As a six-year old living in Baltimore, the Orioles were the first baseball team I followed. The 1961 season was the first one where I started paying attention to the games. And what a year it was!
Sure, 1961 was the year Roger Maris set a single-season home-run record.
But who led the American League in RBI in 1961?
Not Maris. Not Mantle. Not Norm Cash.
It was the Orioles’ first-baseman. The first player I ever followed. The one with one of the coolest sports nicknames ever:
“Diamond Jim” Gentile. He hit .302 with 46 home runs and 141 RBI.
He first got my attention when he hit two grand slams in one game (May 9). He later hit three more grand slams that season, setting a since-broken single-season record.
“It can be done in ’61” was the Orioles’ marketing slogan. I even had a Wiffle ball bat with that printed on it — a giveaway at a Memorial Stadium home game. And for the longest time in 1961, it really DID seem like it COULD be done, though the Orioles finished third in the American League, despite winning 95 games.
And it seemed that Jim Gentile was in the middle of the winning all the time. Now, I admit I loved the nickname, and it surely didn’t hurt that his first name was the same as mine; a little “reflected glory” there. And hey, if he had the same first name I did, he HAD to be a cool guy, right? Flawless logic from a six-year-old!
Gentile was never able to repeat his “career year.” He played for several other teams before and after his time with Baltimore. But that season was magical, and it helped light the fuse on what has become my lifetime love of the game. It makes me smile, just thinking about that season and Jim Gentile. How valuable are childhood memories such as that?
Thanks for everything, Diamond Jim. You were the greatest, and I’ll never forget you and what you meant to me.