Cleon Jones has long been a good storyteller, reliving moments on the baseball field or with friends or talking about winning the 1969 World Series with the New York Mets. He especially enjoys talking and sharing stories about his beloved Africatown community.
Often he would share stories with his family around the dinner table, and they would encourage him to share his stories and life experiences with others.
He has done so with the book “Coming Home: My Amazin’ Life with the New York Mets,” written with Gary Kaschak. Former Mets teammate and friend for more than 50 years Ron Swoboda wrote the foreword for the book, which was released Tuesday.
“The new book came about, it was a family venture,” Jones said in an interview with Lagniappe. “My wife, son and daughter kept talking to me around the dinner table about all these things I was telling them, that they needed to be in a book. They said, ‘You need to be trying to put a book together.’ They stayed after me for a while about doing a book and finally I gave in to them and said, ‘Let’s try to do it.’ Certainly, it was worthwhile putting it together because it tells about the community, it tells about my career, it tells about my family and all the things that are important to me.”
His seasons with the Mets, especially the 1969 season in which the team captured the World Series, with Jones catching a fly ball for the final out of the Series, obviously hold a strong position in the book. Growing up Black in the South is also a subject covered in the book, as well as growing up in an area that produced baseball players such as Hank Aaron, Billy Williams, Willie McCovey and others. But he also writes about Africatown and how the community supported him growing up and while he played pro ball, and why he feels it’s important to do what he can for the community now, the community where he still lives today.
“I hope people get that working together and unity is the order of the day,” Jones said when asked what he hoped those who read the book will take away from it. “Take for instance Africatown. Africatown didn’t just come about five years ago. It’s been here. Some of us have been aware of that and been trying to push it for years and bring it to the forefront. In other words, we kept hope alive for this day.
“Now we’ve found the Clotilda and the uniqueness of all of this is we found the Clotilda and Africatown is still here. Africatown has been suffering for years for the lack of many things. Certainly, all of us that live here in Africatown are aware of that. It has taken a while to get the entire community involved in the success of this community. There have been some outside forces that kind of held us back, because people don’t know who to deal with because of the outside forces. But the one thing Jesse Jackson said is, ‘Let’s keep hope alive.’ When Ben Raines found the Clotilda a few years back a lot of eyes were opened to the fact that we’re a historic community and the saga is real.”
Jones said making Africatown an important aspect of the book was always a given.
“What I like about it is, if there’s no Africatown there is no Cleon Jones,” he said. “This is the town that raised me. This is the town that gave me a start. This is the town that gave me the needed push to become a professional ballplayer. Certainly, without all of the people of Africatown, and I could call names forever, we wouldn’t be talking about Cleon Jones and the 1969 World Series, the ’69 All-Star Game and all the other things if not for the people of Africatown. My whole life has been spent trying to pay back to the community in ways that people would never understand. But when you are raised by an entire community — yes, I had family, my grandmother, great-grandmother, my cousins and nieces and nephews and all those — but everybody in this community had a hand on Cleon Jones and pushed me in the right direction. I’m here as proof it can work when a community works together.”
Likewise, the Mets, for whom Jones played for 12 of his 13 Major League seasons, served as a community for Jones. It remains a franchise with which he has close ties. It is rare to see Jones around town without him wearing a Mets cap. His time as a player with the team has been matched by his support of the team once his playing days ended.
“If not for the Mets and the last out and all of those things, perhaps we wouldn’t be talking about this book today,” Jones said. “The Mets have a great amount of space in the book because the Mets’ organization, like my [Africatown] community, helped to make Cleon Jones. It gave me an opportunity to play with my homeboy Tommie Agee and Amos Otis. It symbolized what the underdog can do. You go from eighth or ninth place in your division and the next year you’re able to win the World Series because there’s a unit that plays together that put the team concept together.
“I give Gil Hodges, who was the manager at that time, and Johnny Murphy, who was the general manager, and others in the organization a lot of credit. We all know that championships start from the top down, not from the bottom up. Everybody had to work together and everybody played a role and played a part. That concept I try to portray in this community — everybody needs to work together.
“A great deal is dedicated to the Mets because the Mets, for 13 years, was a great part of my family life and gave me a name that resonates today. And that’s how we were able to do the book and move forward in trying to help our community.”
Jones said the most difficult part in putting the book together was talking about himself and his accomplishments and revealing some of his innermost thoughts.
“I don’t air my dirty laundry and I don’t like to share family secrets or anything else with anybody,” he said. “I’m just a person who likes to do his thing in the way that I see fit. I don’t go out bragging or being braggadocious about who I am or what I was, and I don’t care too much about what other people think as long as I’m doing what was right. I remember there were a few times someone would call and ask me, ‘Did you read the paper today?’ I’d say, ‘No, but what’s it about?’ They’d say, ‘It’s about you.’ And I would say, ‘I don’t need to read about me, I know what I’m doing.’ So that pretty much says who I am. I can be hard to get along with because I’m kind of stuck in my ways, but life is not about me, especially today. It’s simply about my community and it’s about working together with other people to make things happen in a way that’s going to benefit my community. It has taken a while to get here and seemingly things are kind of falling in place now, and that’s the good news. Hopefully, when people read this book, people will understand who I am and what I’m about and what this community is all about.”
Jones said he is pleased with how the book turned out and hopes others will enjoy the book as well, especially those from the Mobile and Africatown areas who may recognize some of those mentioned in its pages.
“It’s a good book and it speaks to a lot of things that I’m proud of,” Jones said. “I like to talk about my coming up at the Mobile County Training School and my teachers and coaches and all those who played a role in my life — Miss [Valena] McCants, who was my teacher and she was a teacher of all her students because she cared about all of us and she made sure that we did all the things that was going to benefit us in life. And all of that right now is paying off, and certainly, she is in the book. There’s a nice chapter about her and how she contributed and how she made a difference in my life.”
Jones said he’s “going to be a busy man” for the next month as he promotes the book, including spending some time making appearances and doing book signings in the New York area. He said plans are also in the works to do some book signings in the Mobile area in the future.
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