Sunday, August 24, 2014

Players I Love More Than I Should: Pitcher: Bob Gibson

More than 18,000 players have appeared in Major League Baseball games since the start of the league.  Some players have short careers that last one at bat or one appearance in the field.  Others have 20+ year careers.  As I read more and more about baseball history there are certain players I find myself enjoying reading about more than others.  It is obviously illogical since many of them retired, or in some cases passed away, long before I was even born.  I have no first hand experience in watching some of them play but for whatever reason their personalities and perseverance strikes me above and beyond the other players I read about.  Over the next few weeks I will be giving you short biographical histories*of some of these players.  Some of them will be Hall of Fame players.  Some of them will be players only casual fans may know.  Regardless, I chose one player from each position for this series to explore.  This week we will explore one of the Pitchers I chose for the series and the final player in this series: Bob Gibson.

If you are just joining the blog don't miss the other players in the Players I Love More Than I Should series: Yogi BerraHank GreenbergJoe MorganCal Ripken, Frank "Home Run" Baker,  Frank Robinson and Larry Herndon, Carl Furillo and Walter Johnson.

287 1/3 regular season innings.  By today's standards he would have been over worked.  287 1/3 innings as the ace of the staff in the middle of a pennant race.  287 1/3 regular season innings with the gaining pressure of a team chasing down a curmbling team ahead of them that really only needed a few wins to end the conversation.  287 1/3 regular season innings plus 8 more in the pressure of the World Series.  Facing the unbeatable Yankees who beat him in Game 2 of the 1964 World Series.  287 1/3 regular season innings plus 8 pressure filled innings in  Game 2 plus 8 pressure filled innings so far today.

Now it was the 9th inning with a two run lead.  He needed just three outs.  Mantle led off and grounded to Dick Groat.  He breathed a sigh of relief.  One out...oh shit.  Groat bobbled the ball and Mantle was safe.  One on no one out.  No problem.  Elston Howard struck out and in sauntered Joe Peppitone.  No one had more confidence in Joe Peppitone than Joe Peppitone.  Gibson's arm was exhausted.  He had thrown nothing but fastballs. curves and sliders all day.  He decided to sneak a change up past Pepitone.

He went into his motion.  The leg, arms and body moved back, almost as though he were retreating.  The hand and glove almost met behind his back.  Then just as quickly and aggressively they swung forward, the leg went up and the body lunged, aggressively, straight towards the batter.  As he followed through his whole body was falling towards first base.  Pep swung, connected and lined a shot straight back towards Gibson.  Pepitone could not have aimed a shot any better.  With Mantle on the run, the ball hit Gibson on the hip and shot away from him towards third.  Think about it.  A hard, solid object, thrown at close to 90 miles per hour and shot solidly straight back at a human being connected solidly against the bone.  I don't know about you but my first thought would probably be "I think I just broke my hip."  Instead, Gibson thought this could mean the ball game.  He reacted immediately.  Turning, chasing down the ball, He scooped it bare handed, momentum carrying him away from first base.  His balance was off, his throw had to be hurried.  He was falling toward the ground and calmly, cooly, Gibson sidearmed the ball to first base to get Pepitone.  He was still in danger but as the game finished, the importance of the play on the game, on the series and on the legend of Bob Gibson would become clear.  He gave up a game tying two run Home Run to Tom Tresh immediately after but the play to retire Pepitone kept it from being a three run, game winning Home Run.  Instead, Tim McCarver hit a three run Home Run in the 10th and Gibson stopped the Yankees in the bottom of the inning for his first World Series victory.  It would be quite some time before he would lose another World Series game.

The Education of Bob Gibson
The greatest athletes off all time often have a heartbreaking experience they have overcome to reach the heights.  Babe Ruth grew up poor and was eventually sent to a reform school.  Mickey Mantle nearly lost his life several times to a rare blood disease and nearly had a leg amputated as a child.  Bob Gibson beat them all, in every sense of the phrase.  Three months before he was born his father died.  As a child he was nearly killed by pneumonia.  He grew up in a housing project where his mother worked long hours to keep her family fed.  

