Jesse Gonder

This article was written by David E. Skelton

In 1964 columnist Dick Young cracked, “Battered plate umps will insist upon double Blue Cross coverage if Jesse Gonder continues to do all the catching for the Mets.”1 The humor in the reference to Gonder’s league leading 21 passed balls was lost on the African-American backstop. Until later in life, when he appeared to come to terms with his behind-the-plate challenges, Gonder fiercely defended his work as a backstop: “All my career, I’ve taken a bad rap for my catching and I don’t ever recall losing a game because of my catching. On the other hand, I’ve won many a game with my bat.”2

This was true. Gonder’s lifetime .266-26-91 batting line versus right-handed pitching, combined with a strong, accurate arm indicated a baseball prowess that ostensibly warranted more than 962 major-league plate appearances. In light of the criticism he received for his defensive challenges, it seems that management might have experimented with Gonder in the outfield where he had played during his minor-league career, to benefit from his offense.

But Gonder’s tenure in the major leagues may have been longer if not for another bad rap he received as a “troublemaker.” A proud, outspoken man, Gonder drew the ire of baseball’s established hierarchy only a few years removed from allowing African-American players into the National Pastime. Having done so, both slowly and stubbornly, the white establishment did not take well to a black man unafraid to stand up for himself. For his own part, Gonder’s inability to compromise – he derisively referred to a black teammate as an “Uncle Tom” for not standing up to management – set up a clash that likely contributed to the backstop’s early exit from the game.

Jesse Lemar Gonder was born on January 20, 1936, in the small city of Monticello, Arkansas, 90 miles southeast of Little Rock. Named after his paternal grandfather, Jesse was born to Spencer Gonder and wife Eula Mae Thompson. The Gonder-Thompson marriage was short-lived and Jesse was raised among a large number of (half-) siblings. In 1940 Jesse and a younger brother were living in the same Drew County region with their maternal grandparents. Around 1950 the family moved to Oakland, California, but Jesse’s father, who later remarried, appears to have never left Arkansas.

Gonder’s meager background growing up in West Oakland is captured in what he coyly dubbed a wish sandwich: “That’s when you have two pieces of bread and wish you had some meat to put in between.”3 But if Gonder’s socioeconomic status was poverty-stricken, his athletic opportunities were richly endowed. Under the tutelage of American Legion and McClymonds High School coach George Powles, who developed Curt Flood, Vada Pinson and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, among others, Gonder’s skills advanced on the baseball diamond. After his 1955 high school graduation Gonder followed in the footsteps of his McClymonds Warrior teammates by signing with Cincinnati Redlegs scout Bobby Mattick.

Gonder was assigned to Cincinnati’s Ogden, Utah affiliate in the Class C Pioneer League. He carried the bulk of the club’s catching responsibilities while placing among the league leaders with eight triples and 15 home runs. This success did not warrant an advance in 1956 as Gonder toiled in Class C Wausau, Wisconsin. He carried a .300 average into August when a slight decline in the later weeks caused Gonder to slip to .296. He still placed among the Northern League leaders in doubles (23) and home runs (14). Continued success followed in 1957 as Gonder raced through three Class B teams. In August of that year he was acquired by the Monterrey Sultanes, initiating a two-year love-hate relationship between player and country.

Gonder loved Mexico and learned to speak Spanish fluently. Teamed alongside many Negro League players he witnessed no racism, a vast difference from the humiliations and insults he received stateside. But Gonder also worried about his career. He viewed the Mexican League as a graveyard for ballplayers. Strictly from a career perspective, Gonder was happy to return stateside in 1958 for spring training.

