Sports

Greatest Cardinals No. 4: RHP Bob Gibson

NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.

NO. 4: RHP Bob Gibson

The Cardinals held a four-game lead in the National League standings on July 15 with Pittsburgh in town for the finale of a four-game series.

St. Louis starter Bob Gibson had walked a couple of batters, but otherwise cruised through the first three innings with a 1-0 lead, thanks to an RBI triple in the first by right fielder Roger Maris.

Eventual NL batting champion Roberto Clemente led off the top of the fourth with the Pirates’ first hit, a vicious line drive up the middle that ricocheted off Gibson’s right shin. Gibson went down, but after a spritz of ethyl chloride to numb and a few strip of tape to compress, he assured manager Red Schoendienst through gritted teeth that he was good to go.

The next batter, Willie Stargel, drew a walk ahead of Bill Mazeroski, who flied out to center field for the first out. First baseman Donn Clendenon ran the count full on Gibson, who reached back for a little something extra on the pay-off pitch.

As was trademark, Gibson’s delivery was explosive and finished with an exaggerated, twisting follow-through that made it appear as though he was tumbling off the pitcher’s mound. When his right foot crossed over the left and planted itself on the Busch Stadium dirt, his fibula snapped clean in two, just above his ankle.

The pain he felt wasn’t limited to the broken limb. The eight weeks he spent in a cast cut into his soul.

“I’m grumpy when I pitch,” he said. “When I don’t pitch, I’m grumpier.”

But somehow, Gibson was back on the mound by Sept. 7. In five starts down the stretch, he went 3-1 with a .96 ERA, then earned three more wins in October to be named the World Series MVP.

Such mental fortitude is the legacy of his brother Josh Gibson (no relation to the great Negro Leagues catcher) who was 15-years his senior and surrogate to the father he’d lost before he was born. It was Josh who taught Bob that determination is often the difference between good and great and that competitors fight through pain.

But not even the great Bob Gibson — who to hall-of-fame broadcaster Jack Buck was “the toughest athlete mentally I’ve ever seen and the greatest competitor” — was immune to self doubt.

As a two-sport star at Creighton University in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, Gibson’s passion was basketball. He graduated as the BlueJays’ career scoring leader and remains fourth in their record book at 20.19 points per game. The NBA passed him by, though he would earn a spot with the famous band of barnstorming tricksters, the Harlem Globetrotters.

But the Cardinals lured him back to baseball in 1957 and assigned him to Columbus, Georgia of the class A South Atlantic League. Gibson had certainly met with racism before, but nothing like the blatant, vocal brand he encountered while playing in the segregated south. He endured the vicious taunts and humiliating Jim Crow laws for one season, but was not prepared to deal with them again once he made it to the big leagues two seasons later, in 1959.

Cardinals manager Solly Hemus insisted throughout the remainder of his life that he was not a racist, but that his occasional use of racial epithets to punctuate stinging criticisms was intended to “motivate.”

To Gibson, they were demoralizing.

“My best hope lay in the fact that Hemus, as much as he seemed to dislike me, might not really know me,” Gibson wrote in his autobiography “Stranger to the Game.” “He kept ... confusing me with Marshall Bridges, who was several years older than me, skinnier, and pitched left-handed. But he was black. Solly got that much right.”

Splitting time between the rotation and bullpen during his two and a half seasons under Hemus, Gibson went 11-13. He was depressed and ready to quit until assistant coach Harry Walker — a World Series hero for the Cardinals in 1946 — gave him the best career advice he ever received.

“Hang in there, kid,” Walker told him. “(Hemus) will be gone long before you will.”

On July 6, 1961, after the Cardinals had dropped 14 of 16 games, Hemus was fired, never to manager again. He was replaced by Johnny Keane, a career minor league manager for whom Gibson had once played and still trusted.

4 Bob Gibson follow through.jpg
Bob Gibson, St. Louis Cardinals ace pitcher fires the ball at Detroit Tigers Norm Cash in the ninth inning of the first game of the World Series Oct. 2, 1968 at Busch stadium in St. Louis, Mo. Gibson struck Cash out for the 16th strikeout of the game and set a new World Series record. Looking on are catcher Tim McCarver, home plate umpire Tom Gorman and first base umpire Jim Honochick. (AP Photo) ASSOCIATED PRESS

“He was, in fact, the closest thing to a saint that I came across in baseball,” he said.

The change gave the whole team a lift. Under Keane, the Cardinals went 14 games over .500 to finish at 80-74. They won 84 games for him the following year.

Gibson also flourished, winning 15 and 13 games respectively in 1962 and 63, then leading the Cardinals to a National League pennant in 1964 with 19 victories and a 3.01 ERA. “Hoot” pitched three more complete games in the World Series against the New York Yankees, including a victory in the decisive seventh game.

Over the next six seasons, Gibson won 20 or more games five times, a streak that was interrupted only by Clemente’s bone-crushing line drive in 1967. With a mix of two fastballs and a devastating slider, Gibson would strike out at least 208 batters in nine different seasons, including a career-high 270 in 1965. He’d go on to become the first National League pitcher to fan 3,000 batters in his career.

But what Gibson did in 1968 was historic.

He made 34 starts for the defending champions that year, completing 28 of them and winning 22 with 13 shutouts. Through June and July, he went 12-0 and, over one 99-inning stretch, allowed just two runs, only one of which was earned. For the season, opponents batted .184 against him.

Gibson’s 1.12 ERA remains the third lowest since the turn of the 20th century and the best since Dutch Leonard’s’s .86 in the dead-ball era season of 1914.

That dominance carried over into the World Series, which St. Louis lost to Detroit after blowing a three-games-to-one lead. But Gibson shut out the Tigers in Game 1 by striking out a World Series record 17 batters.

4 Bob Gibson HoF.jpg
Hall of Famer Bob Gibson is seen during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Sunday, July 28, 2013, in Cooperstown, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll) Mike Groll AP

Gibson was the baseball writer’s unanimous choice for both the National League’s Cy Young and MVP awards.

But his mastery of major league hitters further inspired the commissioner’s office to lower the mound from 15-inches to just 10. Denny McLain’s 31 wins over in the American League had a hand in that decision, too.

Though Gibby griped — “Why should they take away the pitcher’s livelihood because he becomes proficient at it?” — he continued to win. He won 20 games with a 2.18 ERA in 1969, even as the Redbirds fell into fourth place. The following year, he had a career-best 23-7 record to win his second Cy Young Award. And on Aug. 14, 1971 Gibson pitched his only career no-hitter by blanking the Pirates at Busch Stadium.

His last great season was 1972 when, at 36, he finished at 19-11 with a 2.46 ERA and 208 strikeouts.

In the interim, he’d been an eight-time All-Star and won nine straight Gold Gloves. He also had won the reputation as a stone-cold intimidator, who was not afraid to go high and tight on batters who crowded the plate or even looked at him funny.

Teammate Curt Flood once observed that if Babe Ruth had called his shot while Gibson was on the mound “he would have been drilled in one ear and out the other.”

In truth, Gibson didn’t really hit an extraordinary number of batters, especially considering the innings he pitched. And he has always contended that he never intentionally threw at anyone — he just let his opponents live with the belief that he would.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “You’d know if I threw at a batter because I’d have hit him.”

SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1959-1975

KEY STATS

251-174 (.591), 2.91 ERA | 8x All-Star | 9 Gold Gloves | Cy Young ’68 ’70 | MVP’68 | 2 WS rings | 81.6WAR | HoF’81

TOP 100 SCORE: 8.10

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