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Mudville: October 18, 2021 2:42 am PDT
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The Hustler: Jim Gosger

"That was always his theory; to hell with the rest of the pitches, hit the fastball."

spitballin'

If you stick around baseball long enough, you’ll have your share of stories to tell.

It’s the main theme of Spitballin’ and we want to bring those stories to fans directly from the players themselves.

This week we’re featuring 10-year Major League Baseball veteran Jim Gosger and the stories he has to share turned out to be a little more unique than most.

The affable Gosger joins us for this week’s edition of Spitballin’.

Gosger debuted with the Red Sox as a 20-year-old in 1963 and by the time he played his last game for the 1974 Mets, he had blazed quite the trail.

He played alongside Willie Mays in the outfield, homered off of Whitey Ford in Fenway Park and was the last batter ever to face Satchel Paige in a Major League game.

Gosger was an original member of the Seattle Pilots, was on the 1969 Miracle Mets and was the starting left fielder for the A’s when they played their first game in Oakland.

Not all of Gosger’s stories have a happy ending though.

Gosger came over to the ’69 Mets in early September when the team was still 3.5 games behind the Cubs. He played a key role as an extra outfielder in the deciding stretch run that saw the Mets storm to an NL East title.

Despite this, the Mets chose not to award Gosger a World Series ring.

If that wasn’t enough, the Mets not only failed to invite him to the 50th celebration of the 1969 World Series, but they also included him in their tribute to members of the team who had passed away.

Gosger, who was very much alive, was alerted that the Mets killed him off by an acquaintance who was at the ceremony.

Steve Cohen has already made a lot of great moves in the early days as the new Mets owner. Wouldn’t it create a ton of goodwill to have Gosger and anyone else in a similar situation to Citi Field to award them a ring in a nice pregame ceremony?

That’s a story for a different day.

For now, let’s go Spitballin’ with Jim Gosger as he remembers his excellent baseball adventure, one that he would do all over again without changing a thing.

Thanks for joining us today, Mr. Gosger. You played during such an incredible era of baseball and I am really looking forward to hearing your stories. Let’s start at the beginning though. Can you tell us about growing up in Michigan and how you got your start in baseball as a kid?

I started baseball in Little League when I was eight; my dad got me into it. It was my dad’s dream that I would become a Major League Baseball player. When I was nine years old, he took me to a game at Tiger Stadium against the Red Sox. Those were his two favorite teams and Ted Williams was playing left field. My dad looked at me and said, “Someday, you’re going to be right out there playing.” I said, “Dad, I’m only nine years old.”

That’s great that your dad played such a role in your career. Baseball really is a sport that is shared between the generations.

My dad was my biggest booster. The day I signed my contract in 1962, he had tears in his eyes. The only other time I saw that was when his brother passed away. He was just ecstatic that I was going to sign with the Red Sox. It was a big thrill for him, and it was a big thrill for me.

I had three scouts come to look at me. The first one was a Cleveland scout. He came into the house and told my dad that they were going to give me a chance, but he didn’t think I would make the Majors. My dad grabbed him by the back of the neck and threw him out of the house! I was shocked that he did that, my dad usually didn’t get too upset.

The next guy was a Cubs scout and he was a nice gentleman. We talked and my dad said, “Let’s think about it and we’ll get back to you.” I knew in his mind he wanted me to go to the Red Sox.

“They had the big ceremony and had said I passed away. One guy went down and told the guy announcing, ‘Jim’s not dead, he’s on my Facebook!’

Smart move by your dad. I guess the Red Sox were the third team scouting you?

Yes. Their scout came in and sat with us and was a nice gentleman too. He offered us a progressive bonus and Dad said, “Well, what does that mean?” The scout explained that I would start out in Class C and, when I moved up each level, I would get a bonus. Then when I got to the Majors, I would get X amount of dollars. My dad said, “OK, that sounds good to us!” and that was it.

What was it like to go to Red Sox camp as a 19-year old for the first time?

