When legendary St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Dizzy Dean passed away, columnist Jim Murray wrote: “Dizzy let death dig in on him, something no other batter could do.”
The same sentiment could be expressed about Bob Gibson, the best ever right handed St. Louis Cardinal pitcher, who passed away October 2 at the age of 84. He fought pancreatic cancer for over a year — when he received the diagnosis in 2019, Gibson reportedly said, “that cancer is going to have a hell of a fight on his hands.” No doubt.
His passing came on the 52nd anniversary of one of Gibson’s most memorable performances: Game 1 of the 1968 World Series when he struck out 17 batters, a record number which still stands.
His Hall of Fame plaque is jammed with numbers: five-time 20-game winner; 3,117 career strikeouts; first to fan 200 batters in a season; two World Series’ MVPs; two Cy Young Awards; nine gold gloves; and 1968’s National League MVP.
There are more accomplishments, but they couldn’t fit on the plaque. Also missing are the personal qualities that led Gibson to the Hall — determination and competitiveness.
Tim McCarver, Gibson’s longtime battery mate, believed he was the most intimidating pitcher of all time. Gibson pitched with his cap pulled down low over his smoldering eyes. He worked quickly, buzzed hitters inside, and, in the words of Pete Rose, “he pitched angry.”
Describing Gibson as a warrior and gladiator, McCarver said, “I can’t talk about Gibson without mentioning… his extraordinary ability fueled by a compelling personality and intelligence; and his fire, drive, and tenacity.”
Gibson’s childhood was more Dickens-workhouse than Currier and Ives. Born November 9, 1935, he was the last of seven children. His father died months before his birth – Gibson’s mother, a laundress, did her best to provide, but public housing in Omaha was an adverse environment.
Gibson was an unhealthy child: rheumatic heart problems, rickets and pneumonia kept him indoors, where a rat once bit him on the ear.
As a teenager, sports offered a way out. Gibson was recognized as an all-city basketball player; he earned a scholarship to Creighton University. There, he became the first African American athlete to participate in both basketball and baseball.
Playing briefly for the Harlem Globetrotters, Gibson considered a career in professional basketball. The Minneapolis Lakers evidenced interest, sending him information and a questionnaire. Gibson returned the form, but heard nothing more from the team, so baseball, his second sport, became his focus. He signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1957, made the big league squad 2 years later, and matured under manager Johnny Keane in 1961.
Ironically, Gibson had never seen a professional baseball game until he was in one. “We did not own a television…so the first game I watched was in person, wearing a Cardinal uniform,” Gibson laughed.
The relationship with Keane was pivotal in Gibson’s development. “Keane called me into his office and told me I was going to pitch every fourth or fifth day,” Gibson remembered, “and that’s the way it would be, win, lose or draw, until I learned how to pitch. I liked that. It gave me confidence.”
Hall of Fame sportswriter Bob Broeg, who had watched baseball since the days of Babe Ruth, recalled the first time he saw Gibson warming up. Broeg dashed from his pressbox perch to see the bullpen action up close. “He’s not only incredibly fast, but I had never seen a ball move like that,” he stated.
Truth was Gibson’s success was not reliant on speed alone– although one Redbird scout said he appeared to be “throwing a thousand miles an hour.” Gibson possessed late movement and natural sink. When controlled, this is a devastating combination.
McCarver explained: “I could never catch Bob cleanly, nothing ever felt soft in the center of the mitt. I was always catching him on the heel of the glove or on the thumb because of the late movement. If I didn’t know where the pitch was going, how could a hitter figure him out?”
Gibson’s mound repertoire primarily consisted of two pitches: fastball (with multiple angles of break) and slider. He threw an occasional curve, but it was an adequate “show me” pitch designed to vary any pattern the hitter might detect. The goal was to “keep the ball good and low, right on the corners.”
That game plan worked to virtual perfection in 1968, “the year of the pitcher.” Baseball was blessed with a plethora of talented hurlers, but anyone who saw Gibson that season witnessed one of the top-tier players in peak form. He was 22-9, had a 1.12 earned run average, completed 28 of his 34 starts and tossed 13 shutouts. It was the best overall season for a pitcher in the “live ball” era.
Gibson realized his pitching abilities were part of his nature: “It’s not something I earned or acquired or bought. It’s a gift. It’s something that was given to me.”
During his 1981 Hall of Fame speech, Gibson said he wanted to be remembered “as a competitor who gave 100 percent every time I went out on the field. Sometimes I wasn’t too good, but nobody could accuse me of cheating them out of what they paid to see.”
That’s exactly the way Bob Gibson will always be remembered. He’s one of major league baseball’s greatest treasures.
Bob Gibson, RIP.