The Incredible Mr. Gibson
Here are some words you rarely heard about Bob Gibson:
“He was a great guy, a lot of fun.”
Those words were uttered by Craig Anderson, a teammate of Gibson’s for half of the 1961 season and during that fall when they pitched for Santurce in Puerto Rico.
“Our wives became friends,” said Anderson, “and we played cards together.”
I wanted to ask Anderson, ‘We are talking about Bob Gibson, right?’ A pitcher considered one of the fiercest competitors to ever play the game, one of the meanest on the field (which he disputed), and who was not afraid to hurl fastballs at players to brush them off the inside part of the plate.
“Gibson became a different person when he crossed the foul lines,” said Anderson.
That’s when he changed into an intimidating presence, who seemed to wear a perpetual scowl on his face while on the mound. (His facial features were contorted because he wore glasses, but not while playing, and he was squinting to see the catcher’s signal.)
Bill White, first baseman for the Cardinals and later president of the National League was also Gibson’s best friend on the team. I asked him what made Gibson such a fierce competitor, and he didn’t mince words; in fact, he only needed three:
“He was black,” explained White.
“He went through hell in the segregated south,” White said. During spring training, the Cardinals’ black players could not stay in the same hotels as their white teammates and had to room together in houses in St. Petersburg’s “black” section.
There were even earlier experiences. Gibson was an excellent basketball player in high school, but while participating in state championships across the region he was not permitted to stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as his white teammates.
His dream was to play for Indiana University, and his high school coach wrote the school to see if Gibson could receive a scholarship. The school wrote back saying its quota for Negro players was filled. Gibson later found out the quota was one black player.
He eventually played basketball at Creighton University, not far from his hometown of Omaha. A standout performer (who later played briefly for the Harlem Globetrotters), Gibson was also a versatile player on the baseball field, and was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals. In the 1950s, many major league clubs had farm teams in the south, and Gibson was introduced to the Jim Crow laws there.
But the prejudice didn’t stop once he reached the majors.
When he solidified his position with the Cardinals, he tried to buy a house, but in his first book, From Ghetto to Glory, he was turned down when realtors learned he was black. After another frustrating experience, he had enough.
“This time, after a few fruitless weeks of shopping around, I gave up the fight, took an apartment on King’s Highway and vented my anger on the mound,” he wrote.
When writing about his attempts to buy a home but was thwarted because of his color, he wrote, “…but there are a lot of white people who are undesirable and neglect their property. And run down a neighborhood. But they would never be denied the right to move into any neighborhood. I would.”
Gibson passed away on October 2, 2020, at the age of 85. It’s been more than four decades since he retired, and as he noted after the 1967 season, the game today has changed. It’s a “friendlier” game, and a pitcher is not likely to hit a batter because they might share the same agent, he postulated.
Flushing, N.Y.: Bob Gibson, pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, signs autographs before the New York Mets vs. St. Louis Cardinals game at Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York on September 30, 1971. (Photo by George Argeroplos/Newsday via Getty Images)
Sandy Koufax is remembered as the dominant pitcher of the 1960s, but Gibson could easily make the claim the decade was his (along with Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants, who won the most game by a pitcher that decade, with 191; Gibson was second with 164).
From 1965 to 1970, opponents’ batting average against Gibson was .216. Gibson batted .224 over that span. He amassed a combined 11 triples and home runs.
He pitched frequently down the stretch of the 1964 season, helping the Cardinals to the pennant and won two games against the Yankees in the World Series, including game seven.
Gibson was a 20-game winner five times during a six-year stretch – and might have won 20 games in the other season if Roberto Clemente hadn’t smashed a line drive off Gibson’s leg, knocking him out for several weeks in 1967. He returned that year to pitch the Cardinals to the pennant and a World Series championship against the Red Sox, winning another game seven and setting a World Series record of striking out 31 hitters. He was named MVP of the series. He was baseball’s “Mr. October” before Reggie Jackson. He said he didn’t know why he seemed to pitch better in the postseason.
For his World Series MVP award, he was given a brand new Corvette by Sport Magazine, which he drove around his home and was stopped by a police car because, as he wrote, police were not used to seeing Negroes driving a sports car.
He also won a trip to the Rose Bowl.
“That was all there was. Not at all what I had been led to believe. I think there were two reasons why I did not reap the benefits of the World Series. For one, I had no agent, nobody pushing for me. For another, as a Negro, I was not considered a desirable commodity for commercial endorsements,” he wrote.
(Original Caption) Bob Gibson of St. Louis Cardinals is mobbed by teammates after he pitched the team to the final victory in the l967 World Series.
Gibson had one of the greatest seasons ever for a pitcher in 1968, as the Cardinals repeated as National League champions.
He made 34 starts and completed 28 games. Gibson pitched 13 shutouts. In a 95-inning stretch, he allowed two earned runs. His final ERA was 1.12, which he achieved hurling 304 innings. That season is considered the year of the pitcher, and to improve offense baseball lowered the pitching mound.
His record that year was 22-9, but he was the hard-luck pitcher on the Cardinals staff. The Red Birds averaged 3.5 runs per game except when Gibson pitched. When he was on the mound, they averaged 2.5 runs per game. One writer calculated that if St. Louis had scored at least four runs in each of his starts, his record would have been 30-2. He won four 1-0 games and lost two 1-0 games.
Game one of the 1968 World Series featured two of the greatest pitchers that season: Gibson and Denny McLane of the Detroit Tigers, who became the first pitcher to win 30 or more games since Dizzy Dean in 1934.
Gibson pitched a complete game shutout and set a World Series record by striking out 17 batters.