Gonder’s enthusiasm was displayed by his keen bat as he hit safely in every Florida exhibition game. The Redlegs promoted him to the Seattle Rainiers in the AAA Pacific Coast League. On March 31 Gonder’s two triples led the Rainiers to a 7-4 exhibition win over the Austin (Texas) Senators, causing Seattle manager Connie Ryan to tab Gonder as his number one catcher. The label lasted a mere 16 games until the parent club reassigned catcher Dutch Dotterer to Seattle. In May Gonder was optioned to Monterrey. His successful return was reflected in the Sultanes’ June 22 double-header sweep of Nuevo Laredo, the left-handed hitter collecting seven hits in eight at-bats, including two homers. But this stay in Mexico was short. In July Gonder was optioned to the San Antonio Missions. He later claimed the move to the AA Texas League was prompted by his threat to quit baseball, but reports indicate financial stress of the team played a major role – the Sultanes released manager Reggie Otero at the same time in an attempt to cut salaries and reduce expenses.

With veteran catcher Sam Hairston behind the plate, the Missions were determined to find a place in their lineup for the explosive bat of their new acquisition. Gonder would receive nearly as much time in right field as he did catching. On July 20 Gonder made his Texas League debut against the Dallas Rangers with a pinch-hit homer, initiating a tear of 16 hits in his first 24 at-bats. Eleven days later he garnered eight RBIs on four hits – including two home runs – in a 13-2 rout of the Houston Buffaloes. “Hit It Yonder, Gonder” became the catch-phrase among Missions fans as the 22-year-old posted a .328-9-42 line in 195 at-bats. When the season ended Gonder continued play in the Panama Winter League.

In 1959 Gonder’s prospects of teaming with former high school mates Robinson and Pinson appeared promising. The preceding year the offense of Redlegs incumbent catcher Ed Bailey had dipped considerably. But the little attention Gonder received centered on his having reported to spring camp 15 pounds overweight, resulting in a ticket to Havana, Cuba in the International League, while Dotterer served as Bailey’s backup .

Gonder enjoyed his time with the Havana Sugar Kings. Married in February 1957, he moved his wife and growing family to the island nation. Though he slumped offensively, Gonder returned fulltime to his familiar catching responsibilities, and was behind the plate on those occasions when newly-installed Prime Minister Fidel Castro took to the mound. Decades later Gonder would vividly recall the infamous July 25 match versus the Rochester Red Wings that extended into extra innings. At midnight a raucous celebration commemorating the Cuban revolution overflowed into Havana’s El Cerro Stadium. Shots rang out striking a player and coach. Though neither was seriously hurt, the game was suspended and never resumed. Havana went on to a successful post-season romp that culminated in Gonder’s participation in the thrilling seven-game match against the Minneapolis Millers in the Junior World Series.

But Gonder’s offensive dip in Havana, combined with the earlier weight issue, established a negative tone with the Redlegs. Cincinnati sent Gonder to the New York Yankees in a negligible transaction. Assigned to the AAA Richmond Virginians – Gonder was the only African-American on the team based in the Confederacy’s capital – his career exploded. Though his .327 pace lacked enough at-bats to capture the 1960 International League batting crown, Gonder drew notice with his power as well. He became the second player in history to hit a ball off the center field wall in Toronto – a lofty 415-foot distance. Gonder’s 13 home runs were remarkable in light of the spacious Richmond home park (360 feet down the right field line). Speculating about 35-year-old Yogi Berra’s remaining time behind the plate, scribes dubbed Gonder the Yankees’ “catcher of the future.”4 He was named the Virginians’ Most Valuable Player. In a poll of league managers, Gonder nosed out teammate Deron Johnson as the International League’s best hitting prospect, and was considered the circuit’s most improved player.

