So what really made the Year of the Pitcher?

Bob Gibson, whose talismanic 1.12 ERA may remain the best-remembered element of 1968’s Year of the Pitcher. But . . .

When Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson lost his battle with pancreatic cancer at 84 last Friday night, two things above all seemed looming large over any retrospective of the St. Louis Cardinals marksman who was just as good a man as a pitcher. Even above his striking overall World Series performance record.

Thing One: Gibson’s still somewhat exaggerated image as an intimidator. So much so that a friend hailed me aboard a social media platform to remember Gibson saying he’d knock his own grandmother down if she dared to challenge him. It took me a short while to convince him Gibson never said that about his grandmother or any other relative.

For the record, Hall of Famer Henry Aaron plagiarised Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn to say Gibson would knock his grandma down, and Aaron mis-plagiarised Wynn about the challenge part. Wynn had actually said he’d knock Grandma down if she dug in against him. Apple sauce and orange chicken.

The closest Gibson ever came to admitting he insisted upon going one-up on family members is when he admitted, a little puckishly, when asked if competitiveness was his more-or-less lifelong companion, “I guess you could say so. I’ve played a couple of hundred games of tic-tac-toe with my little daughter, and she hasn’t beaten me yet. I’ve always had to win. I’ve got to win.”

Which leads to Thing Two, since Gibson revealed his tic-tac-toe conquering during the same year’s World Series: 1.12. That was Gibson’s earned run average in 1968. A number at least as talismanic for baseball fans ancient and modern as have been numbers such as 60, 61, 511, 714, 755, 2,130, and 5,714.

To this day you can meet people who think 1.12 was the reason, maybe the only reason, or the reason first above lesser challengers, why the Year of the Pitcher freaked the Show’s government enough to deliver a couple of rules changes after 1968 that were just as significant as the change that made the damn season almost necessary in the first place.

Hall of Fame writer Roger Angell, who admires and loves top-of-the-line pitching as deeply as he does top-of-the-line hitting and defense, observed in an October 1968 essay (“A Little Noise at Twilight“) that, by mid-July 1968, “it was plain to even the most inattentive or optimistic fans that something had gone wrong with their game.”

Why were the pitchers so good? Where were the .320 hitters? What had happened to the high-scoring slugfest, the late rally, the bases-clearing double? The answers to these questions are difficult and speculative, but some attempt must be made at them before we proceed to the releasing but somewhat irrelevant pleasures of the World Series. To begin with: Yes, the pitchers are better—or, rather, pitching is better. All the technical and strategic innovation of recent years have helped the defenses of baseball; none have favoured the batter. Bigger ballparks with bigger outfields, the infielders’ enormous crab-claw gloves, more night games, the mastery of the relatively new slider pitch, the persistence of the relatively illegal spitter, and the instantaneous managerial finger-wag to the bullpen at the first hint of an enemy rally have all tipped the balance of this delicately balanced game.

Gibson didn’t need the Year of the Pitcher to prove his greatness or make himself a Hall of Famer. He’d established that in a gradual buildup from his first major league gigs in 1959 forward, including and especially during two previous World Series. (1964, 1967.) His ERA over those nine seasons was 3.12; his fielding-independent pitching, 3.10. Among his fellow righthanded pitchers across those seasons, only Hall of Famer Juan Marichal (2.67 ERA; 3.00 FIP) was better.

Gibson pitched seven more seasons after 1968. His ERA over those seven: 3.01; his FIP over the seven: 2.87. You could look at his FIP and argue he was a slightly better pitcher than he’d been before 1968, and that’s without getting another chance to pitch in the postseason before his 1975 retirement.

Let’s look at some of Gibson’s other critical measurements, various key pitching averages, comparing his pre-1968 seasons and his post-1968 seasons:

Averages Sho BB K WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB.9 K/9 K/BB
1959-1967 3 78 176 1.22 7.6 0.7 3.3 7.5 2.25
1968 13 62 268 0.85 5.8 0.3 1.8 7.9 4.32
1969-75 3 81 181 1.22 7.9 0.5 3.1 6.8 2.22

Gibson himself rejected the idea, though not impolitely, but even he had to know that even the greatest of the great have had fluke seasons, outlying seasons. (One-time teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Steve Carlton had one in 1972, to name one.) His 1968 is a no-questions-asked outlier, if not a flat-out fluke. His 1967 ERA  was 2.98, and that’s despite being rudely interrupted by Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente’s liner breaking his leg that July. Any pitcher’s ERA dropping 1.86 below the previous season’s mark, which is exactly what Gibson’s 1968 ERA did, is a drop comparable to the poor soul who falls from the apex of the Gateway Arch.

