The TGG Interview

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

On his high school:

“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 Madic. 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:

“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 Yankees:

“They told me, ‘Casey 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.”

On Sliding Late in the 1970 Season:

“I had a lousy July, batting around .200 and I was striking out a lot. That’s when they started messing with my stance and wanted me to use a heavier bat, thinking that I would start hitting more to right field. August wasn’t any better, even though I was leading the team in hitting and homers. During the offseason they traded Sizemore to the Cardinals, so I figured I was going to be the Dodgers’ starting second baseman in 1971.”

Quotable Quips:

“Grabarkewitz was a favorite with the media because he always gave them great quotes. “Abner Doubleday dreamed up this game [of baseball] to drive people crazy.” “I’ve been X-rayed so many times, I glow in the dark.” “If the Dodgers will go to the expense of putting my name on the back of my uniform, I’m pretty sure well they won’t trade me!’ “Don Sutton told me to stand in the shade or my tongue might get sunburned.” “I was so tired last night I fell asleep in mid-sentence.” “I have so many splinters from sitting on the bench that if somebody struck a match, I might catch fire.”

On Pitchers and Spitballs:

“There were pitchers who owned me like (Tom) Seaver and Ryan and I’m not ashamed of that, because they were literally unhittable. But, there were others who I hit hard. I do remember a guy named George Culver who was a fine pitcher, but I got a few big timely hits against him that won us a couple games. I also recall that I hit very well against Gaylord Perry. One day I knocked Perry out of the game and he walked past me as I was standing on first and said, ‘That’s the last $%# hit you’ll ever get off me!’ Their catcher Dick Dietz told me that Gaylord was really upset and that I would never get anything to hit from him ever again. He was right, because all he threw to me after that was spitballs. The first time I saw them, I thought they were just really good sliders! The best spitball I ever saw was thrown by Bill Singer, my Dodgers’ teammate. He threw one during Spring Training to Hank Aaron and Aaron was like, ‘Are you serious?’ It came in chest high and by the time he swung at it, it was down around his ankles.”