Bob Gibson, RIP: Disabusing prejudice and pretense

Bob Gibson gets the better of fellow Hall of Famer Al Kaline during the 1968 World Series.

How terrible is this? Bad enough for the St. Louis Cardinals that were sent home for the winter by the San Diego Padres Friday night, when  former Cardinal Trevor Rosenthal struck out the side all called in the top of the ninth Friday night.

Worse: The greatest pitcher in Cardinals history lost his battle with pancreatic cancer at 84 concurrently, on the anniversary of setting a record striking out seventeen Detroit Tigers in Game One of the 1968 World Series. Losing a Bob Gibson who was at least as good a man as he was a pitcher on such an anniversary stings even deeper.

Calling Gibson a tenacious, relentless, intimidating competitor on the mound is probably the first way he’s remembered, complete with the gags and exaggerations that have long since been both cliche and deceptive. Remembering that he was an intelligent man who was his own kind of sensitive and suffered fools no more happily than plate-crowding batters should be equal.

We remember the peculiar elegance of Gibson on the mound even past the severity of his otherwise handsome face as he began a pitch. It only began with the full back-swing of his long arms starting his windup and the leg kick that bent and lifted his knee even with the lettering on the front of his uniform.

There was that half turn that showed half his number 45 on his back, the slight incline of his body as he actually began to throw, then, especially, that whip-like arm movement down and across his body, glove arm extending up behind his shoulder like an eagle’s wing in flight.

There were his legs looking a split second as though they’d give way until he swung his right leg over and across his left, almost in a football punter’s kick, landing to keep him from sprawling to the ground as he finished his delivery in three steps but still keeping him erect enough to field a ball batted back toward the mound if need be.

Like his fellow Hall of Famers and contemporaries Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal, you could remove Gibson’s uniform and still identify him immediately, even from the highest seat in the park. A notoriously swift worker on the mound, Gibson at full delivery speed often seemed like an armada of men aiming to paralyse hitters and a solitary man rushing to catch the last train before he’d be late for work.

“Bob Gibson pitches,” Vin Scully once said of him, “as though he’s double-parked.”

Said his longtime Cardinals catcher and life-long friend Tim McCarver, who learned how to tease for positive effect from men like Gibson himself, “Bob Gibson is the luckiest pitcher in baseball. He’s always pitching when the other team doesn’t score any runs.”

That’s only a slight exaggeration. Gibson did pitch 53 lifetime shutouts in 482 lifetime starts, and he did lead the National League three times including with thirteen during his out-of-the-box 1968, the year of his spectacular 1.12 earned run average. In the Year of the Pitcher, that was both a staggering achievement and only somewhat flukish. (His lifetime ERA pre-1968: 3.12, His lifetime ERA post-1968: 3.01.)

“You can’t say it was flukish, although some people have said that,” Gibson told Hall of Fame writer Roger Angell, during Angell’s visit to his home outside Omaha that produced a remarkable 1980 New Yorker profile. (It’s been republished twice, in Late Innings and Game Time.) “Just say it was totally unusual. Everything I threw that year seemed to go where I wanted it. Everything was down, all year.”

Baseball imposed a few rule changes including a lower mound after that Year of the Pitcher. “The next year,” Gibson admitted, “was a terrific struggle. I had a good season, but I never worked so hard in my life, because so many of my breaking pitches were up. I’ll never know, but I doubt seriously I’d have had another 1.12 ERA, even if they’d left the mound where it was. I’d like to think I’d really perfected my pitching to that point, but I’ll never know.”

Off the mound, Gibson was both a gentle, friendly needler on the days he didn’t pitch and a self-aware man who found some of the gentlest and wittiest ways of deflating racial prejudice when it confronted him directly or made itself manifest in his presence.

“In a world filled with hate, prejudice, and protest, I find that I too am filled with hate, prejudice, and protest,” he wrote in his memoir, Stranger to the Game. He chose to fight it on human terms and not on the terms of the rioter, the vandal, or the vigilante. Coming to the Cardinals as they were still feeling racial growing pains as the 1950s crossed into the 1960s, Gibson and his fellow black teammates chose to tease and teach at once, not inflame.

