Gibson, Pack Robert ("Bob")
GIBSON, Pack Robert ("Bob")
(b. 9 November 1935 in Omaha, Nebraska), baseball pitcher, winner of two Cy Young Awards and one National League Most Valuable Player Award, holder of the modern record for best earned run average in a season, and a model of fierce competition and devotion to winning.
Gibson was the youngest of seven children. Gibson's father, Pack Gibson, died months before his birth, and his mother, Victoria Brown Gibson, worked at the Omaha Lace Factory and cleaned in homes and hospitals to support her family. Both parents had moved from Louisiana to Nebraska during the Great Depression, but work was scarce for Pack, a cabinetmaker. The family lived in a subsidized housing project, which Gibson described in interviews as a training ground for his physical and mental toughness. Many of Gibson's convictions about racial intolerance as well as his ferocity on the athletic field were instilled during his childhood and youth in Omaha's Logan Fontelle projects. In the absence of a father, and in light of conflicts between the adolescent Gibson and his stepfather, the formative influence on his athletic and character development was his eldest brother, Leroy ("Josh"). This brother returned from World War II "profoundly disillusioned" but earned a master's degree in social work and devoted countless hours to coaching his brothers and other neighborhood youth in baseball and basketball. Gibson recalls with pleasure victories over more affluent, well-equipped teams in both sports.
As a child, Gibson had obvious talent and intense desire, but he suffered from heart problems and severe asthma. His mother at times feared for his survival. After his major league years, he appeared in a commercial for a pharmaceutical product, and announced that his career was not hindered by asthma. He also developed childhood rickets, a bone disease that may have contributed to his developing an arthritic elbow in his pitching arm at the height of his career. As Gibson learned to cope with his illnesses, however, he was honing his skills and determination to succeed in professional basketball. After playing on Nebraska's state baseball championship team at age fifteen and being named to Omaha's American Legion All-City team as a switch-hitting shortstop and outfielder, Gibson expected to compete for the varsity at Omaha Technical High School, where he starred in basketball and track. He blames the coach's cutting him on an unspoken policy limiting the number of black players on each school team. With a new coach, Gibson distinguished himself in his senior year, winning a basketball scholarship to Creighton University. He told an interviewer in 1981, upon his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, "I grew up fighting a lot of things. I was the first black student ever to play baseball and basketball at Creighton University. I went through some tough times." These involved resistance among coaches, fellow athletes, and fans to integration at the university. Other tough times occurred on road trips to towns less enlightened than Omaha, where Gibson endured discrimination in housing, food services, and personal facilities. He suffered these indignities even more intensely during the year he played for the Columbus (Georgia) Foxes, a Cardinal minor league team, and again during the Cardinals' spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida, to which he traveled in segregated railroad cars, then was not permitted to stay in the hotel with his white teammates.
As a result of these instances of discrimination, Gibson felt profoundly the growing pains of American baseball during the decades after Robinson joined the Dodgers. He felt that his first opportunity to pitch at the major league level came despite the hostility of Cardinal manager Solly Hemus. Hemus was succeeded in 1961 by Johnny Keane, and under Keane's management, Gibson, Curt Flood, Bill White, and other black players initiated an era of goodwill among team members. The team addressed racism internally, and a St. Petersburg businessman bought two motels into which Cardinal players, led by superstars Stan Musial and Ken Boyer, moved their families in what first baseman White later called "our own little civil rights movement."
With manager and team working harmoniously to address issues of race and justice, the Cardinals prospered, and Gibson's career took off. The wildness that plagued his early career abated. By 1964 he led the team to a world championship, then was named the World Series Most Valuable Player. Always a clutch performer, Gibson's concentration intensified under the pressure of championship games. He appeared in three World Series, was named Most Valuable Player in two (1964 and 1967). After losing his first World Series start in 1964, Gibson won seven in a row before losing his final Series appearance, partly because of a misplayed fly ball. In all his World Series appearances, he posted an earned run average of 1.89, with 92 strikeouts in 81 innings—all this against the best the American League had to offer. Twice (1964 and 1967) he won the decisive seventh game of the World Series.
A celebrated incident that illustrates Gibson's competitiveness and intensity occurred on 15 July 1967. Pittsburgh's Roberto Clemente hit a fierce line drive off the pitcher's shin for the Pirates' first hit. After facing two batters, Gibson collapsed while pitching to the next one. His fibula had broken above the ankle. Amazingly, he returned to action, beating the Mets on 7 September. He shut out the Phillies a week later to clinch the pennant, then had what may be the most outstanding World Series pitching performance ever against Boston. He held the Red Sox to three runs and fourteen hits, winning three complete games and striking out twenty-six batters in twenty-seven innings. He had stopped walking on crutches in August. In 2000 he recalled Boston fans telling him, "Gibson, you broke my haaht."