And, whether his most stubborn partisans like it or not, Gibson had only too much help both making the Year of the Pitcher and inspiring subsequent rules changes.

You probably remember some of that help better than others. Maybe the help you remember best is Denny McLain, the gifted but self-destructive Detroit Tigers pitcher, credited with 31 wins—the first pitcher to cross the 30 threshold since Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean in 1934, the 31 equaling Lefty Grove’s 31 in 1931.

Those still foolish enough to think those 31 wins (when you get four-plus runs support to work with while you’re on the mound you’d better win thirty-one games) mean McLain was better than Gibson that year (because, wins!), think again:

  Sho BB K WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB.9 K/9 K/BB
McLain ‘68 6 63 280 0.91 6.5 0.8 1.7 7.5 4.44
Gibson ‘68 13 62 268 0.85 5.8 0.3 1.8 7.9 4.32

Maybe the help you remember second best is another Hall of Famer, Don Drysdale, breaking Walter Johnson’s 55-year-old mark by pitching 58.1 scoreless innings across six complete-game shutouts. Maybe the help you remember third best is yet another Hall of Famer, Carl Yastrzemski, delivering the lowest-ever average (.3005, rounded to .301) for any league batting champion.

Now, here’s some of Gibson’s Year of the Pitcher help that you may not remember quite so well. Such help as:

* The entire Show posting a 2.98 ERA and FIP.

* The American League slugging .339—the lowest in the league since 1915, and the same number as there were shutouts pitched by the entire Show.

* Gibson’s Cardinals pitching 30 shutouts, followed in order by the Mets (25), the Indians (23), the Los Angeles Dodgers (23), and the Giants (20.)

* The whole Show’s combined .237 batting average was the lowest in major league history to that point and lower than the .240 team average of the 1962 Mets. The American League’s .230 remains the lowest league batting average in history.

* Luis Tiant, the Cleveland Indians’ lefthander, posting a 1.68 ERA and a 2.04 FIP, both of which led the American League. (McLain’s FIP: 2.53, the lowest of his career by very far.)

* Jerry Koosman, rookie New York Mets lefthander, pitching seven shutouts. (He lost the Rookie of the Year award to Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, a year after the late Hall of Famer Tom Seaver won the award.)

* Ray Washburn (journeyman St. Louis Cardinals pitcher) and Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry (San Francisco Giants) pitching no-hitters on consecutive days, against each other’s teams, in Candlestick Park.

* Everything else meaning nobody sat up bolt upright in amazement when Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter—who managed somehow to avoid posting a sub-3.00 ERA and FIP—pitched a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins in early May. (It probably didn’t help that, in his next start, the Twins battered him for eight earned runs on eight hits and five walks.)

“The 1968 season has been named the Year of the Pitcher,” Angell wrote earlier in his essay, “which is only a kinder way of saying the Year of the Infield Pop-Up. The final records only confirm what so many fans, homeward bound after still another shutout, had already discovered for themselves; almost no one, it seemed, could hit the damn ball anymore.”

You’ll note Angell wrote “almost”: three teams—the Cincinnati Reds (.273), the Atlanta Braves (.252), and the Pittsburgh Pirates (also .252)—managed to hit .250 or better as teams. Gibson’s Cardinals hit .249 collectively; McLain’s Tigers hit two points below the Show average. The worst hitting team in the Show, further evidence of their sad post-1964 Lost Decade, was the New York Yankees—the Bronx Bombers disarmed to Bronx Busts—and their team .214 average.

The two 1968 World Series combatants, the Cardinals and the Tigers, batted .242 between them in a season that wasn’t just the Year of the Pitcher but one in which the last pre-divisional play pennant races were all but decided by the middle of July. Old-school fans probably throve on the idea of a World Series matching a pair of old-time franchises who’d previously played a thriller of a 1934 Series that ended in a trash riot (over Cardinals outfielder Joe Medwick) and a Cardinals triumph.

