Jesse 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.
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One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about authoring this blog is finding out some incredible things about Yankees that I didn’t know much about. Take today’s birthday celebrant for example. Before becoming a Yankee, Jesse “Jess” Hill was a three-sport starter at USC. Think about that for just a second. This native of Yates, Missouri, was such an exceptional athletic talent that he was able to become a national champion broad jumper on the school’s track squad, a running back on a Rose Bowl-winning football team who averaged 8.3 yards per carry and an outfielder on the Trojans’ baseball team. After graduating in 1929, he signed a contract to play baseball with the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars, where he averaged .356 in 1930 and .318 in 1931.
Those batting averages got the attention of the Yankees, who purchased Hill’s contract in 1932. He spent the next three years tearing up minor league pitching on Yankee farm teams in Newark and St. Paul. Meanwhile, the 1934 season would be a year of transition for the Yankee outfield. Thirty-nine-year-old Babe Ruth had hoped to become Yankee manager but when Jacob Rupert refused his request, the Bambino asked for and received his unconditional release. The great Yankee center-fielder Earl Combs had run into one too many outfield walls during his outstanding career and he became a part-time outfielder during that 1934 season. That left two Hall-of-Fame-sized holes in New York’s outfield and Jess Hill was invited to the team’s 1935 spring training camp and given the opportunity to try and fill one of them.
He performed well enough to make the team, but with Combs still on the roster, Ben Chapman starting in center and George Selkirk replacing Ruth in right, Hill began the year battling for playing time with fellow outfielders Myril Hoag and Dixie Walker. His turning point came in the Yankees ninth game of the season versus Boston. Combs had gotten off to a horrible start that year with his bat, which was probably one of the reasons Manager Joe McCarthy penciled Hill’s name in on the Yankee lineup card to lead off and play left field. The 28-year-old rookie responded with three hits, his first big league home run, four RBIs and two runs scored. From that point, for the rest of the season, Hill started in the Yankee outfield more often than not and hit a very respectable .293 with 14 stolen bases. Ordinarily, a first year-performance at that level would pretty much assure a welcome-back for a sophomore season with the same ball club, especially since Combs announced that he would not be returning in 1936. That wasn’t the case for Hill however. There was this youngster named Joe DiMaggio joining the Yankees that year who scouts were raving about. The Yankee front-office decided to convert their sudden surplus of outfielders into more depth in their pitching staff and that January, Hill was traded to the Senators for a veteran right-handed hurler named Bump Hadley.
Hill played decently in DC, averaging .305 in 87 games as the Senators’s fourth outfielder in 1936. But after he got off to a slow start at the plate the following season, he was traded to the Philadelphia A’s, where he duplicated his rookie year batting average of .293. That wasn’t good enough to stick with the A’s so he was forced back to the PCL which turned out to be a huge break for Hill.
Back in LA, he started coaching high school sports teams during the offseason. He then joined the Navy during WWII and served with a guy who just happened to be athletic director at Hill’s Alma Mater. After the war ended, the AD hired Hill to coach the Trojans’ freshmen teams in football and track. His next assignment was head coach of USC’s varsity track team. He led them to two consecutive national titles in 1949 and ’50. He became USC’s varsity football coach in 1951 and during his five years in that job, his teams went 45-17-1. His most celebrated player was frank Gifford. In 1957 he accepted an offer to become USC’s Athletic Director and he served in that job for the next fifteen years. During his tenure as AD, USC teams won 29 national titles.
What an incredible athlete and leader Jess Hill must have been, He passed away in 1993 at the age of 86. Hill shares his birthday with this one-time Yankee phee-nom and this one-time Yankee catching prospect.
RIP Stan Musial and Earl Weaver.
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Long time Yankee fans would like to forget the team’s seasons of the late eighties and early nineties. Everything seemed to fall apart during that era. New York reached the depths of despair in 1990, winning just 67 games that season and finishing dead last in their division. Don Mattingly’s bad back kept him out of 62 games and helped lower his batting average to just .256. The lineup around “Donnie Baseball” was pretty putrid. So bad that Jesse Barfield led the team with just 78 runs batted in. Not one starting pitcher on the 1990 squad achieved double digit wins or finished that season with a winning record. Somehow, the Yankee’s closer, Dave Righetti saved 36 games that season and would have been the only bright spot if it weren’t for the debut of Yankee phee-nom Kevin Maas.
Maas made his first appearance with the Yankees as a DH on June 29, 1990 against the White Sox in old Comiskey Park. He went 1-3, singling to right field in the fourth inning off of Jack McDowell. He drove in his first run the next day and then hit his first big league home run off of the Royals’ Brett Saberhagen on the Fourth of July. He ended up hitting 21 home runs in just 79 games in his rookie season, finishing second to the Indians, Sandy Alomar in that year’s AL Rookie of the Year voting.
My sons and I became big fans of Maas. We had so little else to get excited about that all we could do was hope for the future. We even envisioned Maas and a healthy Mattingly becoming a modern day version of the Yankees M&M boys, a new version of Mantle and Maris for the nineties. Boy were we hallucinating.
Kevin did manage to hit 23 home runs in his sophomore season in the Bronx, but he struck out 128 times and hit just .220. It became clear that the AL pitchers knew how to get him out on a regular basis and by 1993, New York released him. He will always have the appreciation of Yankee fans for giving us something to smile about during the bleak, directionless era of Yankee Manager Stump Merrill. Kevin was born on January 20, 1965, in Castro Valley, CA. He shares his birthday with this USC sports legend and this former Yankee catching prospect.
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