It happened so quickly. I was standing alone in the front of a department store when I noticed a tall, tan man in a tailored suit coming toward me. Somehow, I managed to say, “Are you Jim Gentile?” And for some reason, he said, “No,” and kept walking toward the back of the store. It was there that officials had set up an area where he would sign autographs, which is the reason my mom took me to the store on a summer’s night.
A baseball still in hand, I told my mom that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get the player’s autograph after all. She thought it was shyness and encouraged me to get in line. As I got closer to the table where he was sitting, I started to get nervous, wondering what I would say. To be honest, I remember him smiling, and being kind, but I don’t recall if we exchanged any more words. On the baseball he simply signed, “Jim Gentile.”
He was my mom’s favorite player in the early 1960s, a larger-than-life slugger who wasn’t afraid to express his equally big personality. In 1961, he hit 46 home runs and drove in 141 runs, including a game in which he hit grand slams in his first two at-bats. He finished third in the MVP voting behind Roger Maris, who hit 61 home runs that magical season, and Mickey Mantle, who slammed 54. Gentile was a classic left-hand hitting and fielding first baseman with a classic nickname, Diamond Jim. His swing was fierce, as was his temper at times. My mom swears she once saw him try to bury the ball in the dirt after a misplay. He was hard on himself and on opposing pitchers.
When she heard he would be making an appearance at Towers, which was on Liberty Road at Old Court, we decided to go. I had never been in the presence of a professional baseball player before, and I remember Gentile was even bigger in person than he appeared on the field. He looked like a movie star, and everything was perfect until I approached him before he had a chance to get settled. Or, maybe, to think through how he would react if someone approached him before he reached his assigned spot.
To this day, I’m not sure why he responded the way he did, but my response wasn’t much better. There was no benefit of the doubt, only a crushed spirit. There is not much perspective when you’re 11. You don’t want your heroes to have blemishes, or to make mistakes.
I don’t remember telling my mom what had happened because I didn’t want to ruin anything for her. She had taken the time to provide an experience she thought I would love. The signed baseball went into a box with my baseball cards. Later, it was joined by a couple more autographed baseballs, one that included Mantle’s signature. I was among a group of fans who handed baseballs to Yankee players on a team bus outside Memorial Stadium. I remember Whitey Ford closing the window next to his seat, a move that I also took personally.
It’s funny how quickly allegiance can turn into acrimony. A real or imagined slight, a decision to accept a better contract with a rival team, a dip in performance, a different point of view expressed in a manner that doesn’t meet our approval.
It’s not enough to examine an athlete’s performance in a way that we wouldn’t want to be scrutinized. We also make judgments about them personally without knowing them, or what they might be going through. There is little grace, much like the world in which we live. I’m guilty of being a harsh critic of people playing a sport I was never good enough to play at that level.
The night before Thanksgiving several years ago my daughter went to a local mall, where she saw Cal Ripken Jr., by himself. She approached him and told him that her father had been The Sun’s sports editor. He told her that he remembered me. When I suggested he was just being kind, she was adamant that he really knew who I was.
Either way, I appreciated his kindness and the grace he extended. But would I have thought less of him had he reacted differently?
It has been 55 years since Diamond Jim made a lasting impression with one misstep. I think it’s long past time for me to forgive him for a lapse in judgment. I still see the encounter through the eyes of an 11-year-old, though. Perhaps it’s time to see it through the eyes of someone who’s had a lifetime of missteps.
By the way, I still have the ball, although the autograph has faded. It reminds me more of a special night with my mom. That’s how I should have remembered it all along.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. He can be reached at [email protected].