One of the fiercest competitors of any era in baseball, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson (born 1935) dominated the National League in the 1960s and early 1970s. The hard-throwing Hall of Fame right-hander was at his best when the pressure was most intense, winning seven of his nine World Series starts, eight of them complete games. Gibson was the first pitcher in almost 50 years to finish his career with more than 3,000 strikeouts.
Batters feared to step up to the plate against the scowling, intimidating Bob Gibson. Like the pitchers of an earlier era, he wasn't afraid to throw inside, sometimes knocking down hitters. Gibson's will to win was unquenchable. He led the Cardinals to three league championships and two World Series titles. His pitching performance in 1968 is among the very best in baseball history.
Beat the Odds
Bob Gibson was born and raised in poverty during the years of the Great Depression and World War II. He was the youngest of seven children, and he never knew his father, who died of tuberculosis before he was born. His mother, Victoria, supported her large family by working in a laundry. They lived in an inner-city slum in Omaha, Nebraska.
As a child, Gibson's own health was problematic. He suffered from asthma and hay fever. He had a heart murmur. While very young, he contracted rickets and almost died of pneumonia. Yet he overcame his maladies to become a star athlete at Omaha Technical High School, excelling in track and basketball as well as baseball, where he was primarily a catcher.
Gibson applied to the University of Indiana, but that school turned him down because in those days it had a quota on black athletes. Instead, he went to Creighton University in Omaha on a basketball scholarship. At Creighton, he also played baseball, starring as a shortstop and outfielder.
In 1957, the St. Louis Cardinals gave Gibson a small bonus and signed him to a professional baseball contract. They decided he was best suited to be a pitcher. Yet Gibson was still undecided about which sport to pursue, and he played one season of basketball with the barnstorming Harlem Globetrotters before casting his lot with baseball.
Gibson spent parts of three seasons in the minor leagues, refining his pitching skills, before earning a spot on the Cardinals roster in 1959. He was unimpressive in his first two seasons, winning six games and losing 11, and was twice sent down to the minors. Thirteen consecutive winning seasons in the major leagues would follow.
Pitched with Heart
Gibson threw the ball hard, but he had trouble throwing it over the plate with any consistency at the beginning of his career. His walk totals were unacceptably high: 69 free passes in 87 innings in 1960, and a league-high 119 in 211 innings in 1961, his first year as a regular member of the Cardinals' starting rotation. But even while he struggled with his control, his opponents were struggling to get hits off him, and his strikeout totals kept rising. In 1962, when he won 15 games, Gibson struck out 208 batters and allowed only 174 hits in 234 innings. He would strike out more than 200 batters in eight of the next ten seasons.
When he perfected a devastating slider to go with his intimidating fastball, Gibson became a complete pitcher. In 1964, Gibson pitched 287 innings and won 19 games, despite battling arthritis in the elbow of his throwing arm most of the season. St. Louis won the National League pennant, thanks largely to Gibson's great stretch run: he won 9 of his final 11 decisions. The Cardinals edged out two other teams as Gibson won the deciding game on the last day of the season with a gutsy performance in relief.
In the second game of the World Series, Gibson pitched eight strong innings but was pulled for a pinch-hitter with his team trailing, 4-3. Never again would he be removed from a World Series game. The series was tied at two games apiece when Gibson took the mound for Game Five. He dominated for ten innings, striking out 13 and allowing only two runs, and the Cardinals won. Three days later, a weary Gibson gutted out nine more innings in the decisive Game Seven. He allowed three home runs, but the Cardinals hung on for a 7-5 victory and a world championship.
The next season was the first of five in which Gibson would win at least 20 games. He was also establishing his reputation as an intimidator. He believed that the inside part of the plate belonged to him, and batters who would dare to lean in close could expect a fastball up and in.
"Actually, I didn't drill many guys," Gibson told the Sporting News long after his career ended. "You thought you might get it." The inside pitch was a key part of Gibson's psychological arsenal. "People don't really understand about pitching inside," he explained. "They think when you throw inside, you are trying to intimidate somebody, you are trying to knock them down, you are trying to hit them. It's none of the above. You pitch inside to make them think inside."
Gibson said that when he did hit a batter, often it was a mistake. But he wouldn't acknowledge it was unintentional. "I wasn't throwing at them and they didn't know it, because they expected me to throw at somebody," he recalled. "So I never apologized. That's the worst thing in the world to do. You just stand out there like you did it on purpose."
His catcher, Tim McCarver, knew how tough Gibson could be. Often, when McCarver went to the mound to settle him down, Gibson would scowl and wave him away. "The only thing you know about pitching is how hard it is to hit," Gibson once told McCarver as he approached the mound.
Gibson's athleticism helped him be an all-around contributor to his team. He was one of the smoothest-fielding pitchers of any era, jumping on bunts and grounders like a cat. He was awarded the league's Gold Glove as the best fielder at his position for nine consecutive years, from 1965 through 1973. He also was a formidable hitter, batting a respectable .206 for his career and clouting 24 home runs.
