Known as one of the most intimidating pitchers in the history of baseball, Bob Gibson was not only successful throughout his career – he stood in a league of his own when he took the mound. Fans of the St. Louis Cardinals were able to witness greatness when Gibby donned the iconic birds on the bat.
Defying the odds that were set against him from an early, Gibson has always been a force to reckon with. Throughout his childhood, he suffered from health problems that included rickets and a serious case of asthma that was possibly pneumonia – this never stopped him from being active in baseball and basketball.
His brother Josh, who was 15 years older than him, was a mentor to Gibson. His brother coached many of his youth basketball and baseball teams which were often organized through his local YMCA.
His health issues would resurface in high school due to a heart murmur that occurred due to a rapid growth spurt. He would later be named to be on the All-State basketball team during his senior year and won a full athletic scholarship for the sport from Creighton University.
Majoring in sociology and having success in basketball, Gibson averaged 22 points per game during his junior season. By 1957, he was married and a college graduate – at this time he was also getting the attention of the Harlem Globetrotters and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals gave him a $3,000 bonus to sign with the team but he decided to delay his start for a year, so he would be able to play with the Globetrotters. He eventually gave up traveling with the Globetrotters due to the long travel and double-headers.
Gibson made the big league roster for the Cardinals in the spring of 1959 and made his debut on April 15th as a relief pitcher. Despite being reassigned to the minor league affiliate in Omaha, he would return and earn his first Major League win on July 30th as a starting pitcher.
His season in 1960 would be a blur of shuffling between the Cardinals and their affiliate until mid-June. In 1961, manager Solly Hemus decided to shuffle Gibson between the bullpen and rotation. It should be known that both Gibson and teammate Curt Flood have both openly admitted that they were told by Hemus that would not make it as a baseball players and should try doing something else. Looking back, it is very clear the racial prejudice of the time play a key role in the misuse of Gibson’s arm.
Hemus was replaced by July of 1961 and Johnny Keane took over. He had been Gibson’s minor league manager in Omaha in previous years. The two shared a positive relationship and Gibson was immediately sent to the starting rotation for good. For the remainder of the season, Gibby compiled an 11-6 record and earned an ERA of 3.24.
While off of the field, Gibson along with teammates Flood and White started a civil rights movement to make it where all players lived in the same clubhouse and hotel rooms. This led the St. Louis Cardinals to become the first sports team to end segregation. Three years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the “Great Society,” legislation in 1964.
By late May of 1962, Gibson had pitched 22⅔ consecutive scoreless innings and was named for the National League All-Star team. Late into the season, he fractured his ankle and still finished the season with his first 200 plus strikeout record.
The rehabilitation of his ankle would slow him down and he only recorded one win by May of the 1963 season. He began to rely on his slide and two different fastballs to grab six straight wins before July. Along with his pitching performances, his offensive production outmatched the combined RBI output of entire pitching staffs on other National League teams.
By 1965, Gibson had made the All-Star team again and while the Cardinals were out of the pennant race, everyone’s attention was on Gibby to see if he would earn 20 wins for the first time. The 20th win came against the Houston Astros under Red Schoendienst’s management in a 5-2 win.
The opening of Busch Memorial Stadium kicked off the 1966 season and Gibson was selected to play in the All-Star game in front of his hometown crowd that year.
Facing the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 15, 1967, Roberto Clemente hit a line drive off of Gibson’s right leg. Facing three more batters afterward, Gibson’s right fibula bone snapped above the ankle. Gibson was out until September and the Cardinals secured the NL pennant ahead of the San Francisco Giants.
During the 1967 World Series against the Boston Red Sox, he only allowed three earned runs and 14 hits over three complete game victories in Game 1, Game 4 which would be a five-hit shutout, and Game 7.
