Canadian baseball fans are most likely to remember Jim Gosger for his tenure with the Montreal Expos, but it was his performance in Toronto 50 years ago that earned him his first major league starting assignment.
Now a spirited, kind-hearted, 72-year-old living in Port Huron, Mich., Gosger has fond memories of his 1965 season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, then a Boston Red Sox triple-A affiliate managed by rookie skipper Dick Williams.
“In my first two games with Toronto, I was 0-for-8. I was hitting the ball hard, but I didn’t get on base,” recalled Gosger, who was 22 and in his fourth season in the Red Sox organization. “So we go down to Atlanta. They had a triple-A team there and Williams doesn’t put me in the lineup. Well, I was a red ass. I was pissed. So I was sitting in my locker and I said, ‘I’ve had enough of this. I’m quitting tomorrow, I’m done.’ Williams caught wind of that and he came over to me and said, ‘You’re going home tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Yep, I’ve had enough.’ I said, ‘I’ve only been up to bat eight times and you take me out of the lineup and we’ve only got one extra outfielder. That’s the only chance I get? Screw it!’ And I went down and sat on the bench.
“So in about the eighth inning, he calls down to me and says, ‘Go hit.’ It was a tie game. So I get a base hit, my first base hit, and then I get a steal sign and I steal second. Then they bunted me over to third and I score the go-ahead run and we ended up winning the game. So I’m in there packing my bag after the game and Williams comes up to me and says, ‘You still going home?’ And I said, ‘Yep, I’ve had enough.’ And he says, ‘Damn, I was going to start you tomorrow.’ And I said, ‘Well in that case, I think I’ll stay.’”
Gosger quickly realized that Williams’ decision not to start him was a motivational tactic.
“Williams really knew how to push my buttons and I came to really admire that man,” said Gosger.
With Williams’ prodding, the left-handed hitting outfielder batted .299 and belted 14 home runs in 84 games with the Maple Leafs, prompting the Red Sox to hand him their starting centre fielder’s job for the second-half of the season.
Williams was just one of the legendary managers that Gosger suited up for during his 13-year professional career. Alvin Dark, Gene Mauch and Yogi Berra were among his other bench bosses, but his most influential “manager” was one he knew long before his professional career – his dad, James (Jim) Francis Gosger.
“My dad used to play catch with me when I was five years old,” recalled Gosger, who was born in Port Huron on November 6, 1942. “I remember we would go down to Tiger Stadium when I was about seven years old and Ted Williams was playing left field for the Red Sox, and my dad would point down to the field and say, ‘One day you’re going to be out there.’”
As a teen, Gosger played baseball seven days a week in the summer and when his father wasn’t unavailable, he’d toss the ball back and forth with his mother Rosemary or his two sisters, Pam and Susan.
In high school, Gosger was a multi-sport star, excelling in basketball, baseball, football and track. After he graduated, he attended Port Huron Junior College (now St. Clair County Community College) and competed for their baseball team. He also pitched and played outfield for a local semi-pro team and began attracting the interest of big league scouts.
“This scout from the Cleveland Indians came in and I can’t remember his name, but he came up on the porch and my dad invited him in and he got talking and he finally said to dad, ‘Well, I don’t think he can make the big leagues, but I’ll give him a chance to play,’” recalled Gosger. “And with that, my dad said, ‘Get the hell out of this house.’ My dad was livid. He said, ‘My son can make more money working for the city of Port Huron than he can with what you’re offering.’ And then my dad said to him, ‘And he will make the big leagues.’ And with that, the guy left.”
Gosger’s grandfather happened to know Maurice De Loof, a Red Sox scout from the area. De Loof watched Gosger and liked what he saw in the speedy, 5-foot-11 outfielder and inked him to a contract in early 1962 that included a small signing bonus and a progressive bonus for each level he moved up in the minors.
Less than two months later, the not-yet-20-year-old Gosger reported to the Red Sox minor league camp, where his hitting instructor was none other than Ted Williams. “The Splendid Splinter” was impressed by Gosger’s stroke and he convinced the Red Sox to assign the young outfielder to their Class-B affiliate in Winston-Salem, where he proceeded to hit .283 and sock 19 home runs in 131 games.
Due to the Major League Baseball’s rules surrounding signing bonuses at the time, Gosger had to be on the Red Sox big league roster in 1963 or they would risk losing him in an off-season draft. So Gosger spent the entire 1963 season with the Bosox but mustered only 16 at bats. The highlight of his campaign was recording his first big league hit – a single to centre field off of Frank Lary – on August 6 in front of friends and family at Tiger Stadium.
He played the ensuing season with Double-A Reading, before being promoted to the triple-A Maple Leafs in 1965. Gosger enjoyed his tenure in Toronto and recalls living in an apartment with three or four other players.
“The stadium was right near the water, it was a big stadium, but I bet you we probably didn’t have a 1,000 people a game,” recalled Gosger.
He also liked the city’s proximity to Port Huron.
“I could come home on the train,” he said. “My dad worked for the railroad and we’d have an off-day and I’d ask Dick Williams if I could go home and he said I could, so I just hopped on the train for $4. That’s how much it cost back then.”
As noted earlier, by mid-season, Gosger’s numbers (.299, 14 homers) with Toronto were too good to ignore and the Red Sox promoted him to be their starting centre fielder in early July. Batting leadoff for the majority of his starts, the fleet-footed outfielder hit .256 in 81 big league contests and was named the team’s rookie of the year.