I went to Spring Training in Ocala, Florida and talked to Eddie Popowski. When you’re in Spring Training, you’re just a number. Fortunately, Ted Williams was the hitting instructor. He would come to the minor league camp and put you in the batting cage. He wouldn’t say anything, and you’d swing and swing. Finally, you came out of the cage and he’d say, “OK, we’re gonna try this or that.” He was instrumental in helping me move up.

I told him I was supposed to start in Class C, and he said he would talk to Pop and send me up to Class B. They took five rookies; myself, Rico Petrocelli, Billy Milinis, Jim Russin and Gage Naudain and we went to Winston-Salem. That got me a progressive bonus. I had a good year, about 20 home runs and 85 RBIs. Under the progressive bonus, you had to be protected in your second year or someone else could pick you up. The Red Sox wanted to protect me, so I got to go right to the Big Leagues in 1963.

I am sure someone would have picked you up after that year if they didn’t protect you. What was that first year with the Red Sox like?

I mostly sat and watched and tried to learn. There were great teachers there. Johnny Pesky was the manager. He was very important to me. He told me he would get me in when he could. I didn’t care, I was happy to be there and I learned how to play. I had one of my biggest thrills too.

When I used to go to Tigers games as a kid with my dad, the big pitcher for them was Frank Lary. Well, in 1963 we’re playing Detroit and Pesky says, “Go up and hit.” Lo and behold, you know who was pitching? Frank Lary. He threw me a high slider and I hit the ball into centerfield and got a base hit out of it.

I’m standing on first base and I’m shaking. My whole family was there, and I was excited. I looked at Frank and he looked at me and tipped his hat. Boy, was that class! He knew it was my first hit. That was a big thrill for me.

Gosger with the Seatlle Pilots

What an amazing feeling that had to be to get a hit off of someone you watched as a kid. You spent the next year in the minors but returned to the Red Sox in 1965 and did pretty well.

Yes, I played in Toronto in ’65 which was only 150 miles from home, so I could go [home] on off days. I had Dick Williams as a manager. I just played with him as a teammate in 1963 and he got right into managing. At the All-Star break, he called me into the office and told me they wanted me in the Majors. He told me I was going to be the centerfielder because Larry Geiger broke his wrist and Lenny Green broke his ankle.

I had a good year. I hit about .260 and drove in a lot of runs for a leadoff hitter. I had a big thrill there too when I hit a home run off Whitey Ford in Fenway Park.

I would say that’s gotta be a huge thrill for a young guy to hit a homer off a legend like that. You had some amazing experiences in just your first couple of years.

You know, I remember that stuff vividly. Anything with baseball I remember every detail. People always ask me what my biggest thrills were, and I say my first base hit off Frank Lary, my home run off Whitey Ford and and being the last hitter to ever face Satchel Paige.

Wow! I didn’t realize that. What was it like to hit against Satchel Paige, even at whatever age he was claiming to be that day?

That’s one thing not many people know about me. When I was with the Red Sox we were in Kansas City. They brought in Paige and he was going to pitch the first three innings, but we didn’t know anything about that. We looked down the right field bullpen and there was a guy sitting there in a rocking chair with a nurse next to him. We said, “Who’s that?” They told us that was Satchel Paige and he was gonna pitch three innings against us.

So, I was the leadoff hitter and the first person to face him. I popped up that at bat and we only got one hit off him. Carl Yastrzemski was the only one who got a hit. So, I came to bat with two outs in the third inning and grounded out. As I am running by Satchel Paige, he looks at me and says, “Good luck, young man.” I just thought to myself, “Wow! What a thrill.” I didn’t realize I was the last to bat against him until a couple of years later when I was in a book about it.

What an incredible claim to fame. There can’t be many people around who can say they batted against Satchel Paige. What do you think looking back at moments like that?

You can’t make it up. It’s exciting to think about as I sit here and think back about the good times. I’ve had bad times too; everyone goes through it. But the good times outweigh the bad ones. I always thought if you have a bad day, you just have to bounce back and say that you’ll do better tomorrow. I was a little bit of a red ass, but I wasn’t gonna go home and tear the place apart.

