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Bob Gibson, Revered Cardinal Hall Of Famer Who Changed The Rules Of The Game, Dies at 84

Bob Gibson in 2015
File photo | Aine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio
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Bob Gibson, shown during a 2015 appearance on "St. Louis on the Air," died Oct. 2 at age 84.

Bob Gibson, the longtime St. Louis Cardinals ace who pitched with the ferocity and speed of a cheetah, leaving thousands of befuddled, dejected batters in his wake, has died. He was 84.

Gibson was known for pitching economically and quickly, helping many of the games he pitched to clock in well under even the shorter times typical of the 1960s and '70s. He threw with such power that he often violently hurled himself to the edge of the mound, causing, he said, every muscle in his body to ache the next day.

A scorching fastball that sometimes reached 100 mph was the go-to weapon in his arsenal. The ball approached the plate so fast or so unpredictably that the ephemeral sphere eluded and confounded hitters.

At the height of Gibson's dominance, Cardinal broadcaster Harry Carey would often declare, “Gibby gon’ to smoke!”

In 1968, Gibson had the lowest ERA for a season in modern Major League history. He struck out 17 Detroit Tigers, a record, in winning Game 1 of the World Series.

Longtime Cardinals announcer Mike Shannon was playing third base in that game. In a 1980 story in the New Yorker, Shannon recalled the game with pity for the Tigers.

“Most of them had never seen Gibby before,” he said, “and they had no idea what they were up against. It was like watching a big-league pitcher against Little League batters. It was frightening.”

Gibson, who spent the entirety of his 17-year major league baseball career in St. Louis, died Friday, Oct. 2, in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He had diabetes and had announced in July 2019 that he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Services are pending.

He called pitcher “the most commanding and cerebral position on the field” and said it was the position that the sport and society were “least willing to hand over to a Black man.”

So Gibson simply took it.

A Negro quota

“I was fatherless. I was poor. I was Black.”

That’s how Gibson introduced himself early in his first autobiography, "From Ghetto to Glory," written with Phil Pepe in 1968.

When he penned the book, he was a lifetime and a world away from the housing projects of Omaha, Nebraska, where he was born three months after his father died of tuberculosis.

He was the seventh child, small and fragile. His mother was astonished at how he matured.

“He was born sick,” Victoria Gibson Bolden told the New York Times during Gibson's second World Series game against the New York Yankees in 1964. “And he got sicker — he had rickets, hay fever, asthma, pneumonia and rheumatic heart. I hardly let him out of the house until he was 4 years old.”

Gibson had developed a serious case of pneumonia when he was 3. According to family lore, as he was being carried into a hospital by his big brother Josh, he asked, “Am I going to die?”

Josh, whose real name was Leroy, assured him he would live and promised that when his little brother was well, he’d buy him a ball and glove. He lived up to his promise and later became Gibson’s first coach.

By the time he was a senior at Omaha Technical High School, Gibson said he’d earned a reputation as “a pretty fair athlete in several sports.” It was an understatement.

But basketball was Gibson’s sport of choice, and he had his heart set on hoops at Indiana University. He expected to receive an athletic scholarship; Indiana had other plans. His rejection letter said he was being denied a scholarship because the school had its “quota of Negroes.” He later found out that meant one.

Again, Josh came to his rescue. He mentioned his little brother’s talents to the athletic director at Creighton University, and a basketball scholarship soon materialized.

Becoming No. 45

Gibson became Creighton’s first Black varsity basketball and baseball player. He set school basketball scoring records that stood until Paul Silas, who later played for the St. Louis Hawks, broke them nearly a decade later.

His Creighton records helped make him a member of the College All-Stars, giving Gibson a chance to play against the inimitable Harlem Globetrotters. The All-Stars defied the script and beat the Globetrotters, who were never supposed to lose, by one point. Gibson only played the fourth quarter, but he posted 15 points. That earned him an invitation in 1957 to join the Globetrotters, which he accepted. His roommate was the “Clown Prince,” Meadowlark Lemon.

It was the clowning part of the Globetrotters show that Gibson didn’t like. For him, sports was serious business, so when the Cardinals offered him a Triple-A contract that same year, he snapped up that opportunity, too. The two salaries amounted to $8,000 for the year. At the time, he said, it seemed like a fortune.

Baseball soon became his only job, and he bridged the distance of 60 feet, 6 inches as well as anyone ever had or ever would.

Gibson became a stat monster. He became the Cardinals’ all-time leader in innings pitched (3884); wins (251); strikeouts (3,117), the second pitcher to surpass 3,000; complete games (255) – relievers were like the Maytag repairman when he pitched – and shutouts (56). During his 17 years with the club, he won two National League Cy Young Awards and nine Gold Glove Awards. He hit 24 home runs and was named an All-Star nine times. Gibson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981, his first year of eligibility.

At his induction, fellow Hall of Famer Stan Musial declared Gibson to be “one of baseball’s greatest competitors.” Musial and Gibson admired each other. When Gibson joined the Cardinals, Musial had welcomed him. In his autobiography, Gibson said Musial “was the same with everybody, whether you were a rookie or a ten-year veteran.”

