As Davis pursues him on O’s homer list, Gentile recalls magical 1961 season

With 44 home runs, Chris Davis now ranks fourth on the Orioles’ single-season list. He is chasing Brady Anderson’s 50 homers in 1996, Frank Robinson with 49 in 1966 and Jim Gentile, who hit 46 in 1961.

Gentile, had a breakout season in 1961 and that was quite a year for Major League Baseball.

While Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle of the Yankees were chasing Babe Ruth’s all-time single-season home run record of 60 (which Maris would top by hitting 61), a young first baseman in Baltimore was putting on a power display of his own for the Orioles.

The similarities between Davis and Gentile are striking, each playing at first base with big power from the left side of the plate. Davis goes 6-foot-3 and 230 lbs., while Gentile played at 6-foot-3 and 210 lbs. Each thrived after being traded to the Orioles, Davis by Texas and Gentile by the Los Angeles Dodgers in October 1959.

Maybe most interesting of all, each had his breakout year in his second full season with the Orioles at 27.

Gentile Swings Wide.jpgIn 1961, Gentile batted .302 with 46 homers and 141 RBIs. He had a .423 OBP, a .646 slugging percentage and OPS of 1.069.

Now 79, Gentile was happy to reflect on his magical season when I reached him this week at his Edmund, Okla., home.

“It was my time I guess,” Gentile said of his 46-homer year. “I waited seven years (in the minors) to get there. That was a good year. After that, I went back into my routine of 25 to 35 home runs a year. But that was a year that it seemed like everything I hit went out of the park or went for a hit.”

Gentile would finish tied for third with Harmon Killebrew in the American League in homers that year behind Maris and Mantle, and he also finished third to the Yankee duo in the MVP race.

“At the All-Star break, the three of us all had about 26 or 27 homers. In August, I hit 15 home runs, but I fell apart in September and hit just four while they kept going,” he said with a laugh.

Like Davis, Gentile’s career really took off after he was traded to the Orioles. He played seven seasons for the Dodgers in the minors with his path to the majors blocked by Gil Hodges, who was their first baseman.

But then came the trade to Baltimore and the chance for a fresh start. It was a trade he found out about when another player, who would later manage the Orioles to a World Series title, gave him that news.

“I was playing winter ball in Panama and I bumped into Joe Altobelli. He said, ‘Congratulations, Diamond, you just got traded to Baltimore. I read it in The Sporting News.’ “

Gentile was given the nickname “Diamond Jim” by Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella, who told him as he languished in the minors that he was a diamond in the rough.

After the trade, Gentile went to spring training with the Orioles in 1960, but right before opening day, he feared he might not head north with the club.

“To this day, I don’t know why (manager Paul) Richards brought me to Baltimore,” Gentile said. “I had a terrible spring and we had five guys over there on first base. But they gave me a shot. Richards said he’d give me 150 at-bats to see what I could do, and if I hit, I’d stay. If I didn’t, he’d send me back to the Dodgers.”

Gentile hit .292 with 21 homers and 98 RBIs that season and finished second to O’s teammate Ron Hansen for the AL’s Rookie of the Year award.

Gentile made $15,000 during his rookie year in Baltimore. He said after he staged a brief holdout before the 1961 campaign, the club agreed to double his pay to $30,000.

Then the Orioles got their money’s worth.

His 1961 season really took off on May 9, when he hit two grand slams in the first two innings of a game. That day, he became one of 10 players in big league history to hit two slams in one game, a list that includes Frank Robinson and Chris Hoiles, who also did that as Orioles.

Gentile remembers he had a shot at a third slam that day when the Orioles beat the Minnesota Twins 13-5.

“I got up in the eighth inning with the bases loaded again and I hit a sacrifice fly,” he said. “You can’t have a good year unless the guys ahead of you get on base. Everything went my way that year and I had guys like Jackie Brandt, Whitey Herzog and Brooks Robinson hitting ahead of me. They were all on base for both grand slams.”

Gentile Crabs Tall.jpgGentile’s nine RBIs in the game to this day are tied for most ever in a single Orioles game. Eddie Murray also drove in nine on Aug. 26, 1984.

Gentile’s five grand slams that season remains an O’s record and, at that time, it was an American League record. The major league record for slams in one year is six by Don Mattingly in 1987 and Travis Hafner in 2006.

Gentile’s 46 homers and 141 RBIs remain - for now anyway - third-most in one year in O’s history. His big season helped lead the Orioles to 97 wins that year, but that was only third-best in the AL then as the Yankees won 109 and Detroit won 101.

He still has plenty of fond memories of his four seasons as an Oriole.

Gentile, who wore No. 4 for the Orioles before Earl Weaver, still watches games when he can in Oklahoma and he knows the O’s current slugging first baseman will soon likely pass him on the club’s homer list - and he’s all for it.

“I have gotten to watch four games and Davis homered in three of them,” Gentile said. “The kid is doing great. I hope he hits over 60. I’d like to see an Oriole be the league leader. To me, Maris is the home run leader, not (Barry) Bonds. If he hits 62, we’d have an Oriole on top.

“This is his time. He hit 33 last year and this year, when they try to throw him outside, he plunks it into the left field seats. And if he gets his pitch there is no telling how far he’ll hit it. And I’m glad he’s a first baseman.”

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