I could always call my dad to the day he passed away in 1980. I’ll never forget it, I was out of ball for six years and he’s laying in the back bedroom and I was in there with him. He looked at me and said, “Don’t forget to hit the fastball, Jimmy.” That was always his theory; to hell with the rest of the pitches, hit the fastball. So that’s what I always did. I was geared for the fastball and didn’t care how hard anyone threw, I was gonna hit it. But if they put a little curve on it, I might have a little problem.

You had a lot of great moments on the Red Sox and played on some other teams too, including the 1969 and 1973 Mets. Can you talk about that experience?

Well, I was disappointed that I didn’t get a World Series ring in ’69. I was only there for about five weeks, but damn, I played good defensively for them. I remember going back for a reunion maybe about five years ago and Cleon Jones came up to me and said, “Goose, can you still run?” I said, “Get out of here, you’re crazy.” We were laughing. He said he used to love it because after the seventh inning ended, I would be out there defensively. He said that I could really go get them. But it hurt me that I didn’t get an invitation to the [50th Anniversary] reunion.

I wanted to ask about that. I have read some articles saying not only that you never got a World Series ring for 1969, and not only did they not invite you to the reunion, but they put you in the video tribute for the players who passed away. I don’t mean to bring up negative memories, but can you talk about that?

Well at the end of the season, Gil [Hodges] came up to me and said they were going to take me off the roster because they needed an extra pitcher. I said, “Whatever you want to do is fine with me.” It was a big thrill for me to be there when we clinched, the whole thing was just a thrill for a kid to be a part of.

But you know, the thing that really hurt was that when the Series was over, I got a check in the mail for $100. That’s it. I thought I’d get a ring. I was there for five weeks ad I helped them out a lot defensively. I’ll be truthful, when I got that $100 check, I was hot.

To this day, I have people coming to me saying, “Jim, we got to get a hold of someone to get you that ring.” I don’t know, I think it’s a done deal. You know, I was heartbroken. I got the National League Championship ring in 1973, because I was there for six months. But that ’69 ring would be unbelievable.

That’s really sad. You weren’t a rookie callup in ’69. You were a veteran by then and helped them out. It’s nice to see people taking up your cause though. I think it would be great if the Mets new ownership would do something to help.

You know, the Mets did a thing where they gave season ticket holders a replica ring and I have these good friends from New York. I had just come back from a trip to Lansing and my wife told me I had a package and didn’t know what it was. Well my friends from New York had sent me their duplicate ring. When I opened it up, I saw the ring and started crying. I thought, “My God, I got my ring!” But then I made a call and learned it was just a glass replica.

It was disappointing, but it made me feel really good that somebody would think that much of me to take the time to send that to me. The real one, that had one big diamond right in the middle and was beautiful. It fit the whole knuckle. The ring I got in ’73 is nice. It has diamond chips in it and it has never left my finger. But the ’69 ring is a treasure.

The thing that hurt the most was that they gave rings to all the coaches and managers in the minor leagues. They gave rings to office personnel. But there were about two or three players who were on the team and never got the ring. That hurt me more than anything.

JULY 1, 2019: The Mets publicly apologize to Gosger and Jessie Hudson after proclaiming both former players dead during the 50th anniversary celebration of the '69 Miracle Mets.

As a Mets fan, that’s really disappointing to hear. I really do hope that one day that changes. So, what happened with the 50th Anniversary celebration when the Mets, in all their brainlessness, thought you were dead?

I did a real good interview in the Daily News when the Mets declared me dead. It wasn’t funny at the time because I had a couple of people on Facebook that were at the game that day. They had the big ceremony and had said I passed away. One guy went down and told the guy announcing, “Jim’s not dead, he’s on my Facebook!”

I got a call later that night from someone who sounded like he was drunk. He wanted to apologize. I said, “Shut up and goodbye.” I hung up on him. They were ignorant. You think they’d take the time to check out these people for God’s sake.

As sad as it was, not many were surprised the Mets messed that up so badly.