But the Tigers pitched nineteen shutouts to the Cardinals’ staggering 30 going in—and hung on to beat the Cardinals in seven games only three of which could be called thrillers. Three others were no-questions-asked blowouts, with Gibson and the Tigers’ eventual World Series MVP Mickey Lolich benefiting from one blowout apiece.

McLain himself pitched six shutouts but Lolich—the portly lefthander who lived on a mix of off-speed pitches and a sinkerball that got deadlier as he tired by late innings—pitched four, including three down the stretch after he was restored to the Tigers’ starting rotation in late August. Gibson, though, accounted for almost half his team’s shutouts with thirteen. He’d also pitch the Series’ lone shutout, the Game One in which he broke Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s record for strikeouts in a single Series game.

The ’68 Series is also remembered for the two phenomenally-anticipated pitching matchups between Gibson and McLain that turned into mismatches with McLain coming out on the short end. Well, only one of the pair was a real mismatch: Game Four, the Cardinals battering McLain for four runs (three earned) in two and two-thirds, two more runs by Joe Sparma in a third of an inning, then prying John Hiller without an out in the eighth, including Hall of Famer Lou Brock’s three-run double.

That kind of run support must have staggered Gibson, who’d enjoyed 2.8 runs of support while he was in the game during his regular-season starts.

It’s so simple even now to think that when push came to shove Gibson simply out-classed McLain and McLain was exposed as a paper Tiger, but there was a backstory to it: McLain was pitching with shoulder trouble that began when he felt a pop in a 1965 start. And, by 1967-68, McLain was taking copious cortisone shots to pitch with that shoulder. Should you really be shocked, after all, that after another full-out 1969 (and a second straight American League Cy Young Award) McLain’s career took a nose-dive into Lake Michigan?

Some may remember, years after he retired, McLain fuming, “The name of the game back then was you gotta win one for the Gipper. [Fornicate] the Gipper!” He wasn’t referring to Ronald Reagan, either. “McLain’s bitterness was well earned,” wrote Sridhar Pappu in The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age. (2017.)

Those cortisone shots would cost him his major league career. The myth that baseball players were tougher and more resilient back in the day, that they were willing to endure anything for the sheer love of the game, is just that—a myth. In truth, they were victims of terrible medical advice, merciless management, and unforgiving fans who believed that a worn-out, hurting arm signaled a kind of moral weakness.

Excessive cortisone administration doesn’t just cause the kind of visual issues that can result in blindness such as afflicts former Mets/Senators/Tigers pitcher Bill Denehy (who joined the Tigers the season after McLain’s departure), who received a multitude of such shots after a shoulder injury in his rookie 1967. Citing pitcher Mike Marshall (reliever in 37 games for the 1967 Tigers; eventual 1974 Cy Young winner who earned a subsequent doctorate in exercise physiology), Pappu wrote ominously:

Marshall even then understood what cortisone is: not a cure-all for pain, but a corrosive that softens the bone and weakens the ligaments. [Marshall] could see McLain growing addicted to it. Despite what doctors might have said, cortisone was more of an analgesic than a curative treatment. And, ultimately, it would destroy McLain’s career.

McLain was reckless, a self-destructive self-promoter, most likely due to the early death of a father who yearned for his son to escape the hard paycheck-to-paycheck labourer’s life and taught that yearning with ferocious, excessive beatings. (Bob Gibson never knew his father, who died three months before he was born, but his older siblings and mother taught him with firm but loving hearts.)  Whatever else you’ve read about McLain’s worst, the real cause of his baseball death was his shoulder trouble and his excess dependence on cortisone.

Removing the 1968 World Series from the equation, the question before the house is the same which the political humourist P.J. O’Rourke attached to his book about the 2016 presidential election as a title: How the hell did this happen? Well, this is how the hell the Year of the Pitcher happened:

Hint: Sandy Koufax won the first of his record three MLB Cy Young Awards (it became an each-league prize after Koufax retired) and beat the Yankees twice in that World Series, including the Game One in which he set the strikeout record Gibson broke.

From 1950-1962, the strike zone was between the batters’ arm pits and his knees, however they stood at the plate, whether crouching little pests like Hall of Famers Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox, or more upright demolition experts like Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. Then the Baseball Rules Committee decided the hitters were having too much fun and the pitchers needed a reasonable break.

