SABR

Joe Gonzales

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

Joe Gonzales was born in San Francisco on March 19, 1915. Claiming Spanish descent, perhaps his later-added middle name suggests that he truly was Castilian. There’s a little story attached. His given name, on his birth certificate, was simply Joe Gonzales, but in his junior high school there were three boys with the same name. To distinguish between them, they assigned our Joe his mother’s maiden name as Joe’s middle name.

He was a right-handed pitcher who debuted with the Boston Red Sox on August 25, 1937. Contemporary coverage in the Boston Globe said his father, Candido, was born in the Basque country of Spain, arriving in the United States in 1913. But he wasn’t named Gonzales when he arrived. “Joe’s father found that people had difficulty pronouncing his real name, which was Nogueiro, and noticing that no one had trouble with the name of Gonzales he chose that one.” [Los Angeles Times, April 26, 1935] Joe’s mother’s family – the Madrids – also came from Spain but had been in California for several generations. The 1920 Census showed his father working as a track walker for the railroad. The family moved from their home in Richmond to Los Angeles when Joe was 3 years old.

Joe graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles, first playing baseball in his sophomore year there. He played shortstop and the outfield, and relieved in two games for the Roosevelt Roughriders that year, but by his junior year he became the ace of the pitching staff. His brother Candido Jr was a catcher and both he and coach Coney Golindo helped Joe learn the ropes, transitioning to becoming a pitcher. Joe also lettered in track and basketball.  

Joe was a star for the University of Southern California, where he was undefeated on the mound in his final two years. On the freshman team, the Trobabes, he finished 9-1 with 85 strikeouts. The team was 19-2 that year, and Joe also pitched a 1-1 tie that ran to 12 innings. Joe hit pretty well, too – batting .408. He credited freshman coach Forrest Twygood, particularly with respect to his curve. Contrary to the usual trajectory, his curve came first and his fastball developed later. Then he began working on a change of pace. In his sophomore year, he lost two games – in all, he suffered only three losses in four seasons of college baseball. One thing that surely helped was overcoming an early high-school superstition – he liked the first batter up to get a hit, thereby taking off the pressure of pitching a perfect game.

There was another game Gonzales lost, an exhibition game in February 1935 when he pitched for coach Sam Barry and the Trojans against Crowley’s All-Stars, an aggregation that featured – among others – Melo Almada, the Mexican-born ballplayer from the Boston Red Sox. Joe walked him and Harry Danning of the Giants to fill the bases in the top of the ninth inning. A strikeout followed, but then another walk and an infield groundout allowed the winning runs to score for a 4-2 defeat. He became the ace of the staff later that spring and frequently appeared in Los Angeles Times headlines; his one-hitter against the UCLA Bruins was followed four days later with a three-hit shutout of the Bruins. He had to pitch and win three games in a week’s time from UCLA if he was to keep USC’s hopes alive, and he did just that, allowing just one run in 27 innings.

He was hailed with a large headline as a “great mound prospect” in the above-mentioned April 26, 1935, Times, heady stuff for a college sophomore. The paper called him “one of the outstanding young baseball prospects in the West.” Another unattributed clipping in the Baseball Hall of Fame files said that Joe was “hailed as perhaps the greatest pitcher in American intercollegiate baseball today.” That fall, he was selected as one of 18 college, high school, and sandlot players to tour Japan for a series of games representing an all-American team for the American Baseball Congress. [Los Angeles Times, September 22, 1935] Interestingly, Joe’s worst subject in college was one he took to get by on his language requirement – Spanish. Somehow, at some point, he got saddled with the nickname Goofy Joe, a name that appeared in more than a couple of headlines during his college years. 

As early as March 1936, while still a junior at USC, Gonzales was said to be ready for at least Double-A baseball. Columnist Bob Ray wrote, “I hear that he and Bill Essick, the Yankee scout, are more than just good friends.” [Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1936] Essick was close to USC in general; it was felt that almost all Gonzales needed to do was bulk up a little, put on some more weight. He already possessed “a sinker, screwball, good control, and a hop on his fast one.” [Ibid., May 7, 1936] His college team won that year’s California Intercollegiate Baseball Association championship. Joe was 12-0.