Luckily, Bob Gibson had a very special person in his life.  His brother was that special person.  He had a masters degree in history.  Unfortunately, in the society they were brought up in, an African American with a master's degree was qualified only to work in a factory for low wages.  Of course it bothered him but he had a special talent to teach and he would do it anyway he could.  Gibson's brother LeRoy coached the local YMCA baseball and basketball teams and what was more, he mentored the young kids he coached.

He taught Bob how to act in society.  He taught him not to smoke.  He taught him not to spit like the other ball players he would see and he pushed Bob to get the most out of his talent.  Bob was tealented at both baseball and basketball.  After being rejected by the University of Indiana because they had already met their quota of African American players (why would they need more than one?) LeRoy used his connections to help get Gibson accepted at Creighton University.  He was spectacular in both Baseball and Basketball.  He was offered a contract with the Harlem Globetrotters.  He rejected it. He graduated college and as he did his brother used another connection, a scout for the Cardinal's organization.  The scout saw potential in Gibson, and so did minor league manager Johnny Keane.  The question was not whether Gibson could play it was where should he play.  Keane told the Cardinals to start him as a pitcher because if he didn't make it as a pitcher he could start immediately as a shortstop.

Flying High
The Cardinals had a winning tradition.  The long list of legends of the National League included dozens of Cardinals players.  Frankie Frisch, Rogers Hornsby, Jim Bottomley, Dizzy Dean, Pepper Martin, Enos Slaughter, Red Schoendienst, Stan Musial.  The team started off poorly in the basement of the early days of the National League but since 1926 the team (along with the Giants and Dodgers) were one of the dominant teams in the league.  1926, 1928, 1930, 1931, 1934, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1946.  They had made the World Series in each of those years and when they didn't win the NL they were usually close on the heels of the other team.  As the years went on the big names grew older and the replacements could not keep up with the Dodgers and Braves.

A big part of that rebuilding was Bob Gibson.  He reported for his first professional season in 1957 and was told to pitch batting practice.  The point of batting practice is to let the hitters relax, see easy pitches and work on their swing.  So Gibson tried to oblige.  After the hitters continuously failed Gibson was told to start throwing breaking balls. The hitters still failed.  Not wanting to demoralize his team mates who couldn't even hit batting practice, Gibson was waived off the mound.  "Should I start to throw hard?" he asked as he was waived off.

Rookie ball and A level baseball is more important as a learning experience and Gibson was learning.  The Cardinals, although angering Gibson for years, made the right choice by under paying for his services.  While Sandy Koufax was required to stay on the Major League roster of a team in a constant pennant chase, he spent several years watching and getting little practical experience.  Gibson, meanwhile, was pitching in live games and learning how to control his pitches.  His first year numbers were not spectacular but the increased control was the main thing.

He played three and a half years in the Cardinals organization, even getting to play for his home town Omaha Cardinals for several years.  His manager there for the first two years was Johnny Keane, a man Gibson credited with helping him along greatly in his career and a man who would play a big part in Bob's career later on.  When Keane moved up to the big league club as a third base coach, he was replaced by the ill-fated Joe Schultz who would later manage the doomed Seattle Pilots in their only year.

By 1959 Bob was up in the majors and made his debut on on April 15, 1959.  The game was started by Larry Jackson, facing off against Don Drysdale and the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Gibson entered the game trailing 3-0.  He faced the Dodgers third baseman Jim Baxes as the first batter of his career.  Baxes would play one year in the Major Leagues.  He would hit a total of 17 Home Runs that year.  One of those Home Runs came on a 2-0 pitch against Bob Gibson.  That's right.  The first batter ever to face Bob Gibson in the major leagues took him deep.

