22. Jim Gentile, 1B (1960-1963)
All-Star: 1960, 1961, 1962
Jim Gentile had the first truly great offensive season in modern Orioles history in 1961. That year is, of course, remembered best for Maris & Mantle and also Norm Cash's outrageously great season with the Tigers, and Gentile's monster '61 seems largely forgotten. The Yankees won 109 games on the backs of Mantle, Maris, Elston Howard and Whitey Ford, and the Tigers won 101 games thanks mostly to Cash, Rocky Colavito, Kaline and a really solid rotation.
The Orioles, meanwhile, had the Baby Birds in full motion along with a strong bullpen headed by Hoyt Wilhelm and Billy Hoeft, but not a lot of offense. They won 95 games thanks to pitching and Jim Gentile.
Gentile spent four years with the Orioles, traded before the 1960 season from the Dodgers. He was 26 years old and hadn't really done anything of note in his career, playing four games in '57 for Brooklyn and 12 more in '58 for the relocated LA Dodgers, then nothing in 1959. The Dodgers had Gil Hodges, so what would they do? Roy Campanella nicknamed Gentile "Diamond Jim" because he considered him a diamond in the rough. He spent eight years doing nothing in the Dodger farm system and could have had much bigger numbers as a major leaguer had that not been the case.
Gentile has been described as "temperamental" when people were being nice about it, and as having a "vile temper" when they were probably being more honest. He was born on June 3, 1934, in San Francisco. He was a big man at 6'4", 215 pounds. He was also a well-respected defensive first baseman.
In 1960, Gentile played in 138 games, hitting .292/.403/.500 with 21 homers and 98 RBI. Skipping over 1961 for a moment, his latter two seasons with the Orioles were productive if somewhat disappointing. In 1962, he batted .251/.346/.475 with 33 homers and 87 RBI, and in 1963 he had a .248/.353/.429 line with 24 homers and 72 RBI. After the '63 season, Gentile was traded along with $25,000 cash to the Kansas City A's for Norm Siebern. Gentile hit .251/.372/.465 with 28 homers for KC in 1964, but that was pretty much it. He was out of baseball after 1966, when he was 32.
But let's talk about that '61 season, and compare the famous four, plus Colavito and Harmon Killebrew, who also had a hell of a year.
PA BA OBP SLG HR RBI OPS+* J Gentile, BAL 601 .302 .423 .646 46 141 184 R Maris, NYY 698 .269 .372 .620 61 142 167 M Mantle, NYY 646 .317 .448 .687 54 128 206 N Cash, DET 672 .361 .487 .662 41 132 201 R Colavito, DET 708 .290 .402 .580 45 140 157 H Killebrew, MIN 656 .288 .405 .606 46 122 161 *park-adjusted
Gentile also hit five grand slams that year, a record that would stand until 1987.
The MVP voting that year had Maris winning, Mantle a close second, Gentile third, Cash just behind him, Colavito eighth (behind Whitey Ford, Luis Arroyo and Frank Lary) and Killebrew 11th (behind Al Kaline and Elston Howard). Killebrew and Colavito had huge years that pale in comparison to the other four. Actually, they don't pale much in comparison to Maris, who was well behind Mantle and Cash and a good distance behind Gentile, as well.
The best player in 1961 was Mickey Mantle, which most people are obviously aware of. Mickey Mantle was Mickey Mantle, and Roger Maris seemed like a nice guy and he had a hell of a year, but he was not Mickey Mantle. For all the things I'll say about the Yankees, there are a few Yankee players that I'll never say a bad word about, and Mantle is one of them. Not only was he unquestionably one of the most talented players to ever lace up a pair of cleats, but he seemed likeable and fascinating in many ways.
The point is, I guess, that 1961 may really be the one baseball season of the modern era that I think everyone wishes they had been alive for. Even Red Sox fans could've seen Carl Yastrzemski's rookie year among all the hubbub elsewhere. Think about that season. You had those huge offensive years in the AL, and in the NL you had guys like Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente having tremendous years, too. The reason people look back on that era of baseball so fondly is at least partially illusion, probably, but there's no denying that those names are almost mythical in stature. Who wouldn't want to watch Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays play? And if even for just that season, who wouldn't want to watch Jim Gentile hang with some of the absolute greatest baseball players in the history of the universe?
Gentile's Oriole time was short, but he had an impact on the franchise. As it stands now, Gentile's '61 was sort of like a great bit part in a brilliant film with an ensemble cast filled with huge stars. Yeah, the legends were there and they did their part, but Jim Gentile stood out, too.