You played for some big-name managers over the years. Guys like Gene Mauch, Dick Williams, Gil Hodges and Alvin Dark among others. Can you talk about what it was like to play for them?

Let me tell you about the best one first and then we’ll go from there. The best man I ever played for was Alvin Dark. I had gotten traded to the Kansas City A’s and nobody told me. We were in Cleveland and one of my Little League coaches was [at the game]. He came to me afterwards and congratulated me on being traded to Kansas City.

The secretary called me and gave me a number to call. I didn’t even have my stuff, it was back in Boston. I called and asked for Alvin Dark. He came on the phone and told me I had to get to Kansas City. I said, “Skip, my stuff is in Boston, I have to get my stuff.” He told me to get on a plane because I was starting in centerfield the next day. I said, “I’ll be there.”

Gil Hodges was great. The players really respected him. He was quiet and didn’t say much, but when he talked, people listened. I liked Gene Mauch, too. A lot of guys didn’t like him, but I got along with him. With Gene, if you were going good, he loved you. If you weren’t… it was a different story.

I have heard Alvin Dark was a great players’ manager.

When I got to Kansas City he sat me down and said I was gonna play against righties. I said, “Skip, whatever you want to do is fine with me. You’re the boss.” The thing about it was that when I wasn’t playing, he’d come down to me and ask what I’d do in this situation. I would look at him and say, “Well, you’re the manager!” But he wanted my input, and he did that with all the players. The players absolutely loved him, and he was always there for the players. He always made them feel part of the club.

That’s great. You played for Yogi Berra too. Do you have a good Yogi story for us?

Really nice man, but he did some crazy stuff too. I liked him and we would laugh at him. We had this one situation. He would always come down to me around the sixth inning and ask for chewing tobacco. When we were on a winning streak, he would keep doing it. So, one time I had the runs and had to go back to the clubhouse. He came to find me, and I wasn’t there. He had this guy come get me and say that Yogi wants me. I told him I had the shits, but the guy just says, “Hurry up.”

I go down there thinking I’m gonna pinch hit and when I get there, Yogi said, “Where the hell were you?” I said that I had the shits, and he says, “Oh, well do you got any chew for me?”

He got me good. I said, “OK, so you want to play this game?” We go to Pittsburgh and I tell Steve Blass and Richie Hebner to watch Yogi in the sixth. He was gonna come down and ask me for chew and I was gonna fix him.

I got two bags of chew that day and in one of them, I put some Astroturf and some chew spit. We get to the sixth inning and he starts coming over. I looked across and Blass and Hebner are falling off the bench laughing. Yogi asked for chew and I told him I had a special bag. He took some, put it in his mouth and looked at me. He said, “Hmm, this is pretty moist,” then walked away. We did some crazy shit. I never mentioned it to him.

That’s an unbelievable story! I don’t think I’ve heard that Yogi story before. Well, this has been a blast, Mr. Gosger. It’s been an honor to hear your stories. My last question for you is open-ended. What final thoughts would you like to leave for our readers?

I had a great time reliving the 13 great years I had. There was nothing better in life for me. I am very fortunate. I made my dad happy, I made my mom happy and it was just great. If I could do it all over again, I’d do it the same way. That’s the way I was raised. It was always to hustle and to do my own thing and be proud of what I am doing.

I played with guys like Willie Mays, who was my teammate on the Mets. What a super nice guy. He was funnier than hell. I had my little boy at the time, John, who was just six years old. I had a picture taken with him and Willie Mays and he still has it. I wish I would have gotten it signed.

I have a picture of me and Ted Williams from Spring Training. I wish I had that signed too. I have a picture with Al Kaline. That was a guy I loved when I was growing up and then I’m standing next to him in 1963 taking a picture and playing against him. He was a class act and a real gentleman. A great guy to talk to.

You hang onto those things and those are my memories. You know, I think about them all the time. I will be sitting here watching television and I’ll turn it off and just think, “Wow, I wish I was playing again.”  

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book will be out in April 2021.

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