jim” the nickname given to him by  Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella. Gentile explained how the named followed him throughout his career.

“Roy Campanella gave it to me in Japan," he said. "I led the club in everything. The Stars and Stripes asked Campanella, 'How about this Italian kid?' He replied, 'He's a diamond in the rough.' I came to Spring Training next year and Charlie "The Brow" the clubhouse guy had a big sign over my locker that read, 'Welcome home Diamond Jim, Ichiban #1.' In 1961, we went to Minneapolis, and the clubhouse boy who was with me at St. Paul is now in the visitors clubhouse. He's got a sign over my locker that read, 'Welcome home Diamond Jim.' I went out and hit grand slams in the first and second innings and the name stuck from there.”

While Gentile is enjoying the revived interest in his career and his “new” record, the former All-Star is still trying to keep things in proper perspective.

“I never considered myself in Mickey's status," he said. "I was just a mediocre ballplayer. I could hit the long ball, but I wasn't going to hit .350. In my nine years, I hit .260. That was pretty good for a long ball hitter. It [1961] was a great year for me, and to be in that category with those guys, it's quite a thrill. I'm very happy they found that RBI, but with the oil spills and whatnot, why are they worried about that RBI? It doesn't diminish Roger Maris' year in anyway, it just gives my grand kids something to talk about.”

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