There is a green water cooler in the dugout of the Baltimore Orioles. Its lower half is dented and chipped from the wild kicks of frustrated hitters. Jim Gentile, however, has not punished the machine once this season. This is a remarkable record, for Gentile is a man whose frequent fury belies the fact that his name is pronounced "genteel." "I get all nervous when Jim is angry," says his wife Carole, with a little shiver. "She knows better than to talk to me when I'm mad," Jim adds ominously.
Gentile has had very little to get mad about lately. Three weeks ago in Minnesota he hit a home run with the bases loaded in the first inning, then did it again in the second inning. Baseball is smothered in records, but no one had ever done that before. Within hours after the game Jim had a telegram from Frank Scott, the players' agent: "Talking to people," it said, promising a fresh flurry of endorsements. Tie Hall of Fame asked Jim for his bat. By coincidence, the Orioles will play in the annual Hall of Fame game at Cooperstown this July. "I want a moment of silence when we walk by my bat," Gentile told his teammates the other day. Last week he hit his 12th home run of the season to win a game and maintain his league lead in home runs and runs batted in.
Since he hit his grand slam home runs, Gentile's fan mail has increased. Carole helps him answer it. Recently he was opening a stack of letters when he came to a greeting card. He held it at arm's length and opened it gingerly. Nothing happened. "You've got to be careful," he explained. "Last year I opened one up and something jumped out at me. Nearly scared me to death." There has also been a rush of teen-age girls at the Gentile home, seeking autographed pictures. "It's like trick or treat around here every day," says Carole, but the Gentiles enjoy it.
May 28, 1961
The only thing they didn't enjoy about the home runs was a wire story, printed across the country, that referred to Jim's "Vero Beach reputation." Carole was indignant. "How do you think Jim's family and friends in San Francisco felt when they read that? It made it sound like Jim used to run around a lot. That 'Vero Beach reputation' started when he broke the glass water cooler, didn't it, Jim?"
"No, no," said Gentile. "It started when I threw the chair through the wall."
To Gentile, Vero Beach, the spring training camp of the Dodgers, will always be synonymous with hell. The Dodgers signed Gentile in 1952 for a $30,000 bonus and he was quickly labeled as the man who would someday replace Gil Hodges at first base. He was only 18, a big kid with a big swing. He swung his bat so hard, in fact, that when he missed, the backlash would hit him on the thigh. At one point the Dodgers had a special pad made to keep Gentile from hurting himself.
Jim put in five good years in the Dodger chain, averaging more than 30 home runs a year and 100 runs batted in. Each spring he would return to Vero, and the early stories would suggest that Hodges was to be switched elsewhere to make room for Gentile. But always something would happen—it didn't take much—to set Gentile brooding. "He was his own worst enemy," says one Dodger.
Spring training always had the same ending. Jim would be told the manager wanted to see him and that would mean a ticket to Pueblo or Fort Worth or Montreal. One year, after he had been told he was being sent back to the minors, he was storming through the lobby of the Dodger barracks when he bumped into Sportswriter Dick Young. Young asked him why he was mad and Gentile told him. "Don't get mad now, Jim," Young said. "Get mad next year when they send you down again." Gentile was furious, but he realizes now that Young knew what his chances were of making the team.
Spring training of 1955 was particularly disappointing to Gentile. He had been asked by General Manager Buzzie Bavasi to attend the Dodgers' early camp. "I had just returned from playing winter ball," says Gentile, "so I asked Buzzie if he really thought I should. He said it might help me get a Triple-A contract, so I went to Vero. It turned out it was just another instructional camp—sliding pits, you know? I was at Vero from February 5 to April 5 and they raised everyone's contract but mine. So one day when I had a real bad day at bat, I got whizzed off when I got back to my room. You know the plaster walls they have in those barracks at Vero? I picked up a steel chair and threw it against the wall. One of the legs went through. I had to pay for it."
Gentile's career reached a low with Spokane in 1958. By midseason he was hitting around .200 and had fewer home runs than fingers. One day he was dressed down by Goldie Holt, his manager. "I guess he thought I wasn't hustling," says Gentile. "I got mad. I remember seeing this big glass water cooler and starting to throw a punch at it. The next thing you know there's an explosion as if a bomb went off. Glass and water everywhere. First thing I thought of was the kid sitting near by, a starting pitcher, a left-hander I think. I asked him if he was all right. He was. Then I looked at my left arm. It was covered with blood."
