Homer Happy: Jim Gentile
Before the presence of Boog Powell or Frank Robinson in the Baltimore Orioles’ lineup, the slugger that opposing pitchers were most likely to work around was first baseman Jim Gentile. And for good reason.
Jim Gentile averaged 30 home runs and 94 RBIs as an everyday player from 1960-1964.
In the early 1960s, Gentile wielded the most powerful bat in the Orioles’ batting order, and one of the most potent in the American League. You walked him when you could, because when you couldn’t it would probably cost you some runs. And when you couldn’t walk him because the bases were full, you were especially in trouble. Gentile had a particular knack for rising to a bases-loaded occasion and clearing the bags with one swing. It’s something he did more than once, even in one game.
The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Gentile right out of high school in 1952. At six-foot-three and over 200 pounds, power came naturally to him. And he showed off that power through eight minor league seasons in the Dodgers’ farm system.
Gentile hit 245 minor league home runs, and never fewer than 18 at any minor league stop. But Gentile spent eight fruitful but unrewarding years in the minor leagues because the Dodgers had no room for a slugging first baseman in Brooklyn. Gil Hodges owned first base for the Dodgers, and during the 1950s, he hit more home runs than any other National League player except one: teammate Duke Snider.
So Gentile faithfully crushed minor league pitching everywhere he was sent: 34 in Pueblo, 28 in Mobile, 40 in Ft. Worth, 24 in Montreal and 27 in St. Paul. He also regularly hit more than 25 doubles a year and usually batted near the .300 mark. But he was no Gil Hodges. Gentile joined the Dodgers for quick looks in both 1957 and 1968, appearing in a total of 16 games and hitting one home run with five runs batted in.
His break came in October of 1959 when he was traded to the Orioles. He had an impressive rookie season in 1960, batting .292 with 21 home runs and 98 RBIs. He and Orioles pitcher Chuck Estrada (18-11 in 1960) tied for runner-up in the Rookie of the Year voting behind another teammate, shortstop Ron Hansen.
Jim Gentile hit five grand slam home runs in 1961, including consecutive grand slams in one game.
Gentile had his best season in the major leagues a year later. He batted .302 and belted 46 home runs with 141 RBIs (tied with Roger Maris for the most in the American League). His 46 home runs and .646 slugging percentage were both third in the American League (behind Mickey Mantle and Maris). Gentile also tied a major league record with five grand slam home runs in 1961. His hitting consecutive grand slams on May 9 was a major league first.
Gentile’s 1962 season would have been a career year for some players, but it was still a major comedown statistically from what he had done the previous year. He hit 33 home runs (13 less than in 1961) with 87 RBIs (a drop of 54). His batting average tumbled more than 50 points to .251.
After Gentile’s hitting numbers slid for a second consecutive season in 1963 (24 home runs, 72 RBIs), the Orioles dealt him to the Kansas City Athletics for first baseman Norm Siebern. The trade temporarily rejuvenated Gentile’s power hitting, as he stroked 28 home runs for the A’s in 1964. But his days as a significant power threat were nearly at an end. He hit 17 homers in 1965 in a season split between the A’s and the Houston Astros. He managed only nine home runs for the Astros and Cleveland Indians in 1966, his last season in the major leagues.
Gentile hit 179 home runs in the major leagues, but was an everyday player for only five seasons. From 1960-1964 – his “everyday” seasons – Gentile averaged 30 home runs and 94 RBIs per season. He was a three-time All-Star during those five seasons.
Who knows how many home runs he could have accumulated if the Dodgers had traded him a few seasons earlier?