Remembering the Intense and Indomitable Bob Gibson (1935-2020)

Bob Gibson, who died of pancreatic cancer on Friday, October 2 — the fourth Hall of Famer to die this year, after Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, and former teammate Lou Brock — was as tough and intense as they came. In 1967, about midway through his 17-year run with the Cardinals (1959-75), he was hit on the right shin by a Roberto Clemente liner. He pitched to three more batters before his already-cracked fibula snapped, sending him to the disabled list for over seven weeks. In the 13 months following his return, he was as dominant as any pitcher since the dead ball era, a run that included a 1.12 ERA during the 1968 regular season, still the lowest of any qualifier since 1914.

The indomitable Gibson possessed a mental toughness as well, one founded in a reserve of self-confidence that was the equal of his 95-mile-an-hour fastball and menacing glare. He dealt in intimidation, asserting his ownership of the inside corner of the plate and taking pride in his ability to “mess with a batter’s head without letting him into mine.” In his 1992 autobiography, Stranger to the Game, he described his repertoire: “I actually used about nine pitches — two different fastballs, two sliders, a curve, a change-up, knockdown, brushback, and hit-batsman.”

“He’d knock down his own grandmother if she dared to challenge him,” Hank Aaron once counseled teammate Dusty Baker. In one oft-told story, Gibson plunked former roommate Bill White after he was traded from the Cardinals to the Phillies:

“I wanted to own the outside part of the plate. And the only reason you throw in here is to keep a guy from going out there,” said Gibson.

Standing 6-foot-1 and about 190 pounds, the modestly-sized Gibson had a larger-than-life presence on the mound thank to his long limbs, which helped him create incredible extension on his pitches as he fell away towards first base, finishing at a position that from home plate looked like a clock’s hands at 2:35. “All in all, the pitch and its extended amplifications made it look as if Gibson were leaping at the batter, with hostile intent,” wrote Roger Angell in a 1980 New Yorker piece that may stand as the Spink Award winner’s best. “He always looked much closer to the plate at the end than any other pitcher; he made pitching seem unfair.”

Though problems with his knees forced him to retire at age 39, Gibson still won 251 games, made nine All-Star teams, won nine Gold Gloves, two Cy Young awards, and an MVP award. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1981. From 1961-73, he averaged 259 innings, 216 strikeouts, 18 wins and 6.1 WAR while posting a 2.70 ERA (137 ERA+). Pitching in a league that also featured the primes of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal, and the ageless Warren Spahn, he only led the NL in each pitching triple crown category once, though he had 23 top-five appearances in those categories, and led three times in WAR. He was the first pitcher to reach 200 strikeouts in a season nine times, and the second pitcher to reach 3,000 for his career; today his 3,117 are good for 14th on the all-time list. He also ranks 14th in JAWS among starting pitchers (75.2), and owns the third-highest seven-year peak score (61.2) of any postwar pitcher after Roger Clemens (65.9) and Randy Johnson (61.5).

On the subject of hit batsmen, while Gibson placed in the NL’s top 10 eight times from 1961-71, he never led the league, and only twice placed among the top four, maxing out at a second-ranked 13 in ’63. His career total of 102 ranks 85th, well below the notorious Drysdale (154, 19th).

Speaking of peak performance, Gibson has a case as the best postseason pitcher of the post-World War II era. He helped the Cardinals to three pennants and two championships from 1964-68, and was twice named Series MVP. He completed eight out of nine Series starts, six of which were on three days of rest (and one of two days’ rest), and went 7-2 while striking out 92 in 81 innings, with a 1.89 ERA. In Game 1 of the 1968 World Series against the Tigers, he struck out 17, still a record.

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, on November 9, 1935, Pack Robert Gibson was the youngest of seven children. He was named for his father, who died from an illness a few months before his birth; mother Victoria worked in a commercial laundry and cleaned houses. He grew up in poverty, living first in a four-room shack that lacked heat or electricity, and then in the Logan-Fontenelle housing project on Omaha’s north side. At age three, he suffered a near-fatal bout of pneumonia; his oldest brother, Josh, carried him to the hospital, and promised him a baseball glove once he recovered.