Given a September call-up with the Yankees, he made his debut September 23 in Boston as a pinch hitter. In another pinch-hit role in Yankee Stadium a week later, Gonder connected against Boston hurler Bill Monbouquette for his first major-league hit – a home run. The next day he made his catching debut, driving in Roger Maris with a third-inning single in a 3-1 win over the Red Sox. After the season Gonder barnstormed across the south with Hank Aaron and other African-American All Stars. Journalists anticipated that during the following spring camp “[Gonder] will be watched closely at St. Petersburg.”5

In a sportswriters’ poll in 1961 Gonder’s near-.400 Grapefruit League average and improved defense earned him the label as the Yankees’ hottest young prospect. He was runner-up to Roland Sheldon for the James P. Dawson Memorial Award as the top performing rookie in the Yankees fold. On March 26 he led the team with three hits and two RBIs in a 6-2 exhibition win over the Reds. With the prospect of breaking camp with four catchers – Berra, Elston Howard, Johnny Blanchard and Gonder – rumors emerged of the Yankees dangling Howard to the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for Duke Snider and Johnny Podres. Gonder heard years later that the Los Angeles Angels had approached the Yankees about him. Nothing happened –– and the crowded catching field afforded Gonder little playing time when the season opened.

Used exclusively in pinch-hitting roles, Gonder had a mere 12 at-bats through May 28 before he went back to Richmond. A pulled ligament in his hand affected his play. He slumped to a .226-9-34 line in fewer than 300 plate appearances. The Yankees appear to have soured on Gonder as quickly as they had lauded him months earlier. In November the Chicago White Sox reportedly approached New York to exchange recently-acquired first baseman Joe Cunningham but the Yankees were reluctant to trade Gonder to a league rival. On December 14, 1961, Gonder went back to the Reds in exchange for lefty hurler Marshall Bridges.

The catching situation in Cincinnati had changed drastically since Gonder’s failed attempt to make the team in 1960. Bailey and Dotterer were gone. Cincinnati had won the 1961 pennant despite the catching corps contributing a meager .212-4-36 line. In the spring of 1962 Gonder’s competition for starting catcher was little-tested youngsters Johnny Edwards and Don Pavletich. While Edwards, a future three-time All Star, prevailed Gonder discovered additional challenges in Florida that spring.

Racial barriers in baseball had been crossed 15 years earlier, but many establishments in Florida continued to shun African-American players. Unable to stay with their white teammates in the Tampa motel, Gonder and his black teammates were forced into private homes for lodging and meals. The quarters were often sparse, the food even less so, and the players grumbled frequently among themselves. Never reticent to express his opinion, Gonder took his complaints to management. The Reds became the first team to integrate player-accommodations in Florida. But instead of being lauded for having the courage to speak up, he was labeled a troublemaker, a reputation that would stick throughout the remainder of his career.

Assigned to the San Diego Padres in the Pacific Coast League, Gonder enjoyed his finest professional season. In the spring he produced an 11-game hitting streak that hoisted his average to .339. When this string was snapped he quickly rebounded with a 12-game streak with five doubles, a homer and 18 RBIs. Padres’ manager Don Heffner lavished praise on Gonder for his cooperative spirit that contributed to a relaxed clubhouse for the eventual league champions. Topps Chewing Gum Company anointed him PCL Player of the Month when he hit .396 in August. . He became the first catcher to lead the PCL in RBIs for a single season and only the second catcher in the league’s 60-year history to capture the batting crown. A .342-21-116 line earned Gonder the league’s Most Valuable Player award, edging out teammate Tommy Harper. Topps named him National Association Player of the Year. Gonder was called up to Cincinnati in September while the Reds were busy fending off trade inquiries for him, including an aggressive pursuit from the Baltimore Orioles involving slugger Jim Gentile.

Gonder was much sought-after in the off-season. On October 25 he received the Player of the Year award during a lavish banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, preceded by a luncheon at the famed Toots Shor’s restaurant. Gonder joined a mixed-race barnstorming club that included Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Pinson. Small gate receipts caused the collapse of the southern tour. When the team folded Gonder was vigorously pursued by two Puerto Rican teams, eventually signing with the Caracas Leones. Dubbed as a “star of the not-too-distant future,”6 Gonder looked expectantly toward a successful 1963 campaign with the Reds.

