ST. LOUIS – The best St. Louis Cardinals pitcher ever and the author of one of the best seasons by a pitcher in all of major league baseball’s history has died. Bob Gibson passed away Friday evening. He was 84.
Gibson, who was among the fiercest competitors the game has ever known, went 251-174 in 17 seasons, all with St. Louis, before retiring in 1975. He won 20 games in a season five times. He pitched 255 complete games, with 56 shutouts, winning two Cy Young Awards. The first came in the Cardinals’ 1968 World Series championship season, when Gibson led the pack, going 22-9 with a microscopic 1.12 ERA. He also captured the NL MVP award.
Gibson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1981.
Basketball over Baseball
Gibson was born November 9, 1935 in Omaha and was the youngest of seven children. He leaned heavily on his oldest brother Josh, since their father died months before Bob’s birth. It was Josh who coached his youngest brother into a standout multi-sport athlete in baseball and basketball, with a focus on fundamentals and success.
“I was always a little bit ahead of the kids my own age so I would never play with those kids,” Gibson said during his 1981 Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech. “I would always play with older kids because I knew the fundamentals so well and they were still learning them and I didn’t have time to wait.”
“You know how you’re growing up and people are always telling you, It’s not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game?,” Bob Gibson said in an interview with journalist Leo Adam Biga. “He didn’t have that thought,” Gibson said of his brother. “Winning is everything — that’s the attitude he had, and I grew up with that. It was like, Hey, I’m not out here just to play and have fun — I’m out here to win. I want to be better than the next guy.” He didn’t even play high school baseball until his senior year.
Turned away from major college basketball schools in part because of the era of racial segregation and spoken and unspoken roster quotas, Gibson attended Creighton on a basketball scholarship (he’s still fifth all-time in made free throws) and also starred as a baseball player.
Gibson’s first contract out of college was with the Harlem Globetrotters, not the St. Louis Cardinals. His roommate during the 1957-58 season, the late Meadowlark Lemon, told the Omaha World-Herald “I thought Bob was a better basketball player than a baseball player,” Lemon said. “I think Bob could have played with any NBA team. He was that good.” Gibson told the paper that basketball had been his number 1 sport, and that if the Minneapolis Lakers had signed him, he never would have played pro baseball.
The Cardinals ultimately beckoned with more roster spots, and a purely professional sport as opposed to the Globetrotter way. He signed in 1957 and made his major league debut in 1959, before sticking for good in the big leagues after a call-up in 1960.
He began to flourish after the Cardinals fired manager Solly Hemus in 1961 and replaced him with Johnny Keane, Gibson’s former minor league manager in Omaha. Gibson and other black players felt Hemus was a racist at worst but at the very least, someone who didn’t trust them.
Under Keane, Gibson started to flourish, reaching double-digit single season wins for the first time in 1961, making the All Star team in 1962. As David Halberstam wrote in his classic baseball book October 1964, “Keane was never negative. He understood that he was dealing with a proud young man who was a potentially great player. As a result, Gibson thought Johnny Keane was as color-blind as a man could be, not by liberal social conscience, but by innate human decency.” The result on the field is, Gibson would later write in his book Pitch by Pitch, is that his “ability to put the ball where I wanted” improved.
In 1964, Keane’s faith in Gibson was evident for all of baseball to see on the highest of stages. On two days rest, it was Gibson who pitched four innings in relief in the season finale that clinched the NL pennant as the Cardinals overcame a 6 ½ game deficit with 12 games to play. Then with the World Series in the balance, Gibson went out again on two days rest in Game 7. The result? A 7-5 complete game win that earned Gibson the series MVP and ended the Yankee dynasty. When asked after the game why he didn’t take a gassed Gibson out in the ninth inning, Keane said “I had a commitment to his heart.”
In 1967, Gibson overcame a broken leg off of a liner from Roberto Clemente during the season and won another World Series MVP as the Cardinals took the World Series over Boston, setting the stage for one of the greatest seasons in all of baseball history.
1968: The Year of The Pitcher
“I truly believe that my success that year was mostly attributable to the trust I had the ball was going to end up right where it was supposed to,” Gibson wrote in Pitch by Pitch. “I had become a control pitcher. Fastball, breaking ball; didn’t matter. In 1968, I felt that I could close my eyes and sling the thing behind my back—I’d been a Harlem Globetrotter, after all—and it would find its way to the outside corner. The baseball had become my smart bomb.”
As a result, Gibson led a precision pitching assault on hitters and the record books that would change how the game is played.
He won 22 games. An ERA of 1.12. Thirteen shutouts. Twenty-eight complete games. Two-hundred sixty-eight strikeouts, sixty-two walks. He claimed the National League Cy Young and MVP awards. Denny McLain won 31 games and Juan Marichal won 26 that year, and besides Gibson, six other starting pitchers finished the year with an era under 2.00. The following season, Major League Baseball lowered the mound to the ten inches where it still stands today.
“Why should they take away the pitcher’s livelihood because he becomes proficient at it?” Gibson told the Associated Press in 2008. “That, to me, seems like what they did. The hitters weren’t doing very well against you so they say ‘Well, we’re going to fix that.’’
He still “managed” to win 20 games the following season, and his ERA “ballooned” to 2.18. Gibson added a second Cy Young Award in 1970 after going 23-7 and in 1972 at the age of 36 he went 19-11 with a 2.46 ERA in the season that also marked his eighth and final appearance as an All-Star.
Gibson retired at the age of 39 after the 1975 campaign, finishing with a career record of 251-174. He remains the franchise recordholder for wins, strikeouts, complete games and shutouts, among other categories
After his playing career, Gibson coached on Joe Torre-led staffs with the Mets, Braves and the Cardinals and has also served as a special spring training instructor for St. Louis. More recently, he’s reached out to current members of the pitching staff, leaving his email address and phone number in Jack Flaherty’s locker in the 2018 season.
While he will go down in history as one of the great intimidators in baseball history, Gibson would later write that was only partially the case. “I got a lot of mileage out of looking angry,” he wrote in Sixty Feet, Six Inches, a book he co-authored with Reggie Jackson in 2009. “Sometimes it wasn’t intentional—like when I was squinting in for the signs and the batters thought I was glowering at them—but the fact is I was deliberately unfriendly to the opposition…It was important to me that I retain an air of mystery,” he wrote, going as far as to ask former manager Red Schoendienst to keep him out of spring training games against NL opponents. “In Spring Training, you’re just working on stuff, not trying to get batters out all the time, and I thought that if they got up there and whacked me around a little bit it would give them confidence. I didn’t want them confident. I wanted them wary of me. Uncertain. Intimidated.”
Gibson became a permanent major leaguer twelve years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier but still played in an era of segregated housing, especially in spring training. He lived long enough to see Flaherty, Dexter Fowler and others around baseball take a leadership role in pushing Major League Baseball to acknowledge that racial justice remains elusive for many. “I had to endure a whole helluva lot that most Cardinal fans probably don’t have any idea about. I’m really proud of the fact they had these demonstrations and it’s not just Black people,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in July 2020.
“I want to be remembered as a person, a competitor, that gave 100 percent every time I went out on the field,” Gibson told the crowd in Cooperstown at his Hall of Fame induction, as he recounted his answer to a reporter who wondered about his legacy. ”Sometimes I wasn’t too good but nobody could accuse me of cheating them out of what they paid to see…”