Editor’s note: The text of this article was originally posted to Camden Chat on January 8, 2014, when Jim Gentile was the #36 Oriole on our then-top 40 O’s list. It is being re-posted today with light edits for his place on our new top 50 list - still at #36.
#36 - Jim Gentile, 1B (1960-1963)
Jim Gentile didn’t have a long major-league career, just seven full seasons. He was out of major-league baseball by the age of 33, but he was never a below-average hitter in any of his years. In four years with the Orioles he hit 124 home runs and was one of the best sluggers in baseball over that span.
Gentile was signed out of high school by the Brooklyn Dodgers, and after eight seasons in the minors he was traded by the Dodgers (who had since moved to Los Angeles) to the Orioles for Willy Miranda, a light hitting shortstop whose bat would never play nowadays, and Bill Lajoie, who never made it to the majors.
When he was finally given a chance to play full time in the majors, the left-handed Gentile flourished. In his first year with the Orioles he hit .292/.403/.500 and came in second in Rookie of the Year voting to his own teammate, Ron Hansen. The only players who received ROY voters in 1960 were Orioles - pitcher Chuck Estrada was tied for second place with Gentile; both received one vote.
In 1961, Gentile had the best season of his career, and according to FanGraphs, the second base offensive performance in Orioles history (behind 1966 Frank Robinson). Gentile slugged 46 home runs and hit .302/.423/.646. He came in third in MVP voting to Roger Maris (who hit 61 home runs) and Mickey Mantle (who OPS’d 1.135). The Orioles hit a total of five grand slams in 1961 and every single one of them came off the bat of Gentile. Two of them came in back-to-back innings of the same game.
Gentile ended the 1961 season with 141 RBI, just one shy of league leader Roger Maris. According to then-GM Lee MacPhail, that RBI was worth $5000. When they were negotiating a contract for the 1962 season, Gentile thought he was worth more than the $30,000 he ended up getting. MacPhail told him that if he’d won the RBI title, it would have been good for $5000 more.
Funny thing is that Gentile actually DID win the RBI title in 1961. In 2010 it came to light that one of the RBI attributed to Maris had actually scored on an error, meaning that Gentile and Maris tied for the lead. Lee MacPhail’s son Andy was running the Orioles by then and he honored his father’s words from 49 years earlier, presenting Gentile with check for $5,000 in a pre-game ceremony at Camden Yards.
Gentile followed his historic 1961 performance with two more solid years for the Orioles in which he hit a combined total of 57 home runs with an OPS of just over .800. After the 1963 season the Orioles traded Gentile to Kansas City for Norm Siebern, who had two good seasons for the Orioles from 1964-65.
In his four seasons with the Orioles, Gentile was named to three all-star teams. His OPS+ as an Oriole was 145. That trails only Frank Robinson on the Orioles career list. Only five Orioles have topped Gentile’s 46 home runs in a single season in the 59 years since he hit them, and only two have had more than 141 RBI over a season.
Gentile wasn’t the only reason that the 1961 Orioles had a 95-67 record, but he was a big part of it, with the best bWAR (6.9) on the team. As things worked out, the O’s still missed winning the American League by 14 games.
Gentile’s career didn’t last too long, but he was a bright star in the early years of the Orioles, and one of the best sluggers in team history. He turned 86 last month.
Statistics from Baseball Reference.