They Were There: Jesse Gonder

“Only the guys with the thick skin made it. Maybe we weren’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.”

Jesse Gonder died on November 14, 2004 in Oakland, California at the age of 68. Although his role in the majors was basically that of a journeyman catcher, Gonder found relative success in 1963 and 1964 as the starting backstop for that hapless new gang of lovable dolts known as the New York Mets. After having started the 1963 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.

As told to Ed Attanasio, This Great Game

“I 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 Flood….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 Mattick. He ended up being the General Manager for the Toronto Blue Jays. He signed us all into the Reds’ organization. He cleaned up financially, too. We saw small bonuses, but from what I heard, he made quite a bit for signing us.”

On Racism in Baseball: “Back in those days, being black, if you couldn’t accept being humiliated, or insulted—I should say, if you couldn’t accept being called ‘nigger’ or ‘watermelon eater’, ‘Amos ‘n Andy”, any racial insult that they could possibly throw at you—then you couldn’t make it.

I had some good times, but with what I had to go through in baseball, it really wasn’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.

In Cincinnati, we were the first team to integrate spring training. We stayed at the same motel with the white players in 1962.

Only the guys with the thick skin made it. Maybe we weren’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 couldn’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.

Jerry Jacobs, a white player from McClymonds High, signed with the Reds a year before I did. After I signed, we all left here together from the 6th Street railroad station to go to Douglas, Georgia, 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, “You can’t sit here. You have to go and sit with the whites.” And that was our first taste of racism like that.”

On the New York Yankees: “They told me, “Casey (Stengel) wants you.” And I said, “What? “ And they said, “You’re going to New York.” And I said, “No, I’m not. I don’t belong to the Yankees.” And they said, “You do now. They just bought you.” That night, I’m in Yankee Stadium, google-eyed. I guess that was the biggest thrill I got out of baseball at the time, you know? I’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.”

On Mickey Mantle: “Mickey drank a lot. We were talking in Atlantic City at a memorabilia show one day during the 1980s. And he told me, “If I had known I was going to live this long, I wouldn’t have drank so much.” And I told him, “Mickey, the liquor is probably what’s kept you alive.” And he thought that was funny.”

On Casey Stengel: “ESPN wanted to interview me, Johnny Blanchard and Clete Boyer for SportsCentury about Casey a few years back. Clete declined to be interviewed. He said, “I don’t have anything to say about the so-and-so. Because Casey was not a good players’ manager, period. He was a media man. He was an ambassador. Blanchard told the guy from ESPN. ‘Casey did this to me. He told me when I first came up that I could really hit. And I said, ‘Yeah, skip—I can hit pretty good.’ So, Casey asked me, ‘Can you catch?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, Casey, I can catch pretty good, too.’ So, Casey said, ‘Well, if you can really catch, then, catch that 12 o’clock plane to Denver.’ Blanchard had been optioned to Denver.”

1963: The Sandman Cometh After years of wildness and frustration, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Sandy Koufax becomes an ace for the ages.

The 1960s Page: Welcome to My Strike Zone In a decade where baseball as a tradition is turning stale with America's emerging counter-culturism, major league owners see its biggest problem to be, of all things, an overabundance of offense in the game. The result? An increased strike zone, further contributing to a downward spiral in attendance, but greatly aiding an already talented batch of pitchers.

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They Were There: The TGG InterviewsCheck out our growing list of interviews with ex-major leaguers who witnessed and experienced, first-hand, some of the greatest, strangest and craziest moments in baseball history, as told to This Great Game's Ed Attanasio.

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