January 20 – Happy Birthday Jesse Gonder

jesse_gonderJesse Gonder was a pretty special prospect in the late 1950′s because he was a catcher who hit left-handed and hit pretty well at that. Originally signed by the Reds, the Yankees got him in 1960 and sent him to their top farm club in Richmond. He opened lots of eyes in the Yankee hierarchy when he hit .327 for the Virginians that season. That performance earned him a September call-up to the Bronx, where he got his first big league hit, a home run off of Boston’s Bill Monboquette.

Despite the fact that Gonder’s sweet left-handed swing was perfectly suited to the short porch in right field at the old Yankee Stadium, there were four obstacles preventing him from getting the opportunity to fulfill his potential in pinstripes. The first was his mediocre defensive ability behind the plate. The other three were Yankee catchers named Howard, Berra and Blanchard, who were all ahead of him on the Bronx Bomber’s behind-the-plate depth chart.

When Ralph Houk became Yankee skipper in 1961, he brought Gonder north with the team at the start of the season and for the next two months used him exclusively as a pinch-hitter. Since that ’61 Yankee team was one of the best offensive teams in MLB history, Gonder’s bat was very expendable. He was sent back to Richmond at the end of May and the following December, the Yankees traded him back to Cincinnati for reliever Marshall Bridges.

He would later get dealt to the Mets, where he achieved a good degree of fame when he won the starting catchers job for the Amazin’s in 1964 and hit a pretty solid .270. But his bad glove and weak arm prevented him from holding onto that job. Complicating his situation was the fact that he was not a good pinch-hitter. He needed live at-bats to keep his swing sharp. His last big league season was 1967 with the Pirates. He then went back to his hometown of Oakland, California, where he became a bus driver.

In researching Gonder’s career and life for this post, I came across several references to his outspokenness. Back in 1960, the spring training cities in Florida all had ordinances preventing black ballplayers from staying at the same hotels as their white teammates. Gonder made no attempt to hide his distaste for this codified racism. Imagine the reaction of today’s black athletes if they were barred from their team’s hotel because of the color of their skin? People today would be shocked if those black athletes did not speak out forcefully about such segregation. But when Gonder did so five decades ago, he was labeled as an outspoken athlete. My how times have changed.

Gonder shares his birthday with this one-time Yankee phee-nom and this former Yankee who was once served as USC varsity football coach.

Year Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1960 NYY 7 9 7 1 2 0 0 1 3 0 1 1 .286 .333 .714 1.048
1961 NYY 15 15 12 2 4 1 0 0 3 0 3 1 .333 .467 .417 .883
8 Yrs 395 962 876 73 220 28 2 26 94 1 72 184 .251 .310 .377 .687
NYM (3 yrs) 226 625 572 46 155 19 1 14 59 1 46 110 .271 .325 .381 .706
PIT (2 yrs) 81 219 196 17 41 4 1 7 19 0 17 48 .209 .286 .347 .633
CIN (2 yrs) 35 37 36 5 10 2 0 3 5 0 1 15 .278 .297 .583 .881
NYY (2 yrs) 22 24 19 3 6 1 0 1 6 0 4 2 .316 .417 .526 .943
MLN (1 yr) 31 57 53 2 8 2 0 1 5 0 4 9 .151 .211 .245 .456
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/22/2014.

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