Baseball player, coach
Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson was a member of the St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup for nearly twenty years. He began his career as a pitcher in the Major Leagues when he first signed with the Cardinals in 1957. Gibson remained with the Cardinals until the mid-1970s, pitching in several World Series and winning MVP honors. After retiring from play, Gibson went on to coach for the Atlanta Braves, as well as the Cardinals.
Gibson was born on November 9, 1935 in Omaha, Nebraska. Gibson’s father died three months before he was born, leaving his mother to provide for a family of seven children by doing laundry. The Gibsons moved into the Logan Fontenelle projects in Omaha in 1942. The move was a big step up from rented houses where family had been living. Bob Gibson grew up in an integrated housing project. Though the family was poor, Gibson’s young life was filled with sports—baseball, football, and his favorite sport, basketball. In high school, he played baseball for his local YMCA team in the summer, but he was not able to play at Omaha Technical High School until his senior year. At Omaha Tech, whites played baseball, and blacks ran track.
As a senior on the baseball team, he made the varsity team as an outfielder and utility player. Though he hit .368 in baseball, he was really known as a basketball player. His coach even wrote to Indiana University about him, but the basketball program wrote back informing the All-State player that the team had filled their quota of blacks for the year (which was one). So Gibson turned to baseball. He rejected an offer from the famous Negro League Kansas City Monarchs because the Negro Leagues no longer interested him after Jackie Robinson broke into Major League Baseball in 1947. The St. Louis Cardinals had a minor league team in Omaha. The Cardinals offered him a contract, but Gibson’s big brother, Josh, who had coached and mentored him all his life, told him he must get an education. Gibson finally accepted a scholarship to play basketball from Creighton, a private Catholic university in Nebraska.
Gibson started on the varsity basketball team at Creighton for three years. After his senior season Gibson stood as the school’s all-time leading scorer, but he attracted very little attention at the professional level from the NBA. In the end he was able to parlay a great performance at a college All-Star game into a deal with the Harlem Globetrotters. In the spring of 1957 Gibson focused in on baseball, which had always been his
Born Robert Gibson on November 9, 1935, in Omaha, NE, son of Pack and Victoria Gibson; married Wendy Nelson (second wife); children: Annette, Renee (previous marriage), Chris (with Nelson).
Career: Baseball player, coach. Signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, 1957; made first major league appearance, 1959; pitcher for the Cardinals, 1959–1975; Atlanta Braves, assistant coach, 1982–84; broadcaster for ABC, ESPN, and the Cardinals radio program, 1985–94; Cardinals, assistant coach, 1995–97.
Awards: World Series MVP, 1964, 1967; National League MVP, 1968; National League Cy Young Award, 1968; National League All-Star, 1962, 1965–70, 1972; National League Gold Glove, 1965–73; elected to Major League Baseball Hail of Fame on first ballot, 1981.
Addresses: c/o The St. Louis Cardinals, 250 Stadium Plaza, St Louis, MO 63102.
second sport. While in college he still played in the outfield, but he did possess a 95-mile-an–hour fastball. Again, Gibson received little interest from professional teams, but he was good enough to sign with the Cardinals for a $1,000 bonus.
When Gibson showed up to practice for the first day, Omaha Cardinal manager Johnny Keane told him to throw some batting practice. Right then and there Keane decided Gibson was a pitcher. He could throw hard, but had little control so he was sent to Columbus, Georgia—a team playing in a league integrated only four years before by Hank Aaron. Gibson finished the season with a 4-3 record and then immediately reported to the Harlem Globetrotters, where Gibson became roommates with Meadowlark Lemon. After one winter with the Globetrotters, the Cardinals offered him money not to play basketball and he quit for good to become a big league pitcher.
In 1958 Gibson made his way from a minor league training center, back to Omaha, and, by the end of the season, to the Cardinals’ Triple A team in Rochester, New York, where he finished with a 5–5 record and the hardest fastball in the league. Gibson made the big league club in 1959 but split his time between St. Louis and Omaha. It took Gibson until the middle of the 1961 season, when the Cardinals brought in Johnny Keane to manage the club, to get into the starting rotation for good.
