I was lucky enough to record an interview today with former MLB 1B Jim Gentile today. By the looks of the back of his baseball card, it seems Gentile did fine during his baseball career. From the years of 1960-1964, he hit 152 HR and was one of the top power hitting 1B in all of MLB. But, the more you look into it, it remains a wonder why Gentile did not get his chance to play until 1960.
Gentile was originally signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers as a LHP in 1952. Speaking to him, he lets it be known that he was signed both as a pitcher and as a hitter and the Dodgers were well aware of his ability to hit a baseball. After making his professional debut as a pitcher, where he did not pitch bad, he started the 1953 season playing 1B for Pueblo of the Western League (A). He hit .270 with 34 HR, which led the league. He played for the same team for most of 1954, hitting .273 with 34 HR for Pueblo and AA Mobile. As a 21 year old, Gentile hit .290 with 28 HR the next season for Mobile.
Of course, the Dodgers had a 1B by the name of Gil Hodges who was in the prime of his career at that time. That may explain the slow process at that point of Gentile's career. The Dodgers were also high on 1B Norm Larker, whom they would choose over Gentile later in the decade. Playing his 3rd season in AA, Gentile hit 40 HR and hit .296 in the Texas League, one considered by many to be a pitchers friendly league. He finally moved up to AAA in 1957, his first of three seasons at that level. The lefty continued to produce, hitting 69 HR over the three seasons, including 27 in 1959.
The Dodgers were doing what a lot of organizations were doing at that time, stockpiling solid players in the minors to give them organizational depth. This protected them through injury, as the team could likely stay within its own organization is a player went down for a significant period of time. It obviously was not ideal for the player. Gentile made his MLB debut in 1957 at age 23, getting 7 ABs. He got 30 AB the next season before not even getting a call up at the end of the 1959 season in which the Dodgers would eventually win the World Series. After the World Series, Gentile finally got traded to the Baltimore Orioles for Willy Miranda (who would never play in another MLB game) and a minor leaguer.
Gentile excelled in his first chance to play in the majors. Platooning with Walt Dropo, Gentile hit .292, 21, 98 as he finished 2nd in the Rookie of the Year vote. 1961 was something else, as he became a star, hitting .302, 46, 141 in the year that will always be remembered for Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. No longer part of a platoon, Gentile would club 33 more HR in 1962 before falling off to 24 HR in 1963 for Baltimore and 28 for the Kansas City Athletics in 1964. By 1965, Gentile was not the same power threat and split the season between the Athletics and Houston Astros, hitting 17 HR. His last MLB season was 1966 for the Astros and Cleveland Indians.
Trying to stay in the game, Gentile signed with the Philadelphia Phillies organization for the 1967 season. He was paid a measly $10,000 for the season (even though players did not make nearly as much as they do now, he was unfairly paid). He hit 21 HR for AAA San Diego, but batted just .236 and hit just .185 in 78 games in 1968. Jim was offered a deal to play once again in AAA for the Phillies organization in 1969. However, he was offered a better opportunity in the Japanese Pacific League, playing for the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes. I could not believe when he told me this: He had to pay the Phillies $5,000 to get out of his contract!!! I did not say it was taken out of his contract, it was a fee he had to pay at the beginning of the season before he received a paycheck.
Similarly to the way the Braves handled Charles and the Orioles Durham, Gentile would have benefited from a trade early in his career. If he was moved before the 1957 season, he would have clearly had three more MLB seasons. My interview with Jim Gentile will play in its entirety next Saturday, 4/19 on the Passed Ball Show which can be heard on MTR Radio on Saturdays 10am-noon eastern as well as my website www.johnpielli.com.