Gentile had cut the ring finger of his left hand, and it took seven stitches to sew it up. The club wanted to dock Gentile his salary during his absence from the lineup, but Bobby Bragan, who replaced Holt the day after the incident ("I think that may have been why Goldie was mad") talked the club out of it. He also talked to Gentile and told him that if he ever wanted to make the majors, he'd better stop his temper tantrums. Gentile rallied, but his record for the season was still poor.
He was certain he'd make the major leagues in 1959. Until this time the Dodgers had always been able to send him back to the minors, but now his four options were used up. If the Dodgers didn't keep him, some other major league club would surely grab him. But here Gentile got the shock of his frustrating career. The Dodgers didn't want him and neither did any one else. Gentile spent a sobering season at St. Paul. He did well and shortly after the end of the season, he was bought on a 30-day trial basis by Baltimore. "Get him to stop fighting himself and you got a great ballplayer," the Dodgers told General Manager Lee MacPhail. Manager Paul Richards was not enthusiastic about the deal, but he agreed to it.
If Gentile had tried he could not have been more futile in his first spring training with the Orioles. He did nothing right. "He reached bottom in an exhibition game just before the season started," recalls Lee MacPhail. "He finally had gotten a hit and was on second base with the winning run. Someone singled and Jim came around third to score, but he missed third and was called out." Gentile remembers the moment. "After the spring I had," he says, "I figured that was it. Toronto, here I come."
But Paul Richards works in mysterious ways, and besides, the Orioles were about as desperate for a first baseman as Gentile was to play. The day before the season began there was a lunch in Baltimore that all new players had to attend. "I hated to go," says Gentile. "I was bad copy. I knew the writers would ask me questions and what could I say?" It was during lunch that someone asked Richards who his starting first baseman would be. Jim was looking at the tablecloth when he heard Richards say, "Gentile." "What a look came over his face," remembers Bob Brown, the Orioles' traveling secretary. "You could see him tingle."
Gentile continued to tingle all season. Richards used him almost exclusively against right-handed pitchers—"I never watch games when a lefty is pitching," says Carole—and still Gentile drove in 98 runs. No man on the team was more important in the Orioles' rise from sixth place to second. Late in the season Richards admitted that he occasionally awoke in a sweat, dreaming he had sent Gentile back to the Dodger farm system.
Baltimore got several looks at the Gentile temper last year. Once when he got tossed out of a game for disputing a third strike, he threw helmets and bats out of the dugout. "Are you crazy?" Richards yelled at him, but Gentile stormed on. "You should see him when he gets mad," says a Baltimore sports-writer. "He jumps up and down and waves his arms. He looks ridiculous."
One night Richards surprised Gentile by asking him to pinch-hit against a left-handed pitcher. "It caught me off guard," says Gentile. "It was the second inning, two out and no one on base. It didn't take long, two curves and a fast ball and I was back in the dugout." Gentile was so furious with Richards for making him look bad that he went to the clubhouse, dressed and phoned Carole to pick him up. "I knew he was mad and I thought he'd be breaking the rules, so I didn't do it," says Carole. Jim had to phone her several times before she came and at that she kept him waiting outside the stadium for four innings.
Despite his fine season, Gentile is not making big money. The Orioles are paying him about $14,000 this season ("I make that much for hitting .260," other players have told him). While he would naturally like to earn more, Gentile feels satisfied since he was, after all, a rookie last year. But if he has another good season this year—and it looks as if he will—he expects to make considerably more. And he will know how to spend it.
"Money burns holes in his pocket," says Carole. Recently he went along with Gus Triandos to look at some clothes and ended up buying four custom-made suits. "I can't buy them off the rack," says Jim. "I'm 46 long, but I need it taken in at the waist. Besides, I need all the clothes I can get. Every time I get home to California I find my mother-in-law has shipped off a bunch of things to poor relations in Idaho or somewhere."
"He got on a cashmere-shirt kick once," says Carole. "Couldn't buy one. No, he had to have one in every color."
Difficult as it is for him, Gentile, with three young children to think about, is trying to save some money. He has started a trust fund into which he regularly deposits a portion of his baseball earnings. Carole holds him to it. When Jim was in the hospital last October, having some bone spurs removed from his heel, he asked Carole if his second-place World Series share—$1,500—had arrived. Carole said no. Later Jim was talking to a pal from the St. Louis Cardinals who told him that the third-place shares had been delivered weeks before. When Jim confronted Carole with this, she admitted she had put the money in the bank. Hearing this story retold recently, Gentile's face reddened with anger. He glared at his wife. Seconds passed. Then he looked at the ceiling, shrugged his shoulders and laughed.