So, in 1963, they expanded the strike zone, from the top of the batters’ shoulders to the bottoms of their knees. Oops.

That Rules Committee “apparently thought they were, in taking this action, returning the strike zone to what it had been prior to 1950; that, at least, is what they announced at the time,” wrote Bill James in The New Historical Baseball Abstract. “They overshot the mark just a little; the definition used prior to 1950 was from the player’s knees to his shoulders; the new definition said from the bottom of the knees to the shoulders.”

The effect of this redefinition was dramatic. The action was taken, quietly, because there was a feeling that runs (and in particular home runs) had become too cheap. Roger Maris’s breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record contributed to that feeling. The thinking was that, by giving the pitchers a few inches at the top and bottom of the strike zone, they could whittle the offense down just a little bit.

Denny McLain, at the painful height of his career.

Baseball observers and analysts of the 1960s, bless them, didn’t stop to think that, yes, Roger Maris, a compact but muscular lefthanded pull hitter who hit booming high line drives instead of parabolic bombs, did have a delicious short porch at which to aim in Yankee Stadium . . . but he hit one less home run at home in 1961 than he did on the road. And, that five out of Maris’s nine road ballparks were rated pitchers’ parks that year.

James also argued, like Angell, that the ballparks themselves contributed to a game weighted to pitching by the 1960s as a whole and 1968 in particular: every ballpark change between 1930 and 1968 took hits out of the leagues with increasing volume of foul territory. Nor did anyone in either league or from the commissioner’s offices bothered checking height or slope of pitching mounds visibly higher than the rules allowed.

There was also the nocturnal factor. Night ball continued growing. In elementary terms, you tell me how simple it might be to swing on and connect with a 95 mph-plus fastball. You tell me if you’d like to face Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, or Nolan Ryan—or even Juan Marichal with that multiple array of windups and leg kicks—in the dead of night no matter how well lit the ballpark might be.

This is the total of night games played in each season from 1963, when the new pitcher-delicious strike zone took effect, through the end of the Year of the Pitcher:

Season Day Games Night Games +/- Night ERA
1963 4,209 3,837 -372 3.46
1964 4,326 4,055 -271 3.58
1965 4,402 4,197 -205 3.50
1966 4,120 4,385 +265 3.52
1967 3,986 4,442 +456 3.31
1968 3,731 4,309 +576 2.98

The Show played 576 more night than day games in 1968, compared to 456 more night than day in 1967 and 73 more night than day games in 1966. Baseball also played 204 more night games in 1968 than 1963. More to the point: marry that -0.33 drop in the Show’s ERA from 1967 to 1968 to that still-expanded strike zone.

Even allowing the gradual pre-1967 adjustments to night ball and the 3.53 ERA from 1964-66, now should it have been that much of a shock that the season would come in which the pitchers had that tight a grip on the game?

Gibson pitched 23 of his 34 1968 starts at night and threw nine of his thirteen shutouts at night. McLain also pitched 23 night games out of 41 starts in 1968, and he threw five of his six shutouts at night. Tiant, the American League’s ERA/FIP champion, also led the league with nine shutouts. Like Gibson, El Tiante started 34 games in ’68. He started sixteen night games and threw three of his nine shutouts at night. But he also pitched in maybe the most cavernous of the trio’s home ballparks, Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. (The Mistake on the Lake.)

Let’s look further at 1968’s major league shutout leaders:

Pitcher ’68 Starts ’68 Sho Sho-night Sho-day Sho%
Bob Gibson 34 13 9 4 38
Luis Tiant 32 9 3 6 28
Don Drysdale 31 8 4 4 26
Jerry Koosman 34 7 4 3 21
Steve Blass 31 7 5 2 23
Ray Culp 30 6 5 1 20
Ray Sadecki 36 6 2 4 17
Mel Stottlemyre 36 6 3 3 17
Jim Nash 33 6 2 4 18
Dean Chance 39 6 4 2 15
Bill Singer 36 6 3 3 17
Denny McLain 41 6 5 1 15

(While I was looking them up, I noticed that if the 1968 Boston Red Sox were smarter, or at least less afraid of vampires, they’d have pitched Ray Culp strictly at night. Culp had a 1.91 ERA after dark but a whopping 4.02 ERA in broad daylight.)

