Bob Gibson was not just best pitcher of modern era, but during time of strife, mastered the art of fear
For a lot of successful athletes, winning in competition is about winning their own internal battles between anger and fear. One can be generated by the other. One can also be erased by the other.
Those who effectively use anger, even if they must fabricate it, can overcome their fear and simultaneously instill it within the opponent.
This statement covers a lot of competitors and a lot of time, so I don't issue it carelessly. But in all my years, I've never seen an athlete channel fear in the opposition more effectively than Bob Gibson. He was the young Mike Tyson of baseball, way before Iron Mike.
And unlike him, Gibson didn't flame out in his prime. He was not only the best in the business during a 5-year span in the mid-'60s (1964-68), he won his second Cy Young in 1970 at age 31 and threw a no-hitter the next year against the best hitting lineup – and it turned out, best team – in baseball that season, the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates.
I saw an old fan on a Detroit-based comment stream somewhere yesterday say that he never believes one team can't beat another team in a single-game championship circumstance. Because he saw the 1968 Tigers somehow overcome Gibson in Game 7 of the 1968 World Series.
That makes all the sense in the world to me. Because Gibson had the greatest season of any pitcher I ever saw that year. If you're at all a baseball fan, you've seen the number – 1.12. That was his ERA for 1968 which made about as much sense then, even during an era when an average baseball game contained 6 runs, as it does today.
Consider this: During that '68 season, Gibson started 37 games and finished 31 of them. He was pulled for a pinch hitter in the other six because the Cardinals were behind. That means St. Louis manager Red Schoendinst never emerged from the dugout to replace him directly with a reliever all season.
It's not hyperbole to say Gibson changed the game that year. Because over the following winter, the owners and commissioner Bowie Kuhn voted to halve the height of the pitching mound thereafter.
They called 1968 the Year of the Pitcher because Gibson wasn't the only one who accomplished amazing things. The almost equally fearsome Don Drysdale threw six consecutive shutouts and 58 2⁄3 consecutive innings of scoreless baseball that season. Of course, Drysdale didn't just play baseball for the Dodgers, he played kindly neighbors and conversant random acquaintances on sitcoms like The Donna Reed Show, so he didn't quite pack the image of the black forbidding Gibson.
The career St. Louis Cardinals starter who died on Friday at age 84 did nothing to alter that image. Indeed, he bolstered it any chance he got. Like Drysdale and many other pitchers of the time, he thought nothing of purposely plunking batters in the ribs early in a game or starting off free-swingers with 95-mph tailing fastballs up on the neck. He did this during the Civil Rights era a mere handful of years after not being permitted to bunk in the same hotel as his Cardinal teammates during Florida spring training trips.
In other words, he flipped the fear switch. He exuded a certain malice and bad intent on the elevated mound or not that made his 6-1 frame look more like 6-5. He glared in at young catcher Tim McCarver for the sign, shook off what he didn't want and was contradicted only at McCarver's great risk.
Even a trip to the mound was met with rancor. Once when McCarver approached ostensibly to calm his pitcher, Gibson responded: "What the hell are you doing? Get back behind the plate. The only thing you know about pitching is how hard it is to hit."
Maybe Gibson's general ill temper between the lines stemmed partly from being born African-American in Omaha during the Great Depression and without a father; his dad died before he was born of tuberculosis. Or a childhood filled with ill-health and malady comparable to the young Teddy Roosevelt – but without the money for a fair medical fight. His mother raised seven kids working in a laundry.
Still, he eventually grew up big and strong and a multisport athlete. Turned down by the legendary Branch McCracken at Indiana because IU already had filled its quota of African-American players, he starred for Creighton's basketball team as well as its baseball club, averaging 20.2 points and 8.3 rebounds in three seasons for the 1954-57 Bluejays hoopers.
In the spring of his graduation, Gibson was signed by the Cardinals and played his entire career with them, retiring the very year (1975) that free agency began. Had he been born just a decade later, he'd have made 10 times the money.
But what Gibson had inside could be neither bought nor sold. He was the ultimate big-game pitcher, going 7-2 in three World Series (1964, 1967, 1968), losing only his first start against the Yankees in '64 and his last against the Tigers in '68 – a legendary battle with Mickey Lolich while pitching on two days' rest in Game 7. That's the one Detroit won, against all odds.
His pinnacles were probably the '64 and '67 Series Game 7s, bettering Mel Stottlemyre of the Yankees and Jim Lonborg of the Red Sox to win the trophies.
During 17 Major League seasons (1959-75), he exhibited not just that fearsome fastball and intimidating presence on the mound (2.91 career ERA, 3,117 strikeouts) but that overall athleticism. Even though his flamboyant windup and follow-through left him splayed wildly sideways, his right hand near the mound dirt, his glove hand flying off to his left at head level, he always managed to recover in time to snare the rare comebacker that came his way. He was the best-fielding pitcher of his era, as good or better than the more linear and forward-thrusting Tom Seaver who eventually succeeded him as the game's best pitcher.
And as a hitter, he was as good or better than any pitcher of my lifetime. Can you imagine today any pitcher hitting .303 with 19 RBI in 124 plate appearances? Gibson did that in 1970 at age 34. Two years later, at 36, he hit 5 home runs. He hit 24 in his career; only the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano has matched that mark in the 45 years since Gibson's retirement.
In his later years, Gibson was more reflective and approachable. He said he simply took competition seriously and believed in neither fraternizing with the enemy nor making small-talk with his teammates during a game. He needed to be all-business to compete at his best.
I just know that, as a young fan of the hard-hitting Cincinnati Reds, I never felt hopeless that they would scratch out at least a few runs against anyone. But that if they came up against Gibson, it would be the greatest of struggles. He was not just good. He was mean. That was exciting to watch.
And he feared no one. Add it all up and, along with Seaver, he's the best I ever saw.
Now, they're both gone, departed exactly a month apart. It's debatable whether the game will ever see their like.
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