Thursday, August 10, 2006

Old Time Mets - Jesse Gonder

In 1960 and 1961, Jesse Gonder was a good hitting young catcher in the Yankee organization who had no chance of making a team that already had 2 of the best catchers in the league in Yogi Berra and Elston Howard. Plus Jesse had a reputation as one of the more outspoken black ballplayers at the time. The Yankees were beginning to add some black players to their team, but they were generally quiet guys like Howard and Harry "Suitcase" Simpson. Gonder may have also had a better chance at a good major league career if the DH rule existed in those days, since he was a lefthanded hitter with a sweet swing, but since his only position was catcher, and he frankly, wasn't all that good defensively, he languished in the minor leagues. After leaving the Yankees organization, he put up great numbers in the PCL in 1962 and got a shot with the Reds, but the team already had a pretty good lefty-hitting catcher in Johnny Edwards.

The 1963 Mets, of course, could use all the help they could get, and if Gonder was an incomplete player, he was still a better hitter than any catcher the Mets had. In fact, Howard Cosell, who in those pre-Monday Night Football days, did the Mets' post-game show (one of the few authorized post-game shows that always seemed to take a negative slant on the team they covered !) called Gonder "one of the best natural hitters in the major leagues". That may have been overstating it, but Gonder was certainly going to hit more than Sammy Taylor, the catcher they traded for him (along with a practically washed up Charley Neal).

Jesse actually had a pretty good year with the bat as the Mets' #1 catcher in 1964, hitting .270 which was quite impressive for a Mets' catcher back then. But he was dealt away and his defensive deficiencies coupled with a disappointing record as a pinch hitter shortened his major league career. Gonder needed to play full time in order to keep his batting eye sharp, but he couldn't play any position other than catcher and was well below average defensively behind the plate, not a good combination. My most vivid memories of Gonder recall his throws in the dirt attempting to nail runners at second and his sweet lefthanded stroke. Jesse was one of many "incomplete" ballplayers who surfaced with the early Mets, but he did at least have one solid year as a regular.


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