McCarver, the son of a Memphis police officer, once got a very solid taste of such teaching, as described in David Halberstam’s October 1964. “Hey, Timmy,” Gibson hailed, “do you know how a white boy shakes hands with a Negro?” When McCarver said no, Gibson drew in Curt Flood as his straight man, played the role of the white boy, then shook hands with Flood—and immediately looked at his hand a moment before wiping it on his pants.

“You’ve done it before, haven’t you, Tim?” Gibson asked. McCarver thought twice and realised Gibson was right, and admitted as much. That routine and other subtleties were Gibson’s ways of encouraging whites willing to know him as a man to be better friends as well as teammates. “For him,” Halberstam wrote, “friendship was based not just on ability, it was based on what kind of a man a teammate was; how he treated others, what he really believed in.”

He also knew how to disabuse fans of their pretenses. Asked once why he disdained the idea of himself or any baseball player as a role model to a fan’s son, Gibson answered the inquiring father, “Why do I have to be an example for your kid? You be an example for your own kid.”

Gibson gave Angell another, more telling take on such disabuses. Fans, he told Angell, “always know so much, to hear them tell it, and they always think baseball is so easy.”

You hear them say, “Oh, I was a pretty good ballplayer myself back when I was in school, but I got this injury . . . ” Some cab driver gave me that one day, and I said, “Oh, really? That’s funny, because when I was young I really wanted to be a cab driver, only I had this little problem with my eyes, so I never made it.” He thought I was serious. It went right over his head.

It was remarkable in its own right that Gibson could use an eyesight problem in a joke aimed at deflating an annoying fan. Considering his fatherless boyhood of too much illness too often—rickets, pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma (one of Gibson’s few known commercial product endorsements was for Primatene Mist)—the wonder may be that he lived to pitch his way into the Hall of Fame at all, never mind life as full a life as he lived until pancreatic cancer struck him in 2019.

“Bob Gibson is a nice man, but he’s quiet,” McCarver told Angell for that 1980 profile, “Distance.”

He doesn’t enjoy small talk. He doesn’t like to waste his time with anything that’s weak or offhand. He wants to deal from strength all the time . . . He’s very proud, you know, and he had a ghetto upbringing, so you could understand why he was so sensitive to bigotry . . . Any relationship you get into with Bob is going to be intense. He’s a strong man with strong feelings.

Bob Gibson and his wife, Wendy, at the unveiling of a statue honouring Gibson in his native Omaha.

Gibson retired to his native Omaha, where he helped start a successful bank that did most of its business in Omaha’s black community but was governed on his impetus by an inter-racial board of directors. He also opened a successful restaurant (Gibby’s) near his alma mater, Creighton University, which hired inter-racial workers and managers.

His enduring—and very exaggerated—image as a hard-throwing kind of baseball samurai who treated the game as total warfare was belied when Angell asked him about late-career changes to his approach. “Pitching,” Gibson replied, “is about ninety per cent thinking.”

I threw hard when I was younger, but I didn’t know how to get people out. I don’t care how hard you throw, somebody’s going to hit it if you don’t think out there. It’s not all that detailed—you don’t think three or four pitches ahead. But one pitch might set up the next two you throw—it depends on what the guy does with it. You know. If he misses a fastball by a foot, then he’ll see another one. If he fouls it off or just misses it, he’ll probably get a breaking ball next. It isn’t exactly scientific, or anything.

Still, Gibson’s image as an executioner has never really dispelled. In the hour after his death, a social media friend of mine referenced what he thought was Gibson once having said he’d knock his own grandmother down at the plate. Hall of Famer Henry Aaron actually said Gibson would do just that. Another Hall of Fame pitcher, Early Wynn, once did say, unapologetically, that he would do just that.

Gibson might talk about batters he’d knocked down and why. He also once admitted his competitive spirit included making sure his daughters as little children could still never beat Daddy playing tic-tac-toe. But never even in jest did he suggest he’d knock one of his children, one of his wives (his first marriage produced two of his daughters; his second marriage produced his third and endured until his death), his mother, his grandmother, or any other relation.

Angell once called Gibson a compulsive truth teller. Such a man would understand the one-time lament of one-time Hell’s Angels president Sonny Barger about their histrionic press coverage in the 1960s: “All that bullshit, hell, ain’t the truth bad enough for ’em?”