It got better, obviously.  Other wise there wouldn't be a need for me to write this article.  Gibson would call it the worst point of his career and a big part of that had to do with the manager.  Solly Hemus was not a man easy to get along with.  He often had violent outbursts and would curse players out in front of the team.  Gibson was 3-5 in 1959, his first year in the majors.  He was 3-6 in 1960.  1961 saw him start off slow as well.  After a 2-0 start he was at 5-5 on July 4 when the Cardinals decided a change was in order.  Solly Hemus, at 33-41 for the season, was fired and replaced with Gibson's old minor league manager Johnny Keane.  On July 5, the very next day, Gibson won a  complete game against the Dodgers and finished the season with 13-12 record, including winning 5 of his last 7.

1962 saw the emergence of Gibson as a rising star.  He was starting to feel comfortable in the club house and starting to make a mark on the organization.  On July 8 Gibson pitched a complete game 3 hitter against the Mets.  It improved his record to 10-6 and he represented the Cardinals in the All Star game for the first time.  He went 15-13 (with five shut outs) for the year and topped 200  strikeouts for  the first time in his career.

1963 was an even better year. The team was still not great but Gibson was proving he was special.  Everything went up.  His wins (18), his innings (254 2/3) and one other number that was starting to raise eyebrows, his hit by pitch (13).  Gibson was getting a reputation for his willingness to throw at hitters.  He owned the plate and anyone with a bat in his hand was the enemy.  He hated seeing a batter dig in with his spikes.  It was insulting. It silently sent a message that said "I am comfortable at the plate, like I'm at home."  Gibson sent a silent message right back.  "Don't get too comfortable.  This is my territory."  He said it with a pitch aimed at the batter.  The reputation was well deserved.  He certainly was not shy about moving a hitter off the plate.  The reputation of meanness was not well deserved.  Away from the mound he was not the angry, hate filled, vicious man he was portrayed as on the mound.  He was an intelligent clubhouse leader and a family man.  He set the tone for the clubhouse.  He would let the young kids know what was expected of them without calling them out in public.  He also set the tone for the game.  It was his game to win, his game to lose and it belonged to him.  He hated when a catcher or manager came out to the mound.  It was a poor situation for McCarver being stuck between Keane and Gibson.  Keane wanted Gibson to slow down.  Gibson knew what he wanted to do and didn't want to wait.  He pitched like he was running a no huddle offense.  Get the ball, go into the wind up fire the ball.  Repeat.  When Keane would tell McCarver to get out there and slow him down Gibson would tell McCarver to get back behind the plate.  He once told McCarver "the only thing you know about pitching is that you can't hit it."  Once McCarver walked out to remind Gibson of the game situation and when he told Gibson there was a man on third Gibson yelled back "I know he's there. I put him there."

1964 started off as a tough year.  He was 4-0  to start but by the All Star Break he was 7-6 and the team was struggling.  With Koufax and Drysdale suffering, the Cardinals thought they had a real shot at the pennant.  Instead it was the Phillies who were out front of the league.  He fell to 8-9 on August 1st as the Phillies maintaiined their lead. Over the next two months he would rarely start on full rest and he would rarely lose.  He lost on October 2nd making it more possible the Phillies would be in the World Series.  He took the day off on October 3rd and then on October 4 he came back, pitched four innings and the Cardinals won 11-5.  It was enough to put the Cardinals in the World Series.  Gibson not only won the fifth game by going ten innings, he won Game 7 with a complete game victory.  The loss sent the Yankees into one of the darkest periods of their existence.

Despite the surprise World Series win, the Cardinals fired Johnny Keane, who went on to a disastrous term as manager of the Yankees.  His replacement in St.Louis was Red Schoendienst, former Cardinals and Braves second baseman and future Hall of Famer.  Gibson had another stellar year (20-12, 270 strikeouts and 6 shutouts) but Curt Simmons and Ray Sadecki, two big winners in the pennant run the previous year, fell off drastically. Simmons fell to 9-15 and Sadecki fell off to 6-15.  This, combined with a "healthy" Koufax and Drysdale led to a Dodgers victory.  St. Louis finished 7th at 80-81,  1966 was a better year for Bob. He went 21-12 and dropped his ERA from 3.07 in 1965 to 2.44 in 1966.   In both seasons he made the All Star Game and won two consecutive Gold Gloves.  The Cardinals finished sixth as the Dodgers again dominated the league.

