Bob Gibson, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Hall of Fame right-hander who was one of baseball’s most dominating pitchers, winning 251 games in 17 seasons with a flaming fastball and an indomitable spirit, died Friday, October 2. He was 84.
“You wouldn’t see him talk to the other players at all,” Schoendienst told Sports Illustrated. “It seemed like he just hated them. He said, ‘I ain’t going to get friendly with anybody.’”
The result was pure intimidation: a flamethrower with a scowl as nasty as his pitching arsenal.
“It was said that I threw, basically, five pitches,” Gibson wrote in his memoir. “Fastball, slider, curve, change-up, and knockdown. I don’t believe that assessment did me justice, though. I actually used about nine pitches—two different fastballs, two sliders, a curve, change-up, knockdown, brushback, and hit-batsman.”
Gibson started the 1968 season strong but had so little run support that he soon found himself with a losing record (4-5) despite his 1.66 ERA. On June 6, against the Astros, his team’s offense became a moot point. Gibson fired a shutout—and then did the same against the Braves, the Reds, and the Cubs.
“Without a doubt, I pitched better angry,” Gibson wrote. “I suspect that the control of my slider had more to do with it than anything, but I can’t completely dismiss the fact that nobody gave me any shit whatsoever for about two months after Bobby Kennedy died.”
At the end of June, he four-hit the Pirates and ran his shutout streak to five, putting him one shy of Drysdale’s mark. Sportswriters asked him whether he felt pressure trying to catch the Dodger ace.
“I face more pressure every day just being a Negro,” he said.
Gibson wasn’t alone. By the mid-’60s, black athletes were becoming increasingly vocal about racial inequality—and writing about it in autobiographies, such as Frank Robinson’s My Life in Baseball, Orlando Cepeda’s My Ups and Downs in Baseball, and Gibson’s first, From Ghetto to Glory.
At the same time, Sports Illustrated came out with a special series on the black athlete, in which it exposed the inequalities lurking in boxing rings, baseball dugouts, basketball benches, football huddles—and just about every other playing field. Black athletes, the magazine reported, were excluded from social activities on college campuses, taunted with racial slurs in professional arenas, subjected to tokenism in most sports, and regarded as lacking intellect across the board.
The popular press—Life, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report— took up the issue as well, running stories on Harry Edwards, an instructor at San Jose State, who was mobilizing black athletes into boycotting the upcoming Olympics in Mexico City. The group’s goal was to draw attention to the exploitation of black athletes in the United States and abroad. It called for, among other things, the reinstatement of Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight title, the hiring of more black coaches, and the removal of Nazi sympathizer Avery Brundage as head of the International Olympic Committee.
On July 1, Gibson took the mound looking to break Drysdale’s scoreless-inning streak. The Cards were in Los Angeles, and Gibson was facing none other than Drysdale himself.
The suspense ended quickly. With two outs in the bottom of the first, Gibson gave up back-to-back singles. Then, with runners on first and third, he threw a fastball that tailed inside, surprising backup catcher Johnny Edwards. The ball skipped off Edwards’s glove, allowing a run to score. It was the first run Gibson had surrendered in a month, and the only one he’d give up in the game. His streak had ended at forty- seven innings, but he beat the Dodgers and raised his record to 10-5.
Gibson wouldn’t stop there. He’d go on to have one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. Displaying complete mastery of the craft of pitching—and riding his anger over the dual losses of King and Kennedy—he’d finish twenty-eight of his thirty-four starts. He’d compile a 22-9 record, 268 strikeouts, and a 1.12 ERA—the lowest in more than half a century.
“It was otherworldly,” says Tim McCarver, looking back on Gibson’s 1968 performance. “It staggered the imagination that during one stretch a guy pitched ninety-five innings and gave up two runs. He had eight shutouts in ten starts. . . . Keep in mind, every team had not only two or three, but in some cases four or five guys who could pummel you. . . . That season, [Gibson] could throw a ball to a spot no more than two balls wide, at will. Almost blindfolded. You can’t make 1968 bigger than it was.”
The Cardinals would ride Gibson’s golden right arm to the National League pennant, nine games ahead of the San Francisco Giants.
The deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy struck the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson especially hard. He and millions of other black Americans had looked to the two leaders as their best hopes for achieving racial justice.
For Gibson, it had been a long time coming.
He’d grown up in the projects in Omaha, Nebraska, with his widowed mother and six siblings. Until Gibson’s senior year at Omaha Technical High School, his skin color was considered too dark for the baseball team. So he turned to basketball, became the team’s first black player, and showed so much promise that he set his sights on playing hoops at Indiana University. But prejudice cut him down again when Indiana informed him that the school had already reached its quota of black players: one. Undeterred, Gibson stayed in his hometown and became the first black athlete to receive a basketball scholarship from Creighton University. As a star at Creighton, he broke every school scoring record.
After college, Gibson was still undecided between basketball and baseball, so he signed with the Harlem Globetrotters and the St. Louis Cardinals. He eventually chose baseball and made the Majors in 1959, which is when he ran into Cardinals manager and unabashed bigot Solly Hemus.
Aside from calling Gibson and other black players “nigger” as a motivating tool, the thirty-six-year-old Hemus told the young Gibson he wasn’t big-league material. He even suggested that going over opposing hitters was beyond his intellectual scope. Just when Gibson was on the verge of quitting, he got some career advice from batting coach Harry Walker.
“It wasn’t much,” Gibson recalled, “but it hit the right chord. [Walker told me], ‘Hang in there, kid. Hemus will be gone long before you will.’”
Sure enough, Hemus was fired in the middle of the ’61 season, replaced by coach Johnny Keane (who would be replaced by Red Schoendienst in 1965). Keane didn’t give a damn about color. Upon taking over the reins, he gave his full support to black players, most notably Curt Flood, Bill White, and Gibson. With his manager’s encouragement, Gibson steadily blossomed into one of the game’s elite pitchers, finishing the 1963 season with an 18-9 record and 3.39 ERA.
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