Notice that six of those pitchers had twenty percent or better of their starts result in shutouts; four threw more shutouts at night than in daylight; and, that two—Denny McLain and Ray Culp—threw all but one of their shutouts at night. But if you broaden the cut, and look at all 339 of the Show’s 1968 shutouts, 163 were pitched at night—48 percent. Nearly half the shutouts in 1968 were pitched at night.

That was in a season during which 1,404 games had two runs or less and the Show ERA for those games was 2.99; 1,224 had between 3-5 runs, with an ERA of 2.86; and, a mere 622 featured six or more runs, with a 3.17 ERA. Strangely enough, in 1967 the percentage of shutouts thrown at night was 52 percent—but there were also 113 fewer shutouts (226 total) thrown.

However you care to slice and dice it, the pitcher’s parks coming online between the 1950s and the 1960s, the 1963 strike zone expansion, and the non-existent enforcement of uniform and reasonable mound heights, made it perhaps inevitable that the decade wouldn’t end before such an outlying, fluky season as the Year of the Pitcher was played.

Starting in 1969, the mounds were required to be no higher than ten inches and the requirement was enforced strictly. Also for the first time, ever, the Show’s government mandated protection for the hitters’ visual backgrounds, which until then were dominated by bleachers, center field wall advertisements, or both. Finally, as James’s Abstract reminds us, several teams either moved in the fences or moved home plate out toward the fences.

The official strike zone got re-shrunk, too. Back to its pre-1963 dimensions.

Strangely enough, the Year of the Pitcher’s five no-hitters (Cincinnati’s George Culver and Baltimore’s Tom Phoebus also pitched 1968 no-nos) weren’t the most in any major league season. There were six in 1915 (including Hall of Famer Rube Marquard) and 1917 (including eventual Black Sox confessor Eddie Cicotte and the legendary Babe Ruth-to-Ernie Shore game). There would be seven in 1990.

The five no-nos were just about the only way 1968 wasn’t an outlier: in 1969, after the re-shrunk strike zone and shaved-down pitcher’s mounds, five no-hitters were also pitched—by Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, plus Ken Holtzman, Jim Maloney*, Bob Moose, Bill Stoneman, and Don Wilson.

McLain’s shoulder-compromised demise began in 1970. Even before he was suspended for the season for carrying a gun on a Tigers team flight, his ERA in fourteen starts was 4.63 and his FIP was 5.22. In a miserable 1971 with the Washington Senators, he was not only hung with 22 losses to lead the entire Show, his ERA was 4.28 even if his FIP came down to 4.40. But after a ghastly 6.37 ERA and 5.43 FIP in 1972 (twenty games, thirteen starts, with Oakland and Atlanta), McLain’s career was over.

Gibson was more fortunate. He had seven seasons to pitch following 1969, with a few highs, no more postseasons, and the advent of arthritis and knee trouble. He thought of retiring after 1974, but the end of his first marriage compelled him to pitch 1975, partially to cope and partially because he needed the money.  But after he surrendered a grand slam to Chicago Cubs spare-part spaghetti bat Pete LaCock, Gibson retired.

Don Drysdale, who’d already had long-term knee and shoulder issues (Koufax once told a reporter privately Drysdale would have retired if he could have in 1966), proved not long for baseball’s world, too. In early 1969, however, his load finish its final toll, too—his rotator cuff vaporised. With no surgery then available to repair it, Drysdale’s career was history, too.

The Tigers finally won the World Series, with a lot of help from Lolich’s career week and no little help from Curt Flood’s sad mishap in the top of the seventh, the great center fielder losing Jim Northrup’s high liner in the sun for just long enough to reverse on a dime and kick up some grass while the ball out-raced him to the fence for a two-run, scoreless tie-breaking triple.

Perhaps remarkably, considering the season it ended, the Tigers posted a .718 Series OPS with 56 hits, eight home runs, and fifteen total extra base hits. “It was still the Year of the Pitcher,” Angell concluded, “right to the last, but the Tiger hitters had restored the life and noise that seemed to go out of baseball this year.”

————————————————-

* Jim Maloney, like McLain, suffered long-term shoulder trouble but with even less understanding from his team than McLain incurred.

Jim Maloney (right) confabs with Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax.

