Bob Gibson, the Hall of Fame pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals known for his blistering fastball, fierce competitiveness and a ferocious scowl that terrified opposing batters, died Friday more than a year after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was 84.
Gibson pitched for the Cardinals from 1959 through 1975 and remains their all-time franchise leader in wins (251), innings (3,884 1/3), strikeouts (3,117) and complete games (255). That doesn’t include his brilliant work in the World Series, where he posted a 1.89 ERA in nine outings, powering the Cardinals to championships in 1964 and 1967, winning MVP honors in both Fall Classics.
He is perhaps best associated with a 1968 season in which he was so dominant that baseball made alterations to its rules and the field itself.
In 304 2/3 innings that year, Gibson put up a microscopic 1.12 ERA, a record in the “live-ball” era, which began in 1920. He would go on to have the most memorable start of his career in Game 1 of the World Series, striking out 17 Detroit Tigers in a shutout victory that took place exactly 52 years before his death.
That season is often referred to as the “Year of the Pitcher,” prompting the league to lower the pitcher’s mound and change the strike zone to promote more offense. These came to be called the “Gibson rules”—a testament to his place in the annals of baseball. They didn’t slow him down: He had 20 wins and a 2.18 ERA in 1969.
“Bob Gibson is the luckiest pitcher in baseball,” Tim McCarver, his longtime catcher, once said. “He is always pitching when the other team doesn’t score any runs.”
Even more than his pitching prowess, Gibson is remembered for his attitude on the field. With his violent right-handed delivery, he considered home plate to be his domain and was unafraid to remind hitters of that fact if they looked a little too confident in the batter’s box. He worked quickly—the legendary broadcaster Vin Scully said he pitched “as though he’s double parked”—and never hesitated to throw inside.
Despite his reputation as a headhunter, Gibson had pinpoint control and only hit 102 batters in his career. He didn’t mind batters thinking they were in danger, however. He saw it as a competitive advantage and described any perceived meanness and anger as “merely devices.”
“The part of pitching that separates the stars from everyone else is about 90 percent mental,” he wrote in his 1994 autobiography. “That’s why I considered it so important to mess with a batter’s head without letting him inside mine.”
He did just that. Dusty Baker, a former All-Star outfielder and the current manager of the Houston Astros, once said, “The only people I ever felt intimidated by in my whole life were Bob Gibson and my daddy.” But Baker’s most revealing words about Gibson were his retelling of advice he once received from his teammate, the Hall of Fame outfielder Hank Aaron: “Don’t dig in against Bob Gibson. He’ll knock you down. He’d knock down his own grandmother if she dared to challenge him.”
Robert Gibson was born Pack Robert Gibson on Nov. 9, 1935, in Omaha, Neb. Despite suffering from a multitude of health problems as a child, he grew into a multisport athlete, becoming the first Black basketball player at Creighton University, in addition to playing baseball. His skills as a basketball player earned him a contract with the Harlem Globetrotters.
But baseball would become his path, and he joined the Cardinals’ major-league roster in 1959. Gibson was inconsistent at first, bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen. He would later say he was misused and attributed his struggles to racial prejudice from Cardinals manager Solly Hemus.
Early in his career, Gibson tried to change that culture. After one game, McCarver, who grew up in Memphis, Tenn., boarded the team bus with, depending on the account, an ice cream cone or a bottle of soda. Gibson asked McCarver if he could share. McCarver stumbled before saying he would save some for him. McCarver would later recall that “it was probably Gibson more than any other Black man who helped me to overcome whatever latent prejudices I may have had.”
The Cardinals replaced Hemus with Johnny Keane in 1961, and Gibson began to flourish. By 1962, he made the first of nine All-Star teams. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America elected Gibson into the Hall of Fame the first time he appeared on the ballot in 1981. After his playing career, he spent time as a coach and a broadcaster.
Gibson is survived by his wife, two children from his first marriage and one from his second.
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