Jesse Gonder died on November 14, 2004 in Oakland, California at the age of 68. Although his role in MLB was basically that of a journeyman catcher, Gonder found relative success in 1963 and â€˜64 as the starting backstop for that hapless new gang of lovable dolts known as the New York Mets. After having started the â€™63 season with the Cincinnati Reds, Gonder was shipped off to the Mets, where he hit .302. In 1964, he batted .270 in 131 games.
Having begun his career with the New York Yankees in 1960, Gonder became one of the first players to play for both the Yankees and the Mets during his major league career. More notably, Gonder built a reputation over the years for being outspoken at a time when most African-American athletes were reluctant to do so.
After he retired from the game, Gonder became a bus driver for Golden Gate Transit in the Bay Area, remaining in that position for over 20 years before retiring in the mid-1990s.
A great baseball high school: â€œI graduated from McClymonds in 1955. That team went undefeated the last three years I was there. We had a group of guys here in Oakland that could play ball. Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Curtis Floodâ€¦.myself. I went to school with all of them. A guy named Curt Roberts was there before us, as was Charlie Beamon. We were all good athletes. And Frank was the first one to sign and he went to the big leagues. And after he signed professional, we all figured we had a pretty good chance of going. We had one guy, a scout, named Bob Madic. He ended up being the General Manager for the Toronto Blue Jays. He signed us all into the Redsâ€™ organization. He cleaned up financially, too. We saw small bonuses, but from what I heard, he made quite a bit for signing us.â€
Racism: â€œBack in those days, being black, if you couldnâ€™t accept being humiliated, or insulted, I should say -- if you couldnâ€™t accept being called â€˜niggerâ€™ or â€˜watermelon eaterâ€™, â€˜Amos â€˜n Andyâ€, any racial insult that they could possibly throw at you â€“ then you couldnâ€™t make it.â€
â€œI had some good times, but with what I had to go through in baseball, it really wasnâ€™t that much fun. Once I got into the game and I found out how political it was, I realized what was gonna hold me back. It ceased being fun, it really did. There was really nothing fun about it.â€
â€œIn Cincinnati, we were the first team to integrate spring training. We stayed at the same motel with the white players in 1962.â€
â€œOnly the guys with the thick skin made it. Maybe we werenâ€™t the best athletes, but we had thicker skin. We knew what we had to do to survive. There was really nothing fun about it. Everywhere you ran into racism. Everywhere. In a lot of the places we couldnâ€™t even go in and eat with the white players. We had to sit out on the bus, while they brought us hamburgers and things like that, you know, after they had eaten.â€
â€œJerry Jacobs, a white player from McClymonds High, signed with the Reds a year before I did. Jerry signed a year before me, and then the next year when I signed, we all left here together from the 6th Street railroad station to go to Douglas, Georgia â€“ thatâ€™s where Cincinnati had their spring training. We all grew up together; we all went to school together in West Oakland. And everything was fine until we got to Chicago. And once we got to Chicago and headed South, Jerry Jacobs and I got on the train. I saw all the black people sitting in one place, so I just went and sat with them. It never occurred to me what was going on; I just went and sat with the black people. Jerry came and sat with us too. And the porter came back there and told him, â€œYou canâ€™t sit here. You have to go and sit with the whites. And that was our first taste of racism like that.â€
The Great Yankees: â€œThey told me, â€œCasey wants you.â€ And I said, â€œWhat? â€œ And they said, â€œYouâ€™re going to New York.â€ And I said, â€œNo, Iâ€™m not. I donâ€™t belong to the Yankees.â€ And they said, â€œYou do now. They just bought you.â€ That night, Iâ€™m in Yankee Stadium, google-eyed. I guess that was the biggest thrill I got out of baseball at the time, you know? Iâ€™m there with Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. Then, we go on a road trip, we go to Boston. They had already clinched the pennant.â€
Mickey Mantle: â€œMickey drank a lot. We were talking in Atlantic City at a memorabilia show one day (in the 80â€™s.) And he told me, â€œIf I had known I was going to live this long, I wouldnâ€™t have drank so much.â€ And I told him, â€œMickey, the liquor is probably whatâ€™s kept you alive.â€ And he thought that was funny.â€
Casey Stengel: â€œESPN wanted to interview me, Johnny Blanchard and Clete Boyer for SportsCentury about Casey a few years back. Clete declined to be interviewed. He said, â€œI donâ€™t have anything to say about the so-and-so.â€ â€˜Cause Casey was not a good playersâ€™ manager, period. He was a media man. He was an ambassador. Blanchard told the guy from ESPN. â€œCasey did this to me. He told me when I first came up that I could really hit. And I said, â€œYeah, skip â€“ I can hit pretty good.â€ So, Casey asked me, â€œCan you catch?â€ And I said, â€œYeah, Casey, I can catch pretty good, too.â€ So, Casey said, â€œWell, if you can really catch, then, catch that 12 oâ€™ clock plane to Denver. Blanchard had been optioned to Denver.â€
Copyright © 2010 Ed Attanasio
Fighting Fastballs and Racism: Jesse Gonder
Copyright © 2010 Ed Attanasio
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