The appointment of Keane was key to Gibson’s career at that point. Instead of being constantly criticized, Keane built up the young pitcher comparing him favorably in the press with Los Angeles Dodger great Sandy Koufax. Gibson told William Ladson of The Sporting News about the effect Keane had on his career: “He saw something. I don’t know what it was. But I was a pretty good athlete… I was a good ballplayer until I got into pro ball and then I couldn’t pitch anymore … I just knew that Johnny Keane had confidence in me.” By the middle of the next season, Gibson had made the All-Star team. But late in the year with Gibson at 15–13 and a 2.85 earned run average (ERA) he fractured his ankle and was finished for the rest of the 1962 season.
Though he started slowly, recuperating from the injury, Gibson and the Cardinals were a much-improved team in 1963. In the following campaign, the team and its ace would get better. In 1964 the Cardinals won the National League pennant with Gibson coming out of the bullpen for the last game of the year. He brought his 19 victories to the World Series against the Yankees. Three days after winning the season-ender, Gibson lost the second game of the series to the Yankees 8–3. Gibson started the fifth game at Yankee Stadium with the series tied 2–2. Gibson cruised through the powerful line up to take a 2–0 lead into the ninth. With a man on first the next Yankee batter Joe Pepitone connected with a shot that hit Gibson square in the backside and bounced toward third base. Instead of going down, Gibson pounced on the ball and somehow managed to throw the runner out. It turned out to be a game-saving play as the next batter tied the game with a home run. Gibson and the Cardinals were able to hang on to the victory in the tenth.
But Gibson was not done yet. Gibson had pitched four games in ten days and then was sent out to the hill to determine the series in Game seven. After six innings Gibson had a 6–0 lead. In the seventh Mickey Mantle hit a three-run home run, but Cardinal manager Keane left his starter in. In the ninth Keane told Gibson to just throw as hard as he could. Though the Yankees hit two home runs to make the score 7–5, Gibson got the last outs and secured the Cardinals first World Championship in 18 years. Gibson won two games and set a World Series record for strikeouts with 31. He was named Most Valuable Player (MVP) by Sport Magazine. Gibson told Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about pitching during the World Series: “People will ask, ‘Were you tired?’ You don’t get tired till after the Series is over. The World Series is once in a lifetime. If you don’t want it, go home.”
The next two seasons the Cardinals stumbled but Gibson won 20 and 21 games respectively. The 1967 season was a different matter. By the all-star break Gibson had won 10 games and the Cardinals were three and a half games ahead of their closest opponents. In his next start against Pittsburgh, Pirate great Roberto Clemente lined a shot right off Gibson’s shin. The mark left a baseball imprint in his tibia, but Gibson would not come out of the game. Two batters later, Gibson came down on the leg and the bone snapped between the knee and the ankle. Gibson, whose leg had been fractured after the initial contact, would be out for eight weeks.
He came back to finish the season and lead the Cardinals into the World Series against the Boston Red Sox. Gibson won the first game, the fourth game, and then it was his turn again to take the mound for the seventh game. Gibson rose to the occasion again pitching a three-hitter and adding a home run of his own to win the game 7–2. Gibson went on to win his second World Series MVP on the strength of his three-win and 27-strikeout performance. Gibson tied a World Series record set in 1905 for fewest hits allowed in three series starts with 14. Gibson was even invited to Washington D.C. for a state dinner with the Japanese president where he met President Lyndon Johnson.
Gibson’s 1968 season, considered by many in baseball to be the greatest single season by a pitcher in the history of the game, started slowly. After his first three starts he was winless and then won only three of his first ten appearances. After a third of the season was over, Gibson’s record stood at 3–5, but his ERA was a sparkling 1.32. He even lost a one-hitter early in the season. Gibson and the Cardinals got on a roll in June. He pitched five straight shutouts and 47 consecutive scoreless innings. By the mid point in the season, Gibson’s ERA was an otherworldly 1.06. By the end of July Gibson’s ERA was even lower at 0.96 and he had not been taken out of the game for three months.
At the end of the 1968 season, Gibson’s statistics were staggering. Gibson finished the year at 22–9, with 300 innings pitched, 13 shutouts, and an ERA of 1.12. And all for a club that averaged 2.8 runs a game on the nights he pitched. Gibson talked about his lack of run support with Edes Gordon of Baseball Digest: “In ’68, I had 13 shutouts and lost five 1–0 games. That’s 18 games in which I gave up one run of less. I lost nine games with and ERA of one. How do you do that? It drove me crazy. And people wonder why I was always grumpy—when I’d get one run, win or lose.” Gibson won the league MVP and the Cardinals again won the National League pennant to face the Detroit Tigers in the 1968 World Series.