Gosger was back with the Red Sox in 1966 when he walloped two home runs off of Tigers ace Denny McLain on June 8 at Tiger Stadium with a large group of friends and family in attendance. But less than a week later, Gosger was traded to the Kansas City A’s where he played for manager Alvin Dark. One time, after the A’s lost both games of a double header, Gosger remembers Dark rounding him and a few of his teammates up and taking them to the Copacabana night club in New York to cheer them up.
“He told us, ‘Don’t worry, everything is on me.’ And Bobby Vinton was playing there,” remembered Gosger. “We sat right down front and we had a few drinks and smoked some cigars and then Dark said, ‘Now we go get them tomorrow.’ And we beat the Yankees the next day.”
After parts of three seasons with the A’s, he was selected by the Seattle Pilots in the 1968 expansion draft. Gosger caught the first out in Pilots’ history, but it was all downhill from there.
“We had 25 guys who didn’t give a rat’s ass if we won or lost,” recalled Gosger.
In mid-June, the Pilots demoted Gosger to their triple-A club in Vancouver, where he hit .462 in 12 games, prior to being acquired by the New York Mets. He continued his hot hitting with the Mets’ triple-A affiliate in Tidewater, batting .341 in 58 games to help the club win an International League championship. The eventual World Champion Mets called him up that September and used him primarily as a defensive replacement, but he was not on the club’s postseason roster.
“At the end of the year they took an extra pitcher and they took me off the major league roster,” he explained. “It irritated me because I had saved about seven games for them defensively because they always put me in for Cleon Jones in the late innings. Another thing that irritated me was that I didn’t get a ring. Everybody in the organization got a ring, their scouts and everyone got a ring. [Ed] Kranepool was the player rep, and they voted on shares and all they gave me was a share of $100.”
That December, Gosger was dealt to the San Francisco Giants, but before playing a regular season game with the Giants, he was sold to the Expos on April 20, 1970. He started in triple-A Buffalo in the Expos organization prior to being recalled in early June. After meeting the big league club in Houston, he recorded a pinch-hit double off of right-hander Jack Billingham in his first at bat with the Expos on June 3, 1970.
“I can remember flying back [after the road trip was over] and John Bateman got up on the plane when we got into Montreal and he said, ‘Well, boys. Welcome to Sin City.’ I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about until I got there and found out what it was all about. It was a wild city,” said Gosger.
“The first night I was in Montreal I just got off the plane and [Expos pitcher] Bill Dillman comes up to me and says, ‘We’re going to go The Apartment.’ And I thought he was talking about his apartment, but it was a bar called The Apartment. There were people standing outside waiting to get in and Dillman walks right up to the front. And they said, ‘Hey, Mr. Dillman, how are you? Come right in.’ So we went in and it was just packed to the gills. Dillman had some beautiful young woman, and she met him in there and he introduced me to all their friends.”
On the field, during his first month with the club, Gosger batted .364. He liked playing in Jarry Park and got along well with his teammates, but he had mixed feelings about manager Gene Mauch.
“If you were going good, he loved you. If you were going bad, you could go sit in the shit house because he didn’t care – that’s the way he was,” said Gosger. “He was a great manager as far as knowing what was going on on the field, but he really didn’t take an interest in the well-being of his players.”
While with the Expos, Gosger lived in Pointe-Claire, Que., and he enjoyed the area so much that after the 1970 season, he spent the winter working in a public relations capacity for the Expos.
“The only French I learned while I was there was the first night I was in Montreal and this young woman came up to me and said, ‘Voulez-vous coucher avec mois?’ And I said to Dillman’s friend, ‘What the hell did she say to me?’ She said, ‘She wants to sleep with you.’ Then I said, ‘Well, where the hell is she? I can’t find her,’” joked Gosger.
His tenure with the Expos ended on December 3, 1971 when he was traded back to the Mets. After spending the 1972 season in triple-A Tidewater, he’d play 38 games for the Mets team that advanced to the World Series in 1973. The Oakland A’s defeated the Mets in the Fall Classic, but this time, Gosger did receive a full World Series share.
The versatile outfielder suited up for 26 more games with the Mets in 1974 before the club released him.
“Joe McDonald was the minor league director and when they released me, he asked me, ‘Would you be interested in being a batting instructor in Tidewater?’ So I said, ‘Certainly.’ He said, ‘OK, I’ll give you a call.’ Well, it’s 2015 and he hasn’t called yet,” said Gosger.
After his professional playing career, Gosger returned to Port Huron and worked as the recreation director for the town of Yale, Mich. More recently, he toiled in the Water and Sewer department for the city of Port Huron for close to two decades.
He has also served as a local official in baseball, basketball and football. This was to be his 43rd year as a football official, but he’s still experiencing some pain from a recent hip surgery, but he hopes to return to officiating at some point this season.
These days, Gosger lives in the same home he grew up in Port Huron with his second wife Kathleen and his daughter Kellie, who works in eye care. He also has four children – Lynn, Lisa, Jon and Michelle – from his previous marriage.
Gosger looks back fondly on his baseball career and is grateful for the pension he receives for his tenure in the big leagues.
“Hell, I make more now in my retirement than I did when I played, if you can believe that,” he said. “I think the most I ever made was in Montreal when I made $24,500 and that was a lot of money back in 1970, but my pension now is right around $30,000.”