1967 was looking like another strong Bob Gibson year.  He had just appeared in his fourth straight All Star Game and his Cardinals were four games ahead in the NL.  On July 15, with his record at 10-6, Gibson started against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  With one out in the fourth Roberto Clemente shot a ball straight back at Gibson which shattered his fibula.  After completing the inning Gibson collapsed in pain.  He would be out until September 7.  He would return and win three of his final four decisions for a 13-7 record.  Despite the missed time Gison won another Gold Glove and the Cardinals ran away with the NL title.  They faced the "Impossible Dream" Red Sox in the World Series.  As the clear ace of the staff Gibson started Game 1.  He allowed only six hits in the complete game, one of which was a solo Home Run to the opposing starter, Jose Santiago (who also pitched a great game) and Gibson won 2-1.  Gibson and Santiago faced off again in Game 4 with the Cardinals ahead 2-1 in the series.  Santiago lasted only 2/3 of an inning this time as he allowed four first inning runs. Gibson, on the other hand, continued to show he was the best pitcher in baseball.  He allowed only 5 hits, struck out 6, walked only one and shut out the Red Sox 6-0.  It looked like it would be his last game of the season as the Cardinals were now ahead 3-1.  A young Steve Carlton allowed only one run in seven innings in Game 5 but the Red Sox still beat him by a final score of 3-1.  Game 6 was much less of a pitcher's duel as the Cardinals used 8 pitchers and lost 8-4, setting up a final face off in Game 7.  Gibson started against the Red Sox ace Jim Lonborg.  Gibson was on top of his game. The Cardinals scored two in the top of the third while the Red Sox struggled to get a man on base.  In the top of the 5th, with the score still 2-0, Gibson helped his own cause with a solo Home Run.  Another run that inning gave the Cardinals a 4-0 lead.  The Cards would go on to win 7-2.  It was Gibson's fifth straight World Series win making him 5-1 in World Series play.  It was just a warm up for what was to come.

The Year of the Pitcher
There are certain years when players are able to put it all together and somehow create a special year that is talked about for generations.  Babe Ruth hit 60 Home Runs.  Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight.  Ted Williams hit .401.  Roger Maris hit 61 Home Runs.  1968 was known as the year of the pitcher and just as easily could have been called the year of Gibson.  In the American League, the Tigers won the title behind the 30 wins of Denny McLaine.  No one has won 30 games since. In the National League no one could touch Gibson.  Seemingly showing no effects from the broken leg the year before, Gibson was at the top of his game.  It was clearly his best year ever.  In fact it is arguably the best year of any pitcher ever.  What's more amazing is that if his team's offense (and defense) were better he would have had an even better year.  Gibson started opening day and left after 7 innings.  He had allowed one unearned run.  The team won 2-1 but the scoring came too late to give Gibson the win.  His second start was similar.  He pitched seven innings, allowed only three runs, the team won but he got a no decision.  In his third start he got his first decision, a loss, as he allowed only three earned runs but lost 5-3.  In fact, if you were following Gibson in the papers there was little in the first month to make anyone think this was a magical season.  By May 28 Gibson had a 1.48 ERA but his record stood at 3-5.  That is where the turn around began.  Through the rest of the year the Cardinals and Gibson would dominate the league.  He would finish with a record of 22-9 (giving him an unbeleivable 19-4 record from July through October) and his strike out total was 268.  Even more amazing was the fact that in over 300 innings he had allowed only 38 earned runs.  He threw 28 complete games. 13 of those were shutouts.  Of the five losses in the first months, twice his own team was shutout while he allowed 2 or less runs.