The 1968 season was known as “The Year of the Pitcher,” and Gibson was at the forefront with his dominance. An ERA of 1.12 was the lowest since Dutch Leonard in 1914. He threw 13 shutouts and won all 12 starts in the the months of June and July – pitching complete games every time with eight being complete shutouts. He pitched 47 consecutive scoreless innings during the stretch, striking out 91 batters and winning two-consecutive NL Player of the Month awards.
By 1969, cultural and monetary influences began to impact baseball and kicked off the rule changes that we still see in today’s game. Gibson appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and admitted the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) suggested players striking before the season. Despite the situation, Gibson did not have many concerns for his own contract. The $125,000 salary that he had requested for the 1969 season was agreed to by the team’s owner Gussie Busch. This set a new franchise record the highest single-season salary.
In 1969, he went 20-13 and earned an ERA of 2.18 with four shutouts and 28 complete games. Against the Los Angeles Dodgers, he struck out three batters on nine pitchers in the seventh inning. He became the ninth National League pitcher and 15th pitcher in Major League Baseball’s history to throw an “immaculate inning.”
He won his fourth and final NL Player of the Month award in August 1970. Winning 23 games, Gibson was once again crowed the NL Cy Young winner. That season, he hit .303 in 109 at-bats.
During his 1971 season, he achieved two great highlights in any baseball player’s career – defeating the Giants in 7-2 game for his 200th career victory at Busch Memorial Stadium and no-hitting the eventual World Series Champion Pittsburgh Pirates in a 11-0 victory. He was also only the second pitch in history to strike out over 3,000 batters and the first to do so for the National League. This accomplishment came at home on July 17, 1974 against the Cincinnati Reds.
By January of 1975, he announced his retirement at the end of the season. Gibson openly admitted that he used baseball to help cope with his divorce from his former wife. During the season, he went 3-10 and posted a 5.04 ERA.
In eight seasons from 1963 to 1970, Gibson won 156 games and only lost 81 for a .658 winning percentage. He won nine Gold Glove Awards, the 1964 and 1967 World Series MVP Award and the Cy Young Award in 1968 and 1970.
Most believe there will never be another like Bob Gibson – a fierce competitor who rarely smiled and threw brushback pitches to establish his dominance and intimidate. He even once told his catcher Tim McCarver, “The only ting you know about pitching is that it’s hard to hit”
After retiring, Gibson returned to his home in Omaha and declined the offer given to him by the St. Louis Cardinals General Manager Bing Devine. He returned to baseball in 1981 after accepting a coaching job with Joe Torre, who was then the manager of the New York Mets.
The coaching staff was let go after the end of the 1981 season and Torre along with Gibson moved on to the Atlanta Braves. Gibson was hired on for the 1982 season as the pitching coach. Gibson remained on the staff until 1984 and then took to hosting a pre- and postgame show for the Cardinals on KMOX from 1985 until 1989.
He also served as a color commentator for baseball games on ESPN in 1990 but declined an option to continue due to the concerns of spending too much time away from his family. By 1995, he returned to coaching and served on a Torre-led staff as a pitching coach for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Last July, his longtime agent Dick Zitzmann announced that Gibson had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was started chemotherapy.
Gibson also has a relationship with a pitcher St. Louis Cardinals fans cherish in today’s game – Jack Flaherty. The veteran gave Flaherty a bit of advice during the 2018 season. “Be on the attack consistently,” the 24-year-old said on Gibson. “That’s what he preached.” He also sent Flaherty a text to wish him good luck before Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS.
“I woke up from my nap and saw the text and that’s all I needed.” Flaherty went on to pitch six innings, clinching the Cardinals spot in the 2019 NLCS.
The St. Louis Cardinals retired the number 45 on September 1, 1975. Gibson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981 and then into the inaugural class of 2014 for the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame.
He has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, a bronze statue in front of Busch Stadium and a statue outside of Werner Park in Omaha. The street on the north side of Rosenblatt Stadium is named Bob Gibson Boulevard. And in 1999, he ranked Number 31 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. Gibson was also elected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
(Photo Credit: Associated Press)