Fifteen years older than Bob, and possessing a masters degree in history but consigned to working in a meat-packing house due to the prejudices of the day, Josh served as a surrogate father to his youngest brother, and played a pivotal role in organizing youth sports teams in the area. When Jackie Robinson integrated the majors in 1947, Josh explained his significance and in doing so supplied Bob with a role model. Bob first played catcher and shortstop for the Y Monarchs, who became the first Black team to win the American Legion city championship.

At Omaha Technical High School, Gibson earned all-city honors in basketball, his favorite sport, and ran track as well. Not until he was a senior did he play for the high school baseball team, because a previous coach did not allow Black players. Playing the outfield and pitching, he earned all-city honors and attracted the attention of Cardinals scout Runt Marr, but he spurned their modest offer. Josh wanted his brother to go to college.

Indiana University rejected Bob, sending a letter that read, “Your request for an athletic scholarship has been denied because we have already filled our quota of Negroes,” but with Josh’s help, his brother instead become the first Black player to get a basketball scholarship to Creighton University, where he set a school career record by averaging 20.2 points per game. He played baseball as well, under future NBA coach Bill Fitch. After a senior season in which he went 6-2 on the mound and hit a conference-best .333 while also catching and playing the outfield, he drew the attention of several teams including the Dodgers and Yankees, but still didn’t sign.

After playing an All-Star game against the barnstorming Harlem Globetrotters in 1957, Gibson was invited to join their team. Upon graduating, he impressed the Cardinals — including Triple-A Omaha manager Johnny Keane, under whom he would soon play in St. Louis — in a tryout. The team liked his live arm and a fastball that not only was around 95 mph, but already had good movement. He signed for a $1,000 bonus and $3,000 salary, with an agreement that allowed him to play with the Globetrotters for four months after the baseball season was over. He began his professional career at Omaha before being sent down to A-level Columbus (Georgia) of the South Atlantic League, where he encountered segregation and a racially hostile environment. He walked 61 while striking out just 49 in 85 innings in that first season, but the Cardinals liked his potential enough to give him a raise so that he could quit the Globetrotters, whose antics weren’t his style anyway. “I hated that clowning around,” he told Angell. “I wanted to play to win.”

Gibson’s control improved during a 1958 season split between Omaha and Rochester, the Cardinals’ other Triple-A team; he posted a 2.84 ERA and struck out 122 in 190 innings. He made the Cardinals out of spring training in 1959, and debuted on April 15 against the Dodgers. He served up a homer to Jim Baxes, the first batter he faced, and surrendering two runs in two innings, but pitched just two more times before returning to Omaha. Recalled on July 30, he shut out the Reds on eight hits, winning 1-0 opposite Jim O’Toole, and spent the rest of the year in the rotation, finishing 3-5 with a 3.33 ERA in 75.2 innings. He was up and down again in 1960, with less success, getting cuffed for a 5.61 ERA in 86.2 innings.

Where Keane had already proven to be a patient, nurturing, and color-blind manager in Gibson’s view, the Cardinals at this time were managed by Solly Hemus, whom the pitcher and other Black players, including Curt Flood, felt was racist. At the very least, Hemus used racial epithets to “motivate,” and somehow managed to mistake Gibson for other Black teammates. From David Halberstam’s October 1964:

“Of the many things Hemus did and said that bothered Gibson, what stung the most was when the manager would discuss at a team meeting how they would pitch to hitters on an opposing team. He would tell Gibson not to pay attention, that this did not concern him, implying, as far as Gibson was concerned, that he was some kind of lesser person, not as smart as the white pitchers. It was the ultimate insult to an extremely sensitive, highly intelligent young black man… Gibson thought that when Solly Hemus looked at him, he saw not a man but a stereotype.”

Despite the conflict, the 25-year-old Gibson made the team to start the 1961 season, pitching well enough in a swingman role and throwing a four-hit shutout of the Cubs on May 21, the first of 11 straight starts. When Hemus was fired on July 6, Keane took the reins. “It was a whole new world for the black players,” said Gibson later. Keane told Gibson, “Just go out and pitch,” and while he still made occasional relief appearances between starts, he was in the rotation to stay, finishing 13-12 with a 3.24 ERA (136 ERA+) in 211.1 innings. While he led the NL with 116 walks, he also had its lowest home run rate (0.6 per nine).