It was an unbelievable year but it was just getting started.  The World Series was still to come.  Gibson started Game 1 of the World Series aginst the Tigers ace Denny McLaine.  McLaine was sabotaged by Tigers fielding but it would have mattered little.  Dominant is too light a word to describe Gibson that day.  As he struck out his record 17th batter of the day the crowd went nuts.  Tim McCarver stood up to draw Gibson's attention to the feat but Gibson didn't care.  He still had a game to finish.  He did.  The Cardinals won and no one has approached the 17 k's in a single World Series game since.  He allowed only five hits and one walk in winning his sixth straight World Series game.  He would win a seventh straight World Series game to give the Cardinals a 3-1 series lead.  He again dominated allowing only 5 hits, although the Tigers did score on him this time.  Just like the Red Sox had done the year before, the Tigers came back to force a Game 7 and this time Gibson would face Mickey Lolich.  Each had won two games in the series but realistically the Cardinals had the best pitcher in the world on the mound.  He again dominated but just like the first month of the season, his team didn't score.  Lolich outpitched Gibson (barely) and with the help of some shadows leading to a misplay by the best fielding centerfielder in the game. the Tigers won by a final score of 4-1.  It ended Gibson's record World Series winning streak at 6 games and it was his last taste of the post season.  Regardless the 1968 season is still the benchmark that any successful pitching season is judged.  Gibson's 1.12 ERA has never really been approached and he won the MVP, Cy Young and his fourth straight Gold Glove.

The Legend
The Cardinals run at the top was finished as the Mets, Pirates and even Phillies would dominate the Eastern Division for the next ten years.  Gibson continued to pitch amazingly but the team around him continued to decline.  Curt Flood, Bill White, Roger Maris, Clete Boyer and even McCarver moved on and the players replacing them did not perform as expected.  Still Gibson performed at a high level.  He won 20 games in 1969 and 1970.  He continued to rack up a high number of innings, a high number of strikeouts and a low ERA.  His 1969 ERA was only 2.18.  He won his second Cy Young award in 1970 with a 23-7 record and a 3.12 ERA.   All the while he continued to be selected for the All Star Game and win Gold Gloves.

He struggled in 1974 to an 11-13 record and the years of high inning totals started to take their toll.  He fell off farther in 1975 to 3-10 with a 5.04 ERA and he decided it was time to walk away.  His career totals are nothing short of amazing.  251 wins, 56 shutouts, nearly 4000 innings pitched (he averaged 262 innings a year), 3117 strikeouts and a 2.91 ERA.  That does not include his amazing performances in the postseason bringing the Cardinals 2 World Series and nearly a third.  During the decade of the 1960's, in the post Stan Musial era, Bob Gibson defined the Cardinals as a class organization and class was the best way to describe Gibson himself.

Gibson sometimes had a rough relationship with the media.  He once told a reporter who asked him if he was a "money pitcher" that it was the dumbest question he had ever heard of.  Possibly because of this he received a low 85% vote in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame.  It was enough to get him into the Hall of Fame (and I admit this is a petty complaint) but who the hell didn't think Bob Gibson was a Hall of Fame pitcher?  Gibson was the only player voted in that year (despite Harmon Killebrew and Don Drysdale on the ballot).  Gibson is still active in the Cardinals organization aBond can (fortunately for all of us) still be seen occasionally on MLB Network or in occassional appearances during Cardinal broadcasts.

Bob Gibson was truly one of the greatest pitchers of all time and one of the greatest ambassadors of the game that the sport has ever known.

*This is not intended as a full biography and due to space I have done my best to summarize the life of the players in this series.  For further information on Bob Gibson please check out
Ken Burns Baseball
The Official World Series Film Collection


October 1964 by Daid Halberstam
Five Seasons by Roger Angell
The Summer Game by Roger Angell

Bob Gibson won seven World Series Games in his career tying him with Red Ruffing (1932, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1941 and 1942 Yankees)  and Allie Reynolds (1947, 1949, 1950, 1951 ,1952 and 1953 Yankees) for second on the All Time List.  What Pitcher has won the most World Series Games?

Answer to Last Week's Trivia Question:
Congratulations to TJD for again answering last week's trivia question right.  
The correct answer last week was  William Howard Taft

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the info on Bob Gibson. I found his background interesting.
    When the tigers faced him in game 7 of the WS I didn't think the tigers had a chance.
    It is interesting there was only one African American player on the BB team. Society has come a long way, but race relations has a long way to go.

    Trivia is hard this week. I am going with Whitey Ford.



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