But Gonder’s brisk spring training start, including a March 5 grand slam in Cincinnati’s first intra-squad game, did not dissuade the Reds from their commitment to catcher Johnny Edwards. A failed attempt to trade Gonder to the New York Mets for veteran hurler Roger Craig relegated the 27-year-old backstop to platoon duties. Gonder served the role well with one stretch of eight hits in 14 pinch-hit at-bats (including two homers), but he remained unhappy with his little usage. On July 1, 1963, the Reds succeeded in finalizing a swap with the Mets, trading Gonder in a three-player deal. Unable to resist a parting shot, Gonder exclaimed, “I’m not unhappy at being traded. It’s what I’ve wanted for a long time ... my stay with the Reds was a terrible experience.”7

Reunited with former Yankee manager Casey Stengel, and not blocked by a Berra or Howard, Gonder was immediately inserted in the lineup as the Mets number one catcher. Besieged with criticism of his defensive skills, Gonder defended himself. “How come everybody claims I can’t catch? How do they know? They never saw me. Before coming to the Mets, I caught just two full games in the majors – one with the Yankees and one with Cincinnati.”8 Gonder’s critics felt he struggled with low pitches, a claim seemingly validated when Gonder led the National League in passed balls the next year. The Mets beckoned Class A Raleigh manager Clyde McCullough, a former All-Star receiver, to New York to remedy the situation. Meanwhile Gonder earned accolades from veteran hurlers Craig and Tracy Stallard for his pitch-calling savvy, and drew praise for his strong arm (gunning down speedster Maury Wills on July 30).

But if Gonder exhibited defensive faults, he made up for those with his bat. He collected six hits in his first 14 Met at-bats, including a two-homer performance July 11 versus future Hall of Famer Don Drysdale. Four days later Gonder garnered four hits against Houston and duplicated the feat August 2 against Milwaukee. In the middle of a Mets’ record 14-game hitting streak, Gonder’s average reached a lofty .360. Stengel dubbed Gonder a key acquisition, adding, “That fellow can hit … As a matter of fact, if he forgot about going for home runs every time, he might even lead the league.”9 A series of injuries, including a torn ribcage muscle in August, was the only impediment to Gonder’s steady play. A severely sprained ankle on September 1 limited him to pinch-hitting through the remainder of the season. Gonder finished the campaign with a .304-6-20 line that earned a second post-season trip to the Waldorf-Astoria to receive the Topps Rookie All-Star catcher award.

In 1964 Hall of Famer Bill Dickey, who’d replaced McCullough working with all Mets catchers, praised Gonder’s defensive improvement in spring training. Designated as the starting catcher versus right-handed hurlers – Gonder batted a meager .117 in 94 career at-bats against lefties – he finished with 341 at-bats, 92 hits, seven home runs and 35 RBIs. He nearly served as spoiler on June 21, 1964, when Hall of Famer Jim Bunning twirled the National League’s first perfect game in the 20th century. Second baseman Tony Taylor made a diving stop of a sharp line drive to throw Gonder out. Years later Gonder laughingly recalled Bunning thanking him for being a hair slow. Gonder was the only hitter with three at-bats who did not succumb to one of Bunning’s ten strikeouts.10 Despite finishing the year among the team leaders with a .270 average, Gonder’s less-than-expected power production disappointed the Mets. The team requested a pay cut from the backstop for the follow season. By the time spring training opened in 1965, the Mets’ catching focus had turned to the .311 average posted in limited exposure by Chris Cannizzaro.

Relegated to the once-familiar pinch-hitting role, Gonder had a mere 105 at-bats through July 22, 1965, when he was traded to the Milwaukee Braves. The deal was temporarily suspended while Commissioner Ford Frick investigated allegations that the Mets had purposely not played Gonder in a four-game series against the Braves that ended two days before the swap. When nothing amiss was found, Gonder proceeded to Milwaukee and served as the third catcher behind Joe Torre and Gene Oliver. Gonder’s rustiness was evident by the eight hits collected in 53 at-bats as he finished the year with a .238-4-9 line. One of Gonder’s few highlights in this meager campaign was winning the August 16 pre-game home run hitting contest in St. Louis that earned him an additional $70.