Gibson’s control improved markedly in 1962. While trimming his walk total to 95 in 233.2 innings, he struck out 208, reaching the 200 plateau for the first of five straight seasons and eight of nine, and placing third in the league behind Drysdale and Koufax. His five shutouts and 151 ERA+ (via a 2.85 ERA) both led the league. He made his first — and second — All-Star teams that year; from 1959-62, there were two per year to help stock the players’ pension fund.

After better offensive support improved Gibson’s won-loss record from 15-13 in 1962 to 18-9 in ’63 (albeit with just a 105 ERA+), he found another level in 1964, going 19-12 with a 3.01 ERA and 245 strikeouts in 287.1 innings while completing 17 of his 36 starts. The Cardinals, just 39-40 at the All-Star break, went 54-29 in the second half. They were 11 games behind the first place Phillies on August 23; the next day, Gibson pitched a complete-game, one-run win, beginning a stretch in which he would go 9-2 with eight complete games in 10 starts plus one relief appearance, good for a 1.77 ERA. The Cardinals went 28-11 over that stretch, edging the Phillies and Reds by one game apiece and giving St. Louis its first pennant since 1946.

In the World Series against the Yankees, Gibson yielded four runs in eight innings in Game 2, but recovered to throw a 10-inning, 13-strikeout gem in Game 5, with both runs allowed unearned. Pitching on two days of rest for Game 7, he allowed five runs, including two in the ninth inning, but went the distance as the Cardinals prevailed, 7-5, a gritty performance that earned him Series MVP honors. “I had a commitment to his heart,” said Keane, who, to the shock of the baseball world, stepped down immediately afterwards. When the Cardinals had trailed in the race, Keane had gotten wind of owner Gussie Busch’s plan to hire Leo Durocher to manage in 1965. At a press conference the day after the World Series, where Busch planned to reverse course by presenting Keane with an extension, the manager instead delivered a letter of resignation. He had agreed to accept the job to manage the just-defeated Yankees, who had ousted Yogi Berra.

Under new manager Red Schoendienst — who would pilot the Cardinals for the rest of Gibson’s career — Gibson flourished, winning 20 games with a 3.07 ERA in 1965, and 21 with a 2.44 ERA in ’66. He was en route to a similar campaign in 1967 when struck by Clemente’s drive, which cost him 53 days. He was better than ever when returning, posting a 0.96 ERA in five September starts as the Cardinals won 101 games and ran away with the pennant. Gibson carried that momentum into the World Series, where he turned in his best sustained Fall Classic performance opposite the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox. He threw a six-hit, one-run complete game while striking out 10 in Game 1 and then a five-hit shutout in Game 4, both opposite Jose Santiago. Finally matched up against AL Cy Young winner Jim Lonborg, who had started and won Games 2 and 5, Gibson not only delivered a three-hit, two-run complete game with another 10 strikeouts in Game 7, he homered off Lonborg as the Cardinals won their second championship in four seasons; again he was the MVP.

Offensive levels were already low in 1967 (3.77 runs per game, .242/.306/.357 hitting) but they crashed through the floor in ’68 (3.42 runs per game, .237/.299/.340 hitting), aided by the likes of Gibson, Drysdale (who spun a record-setting 58 scoreless innings), and Denny McLain (who won 31 games). Through May of that season, Gibson had a 1.52 ERA but was only 3-5, suffering a four-game losing streak during which the Cardinals scored just three runs. In the late innings of his June 2 start, he began a 47-inning scoreless streak that included five straight shutouts, all of five hits or less. On July 1, with the streak still intact, he faced Drysdale — who had set the record in May and June — and the Dodgers. They scratched out a first-inning run, ending Gibson’s streak, but he and the Cardinals prevailed in what was the eighth of his 13 straight complete games, the last 12 of them wins, eight of them shutouts. Of Gibson’s 34 starts that year, he completed 28, 13 of them shutouts. The Cardinals themselves scored just 12 runs in his nine losses, three of them shutouts, and scored one run twice. Gibson posted a 2.14 ERA in those losses, 0.57 in the wins. His 11.2 WAR that year was the major’s highest since Hal Newhouser in 1945.

Led by Gibson, the 97-win Cardinals outpaced the second-place Giants by nine games and faced the Tigers and McLain in the World Series. In the opener, Gibson held Detroit to five hits and one walk while striking out 17, two more than Koufax did in the 1963 opener against the Yankees.