Despite these honors, Gibson's home life was deteriorating. Gibson and his first wife, Charlene, whom he married in 1958 and with whom he had two daughters, faced discrimination in purchasing a home, and the couple was moving toward an eventual divorce. Gibson's 1968 season, however, was one for the ages. He was National League Most Valuable Player and won the first of two Cy Young Awards. His earned run average, 1.12 (over 8 weeks at mid-season it was 0.19!), was the best since 1914, during the dead ball era. No pitcher in modern times has approached that level of excellence, one not mirrored in his won-lost record, 22–9. In the nine games Gibson lost, the Cardinals scored only twelve runs. His twenty-eight complete games included thirteen shutouts and five 1–0 losses. A comparable achievement was evolving in the American League, where Tiger Denny McLain became the first pitcher since 1934 to win more than thirty games.
When Gibson and McLain faced one another in game four of the 1968 World Series, Gibson won, striking out ten. In the first game, Gibson broke Sandy Koufax's record by striking out seventeen batters in a Series game. Catcher Tim McCarver recalls gesturing toward the scoreboard after Gibson struck out his sixteenth Tiger, but Gibson snarled in competitive fury, "Gimme the goddam ball!" McCarver pointed again toward the scoreboard, and Gibson did not quite smile, but "looked less fierce"—for a moment. In twenty-seven innings he struck out thirty-five Tigers, but the Tigers won game seven, when Gibson's friend Curt Flood misplayed a line drive into a triple.
After McLain's and Gibson's heroics, as well as Don Drysdale's record of fifty-seven and two-thirds consecutive scoreless innings, major league baseball lowered the mound from fifteen to ten inches to encourage offense, thereby to appeal to fans. Some call this change the Gibson Rule. Gibson pitched his only no-hitter against the Pirates in 1971. He remained an intimidating force in the National League during the early 1970s, winning another Cy Young Award with his 23–7 record in 1970. By 1973, however, Gibson's earned run average was rising while his winning percentage was dropping, to .545 in 1973 and .458 in 1974. By 1975 it was clear that asthma, a rheumatic heart, and arthritis had diminished Gibson's effectiveness. The man who had ceased playing basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters in 1957 because the competition was not sufficiently intense retired during a 3–10 season with a lifetime earned run average of 2.91 and 3,117 strikeouts. This record was second only to Walter Johnson's, whose record was subsequently broken by Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan.
In 1981, Gibson's first year of eligibility, he was voted into the Hall of Fame, receiving 337 of 401 first-place votes. Appropriately, he was inducted with Cardinal old-timer Johnny Mize and the late Rube Foster, founder of the Negro Leagues. He was selected as the fifth pitcher on the All-Century team in 1999.
Gibson married Wendy Nelson in 1981 (they have one son) and has since operated several businesses in Omaha. His friend Joe Torre hired him in 1981 as "attitude coach" of the Mets, and he has occasionally worked as an analyst for major league games. The title he chose for his 1994 autobiography, Stranger to the Game, suggests Gibson's disappointment that major league teams, especially the Cardinals, have not sought his counsel as a coach or an executive. But since the autobiography came out, he has served as the Cardinals' bullpen coach (1995) and subsequently as a pitching instructor for the Cardinals during spring training. He has also worked as both a television analyst and a consultant to former American League president Gene Budig.
Gibson's legacy remains that of a magnificent pitcher who perfected the art of intimidating the batter by pitching inside, then painting the outside corner with a vicious slider. Gibson once said, "I seldom threw at a batter. When I did, I always hit him." Modern baseball has seen few pitchers of Gibson's talent, his determination, or his ferocity. He was a complete player; he won nine consecutive Gold Gloves and hit twenty-four career home runs. In 2000 he characterized himself to Gordon Edes as a "glowering black man who wouldn't make small talk or apologize for pitching inside."
Books about Gibson and his career include Gibson's own Stranger to the Game (1994), written with Lonnie Wheeler; and Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, "The Eighth Inning: A Whole New Ball Game," in Baseball: An Illustrated History (1994). Relevant articles include James Buckey, Jr., "1967: Bob Gibson," in a special advertising section produced by the Editorial Projects Department of Sports Illustrated (7 Oct. 1991); Steve Rushin, "The Season of High Heat," Sports Illustrated (19 July 1993); and Gordon Edes, "A Hitter's Nightmare," Baseball Digest (6 Sept. 2000).
David C. Dougherty