In November the Braves spurned interest shown in Gonder by the Kansas City Athletics, only to lose the backstop to Pittsburgh in the rule 5 draft on November 29. A svelte Gonder reported to spring camp 21 pounds lighter with intentions of earning the starting job behind the plate. Unable to oust veteran Jim Pagliaroni, he wound up in the backup role. On April 18 he became the only NL catcher to have an assist in a triple play that year. Pagliaroni fell victim to injuries throughout the campaign, giving Gonder the most playing time he’d received in two years. It also set up the explosive situation that developed between Gonder and his manager in front of a large crowd in Houston’s famed Astrodome.

The Pirates arrived in Houston on July 22 nursing a slender one-game lead atop the National League. After losing the lid-lifter, the Pirates were trailing the Astros 2-0 in the fifth inning of game two when slugger Jim Wynn stepped to the plate. The read on the Houston center fielder was to avoid throwing heat, but Wynn’s earlier success – two singles, including a run-scoring drive in the second – prompted Gonder to call for a fastball. Wynn’s drive had barely reached the outfield seats when manager Harry Walker bolted from the visiting dugout to replace the pitcher. He then turned savagely on his catcher. The ever-proud Gonder argued back just as vehemently before nearly 44,000 fans. The chagrined manager stormed into the clubhouse and reportedly called the Pirates’ general manager requesting Gonder’s immediate demotion. A players’ revolt nearly ensued when Gonder’s teammates learned of the alleged call. Though tensions eased after the Pirates succeeded in a come-from-behind victory, Gonder would later point to this blowup as contributing to his undeserved “troublemaker” reputation that curtailed his career. On August 12 one of Gonder’s last career home runs contributed to the 11 combined homers launched by the Reds and Pirates in an extra-inning slugfest, tying a major league record set in 1950.

In 1967 Gonder reported to spring camp expecting to compete for a starting job. Apparently Walker was dissatisfied with the entire crop of catchers; he unsuccessfully attempted to talk 36-year-old coach Hal Smith out of retirement. Gonder earned a roster spot as the third catcher. He had the game-winning hit April 27 in a 5-4 win over the Philadelphia Phillies, but was used sparingly. The rustiness of not playing was evident in Gonder’s dreadful outing against Cincinnati on May 16. Besides striking out twice in three at-bats, he allowed three stolen bases, had two passed balls and committed an error in a 6-3 loss to the Reds. Gonder contributed to a historic first on June 17, 1967, when Pittsburgh fielded an all-black lineup of position players in a match against the Phillies. As it turned out, the game represented Gonder’s last appearance in the majors. His major-league service was 10 days shy of qualifying for a five-year pension when he was demoted to the Columbus Jets. Gonder bounced around the minors the next two years. In 1968 he returned to Richmond and produced a successful campaign in limited play. On May 26 his grand slam led the Braves to a 7-6 win over the Louisville Colonels. Two months later his base hit with one out in the ninth inning spoiled a perfect game bid by a pair of Rochester pitchers. His work attracted the attention of his 1959 Havana Sugar Kings manager, Preston Gomez, who was tapped to manage the 1969 expansion San Diego Padres and invited his former catcher to spring training. The 33-year-old Gonder made the opening day roster as a backup to former Mets teammate Chris Cannizzaro.11 Released shortly after the start of the season, Gonder never made an appearance during his brief stay in San Diego. He played sparingly with the Giants’ AAA affiliate in Phoenix and retired to his Oakland home after the 1969 season.