“I’m never surprised by anything I do,” said Gibson afterwards, a comment that as Angell recalled sent shock waves throughout the assembled media, and was the axis upon which that aforementioned masterpiece turned:

“This occasion, it should be remembered, was before the time when players’ enormous salaries and their accompanying television-bred notoriety had given birth to a kind of athlete who could choose to become famous for his sullenness and foul temper, just as another might be identified by his gentle smile and unvarying sweetness of disposition. In 1968, ballplayers, particularly black ballplayers in near-Southern cities like St. Louis, did not talk outrageously to the press. Bob Gibson, however, was not projecting an image but telling us a fact about himself.”

After the two teams split the next two games, Gibson and McLain squared off again in Game 4, a 10-1 laugher in which the St. Louis ace homered off his counterpart in the fourth inning and then drove in another run with a bases-loaded walk off John Hiller in the eighth. The Tigers won the next two games to force Game 7, and this time it was lefty sinkerballer Mickey Lolich, who had beaten the Cardinals in Games 2 and 5, taking the ball on two days of rest to Gibson’s three. The two matched zeroes into the seventh inning, when with two outs and two on, the Tigers’ Jim Northrup hit a drive to deep center field that Flood misjudged before slipping. Both runs scored as Northrup tripled, and then Bill Freehan plated him with a double. Each team scored a run in the ninth, and the Tigers were champions. Gibson’s consolation, aside from a Series record for strikeouts (35), was a unanimous NL Cy Young award, and he beat out Pete Rose in the NL MVP voting as well.

After the season, both leagues agreed to lower the mound and tighten the strike zone, changes that rankled Gibson well past the end of his career. “Why should they take away the pitcher’s livelihood because he becomes proficient at it?” he asked an Associated Press reporter in 2008, adding with tongue in cheek, “I still might sue baseball for that.” In 2015, he conceded that his three-quarters delivery and reliance upon his slider — which was estimated to come in at 90 mph — probably helped relative to other pitchers, saying, “I think it would affect the guys who threw overhand, the guys who threw a lot of curveballs, because that curveball started being up in the strike zone. But my slider, I just had to adjust that just a little bit and I was OK.”

Gibson’s numbers from the point of the broken leg through the end of the 1968 World Series are jaw-dropping:

Bob Gibson, September 1967-October ’68
45 35 15 394 0.30 5.2% 23.8% 1.14 .184 .228 .238
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Includes 5 regular season starts in September 1967, 34 in ’68 regular season, and three apiece in ’67 and ’68 World Series.

With the mound lowered and the strike zone tightened, Gibson still dominated in 1969 (20-13, 2.18 ERA, 28 complete games, 10.4 WAR), but didn’t get so much as a sniff while Seaver won the Cy Young with 23 out of 24 votes; Phil Niekro got the other in what turned out to be the final year with only one name per ballot. Even with a less-dominant showing in 1970, featuring a run-support driven 23-7 record, a 3.12 ERA, and a career-high 274 strikeouts, Gibson took back the award with 23 out of 24 first-place votes.

Variable won-loss records aside, Gibson put together three more strong seasons from 1971-73, his age-35 to -37 campaigns, the highlight of which was his August 14, 1971 no-hitter against the Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium, an effort aided by the absences of Clemente and Manny Sanguillen, both of whom had scheduled days off. He walked three batters and needed 124 pitches to do the job, but finished in style by whiffing Willie Stargell, his 10th strikeout of the night:

The Cardinals, who won 90 games in ’71 and came within 1 1/2 games of winning the NL East in both ’73 and ’74, couldn’t get back to the postseason even in its expanded form despite the strong work of Gibson, Brock, and future Hall of Famers Joe Torre, who arrived in 1969 and won MVP honors two years later, and Ted Simmons, who bumped Torre off catcher and earned All-Star honors from ’72 to ’74. On August 4, 1973, while running the bases in a game against the Mets, Gibson tore cartilage in his right knee, though he didn’t come out of the game until trying to take the mound again, and collapsing during warm-ups. Per Angell, the surgeon told him he had the knees of an 80-year-old man, which did not bode well. The Cardinals went 20-31 in his absence, and while they won in his return on the penultimate day of the season, it wasn’t enough; the 81-81 team finished behind the 82-79 Mets.