In 1969, Jim Maloney was pitching for the Reds and losing his war against constant, searing pain. He still had enough to pitch a no-hitter against the Mets, but in the process he hurt his arm just at a time when the team that would come to dominate the next decade really needed him. When pitching in another start against the Mets, he simply didn’t have it in him to go on. He ached so much that he had the gall to ask his manager, Dave Bristol, to take him out of the game. An enraged Bristol—soon to be replaced by Hall of Fame manager [Sparky] Anderson—called a meeting with his pitchers and told them that he wouldn’t accept pain as an excuse, that they simply had to play through it.

“Listen, if a guy’s arm is sore he wouldn’t even be able to throw the ball,” Bristol said. “Right? If he can throw it up to the plate and get somebody out, then it can’t be that sore, so he’s gotta stay in there.”

—Sridhar Pappu, in The Year of the Pitcher.

Once one of the National League’s premier power pitchers—he led the league with five shutouts in 1966, and had a 2.70 ERA and 2.68 FIP from 1963-66—Maloney suffered especially under a tragic change in regime.

His first major league manager, Fred Hutchinson, himself a former pitcher, once lifted Maloney while the righthander had a no-hitter going against Sandy Koufax, of all people—when Maloney suffered a muscle strain in his arm. “When a fellow has an arm like that,” Hutch told the press, “you just don’t take chances.” That’s one up for Uncle Fred!

But when Hutchinson’s cancer took him out late in the 1964 season, successor managers Dick Sisler and Dave Bristol weren’t so careful with Maloney. By 1967 at least, he, too, was taking numerous cortisone shots. In time, Maloney would have a contentious relationship with teammates, fans, and the press, inflamed by then-Reds GM Bob Howsam questioning his injuries and his commitment.

Ironically, it was a baserunning injury—a torn Achilles tendon in 1970—that put paid to Maloney’s career for all intent and purpose. His last thirteen major league games were as a worn-down, ineffective spot reliever for the 1971 California Angels. After baseball, he worked for his father’s car dealership before his first marriage collapsed as he fought a battle with the bottle.

Maloney sobered up, re-married happily, and became his native Fresno’s director for its Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Council until his retirement.

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.

Can Bob Gibson knock this opponent down?

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals

Bob Gibson (with glasses) enjoying a laugh with fellow Hall of Famers (l to r) Red Schoendienst, Whitey Herzog, and Lou Brock, while celebrating an anniversary of the Cardinals’ 1968 pennant winner.

Bob Gibson wanted the edge every time he took the mound. And in his absolute prime he got it, never mind that his reputation as an intimidating headhunter is more than slightly exaggerated, about which more to come. But what Henry Aaron, Dick Allen, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Carl Yastrzemski among others couldn’t do, one particularly pernicious opponent now just might.

Gibson sent his fellow living Hall of Famers a letter informing them that he’s battling pancreatic cancer. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Gibson visited Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital and been hospitalised in his native Omaha for two weeks, anticipating a chemotherapy program to begin Monday. Hall of Famer Jack Morris revealed Gibson’s struggle while announcing a Twins game Saturday.

It’ll keep Gibson from attending the annual Hall of Fame induction a week from today. And it has more than just the Cardinals’ considerable fan base praying for the 83-year-old former pitcher with the whip-like delivery, the sprawling follow-through, the glare from the mound before beginning his windup that made him resemble a quiet storm about to release its full fury.

Those who remember Gibson’s follow-through and finish, in which he resembled a leaning tree with his glove resembling a hanging grapefruit at one branch’s end, may wonder how on earth he could field his position. Much as they do when remembering the late Hall of Famer Jim Bunning, whose yanking sidearm delivery yanked him almost all the way to the grass on the first base side of the mound as if he’d been knocked over by an oncoming car.

Yet Gibson won Gold Gloves for his position consecutively from 1965-73. Bunning, God rest his soul, would probably have won the Concrete Glove if they’d given one.