Big Game Pitcher
In 1967, Gibson's leg was fractured by Roberto Clemente's hard line drive. He was out eight weeks, but returned in time to pitch the Cardinals to another league championship, winning the pennant-clinching game against Philadelphia. Back in the World Series, he dominated the Boston Red Sox in his three starts, allowing only three runs, 14 hits and five walks while striking out 26 in 27 innings. He won the opener, 2-1, shut out Boston in Game Four, and was again the winning pitcher in the decisive seventh game. For the second time, he was named the Most Valuable Player of the World Series.
No longer was control a problem for Gibson. In his peak years, he struck out three or four times as many batters as he walked. Recognized as the most dominant pitcher in the game, Gibson in 1968 became almost impossible to score runs against. That season was widely regarded as "the year of the pitcher," with defensive play dominating so much that baseball officials responded after the season by lowering the height of the pitching mound. But even though batting averages were depressed throughout major league baseball, Gibson's performance still was astounding. He completed 28 of his 34 starts, hurled 305 innings, gave up only 198 hits and 62 walks, and struck out a league-high 268 batters. He led the league with 13 shutouts and compiled a microscopic 1.12 earned run average, meaning that opponents averaged barely one run a game against him. He won 22 games and lost nine, but the losses were due mainly to poor run support from the light-hitting Cardinals.
Many baseball experts consider Gibson's 1968 season as the greatest pitching achievement since the pre-1920 "dead ball" era. His 1.12 ERA was the fourth-best all-time and by far the lowest since the 1910s. During one stretch of the season, he gave up only two runs over 95 consecutive innings. "That season was different because of my control," Gibson later told the Sporting News . "I really didn't have to think about where I wanted to throw the ball … all I had to do was throw it and it got there."
In the World Series, the Cardinals were heavily favored to beat the Detroit Tigers. The Opening Game pitted Gibson against Denny McLain, who had won 31 games for Detroit, the most by any pitcher after 1934. Gibson set a new World Series record by striking out 17 Tigers, shutting out Detroit on six hits. In Game Four, Gibson again easily beat McLain and even added a home run in the Cards' 10-1 rout.
Gibson now had won seven consecutive World Series games, finishing all of them, and for the third time he took the mound for a decisive Game Seven. This time he faced Mickey Lolich, who also had two complete-game victories in the series. The two battled in a tense scoreless pitching duel through six innings. Then, in the seventh inning, the usually reliable Curt Flood misread a line drive by Jim Northrup and fell down while trying to reverse course. The drive went over his head for a triple and the Tigers won the game, 4-1. Gibson had struck out a record 35 batters in the series, but the Cardinals lost despite his heroic efforts.
It was the last World Series for Gibson, but he continued to be a major star and a big-game pitcher. He won a second Cy Young Award in 1970 when he won 23 games, lost only seven, and struck out 274 batters. The next season, he pitched a no-hitter against Pittsburgh. Battling arthritis and injuries into his late 30s, he continued to be a workhorse on the mound. Finally, his pain-racked body gave way, and in 1975, at age 40, he fell to a 3-10 record and was forced to retire. He finished his career with 56 shutouts. Walter Johnson was the only player of the time able to surpass his 3,117 strikeouts. Gibson was inducted into base-ball's Hall of Fame in 1981.
A Winning Reputation
After his playing career ended, Gibson served as a coach with the New York Mets in 1981 and with the Atlanta Braves from 1982 to 1984. He also spent several seasons as a television broadcaster. For awhile he served as a special advisor to American League President Gene Budig. In 1995 he returned to the Cardinals as a bullpen coach and, starting in 1996, became a special instructor for St. Louis during spring training. He became very active in raising money for charities, and continued to be outspoken about racial barriers in baseball that he claimed kept qualified African Americans like himself from advancing in management ranks.
Gibson even complained that his reputation as a "headhunter"—a pitcher who throws bean balls—was the byproduct of racial prejudice. "I resent the fact that the only thing I get credit for is being a headhunter," he told the Sporting News in 1998. "I suspect [it was] because I was one of the first black pitchers that was relatively successful. I pitched just like everybody else, but when I did it, it was three times worse."
Gibson is best remembered as a competitor who used his heart and brains and guts to win. "We were taught from the time we were kids to kill, to take no prisoners—as far as winning," he said in the same interview. "And that doesn't change. We get a little bit older, but you go out to win at all costs."
Gibson, Bob, and Lonnie Wheeler, Stranger to the Game: The Autobiography of Bob Gibson, Viking, 1994.
Sporting News, August 3, 1998.
"Big Game Bob," ESPN.com, http://espn.go.com/classic/000726bobgibson.html.
"Bob Gibson," Encylopedia Brittanica http://www.blackhistory.eb.com/micro/233/94/html.
"Bob Gibson," Total Baseball, http://totalbaseball.com/player/g/gibsb101/gibsb101.html.