Jesse Gonder: Mid Sixties Mets Catcher (1963 - 1965)

Jesse Lamar Gonder was born on January 20, 1936, at Monticello, Arkansas. Gonder’ s family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in Oakland during his teen years.

There he played high school ball with the likes of Frank Robinson, Curt Flood & Vada Pinson. Robinson was the first to get signed by a Cincinnati Reds scout Bob Madic, who later became a GM in Toronto. He ended up signing all three players for the Reds including the more out spoken Gonder in 1955.

Gonder hit over .320 in his first two years at the AA Level but fell off to .238 when he reached AAA IN 1959. He was traded over to the A.L. New York club in 1960 but didn’t have a chance to beat out Elston Howard, who had just secured the catcher’s job from Yogi Berra. 

MLB Career: Gonder batted .326 that year at AAA & got a September 1960 call up debuting for seven brief games going 1-7 mostly as a pinch hitter. The next year he went 4-12 gathering his first three career RBIs in another September call up. That December he was traded back to the Reds for Marshall Bridges.

He spent most of 1962 at AAA in the Pacific Coast League, leading the league in batting (.342) & RBIs (116). 

The scouting reports said, he was a good left-handed hitter, but lacked power and solid defense with his glove. On July 1st, 1963, he was traded to the New York Mets for Charlie Neal & Sammy Taylor.

Mets Career: Jesse debuted with the Mets on July 6th, 1963, at the Polo Grounds. He was behind the plate, as batterymate for Al Jackson in game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he got two hits with a walk. Jesse had six hits in three of his first 14 Mets at bats. 

Multi HR Game: On July 11th at the Polo Grounds, Gonder hit two HRs off the Dodgers Don Drysdale while driving in all three Met runs, in a 4-3 loss to Los Angeles. 

Later that week, Gonder had a four-hit game against the Houston Colt 45's making a quick impact on a poor hitting team.

On July 17th he hit a three run HR off the Giants Gaylord Perry, helping the Mets to a 9-7 win at the Polo Grounds. On August 2nd in the second game of a double header in Milwaukee, Gonder had a big four hit game. He also drove in the first run of the 3-1 Mets win. Gonder saw less playing time in the final two months of the season & an 0-11 September ended his season batting at .304.

Trivia: Overall Gonder's .304 average made him the second Met in team history to finish a season batting over .300. In 1962 Ritchie Ashburn was first Met to bat over .300. 

For the '63 Mets, Gonder hit three HRs, with four doubles, 12 RBIs a .328 on base % & .733 OPS in 42 games as a backup catcher to Choo Choo Coleman & Norm Sherry. 

He also made the Topps All Star Rookie team batting .304 with 6 HRs & 20 RBIs in 73 games overall on the season.

 The next season, Gonder became the Mets primary catcher behind the plate catching 97 games. He was second in the NL, nailing 33 base runners attempting to steal, throwing out 43% of would-be base stealers overall. 

First Game Played at Shea Stadium: In the first game ever played at Shea Stadium, he was the starting catcher batting in the clean-up position. In the bottom of the 4th inning, he drove in the Mets first run at Shea, with a base hit off the Pirates Bob Friend, scoring Ron Hunt. He was then the second Met to cross the plate in Shea Stadium history, as he scored on Amado Samuel's double.

Walk Off Hit: On June 9th, in the first game of a double header with the Chicago Cubs at Shea Stadium, Gonder came into the game as a defensive replacement in the top of the 12th inning. In the bottom of the 12th, with the Mets now down 5-4, Amado Samuel tied the game back up with a base hit scoring Joe Christopher. Gonder then drove in the game winning run with a base hit off Lindy McDaniel for the exciting win at Shea Stadium. 

On Father Day, June 21st Gonder nearly spoiled Jim Bunning's perfect game at Shea when he hit a sharp liner that was snagged by second baseman Tony Taylor. He was the only Met with three at bats, not to strike out that day against Bunning.

Game Winning HR: On June 29th in San Francisco, with the Mets down 3-2 in the 9th inning, Gonder hit a two run HR off Bobby Bolin, leading to a 4-3 win.

In July, Gonder got his average up just under .300, while also having eight multi-hit games. From July 15th to July 25th, in a nine-game span, he collected nine hits, with two HRs & ten RBIs. In that stretch he had a big road trip, with three straight multiple RBI games, while hitting HRs in back-to-back games in St. Louis & Cicinnati.

 On August 8th, he blasted a three run HR in Philadelphia off the Phillies Rick Wise in a 6-5 loss.
In September his hitting slowed down, but he closed out the season hitting safely in 10 of 14 games.

Gonder ended the year at a solid .270 which was third best average among the regular starting players. He hit seven HRs with 11 doubles, had 29 walks with a .329 on base % (fourth best on the team) & 35 RBIs.

1965: In 1965, Chris Cannizzaro who hit well in Spring Training had taken over as the club's main catcher. 

On April 23rd, the Mets were down to the Giants 8-4 in the top of the 9th inning in San Francisco. First Ron Swoboda homered then Gonder followed with a back-to-back shot making it 8-6. The Mets came back to tie it, then win it in the 11th inning.

Gonder only was used behind the plate in 13 games going into July. He hit well in a pinch-hitting role but as a regular his overall average fell to .238 with 4 HRs & 9 RBIs.

On July 21st, 1965, he was traded to the Milwaukee Braves for Gary Kolb. 

Post Mets Career: In Milwaukee Gonder hit just .151 as a third string catcher to Joe Torre & Gene Oliver.

In November 1965, he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates (Rule V) then spent the next two years of his career in Pittsburgh as third string catcher to Jim Pagliaroni & Jerry May. 

Drama: In a game against Houston, the first place Pirates were barely holding on to their NL lead at the time. Gonder was behind the plate when he called for a fast ball to slugger Jimmy Wynn. Wynn was known to hit fastballs, but he already had two hits & an RBI in prior at bats when he stepped in blasting this pitch over the wall for a HR. 

Pirates' manager came out to the mound & shouted at Gonder who talked back to his manager. After the game, Walker demanded to the Pirates GM that Gonder get traded, when his teammates learned this, they supported him in a near revolt. This contributed to Gonder earning a reputation for being a so-called troublemaker.

After the 1967 season, Gonder played out two more seasons in the Pacific Coast League not reaching the major league level again. In 1969 he was invited to the expansion Padres Spring Training made the team but was released shortly afterward.

Career Stats: Gonder finished up his eight-year playing career in 395 games with a .251 average 220 hits 28 doubles 2 triples 26 HRs 73 runs scored & 94 RBIs. He struck out 184 times with 72 walks, posting a .310 on base % & .687 OPS. 

At catcher he caught 250 games, throwing out 39% of would-be base stealers.

Retirement: After baseball Gonder worked for the Bay Area Rapid Transit Company driving a bus in San Francisco Bay for twenty years. He also did charity work for underprivileged children in the Bay Area.

Family: Jesse & his wife Helena were married in 1957. Together they had two daughters & two grandchildren. Helena passed away in 1986 after 29 years marriage.

Jesse was briefly married for a second time to his brother's widow Linda. 

Passing:  On November 14, 2004, Gonder passed away in Oakland, California at the age of 68.


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