Or whether you were Black or white.

In 1958, Gibson rode solemnly in the “colored” section of the train to his first spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida. When he arrived, Curt Flood, a teammate who later ushered in the era of free agency, was already there. Like all of the Black players, they were relegated to staying in the homes of local Black families. In their respective autobiographies, Gibson and Flood said their manager, Solly Hemus, had declared they would never make it in the big leagues. Both players attributed the statement to racism.

It wasn’t Gibson’s first brush with overt racism. On an earlier train ride when he was an 18-year-old sophomore at Creighton, he learned that he wouldn’t be able to stay or eat with his basketball teammates.

“I cried when I was told that,” he admitted to the New Yorker in 1980. “I wouldn’t have gone if I’d known. I wasn’t ready for that.”

Angry Black man

Such incidents became the kindling that ignited his rage; the racial strife of the ’60s was the firewood that stoked it and earned him a reputation as an angry Black man. His anger fueled his single-minded focus on the mound. For Gibson, pitching was a solitary affair, and he would brook no distractions.

“I pitched better angry,” he said in his second autobiography, "Stranger to the Game," written in 1994 with Lonnie Wheeler.

Gibson was catapulted to the pinnacle of success by a combination of raw talent, brotherly love, an unwavering work ethic and his righteous anger. But setting pitching records could not insulate him from the wounds of second-class citizenship.

His career was heating up at the same pace as the civil rights movement.

He won 18 games in 1963, the year Martin Luther King Jr. declared “I have a dream” during the March on Washington; Gibson won 19 games the following year. He won two of the three games he started during the ’64 World Series against the Yankees, including Game 7. It was the city’s first World Series title since 1946.

In 1965, he became a 20-game winner, a feat he would accomplish four more times. It was the year that spawned “Bloody Sunday,” the march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama; the signing of the Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon Johnson, and the murder of Malcolm X.

During the “Long, Hot Summer of 1967,” so named for its racial unrest and sweltering weather, Gibson was bringing his own heat. He appeared invincible – until midseason, when Roberto Clemente delivered a searing line drive to Gibson’s right leg, breaking it.

It was a mere delay. Gibson returned to help the Cardinals down the stretch to win the National League pennant – and pitched three complete games to secure the 1967 World Series for St. Louis against the Boston Red Sox. He won Games 1, 4 and 7. In the final game, Gibson allowed a meager three hits and helped himself with a home run to clinch the Cardinals championship. He was named the World Series MVP.

In 1968, the nation reached a boiling point: King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated.

“RFK’s murder, coming two months after Dr. King’s, hardened me,” Gibson wrote. “The slaying of Dr. King had touched me — and [Curt] Flood and [Lou] Brock and [Roberto] Clemente and millions of others across the country — on so many levels that anger competed against a squall of other emotions.”

Despite the turmoil in 1968, Gibson posted a 1.12 earned run average, the lowest single-season ERA in modern baseball history. That year, Gibson won his first National League Cy Young Award, was named NL Most Valuable Player and again powered the Cardinals to the pennant and World Series.

On Oct. 2, 1968, the day of the first World Series game in St. Louis, Gibson was approached by a TV reporter when he arrived at Busch Stadium. He assumed he was about to be asked about the game. Instead, the reporter asked, “What do you think of the Black people demonstrating under the Arch?”

Gibson responded: “I don’t give a f---. I’ve got a ballgame to pitch.”

He was tired of being a de facto Black spokesperson. He doubted that his white counterparts would have been asked about national affairs before a World Series game.

His response was merely due to timing. Gibson was willing to talk about race and discrimination.

Like the time during a postseason tour of military bases in the Pacific, when he heard an American League player make an anti-Semitic remark. Gibson reportedly stopped the player in mid-sentence – and advised him to keep his distance in the future.

“And if I ever pitch against you,” Gibson warned, “I’m going to hit you on the coconut with my first pitch.” The two never faced each other.

But Gibson knew and understood why he was sometimes prompted to talk about social issues.

“I was a little smarter than the average dummy,” Gibson laughingly told St. Louis Public Radio while promoting his 2015 book "Pitch By Pitch," which detailed his stunning performance in the first game of the 1968 World Series. He explained that his level of education afforded him a more credible platform than some professional athletes.

The reporter’s off-topic question merely fired him up for that Game 1.

It was the Year of the Pitcher, and Gibson was the pitcher of the year.

Gibson Rules

It was so dubbed because pitchers were so stingy in allowing runs, none more than Gibson.

"For that entire year," Gibson once told his hometown paper, the Omaha World-Herald, "I felt baseball-wise that I could do whatever I wanted."

Gibson came into the 1968 World Series one of the most feared pitchers in baseball, and he left that way, despite a loss in Game 7 that gave the series to the Detroit Tigers.