He won game four with another complete game by a score of 4-1, and was locked in a pitcher’s duel with Tiger left-hander Mickey Lolich in game seven. With the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the seventh, Gibson faced Jim Northrup with two runners on base. Northrup hit a ball deep into centerfield that Curt Flood appeared to misplay. The result was a triple and two runs scored. The Tigers added another run off Gibson in the eighth, en route to a 4-1 victory, and the championship (Lolich was the series MVP).
When Gibson is discussed these days, he’s more remembered for his fierceness than his prowess.
“To me, baseball is about winning, and I didn’t see how being friendly had anything to do with winning,” he wrote.
His best friend on the Cardinals was White, who was a dead pull hitter. Gibson joked that if White were ever traded and he tried to pull the ball on him, he’d drill him with a pitch.
And that’s what happened.
Bob Gibson accepting the honor of being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
After White was traded to the Phillies, they faced each other and Gibson was pitching him outside. But White was able to pull the ball his first two times at bat. When he came up again, Gibson hit him (some accounts say it was in the elbow, others say it was in the thigh).
“We laughed about it later,” said White.
After the 1967 season, Gibson wrote he would not intentionally hit a batter – except for maybe White – unless it was to protect his teammates who were being hit. What he did deliberately was to make hitters get out of the way of a pitch.
“A brushback pitch …is part of a pitcher’s strategy. It’s to make him think. It’s usually thrown when a batter gets to learning out over the plate. If you pitch a guy consistently on the outside part of the plate , he’s going to learn in and look for that pitch,” he wrote.
“So you come in and back him off the plate. Now you’ve got him thinking, “I better not go out there too far, and then you come back with a pitch on the outside corner, The idea is to get him reaching, he’s not going to hit it good,” he wrote.
He then compared a brushback pitch to the protests by blacks in the 1960s.
“Now that’s the way I see Negro riots we’re having in this country, as a brushback pitch. Their intention, like the brushback pitch, is to get people to think and not to get complacent and take things for granted. Negroes have been mistreated for years. They are tired of getting mistreated, misused and misunderstood, and the only way they can rebel is to stage riots,” he wrote in From Ghetto to Glory.
Published after his success in the 1967 World Series and co-written with New York baseball columnist Phil Pepe, the book also offers more of his views on race in America.
About his birthday, November 9, 1935 in Omaha, NE, he wrote, “Had I known then what I was getting myself into – and if I had any choice in the matter – I might have been tempted to say, ‘No, thank you.’”
“I was fatherless. I was poor. I was black.”
Former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson throws out the first pitch prior to Game Four of the 2013 World Series against the Boston Red Sox at Busch Stadium on October 27, 2013 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
For the first years of his life, his family of six brothers and sisters and their mother (his father died before he was born) lived in a shack without heat. Then they moved into a housing project, where there were “daily fights between whites and blacks, although two white boys fought with me and the blacks,” he wrote. The projects were about two thirds white and one third black. “We weren’t the only ones who lived in the slums. We just got credit for it,” Gibson wrote in his book.
When he retired, he was the second pitcher in MLB history (behind Walter Johnson) to strike out 3,000 batters and the first to accomplish the feat in the National League. He won 251 victories, posting 56 shutouts, and pitching nearly 4,000 innings; his career ERA was 2.91. He hit 24 homeruns with 144 RBIs in his career. He won nine Gold Gloves.
He joined the Hall of Fame in 1981, but was voted in with only 84% of the ballots, a mere nine percent past the minimum required. He had his arguments with writers (one magazine quoted him as saying, “I just rear back and hum dat pea,” making him sound like a barely literate black person. Gibson never spoke like that, even with friends away from the game.)
“I’m kind of sensitive about things, and I might sound as if I have a chip on my shoulder,” he wrote. “I do. But I didn’t put it there. Somebody else did.”
But Gibson did not bond only with black teammates. He was good friends with white players such as Tim McCarver, Nelson Briles and others. “Long before Jesse Jackson moved to Washington, we (the Cardinals) were the rainbow coalition of baseball,” he said.
In We Played the Game: 65 Players Remember Baseball’s Greatest Era 1947-1964 , edited by Danny Peary, quoted McCarver about the many sides of Gibson:
“Gibson was a tough man who would always test you,” said McCarver. “ One day in spring training, we were riding the bus. I bought an orange drink, and Gibson said, ‘Tim, can I have a swallow of that?’ I looked at him, and looked at my drink, and said, ‘I’ll save you some.’ Bob said, ‘I thought you’d say that.’”
“I’d never had a drink after a black person before – in Memphis, there were separate water fountains. Bob made his point. Our relationship evolved. He was very cerebral and outspoken. Bob showed his anger more than Curt Flood or Bill White. Yet, while Bill and Curt were serious, when they made statements, Gibson exhibited an acute sense of humor. It was on the mound that Gibson got totally serious. He was the toughest competitor I ever played with or against. Better than anyone else, he channeled his anger into his pitches.”
Years after they lived in Puerto Rico, Anderson’s wife Judy asked Gibson if he would sign a ball for her son.
“He said to me, ‘You’re one of us. Of course I will.’ So after that, we didn’t see each other much, but when we did, he was always friendly to us always,” she said.
Here was his philosophy – both in life and in baseball:
“In a world filled with hate, prejudice and protest, I find that I am too filled with hate, prejudice and protest. I hate phonies, I am prejudiced against all those who have contempt for me because my face is black and those who accept me only because of my ability to throw a baseball. I am not proud of that ability. It is not something I earned or acquired or bought. It is a gift. It is something that was given to me – just like the color of my skin.”