In his senior year, the physical education major won seven more games, including an 8-0 no-hitter against Stanford. Two walks kept it from being a perfect game. After winning a dozen games in a row for the Trojans, he’d picked up the nickname Smoky Joe in obvious reference to Smoky Joe Wood of the early Boston Red Sox. It’s a streak he extended to 19 consecutive victories. Had he not been forced out of the final deciding game against UCLA in his senior year, USC might have won the title again in 1937 and Joe might have won his 20th in a row. As it was, big news was right around the corner. Columnist Braven Dyer noted that Bill Essick was a “daily visitor” at USC and declared, “Although nobody will admit that Joe is signed you can put it down that he will eventually wind up in a Yankee monkey suit.” [Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1937]

Joe himself announced a surprise on May 27 – he’d signed with the Boston Red Sox. For obvious reasons, Red Sox scout Ernie Johnson had also been following Joe for some time. Johnson signed Gonzales and placed him with the San Diego Padres for a few weeks, sharing space with young Ted Williams long enough to get into six games, starting two, and posting an 0-2 record with five walks and 28 hits in 26 innings of work. Bob Ray, writing in the June 4 Times, said he’d been told that Joe had perhaps a bit of a swollen head – “a bad case of inflation, but maybe the boys that tell me this are only jealous of Joe’s success.”  [Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1937] This seems to contradict a story in the April 23, 1937, Christian Science Monitor which described his modesty and said that he planned to pick up teaching credentials by attending extra classes at USC the following winter.

The Red Sox developed a shortage of relief pitchers and Gonzales was given a call-up from San Diego in August. The “young Mexican hurler” (San Diego sportswriter Earl Keller’s inaccurate words) debuted with Boston on August 25 as the fourth pitcher in a futile relief effort against Cleveland, as Bob Feller held the Red Sox to four hits in an 8-1 win. Gonzales pitched the eighth inning, allowing one hit but retiring the side on just four pitches. The Boston Herald noted: “Thus, it was impossible to gauge how good or bad he might be. But he did seem to carry plenty of poise.” He was a right-hander who is listed as standing 5-feet-9 and weighing in at 175 pounds, though the April 1935 profile in the Los Angeles Times had him as 5-feet-11, as did the 1937 piece in the Monitor. He himself wrote Cliff Kachline at the Baseball Hall of Fame in August 1972 that he was an even 6 feet tall and weighed 158 pounds at the time he joined the Red Sox.

Four days after his debut, the “coast youth” was the third pitcher in relief during a loss to the St. Louis Browns. He was second man in against the White Sox on September 2 and limited them to three hits in 5 2/3 innings. Five days later, Gonzales got his first decision -- a loss -- after giving up four hits in one inning of relief against the Washington Senators. On September 20, he was given his first major-league start. Described as Jose Gonzales, a former star athlete at the University of Southern California, Joe allowed 12 hits but won the game against the Browns, 7-5, in good part thanks to rookie Bobby Doerr’s two-run homer in the sixth.

It was Lefty vs. Lefty, and later Gomez vs. Gonzales, as Lefty Gomez beat Lefty Grove (and reliever Gonzales) in a game against the Yankees. Gonzales gave up two hits in 3 2/3 innings of work, but Gomez and the Yankees won the game. The Chicago Tribune carelessly called Joe “Mike Gonzalez.” On September 27, he allowed four hits in two-thirds of an inning, in another Red Sox loss. He pitched very well against the Yankees in his second and final major-league start, with the Yankees up only 1-0 after 6½ innings. Unfortunately, Gonzales tired and Joe DiMaggio hit a grand slam. That kind of did it and New York won that October 3 game, 6-1. Gonzalez didn’t know it at the time, but his major-league career was over (1-2, 4.35 ERA). He’d struck out 11 but had also walked 11. DiMaggio’s homer was the only one he surrendered, but it was a doozy. Talking about the game to sportswriter Ben Epstein, Joe said, “I suppose I was doing all right against the Yanks. They had me 2 to 1 at the end of the seventh. Then the eighth. Do I have to tell it? Okay. An error between two hits filled the bases and Joe DiMaggio came to bat. …. Well, both of our names are Joe and we both were born in San Francisco.” [Unknown newspaper clipping in the Gonzales player file at the Hall of Fame]

As a major-league fielder, Gonzales was flawless, handling the six chances he was presented. As a major-league hitter, he was hitless in 11 plate appearances, though he did sacrifice once in the October game. He did get the bat on the ball, whiffing only once. During Gonzales’ six weeks with the Red Sox, the Boston newspapers seem to have accorded no particular notice at all to his Hispanic heritage. It was apparently not considered that remarkable. Nor was his pitching; the next March, the Monitor’s Edwin Rumill called him a “hard and willing worker, but about all he has to offer in mound prowess is a smooth motion.” [Christian Science Monitor, March 16, 1938]

After the season, Joe signed with the White Kings for winter baseball in California, ironically or not to pitch against the Detroit Stars, a “highly touted Negro nine.” [Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1937] The Stars were a California Winter League club and for quite a while Joe was the only pitcher to beat them that winter.