True to form, Gibson started and won the first game of the series setting a World Series record by striking out 16 batters. With the Cardinals up two games to one Gibson won his seventh straight World Series game—a record that still stands—and led the Cardinals to a three game to one advantage. But St. Louis lost the next two games, and as was the custom for the Cardinals, they would let Gibson win the seventh. Through six innings the score was tied at zero. Gibson had retired 20 of 21 batters and broken Sandy Koufax’s record of 31 strikeouts in a World Series. But it was not to be Gibson’s day. The Tigers scored four runs in the seventh and went on to win the World Series, spoiling Gibson’s near-perfect season. After Gibson and other pitchers of 1968 dominated the game so totally, baseball decided to make several rule changes. The pitchers mound was lowered from 15 to 10 inches and the strike zone was shrunk. The umpires also cracked down on the inside pitch, one of Gibson’s most feared weapons.
The 1969 season brought more of the same excellence from Gibson, though his team stumbled to fourth place in a six-team division. Gibson won his 20th game on the last day of the season against 14 losses. He pitched a career high 314 innings and despite the rule changes racked up an ERA of 2.18. The consequence of the season’s failing was that the Cardinals were broken up. In 1970 the club was not the same despite Gibson’s 23 wins and a second Cy Young Award. He also won his sixth straight Gold Glove award and hit .303 to become the last pitcher in Major League Baseball to hit .300 and win 20 games in a season.
In 1971 Gibson struggled with a pulled thigh muscle through the first half of the season but won 10 of his last 13 decisions to finish the year at 16-13 including a no-hitter against Pittsburgh on August 14. The 1972 season brought more milestones for Gibson including the Cardinals record for most career victories (211). At the age of 36 Gibson finished the year 19-11 with a 2.46 ERA. He also hit five home runs—only Ted Simmons and Joe Torre hit more for the Cardinals that season.
As Gibson grew older his life on and off the field was becoming more complicated. He and his wife, Char-line, were on their way to a divorce and very few of his old Cardinals teammates were left from the days when they won three National League pennants. Gibson helped found the Community Bank of Nebraska with the help of financier Warren Buffett and was principal investor in an Omaha radio station.
Gibson missed much of the middle of the 1973 season after tearing cartilage in his knee. He finished 1973 with a record of 12–10 and a realization that at the age of 38 wondering if his body could take much more of the pounding. Every time he pitched in 1974 he was forced to undergo the draining of his knee. His elbow sometimes swelled up so that he could not straighten his arm. Still he battled his way to an 11-13 record, but after losing the last game of the season, he announced that 1975 would be the last year of his glorious career.
Though he had high hopes for his final season, Gibson was now raising his two daughters, Annette and Renee, alone. The physical and mental stress of being a professional athlete and a full-time parent caused both facets of his life to suffer. In baseball, he was demoted to the bullpen, but at home he hired Wendy Nelson, who Gibson later married, to look after his girls while he was gone. Gibson got his first victory coming out of the bullpen on July 28. Win number 251 would be the final victory of his career because he was used very little for the rest of the season.
Gibson received a motor home from the Cardinals on Bob Gibson Day and went traveling after his retirement. He also opened a restaurant, but still looked to get back into baseball. In 1981 he became the New York Mets “attitude coach” under his former teammate Joe Torre. Before joining the Mets, Gibson became a father again, this time to a son, Chris. Also in 1981 Gibson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
Torre and all the coaches were fired after the 1981 season, but Gibson thought 1982 would be better. He was lead to believe that he would be managing the Cardinals minor-league club, but senior Cardinals management vetoed the idea. In the end, Gibson went back to work for Torre, this time as an assistant coach for the Atlanta Braves. Gibson and Torre stayed in Atlanta until after the 1984 season when all the coaches were fired.
After coaching Gibson began broadcasting on the radio, first on ABC’s Monday Night Baseball and then mainly with the Cardinals. Gibson still wanted a job in baseball, and after Joe Torre was named manager of the Cardinals, Gibson came home in 1995. Before introducing his new assistant coach to the media, Torre told Bob Klapisch of The Sporting News about his long time friend: “Just say he’s proud, he’s opinionated, sometimes he doesn’t have a lot of tact. But above all, Bob Gibson loves baseball.”
Gibson, Bob and Lonnie Wheeler, Stranger to the Game: The Autobiography of Bob Gibson Viking Penguin, 1994.
Baseball Digest, September 2000.
The Sporting News, February 27, 1995; August 3, 1998.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 2, 2001.
—Michael J. Watkins
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