Though Gibson logged 240 innings in 1974, his ERA ballooned to 3.83, his highest mark since ’60, and his strikeout rate plummeted. On July 17, 1974, he struck out the Reds’ Cesar Geronimo to join Walter Johnson as the only pitchers to reach the 3,000 strikeout plateau. Eight pitchers would blow past the milestone in the next 12 years, and 18 have now done so, some of them surpassing 4,000 or 5,000; Gibson was a trendsetter in that regard.

The Cardinals again contented that year, and were tied for first place with the Pirates at 86-74 with two games remaining. Gibson, who had pitched well in September, started the second-to-last game of the season against the Expos, and carried a 2-1 lead into the eighth inning, but a two-out, two-run homer by Mike Jorgensen proved decisive. The Pirates won, and won again the next day; when rain wiped out the Cardinals’ 162nd game, the point was moot.

The 1975 season, which Gibson announced would be his final one, turned into a slog. He regularly had to have his left knee drained, and after being dropped from the rotation on June 1, while carrying a 1-5 record and 4.80 ERA, he said, “it takes me four days to get back to where I can pitch again. Physically, I don’t think I can [relieve].” He didn’t pitch for 15 days, made one relief appearance, and returned to the rotation long enough to notch the 250th win of his career on June 27 against the Expos, but made just two more starts, and then seven relief appearances. The Cardinals held a day in his honor on September 1, retiring his jersey no. 45, unveiling a bust, and presenting him with numerous gifts, including a motor home from Busch. Two days later, when the Cubs’ Pete LaCock pinch-hit a grand slam off Gibson, “that told me it was about time for me to get off the mound for good,” he told Angell. He escaped the inning, but never returned to the mound.

After his career ended, Gibson spent a year working for ABC on their backup Monday Night Baseball team, with Al Michaels and Norm Cash. “He is a rarity among broadcasters in that he does not talk unless he has something worth saying,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s William Leggett. He opened a restaurant in Omaha, Gibson’s Spirits and Sustenance, a.k.a Gibby’s; served as chairman of the board for the Community Bank of Nebraska, which did most of its business in the Black community; and invested in a local radio station. He was also very involved in the Baseball Assistance Team, sometimes covering the expenses of an ailing ex-player out of his own pocket.

In 1981, when Torre was managing the Mets, Gibson joined the staff as the team’s “attitude coach,” while longtime pitching coach Rube Walker remained in place. The Mets fired Torre at the end of the season, but the Braves hired him, and Torre brought Gibson in as his pitching coach; the team won the NL West in 1982, and the tandem stuck together for two more years before Torre was fired. Gibson went back to St. Louis and spent 1985-89 hosting Cardinals pre- and postgame shows on radio station KMOX, then spent a year doing color commentary at ESPN before the pull of family took him off the road. He returned to coaching once more, spending 1995 as the pitching coach on Torre’s Cardinals.

In 1981, Gibson became eligible for election to the Hall of Fame. On a ballot that also included Marichal and Harmon Killebrew as first-time eligibles as well as nine other future Hall of Famers, he was the only one elected, receiving 84.0% of the vote; he was just the second Black pitcher elected, after Satchel Paige. Other honors followed, including a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, a bronze statue in front of Busch Stadium, and a street named in his honor in front of Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium, the former site of the College World Series. When the Cardinals established their own team Hall of Fame, he was among the 22 first-year inductees.

More than four decades after he retired, Gibson and his style of intimidating pitching is still cited as an example of old-school baseball, while his mentorship served to inspire and guide a new generation of big leaguers. Current Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty, upon learning of Gibson’s passing, said, “He was a legend, first and foremost. Somebody who I was lucky enough to develop a relationship with, was lucky enough to learn from.” Torre, who once described Gibson’s mound demeanor as “hateful,” also spoke to Angell of his longtime friend’s genuine warmth. “The other day, I got a photograph of himself he’d sent me, and he’d signed it ‘Love, Bob.’ How many other ballplayers are going to do that? How many other friends?”

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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3 years ago

I saw Gibson hit a grand slam against the Mets in a doubleheader in 1973. The Cardinals swept. According to BB-Ref it was July 26 and he hit it off John Strohmayer in the 5th inning of Game 1. I went with my dad and he had to work in the morning but we stayed for most of Game 2. Willie Mays PH after we left and I never saw him play until an Old Timers Game in SF.