Gonder found varied employment during the off-seasons, including work in a San Francisco sporting goods store in the winter of 1966-1967. When he retired Gonder spurned employment as a major league scout to find more lucrative pursuits as a Golden Gate Transit bus driver. He remained with the Bay Area transit for 20-plus years, while pursuing his favorite pastimes of poker and bowling (in 1964 his bowling skills had been exhibited in a Florida tournament with other major league players). He and wife Helena doted on their two daughters and two grandchildren. Gonder’s athletic prowess extended to his grandson Jase Lemar Turner. Drafted by the Pirates in 2001, Jase instead pursued a successful collegiate career at Pomoma College in Claremont, California. In 2005 Jase signed with the Kansas City Royals as a 27th round draftee, launching a three-year professional career.

Gonder enjoyed working with children – his own and others. In 1963 he participated in a benefit game on behalf of the March of Dimes. In 1967 he and Vada Pinson engaged in volunteer work in a Bay Area youth program for underprivileged children. “I have found it to be a real challenge,” Gonder claimed. “It’s a thrill to think that I’m playing a role in getting some of them started in life.”12

In 1986 Gonder’s wife of 29 years passed away. Three years later he married Linda Gonder, the widow of his brother Frazier, but the union appears to have lasted a short time. In 1990 Gonder captured some notoriety as a member of both the early Mets teams and the 1961 Yankees during an Atlantic City, New Jersey, reunion of Yankee teammates. Late in life Gonder developed arthritis. On November 14, 2004, he died following a brief illness. His remains were cremated.

Gonder did not find the professional success achieved by some of his high school teammates. Throughout an eight-year majorleague career he managed a .251-26-94 line in 876 at-bats. Interestingly, of those 26 home runs, 10 were against future Hall of Fame inductees. The troublemaker label may have contributed to his lack of playing time, but Gonder cherished lasting friendships among his teammates – both black and white – during his career. In 2002 the proud African-American would vividly recall a brief meeting he had with the man who opened the door for black players in baseball, Jackie Robinson. Much like his hero, Gonder never backed down. Jesse Gonder was a man to be admired.

 

Acknowledgement

The author wishes to thank SABR member Bill Mortell for research into the history of the Gonder family.

 

Sources

Websites

Ancestry.com

museumca.org/picturethis/pictures/coach-george-powles-speaks-mcclymonds-high-school-basketball-players-frank-robinson-and-bra

todayinbaseball.com/cms/0725195913-cuba

thisgreatgame.com/jesse-gonder.html

thedeadballera.com/Obits/Obits_G/Gonder.Jesse.Obit.html

Periodicals

The Sporting News

Interview

Jesse Gonder with Ed Attanasio, April 3, 2002.

 

Notes

1 “Young Ideas,” The Sporting News, October 3, 1964, 28.

2 “Buccos Shock Their Foes On Late-Inning Lightening,” The Sporting News, May 7, 1966, 6.

3 “Graveyard Strolls Keep Slugger Stargell Slim,” The Sporting News, May 22, 1971, 3.

4 “Gonder Grabbing Rating as Yankee Catcher of Future,” The Sporting News, August 24, 1960, 33.

5 “Seven Spots Go Up for Grabs at Bombers’ Grapefruit Base,” The Sporting News, January 18, 1961, 2.

6 “Mays to Lead N.L. All-Stars in Benefit Tilt,” The Sporting News, February 9, 1963, 7.

7 “DeWitt Target of Gonder Barrage,” The Sporting News, July 20, 1963, 19.

8 “’Young Ideas’ by Dick Young,” The Sporting News, August 3, 1963, 4.

9 “’Mets Much Better,’ – Asserts Perfessor – Book Backs Him Up,” The Sporting News, September 7, 1963, 20.

10 Two years later Gonder fared less successfully by falling victim to Bunning’s 2000th career strikeout.

11 The former-Mets career seemingly shadowed that of Gonder’s. They competed against each other in high school and made their major-league debuts the same year. In 1967 they both participated in the International League’s All Star game.

12 “Job Corps Youths Get Valuable Advice From Pinson and Gonder,” The Sporting News, December 16, 1967, 34.