R.I.P. to Joe Gibbon, who started his career as an effective starting pitcher and ended it about 13 years later as an effective reliever. He died on February 20, 2019 at the age of 83 from natural causes. He pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1960-65; 1969-70), San Francisco Giants (1966-68), Cincinnati Reds (1971-72) and Houston Astros (1972).
Joe Gibbon was born on April 10, 1935 in Hickory, Miss. He attended the University of Mississippi and was best known there as a basketball star. His obituary (linked below) called him one of the greatest two-sport athletes in Mississippi history. He was an All-American basketball player at Ole Miss and an All-SEC baseball player. He was second in the nation in basketball with an average of 30.2 points per game, ahead of Elgin Baylor (29.7 ppg) and Wilt Chamberlain (29.6).
His professional career would lie in baseball, and the southpaw signed with the Pirates in 1957. He was dominant in Class-A Lincoln in ’57 and spent the next two seasons fine-tuning with the Columbus Jets of the American Association. By 1960, he was ready for the big leagues and never pitched in the minors again outside of a 1962 injury rehab assignment.
The 1960 Pirates would go on to win the World Series with a pitching staff led by Bob Friend and Vern Law. Gibbon was used primarily in relief, though he did make 9 starts among his 27 appearances. A back injury limited his usage late in the season. He finished the year with a solid 4.03 ERA and a 4-2 record, with 60 strikeouts in 80 innings. Gibbon pitched in 3 innings of the World Series and gave up a 3-run homer to Mickey Mantle in Game 2 (one of two that Mantle hit in a 16-3 Yankees rout).
“I threw him a thigh-high fast ball on the outside corner, and he really tagged it,” he told the Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Miss.). He marveled about “being able to play with a pennant-winning ball club in my first year up and playing in the World Series.”
Gibbon spent the next few seasons starting more games than he relieved. He won 13 games as a starting pitcher in 1961, with career highs in innings pitched (195.1), wins and strikeouts (145). His 3.32 ERA was 6th in the NL. He tossed a 1-hit shutout against the Los Angeles Dodgers late in the season to knock them out of playoff contention.
Unfortunately for Gibbon, he was stuck being a pretty good pitcher on some pretty bad Pirates teams. For instance, he had a fine 3.30 ERA in 1963 and fanned 110 batters, but he went 5-12 anyway. The Pirates didn’t get back over .500 until 1964, when Gibbon was a 10-game winner despite another injury-shortened season. One of those wins was a 2-0 win over the Cubs where he threw 8-2/3 innings of shutout ball. It was Ernie Broglio‘s first start for the Cubs after being traded for Lou Brock. It was a tough-luck loss for Broglio, but I’m sure he had many better starts ahead of him for the Cubbies!
In December 1965, Gibbon and Ozzie Virgil Sr. were traded to the Giants for Matty Alou. The pitcher started 10 games in each of his first two years in San Francisco, but the Giants primarily used him as a reliever. He was really good in the role, with ERA+ over 100 in all four seasons, meaning he was above-average each year. He had a microscopic 1.58 ERA in 1968 in 29 games. He was so good as a reliever that the Pirates traded back for him in June of 1969, sending Ron Kline to the Giants in return. He won 5 games for the Pirates down the stretch with a 1.93 ERA as the Bucs ended up in 3rd place.
Gibbon and the Pirates made a return trip to the postseason in 1970. He was 0-1 in the regular season with a 4.83 ERA and faced two batters in two games versus the Reds in the NLCS. He gave up a hit and K’d the other batter in the series that the Reds eventually won. Gibbon was released at the end of the year.
He signed with the Cincinnati Reds in the offseason and did well for them as a part of a closer by committee, with 11 saves, a 5-6 record and 2.94 ERA in 50 games. The 11 saves were second-best on the team behind Clay Carroll; Wayne Granger also had 11 saves. Gibbon’s last season in 1972 was short, as the 37-year-old was cut by the Reds after two poor outings, signed by the Astros and then cut again after 9 games and an ERA over 9.00. His old team didn’t do him any favors, as Johnny Bench hit two home runs off of him in two games.
For his career, Gibbon had a 61-65 record and a 3.52 ERA. He appeared in 419 games, starting 127 of them and finishing 120 others. He threw 20 complete games and recorded 32 saves as well, with 743 strikeouts.
In the days after baseball, Gibbon ran a beef cattle ranch near Newton, Miss. and coached local Little League teams. He attended reunions of the 1960 World Champion Pirates, but judging by articles written about him post-retirement, he just enjoyed living out in the country, raising cattle, hunting, fishing and spending time with his family.