There was an aggressive elegance to Gibson’s attack on the mound captured best by Roger Angell, in The New Yorker, in an essay called “Distance,” republished in Late Innings: A Baseball Companion in 1982:

Everything about him looked mean and loose—arms, elbows, shoulders, even his legs—as, with a quick little shrug, he launched into his delivery. When there was no one on base, he had an old fashioned full crank-up, with the right foot turning in mid-motion to slip into its slot in fromt of the mound and his long arms coming together over his head before his backward lean, which was deep enough to require him to peer over his left shoulder at his catcher while his upraised left leg crooked and kicked. The ensuing sustained forward drive was made up of a medium-sized strike of that leg and a blurrily fast, slinglike motion of the right arm, which came over at about three-quarters height and then snapped down and (with the fastball and the slider) across his left knee. It was not a long drop-down delivery like Tom Seaver’s . . . or a tight, brisk, body-opening motion like Whitey Ford’s . . . He always looked much closer to the plate at the end than any other pitcher; he made pitching seem unfair.

Angell may have been the only baseball writer to whom Gibson’s coming election to the Hall of Fame had its disturbing side: “He seemed too impatient, too large, and too restless a figure to be stilled and put away in this particular fashion; somehow, he would shrug off the speeches and honorifics when they came, just as he had busied himself unhappily on the mound when the crowd stopped the rush of the game to cheer him at Busch Stadium that afternoon in 1968. For me, at least, Bob Gibson was still burning to pitch to the next batter.”

The writer so wrongly referred to as baseball’s Homer, when in fact Homer was ancient Greece’s Roger Angell, referred to Game One of the 1968 World Series, the day Gibson broke Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s record for strikeouts in a World Series game. He tied Koufax when he struck out Hall of Famer Al Kaline in the top of the ninth, and his catcher Tim McCarver held onto the ball while pointing toward the center field scoreboard announcing the feat.

“Throw the goddam ball back, will you! C’mon, c’mon, let’s go!” hollered the righthander who once ordered McCarver, who’d become one of his closest friends, back to his position by barking, “Get back there behind the plate where you belong. The only thing you know about pitching is that you can’t hit it!” When Gibson finally acknowledged the roaring crowd and his achievement with an uncomfortable tip of his cap, he struck out Norm Cash and Willie Horton to end the game with a Cardinals win and seventeen punchouts.

2019-07-13 BobGibsonAlKaline

Bob Gibson striking out fellow Hall of Famer Al Kaline to tie the World Series record for single-game strikeouts that he’d break shortly after, in Game One, 1968. In that Year of the Pitcher Gibson’s regular season 1.12 ERA shone even more than Tiger pitcher Denny McLain’s 31 wins.

Watching Gibson pitch myself was like watching an assassin with the mind of Montaigne, the reflexes of a gymnast, and an arm that found the way to marry a bullwhip to a Gatling gun. The intimidating appearance and delivery sometimes masked a pitcher who applied a Warren Spahn-like intellect to his art. “Hitting is timing,” Spahn, the Hall of Fame lefthander/prankster, liked to say. “Pitching is destroying timing.” Gibson’s mind saw and raised by studying his challengers’ minds as well as their timings.

The late Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, whose plate stance Angell described memorably as “that of an impatient subway traveler leaning over the edge of the platform and peering down the tracks for the D train,” impressed Gibson as deceptive with his once-famous plate crowding, because pitchers were fooled into thinking Robinson wanted inside pitches.

Besides, they’d be afraid of hitting him and putting him on base. So they’d work him outside, and he’d hit the shit out of the ball. I always tried him inside and I got him out there—sometimes. He was like Willie Mays—if you got the ball outside to Willie at all, he’d just kill you. The same with [Hall of Famer Roberto] Clemente. I could throw him a fastball knee high on the outside corner seventeen times in a row, but if I ever got it two inches up, he’d hit it out of sight. That’s the mark of a good hitter—the tiniest mistake and he’ll punish you.

Yet this proud man, who played a major role in easing the Cardinals’ way toward complete integration earlier in his career, using his often-unheralded wit to guide white teammates out of behaviours bred into them without their even realising it, who took his own unshakeable pride in being in control on the mound and taking control of a game, could admit that he, too, had his moments when his “brains small up,” as he told Angell:

I got beat by Tommy Davis twice the same way. In one game, I’d struck him out three times on sliders away. But I saw that he’d been inching up and inching up toward that part of the plate, so I decided to fool him and come inside, and he hit a homer and beat me, one-oh. And then, in another game, I did exactly the same thing. I tried to out-think him, and he hit the inside pitch for a homer, and it was one-oh all over again. So I could get dumb, too.