The first game had sealed Gibson’s immortality. Opposing the Tigers’ Denny McLain, he struck out 17 batters, breaking Sandy Koufax’s single-game postseason record and winning, 4-0. Willie Horton ended the game by striking out on a slider, the pitch Gibson said made him dominant. "My slider was nasty," Gibson later said. "They could look for it and couldn't hit it."

Gibson garnered his armload of awards that year by posting a 22-9 record. The Cardinals offense averaged just 2.8 runs a game when Gibson pitched in 1968. Along with that 1.12 earned run average, he had 28 complete games and 13 shutouts, 268 strikeouts, 15 consecutive wins and a stretch of 92 innings in which he gave up just two runs.

"He's the luckiest pitcher I ever saw," Gibson’s catcher, Tim McCarver, wryly told the World-Herald that year. "He always pitches when the other team doesn’t score any runs."

Because pitchers, led by Gibson, were so dominant in 1968 that baseball lowered the pitching mound 5 inches and shrank the strike zone. The changes became known as the “Gibson Rules.”

Postseason

Gibson and his uniform number, 45, retired in 1975. He returned to his hometown and settled in the Omaha suburb of Bellevue with his first wife, Charline Johnson Gibson, whom he’d married in 1957. They had two daughters, Annette and Renee. The couple divorced four years later.

He married his second wife, Wendy Nelson Gibson, in 1979, and they had one son, Christopher Robert.

In retirement, he fully expected to remain connected to baseball, perhaps as a pitching coach or color commentator. But work was slow in coming. Some speculated it was due to his prickly personality. He had never made any effort to ingratiate himself with media or the public.

Shortly after Gibson retired, he did a brief stint with as a color commentator on ABC’s “Monday Night Baseball” and some baseball programming on HBO.

He also made inquiries with the Cardinals, Kansas City Royals and New York Mets. Teams nibbled, but there were no immediate takers.

Work began to pick up in the ’80s. He became a pitching coach briefly with the Mets and the Atlanta Braves. Gibson loaned the resonant voice that he was so hesitant to share during his playing days to pre- and postgame shows for Cardinal baseball games on KMOX from 1985 until 1989. He later served as a color commentator for baseball games on ESPN.

Gibson joined the Cardinals as a bullpen coach in 1995, working with his former teammate and friend, Joe Torre. In 1996, he became a special instructor for the Cardinals.

He had become a principal investor in 1970 in a primarily Black-owned radio station, KWOH, in North Omaha. In "Stranger to the Game," Gibson shared the challenges of keeping the station afloat. 

“I don’t think I understood the full meaning of the word bigotry until I tried to sell advertising time for KOWH,” he lamented. “Almost none of the established businesses would buy from us and they searched hard for reasons not to.”

A few years into retirement, Gibson and a partner opened Gibson’s Spirits and Sustenance, a sports bar in Omaha. He was a hands-on owner, said to have sometimes worked 12-hour days at the eatery. It was located near his alma mater, Creighton.

It wasn’t baseball, but shortly after opening the restaurant, Gibson told the New Yorker that, “[It] sure is better than doing nothing.”

Better days

As his workload increased, so did his legend and the love of his fans.

“There will never be another pitcher like Bob Gibson,” St. Louis Cardinals President Bill DeWitt III told the Post-Dispatch during the 2018 dedication of Bob Gibson Way in St. Louis. “This honorary street-naming symbolizes what he means to our franchise and to our city.”

Aware of the no-nonsense reputation he’d built, Gibson assured his fans that he’d always been a nice guy.

“[Batters] just didn’t know it,” he said. “I got my bluff in early, and I’m glad I did.”

Throughout the years, Gibson returned often to St. Louis, his second home, for opening day ceremonies and honors.

He was a member of the 2014 St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame inaugural class. He has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, and a bronze statue of him in full power-pitching mode has resided near the stadium since 1998.

Omaha beat St. Louis in honoring him with a street, Bob Gibson Boulevard, but lagged in erecting a statue. His bronze likeness was unveiled there in 2013 outside Werner Park, home of the Omaha Storm Chasers minor league team. Three of his former Cardinal teammates were on hand for the unveiling: Tim McCarver, Bill White and Joe Torre.

In 2019, he was inducted into Nebraska’s Hall of Fame.

Pack Robert Gibson was born Nov. 9, 1935, the youngest of Victoria Gibson and Pack Robert Gibson’s seven children. Gibson didn’t like his first name and dropped “Pack” as soon as he was on his own.

His father was a skilled cabinetmaker who had to make a living working in hotels, for the government’s Work Progress Administration, when the Depression hit and later as a janitor and construction worker. His mother also worked in a hotel, then in a laundry, and cleaned homes and hospitals to make ends meet. She married Paul Bolden when Gibson was a teenager.

Gibson was one of the most gifted and lauded pitchers in history, but he wasn’t always confident he would make it.

“I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to withstand all the stuff that we had to play through,” he said at his St. Louis street-naming ceremony. “I’m proud to say I’ve seen a lot of changes. Things are altogether different than they were in 1959, and I mean all for the better.”

He is survived by his wife, Wendy, and his three children.

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