I finally lost my own patience with the exaggerations when I saw a forum entry insisting flatly that anyone hitting a home run off Gibson (he surrendered 257 lifetime and averaged surrendering 17 a year) was guaranteed to take one in the ribs, the back, the shoulder, or any other extremity Gibson could reach.

Aside from having seen Gibson pitch often enough when I was growing up to know how exaggerated the image was, it was very much like a trans-decade version of the classic party telephone game—where you whisper something to the person next to you and, by the time it comes back to you from around the circle of friends, it’s nowhere near what you said in the first place.

So I looked it up. In a seventeen-season career, Bob Gibson only ever hit one batter the absolute next time up after he hit one out off him—Hall of Famer Duke Snider, in April 1961. More to the point: Thirty-six times in 528 major league games, Gibson surrendered at least one home run and hit at least one batter in the same game, and only three times was it the same batter who hit one out against him. He also retired with 102 lifetime hit batsmen. Placing him at number 85 on the all-time plunk list.

For the record, the three bombers who got drilled after homering off Gibson—not their next times up but in much later plate appearances in those same games—were Willie Crawford, Ron Fairly, and Hall of Famer Willie Stargell. He also surrendered home runs after hitting batters with pitches in . . . fourteen games lifetime.

If Gibson was trying to hit batters after they dialed nine on his dime, he failed miserably. He was unapologetic about pitching inside and insisted that if a plate crowder got hit inside it was his fault for over-crowding the plate, but he wasn’t exactly trying to drill holes in home run hitters’ bodies or heads. And this was a pitcher with outstanding control of a whistling fastball and a nasty, knee-trembling slider.

As a matter of fact, Gibson hit only two men with pitches more than four times—both light-hitting middle infielders, Ron Hunt and Roy McMillan. In fact, McMillan’s sixth came in a 1965 game, when his career as a fine defensive shortstop was winding down with the New YOrk Mets . . . and Gibson got plunked by Jackson when he batted in the top of the fifth. All things considered, you wouldn’t blame McMillan if he said he wanted to have Jackson’s children right then and there.

Gibson once spent a few seasons working as a pitching coach for another friend and former teammate, Joe Torre, now a Hall of Fame manager but then managing the then-hapless Mets and Atlanta Braves. That didn’t last; he found it difficult to connect with a new generation of pitchers with fat contracts and little else beyond just throwing hard without thinking. His post-baseball business success didn’t satisfy him half as much as playing baseball did.

“Yes,” his second wife, Wendy, told Angell in 1980, “he’s still looking for something, and don’t know if the right thing for him will ever come along. It’s sad.” Told of that observation, Gibson denied sadness.

I just think I’ve been spoiled. When you’ve been an athlete, there’s no place for you to go. You’re much harder to please. But where I am right now is where the average person has been all along. I’m like millions of others now, and I’m finding out what it’s like. I don’t think the ordinary person ever gets to do anything they enjoy nearly as much as I enjoyed playing ball. I haven’t found my niche now that that’s over—or maybe I have found it and I don’t know it. Maybe I’ll still find something I like as much as I liked pitching, but I don’t know if I will. I sure hope so.

I never had the impression Gibson was a spoiled man. I saw him on the mound and, whenever he re-appeared on the public radar, as that perhaps too self-aware man who asked for few things more than that you engage him as a man, that you not insult him by admiring the pitcher while disdaining the man, because of his colour or otherwise, and that you be as straight, no chaser with him as he’d be with you, even teasing you to teach you.

It’s enough to make me wish I’d gone to Gibby’s one night, while I lived in Omaha during my Air Force service, and met the man first and the former pitcher second. I would have liked and respected him without seeing him one more time on the mound, the retired assassin who wore a chain around his neck with a gently bejeweled number 45, the man who mingled around his integrated business and crowds with firm ease.

The man who was wary of the duplicities of the sports press yet was so pleased by Roger Angell’s revelatory profile that he sent Angell a photograph that he inscribed, “The world needs more people like you.”

The Elysian Fields now have Gibson, and the Lord’s angels now end his suffering, grant him eternal peace, and reunite him with such favourite teammates as Lou Brock and Curt Flood, and such favourite managers as Johnny Keane and Red Schoendienst. They also remind us how blessed we were to have had him as long as we did, though it doesn’t make our loss any less profound and sad.

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