Thursday, July 29, 2010
Do O's owe Jim Gentile five grand?
As we saw Tuesday, all the major parties have now accepted some changes to the 1961 statistics, making Jim Gentile the (sole) American League RBI champion -- he'd been officially tied with Roger Maris -- and lifting Maris ahead of Mickey Mantle in the scoring column.
Way back in 2004 -- the statistical discrepancies were actually discovered some years ago by research Ron Rakowski -- Alan Schwarz wrote this in his seminal book, The Numbers Game:
No huge deal, perhaps, but removing that RBI from Maris also takes away his outright RBI title and puts him in a tie with Jim Gentile at 141. A Retrosheet volunteer actually tracked down Gentile in Oklahoma to inform the 65-year-old of this development. "Who the hell is this," Gentile barked, before getting increasingly intrigued. "[Expletive] it, I had a $5,000 clause if I led the league in RBIs! You think I can those bastards to give it to me?"
Probably not. At least until the change was official.
Well, now it's official. And even if not legally obligated to honor that clause in Gentile's contract, the Orioles would today seem obliged to do something for Gentile, right.
Except the story above is pretty questionable. For one thing, I don't know about 1961, but for a long while now baseball has prohibited performance bonuses. You can pay a player extra for playing time and for winning awards, but you can't pay him for statistics. Maybe "leading the league" doesn't fall under that heading and maybe that heading didn't exist in 1961. But that's one thing.
The other is that Schwarz is relating, second-hand, a story told by a grumpy old guy remembering something that happened (or not) 40 years earlier. Does Gentile have any proof? Does he have a copy of his 1961 contract? Do the Orioles have a copy? Does anyone have a copy?
But wait, this gets even better.
AOL Fanhouse's Greg Couch talked to Gentile this week, and the story has changed ...
For 49 years, he thought he'd lost that RBI race by one. Now, he won it.
Gentile had to laugh Wednesday. He had nearly been written off as a career minor leaguer back then. He barely made the Orioles in 1960, and in 1961 he made just $15,000 while piling up all those RBIs.
After that, he negotiated a new deal with Baltimore general manager Lee MacPhail, doubling his salary to $30,000.
"We argued over the contract," Gentile said. "I remember MacPhail, at the time I signed the contract, said that if I had led the league in RBIs, it would have been worth $5,000 more."
Ah. Now we've gone a from a clause in Gentile's 1961 contract to a theoretical raise in 1962 of $20,000 instead of $15,000. MacPhail may well have said the RBI title would have been worth an extra $5,000, but we'll never know if he meant it.
Gentile still made a pretty good living in 1962, when $30,000 would buy approximately what $210,000 will buy you today. No, that's still not a great deal of money for an RBI king. But back then it was pretty good for a player in just his third full season.
My guess is that the Orioles don't owe Jim Gentile anything, either legally or ethically.
Which doesn't mean they shouldn't grab this story and run with it. I don't think it would be appropriate to write Gentile a check. But a check for $200,000 to his favorite charity? And a lovely ceremony at Camden Yards, featuring the presentation of a lovely plaque? This is the sort of story that can set baseball, with its wonderfully intricate history, apart from the other, less prosaic games.