Gibson’s intelligence played large in his off-field and post-baseball life. He built and opened a successful Omaha restaurant, Gibby’s, in which Angell recorded he had a direct hand in the design and construction, and for which he encouraged integrated clientele. (“A neat crowd,” Gibson once described the mixture.) He suffered no fool gladly and rejected the idea of professional sportsmen as role models. (“Why do I have to be an example for your kid?” this father of three once asked another father, gently but firmly. “You be an example for your own kid.”)

He also wittily discouraged patrons from trying to chat him about baseball when he knew they didn’t truly know the game:

You hear them say, “Oh, I was a pretty good ballplayer myself back when I was in school, but then 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.

During his pitching career Gibson was uneasy with the press because he couldn’t grok their wanting “to put every athlete in the same category as every other athlete.” After his pitching days, stories began to come forth that Gibson’s sometimes forbidding public image masked a man who developed intense friendships, especially with those, black, white, otherwise, who accepted and respected that he wouldn’t say what he didn’t believe.

It was one reason why Gibson’s brief and mostly forgotten attempt at broadcasting (on ABC’s Monday Night Baseball) became as brief as it was. He’d interview a player who’d just achieved an unusual feat and question and banter with him as a fellow professional sharing professional truths about the game and its influences outside the park alike, and not a talking head.

Gibson also served actively on the board of an Omaha bank, invested in an Omaha radio station, served as a pitching coach for his friend Joe Torre in Torre’s three brief pre-Yankees managing turns, and once took the motor home the Cardinals presented him as a retirement gift to travel across the western United States.

When I was in the Air Force in the 1980s, I did my entire post-basic training/post-technical school hitch at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, next to Omaha. (I worked as a member of the old Strategic Air Command as an intelligence analyst.) I knew Gibson lived in Bellevue (Angell said he was handy enough to build most of the improvements on the home including a magazine-ready patio) and I knew of his restaurant, not to mention that he was usually at the restaurant at least ten hours a day.

The temptation to go there to eat and hopefully meet him even for a few moments was equaled only by my fear that he’d see me as just another witless fan, even if I wouldn’t insult him by trying to be like the cab driver whose wannabe reverie he’d deflated so deftly.

Three months ago, I guess I did the next best thing. Challenged by an online forum participant who still buys into the myth that a home run hit off Gibson one inning was meant that batter getting a shot in or near the head his next time up, I was crazy enough to look at the game logs. Every game in which Gibson pitched. To see whether and when he really did hit anyone in the same games he surrendered home runs, and whether he’d hit a home run hitter in the same game, especially the hitter’s next time up.

Well, now. That review told me:

* Thirty-six times in his 528 major league games including 482 major league starts, Bob Gibson surrendered at least one home run and hit at least one batter in the same game.

* He only ever hit one such bombardier—Hall of Famer Duke Snider—the very next time the man batted in the game.

* He hit three such bombardiers not the next time up but in a later plate appearances in games in which they homered first.

* He surrendered home runs after hitting batters with pitches in fourteen lifetime games.

And, unless I missed something somewhere, Gibson’s most frequent plunk victim was Roy McMillan, a shortstop for the Braves (when he first took a Gibson driller) and the Mets, who was a study defensively but about as much of a hitter as Wilt Chamberlain was a baseball player. Gibson hit McMillan five times lifetime; McMillan could have been forgiven if the mere mention of Gibson’s name inspired lustful thoughts of first degree murder.

The fifth time was 20 August 1965, against the Mets in New York. McMillan took one in the bottom of the third. With two out in the top of the fifth Mets starter Al Jackson hit Gibson with a pitch. (The plunk hurt the Mets more than Gibson as it turned out: the Cardinals scored from there on a single, a double steal, an RBI triple, an RBI single, and another RBI triple.) McMillan must have wanted to offer to have Jackson’s children right then and there.

Right now about the only thing anybody wants to offer Bob Gibson is every prayer they can think of. He’s up against an enemy that won’t respond easily to a brushback, a knockdown, a plunk, or an elegantly violent strikeout.

I wish now that I’d taken the chance to meet him back in my Omaha days. I probably would have liked and respected him. Even more than I’d liked and respected him when he pitched. All I can do now is join those praying for him.