Gonzales pitched for the Red Sox in spring training 1938, but was optioned to Little Rock of the Southern Association near the end of March. In an April 9 exhibition game, he “muffled Yankee bats” for Little Rock, allowing four hits in five innings of work. Joe was disappointed. In the only start he had, he’d beaten the Cardinals and when the Boston brass told him they thought he needed more experience, he considered quitting baseball. He moved ahead, though, and reported to Little Rock, and later to Hazleton in early July. In 104 innings with the Little Rock Travelers, Gonzales was 3-6 with a 3.81 earned-run average.

Gonzales was dealt to Cleveland on August 1, 1938, as part of a trade involving Boston getting pitcher Joe Heving from Milwaukee. Gonzales pitched 65 innings with the Indians’ American Association affiliate Milwaukee Brewers (3-5, 6.23 ERA). In 1939, he was apparently back with Boston in some fashion, and played with Minneapolis during the spring of 1939 (sportswriter Halsey Hall called him a “Spanish-American down from the Red Sox … a horse for work”). Joe spent most of 1939 in the Pacific Coast League building an 11-7 record (3.52 ERA) with the San Diego Padres, including one dramatic 1-0 win over the Los Angeles Angels in mid-July. There were a couple of incidents where he pitched in tight to batters, prompting one reader to write the Times’ Bob Ray and ask if Gonzales’s best pitch was a “frijole pelota.” [Los Angeles Times, July 17, 1939]

At the end of the year, both Gonzales and pitcher Lefty Lefebvre were sent to the San Francisco Seals in a November 12 deal so that the Red Sox could acquire one Dominic DiMaggio, the brother of the guy who’d hit the grand slam in Joe’s last major-league game.

Though he was in four games for Minneapolis in 1940, most of 1940 and 1941 was spent with the Portland Beavers. They weren’t good years for victories: 2-12 (4.57) and 4-12 (4.70), but there was one real highlight: Joe married Jean Frampton of Los Angeles in June 1941.

World War II intervened, but rather than give up baseball to go off to war, Gonzales gave up pitching and played outfield instead from 1942 through 1945. He was on the Bakersfield roster in 1942, but no statistics are available. In March 1943, Joe was commissioned an ensign in the Navy but here things get confusing. One report says that he was later classified 4-F, and that this allowed him to play for the Oakland Oaks in 1943 (he was released after the season) and for the Hollywood Stars in 1944. Another report says that he served as a lieutenant in the Navy for three years. He wrote the Hall of Fame that he had served in the Navy Reserve from 1942 to 1944, though he had to get affidavits stating that Joe Gonzales, Joe M. Gonzales, Jose M. Gonzales, and Joe Madrid Gonzales were all one and the same.

Before entering the Navy, Gonzales drew on his physical-education degree and handled the organization of sports in the recreation department of aircraft manufacturer North American Aviation at Inglewood, California. His Coast League play during the war years wasn’t first-rate, in any event, and the Stars left him home at one point when they went out on a two-week road trip in mid-July. He didn’t play at all in 1945, though the Stars did sign Joe’s younger brother Al as a shortstop.

One slight during wartime came off the typewriter of Braven Dyer: The Navy had some crack baseball teams, and the Navy preflight team at St. Mary’s College in Oakland was one of them. Gonzales “isn’t even good enough to make the team.” [Braven Dyer, writing in the June 17, 1943, Los Angeles Times]

After the war was over, Gonzales pitched two more seasons, for Sacramento (1-2 and 1-1) though appearing in rather few games. In 1950, he was one of three managers for the Porterville Packers in the Class C Sunset League, and pitched a fairly full season (hitting .330 and winning 10 games against 8 defeats). As a batter in the minors, Joe wasn’t bad for a pitcher, hitting .244 over a cumulative 685 at-bats.

In February 1951, Gonzales was named baseball coach for Loyola University in Los Angeles, which work was in addition to his teaching and coaching assignments at Westchester High School, where he led the Comets into the playoffs for nine years in a row up through 1965, winning the championship in six of them. He taught high school for 30 years. Joe also put in 21 years as a field judge in the National Football League.

Joe Gonzales died of a heart attack in a hospital at Torrance, California, on November 16, 1996.

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the text, the author relied on the online SABR Encyclopedia, retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.

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