I didn’t get to see the late, great Bob Gibson pitch in his prime, but was always aware of his greatness. As I became a fan of the sport, baseball fans around me always reveled in telling stories of his ability and his personality.
Gibby was a superb athlete. He played for the Harlem Globetrotters after college and by all accounts could have played in the NBA. He was athletic enough to play football, and his brother coached Gale Sayers. But baseball is the sport his brother Josh pointed him to, and the one he went to. That athletic ability was polished and put to great use.
Obviously, Gibson could pitch. We all know the numbers. 1.12 ERA in 1968. The first National League pitcher to record 3,000 strikeouts. Five twenty-win seasons. The gaudy 1.89 ERA in nine post-season starts. By the way, nine post-season starts and 81 innings. A complete game in each. Plus, he had 255 complete games in the regular season.
But he was an all-around player. Gibby won nine gold gloves, all consecutively. He could hit. He had 24 career homers in the regular season (plus two in the World Series), and 73 extra base hits. I saw a great stat on Saturday; that in his 34 starts in 1968, he had 28 complete games. In the six games that he didn’t finish, Gibson left the game for a pinch-hitter. In that season, Red Schoendienst never took the ball from Gibson during an inning. Not once.
After hearing about how fearsome he was, my association with Gibson came after his playing days. I knew him as a broadcaster and hadn’t really seen him pitch. So, when I met him, I wasn’t in awe of him, and I think he appreciated that. We’d talk about his family and what else was going on in baseball, but didn’t relive the past. Even still, that sharp wit that we heard about as a player remained.
One night on a postgame open line show, a guy called in and said “Bob, I’m 28 years old and I’m playing in a men’s league, and I can throw 98 miles an hour. Do you have any advice on how I can get into pro ball.” In his typical unvarnished fashion, Gibson said “you’re too old. So, you just keep playing in that men’s league and throw as hard as you can until your arm falls off. And when it does, nobody’s going to worry about it anyway. So just have fun.”
Another story came from the mid-90’s. The Astros used to have Old-Timers games, and they’d invite retired players to participate in a pregame competition. Former Astros outfielder Terry Puhl had just retired a year or two earlier, and he hit a homer off Gibby early in the game. The next time he came up, Puhl was plunked by 88 mile an hour fastball by the 58-year-old Gibson. All in good fun.
Like the rest of the guys with red jackets, Gibson couldn’t have been nicer to me. Because of my age, I remember the man more than the pitcher. I was too young to appreciate it, but when I had never been to an All-Star game, I decided to ask the Hall of Famer if he had access to tickets. And he took care of me. How cool to go up to Bob Gibson’s hotel suite and talk about the All Stars as I picked up my tickets from him? And whenever I saw him…the last time at the Baseball Writer’s Dinner a couple of years ago was the last…he always a sharp comment. He was a guy that WANTED you to return serve if he took a shot at you.
One last thing about Gibson. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July of last year. According to the website pancreatica.org, the median survival rate of someone diagnosed with the disease that gets good treatment is eight months. When he was diagnosed, people said cancer picked the wrong opponent. And he nearly doubled the normal survival time.
We’ve been so lucky in St. Louis to have icons like Gibby, Stan, Lou and Red. And in the last eight years we’ve lost all four of those guys. We’re lucky to still have Ozzie and Bruce Sutter and Tony and Whitey. I’ve now lost all my childhood icons, with only adult ones left. We need to savor the moments we have, because they won’t last forever.
AP Photo, File