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.
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."