RIP to Bob Gibson, one of the most dominant pitchers of the 20th Century. He died in his hometown of Omaha on October 2 at the age of 84 from cancer. Gibson’s full list of accomplishments are lengthy and include two Cy Young Awards, two World Series MVP Awards, 9 All-Star teams, an ERA title and, of course, induction to the Hall of Fame. Baseball had to rewrite the rule book because Gibson was so successful at what he did that he made the league’s hitters look ridiculously overmatched. Gibson pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1959 to 1975.
Gibson had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July of 2019. That was only the latest in a life that seemed full of health problems, but seemingly nothing could slow him down for long. When he was three years old, he nearly died from a pneumonia and had a number of childhood maladies. He suffered stomach problems and possibly ulcers during his phenomenal 1968 season, and last year he disclosed that he may have suffered a heart attack then as well. In the late 1980s, Gibson’s doctor told him that an EKG showed the signs of a past heart attack. Gibson thought back to a road trip to Houston in ’68 when he was bothered by such strong cramps that the pain literally brought him to his knees.
“If I had gone to the doctor and if I were having a heart attack, I probably would never have pitched after that,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last year. “Good thing I didn’t go check it out.”
Robert Gibson was born on November 9, 1935, in Omaha. The Omaha World-Herald notes that his full name is Pack Robert Gibson — his first name was a tribute to his father, who had died several months earlier from an illness. It was not a name he ever used, however. He grew up in the Logan Fontenelle Projects, with Jackie Robinson as an idol. His mother worked in a laundry to support a total of five sons and two daughters. Gibson’s older brother Josh became a mentor to him and sometimes coached his baseball teams. Josh was the one who helped get a 3-year-old Gibson to the hospital when he was near death with pneumonia.
“Josh told me that if I’d get well, he’d get me a ball and bat. I got well and he kept his promise,” Gibson said in a 1961 interview.
Gibson’s neighborhood baseball team, the Y Monarchs, won the 1950 state midget league championship and traveled around the Midwest. While Gibson was able to see life outside of Omaha for the first time, he was also exposed to the racial prejudice and ignorance that existed in the country. His experience in dealing with racism from an early age helped shape him into the fierce competitor he would become later in life.
Gibson starred at baseball, track and basketball at Omaha Tech High School before moving on to Creighton University. He started on both the basketball and baseball teams there, a rare accomplishment as a freshman. As a great all-around athlete, Gibson frequently played in the outfield when he wasn’t on the mound.
Fortunately, Gibson ended up choosing baseball as his profession over basketball, but it wasn’t a sure thing. Gibson was chosen in 1957 to join a group of college all-stars who faced the Harlem Globetrotters. The Globetrotters later signed Gibson, and he spent an offseason with the team before the Cardinals paid him enough to put his focus on baseball.
Gibson signed with the Omaha Cardinals in June of 1957. Splitting the season with Omaha and the Columbus (Ga.) Foxes of the South Atlantic League, Gibson showed some control problems early on. He walked 61 batters in 85 innings against 49 strikeouts, ending his first pro season with a 6-4 record and a 4.02 ERA.
Gibson turned things around with strong performances for Omaha and Rochester in 1958. While pitching for the Omaha Cardinals, he unexpectedly outdueled the Miami Marlins’ Satchel Paige on August 3. He only got into the game because Omaha’s starter, Lynn Lovenguth, was booted from the game by manager Cot Deal after he complained about the team’s poor defense. Gibson came on in relief and ended up with the 5-1 win. There were only 3,420 at the game, but those in attendance saw two of the 20th Century’s best pitchers — one in the twilight of an amazing career, and one just getting started.
It took Gibson a couple of seasons to entrench himself in the Cardinals starting rotation. He made the team out of spring training in 1959 and pitched three games in relief before being sent back to the minors. He was brought up again for a start on July 30 and shut out Cincinnati 1-0 on 8 hits, 3 walks and 2 strikeouts. The one run came courtesy of a Ken Boyer double, a Bill White grounder to advance the runner and a Joe Cunningham single.
“I can throw a lot harder, but my shoulder has been a little sore for the past week,” Gibson said after the game. He finished 1958 as a starter but began ’59 back in the pen. When that went badly, the Cardinals sent Gibson back to the minors. He came back later as a swingman and had his worst season in the majors, with a 3-6 record and 5.61 ERA in 86-2/3 innings.
Starting in 1961, the Cardinals finally realized that Gibson was better suited to be a starter, and they kept him in the rotation, aside from a few occasional emergency relief appearances. He’d maintain his spot in the Cards’ rotation for the next 15 years.
Gibson’s 1961 season was a solid one, with a 13-12 record and a 3.24 ERA. He completed 10 of his 27 starts but led the National League with 119 walks. The Cardinals team as a whole was a work in progress, as it finished fifth in the NL with 80 wins. Stan Musial was wrapping up his career, Curt Flood and Tim McCarver were youngsters vying for playing time, and Lou Brock was just breaking in with the Cubs. As the Cardinals improved, so did Gibson. By 1962, he broke 200 strikeouts for the first time with 209, his walks and hits allowed decreased, and he threw 5 shutouts to lead all of baseball. Gibson was named to the first of his nine All-Star teams and won 15 games.
The more he pitched, the better Gibson got. That was his philosophy, and he continued to prove it year after year. “You can’t learn by just sitting around and looking,” he said. “I’ve been able to get a much better idea of what to do out there since I’ve gotten to pitch more.”
Gibson went 18-9 in 1963 as the Cardinals surged up to second place in the NL. He fanned 245 batters, walked 86… and hit 9. One of them was the Giants’ Jim Ray Hart, who ended his first day in the major leagues — July 7 — with a broken shoulder blade. Gibson had to duck a brushback pitch from the Giants’ Juan Marichal and accusations from Giants manager Al Dark after the game. Gibson denied it was intentional, but it was becoming part of Gibson’s reputation in the majors. He was not afraid to pitch inside, and with his fastball, it left many batters stepping gingerly into the box to face him.
“I don’t think the fans understand the brushback pitch,” Gibson explained in 1966. “To the fans, it looks as if you’re deliberately throwing at the batter. But you’re really not… What you’re trying to do is make the batter wonder a bit. You throw them inside to keep them from leaning over into the outside pitches. If you get a guy who is lunging for the outside pitch and then all of a sudden you throw him inside and tight, he’s got to start thinking about the next pitch.”
The Cardinals won the 1964 pennant, and Gibson won 19 games. Though he surrendered 34 homers, tops among all pitchers, he also struck out 270 batters. His real heroics came in the World Series against the Yankees. He was matched up against Mel Stottlemyre in Games Two, Five and Seven. Gibson lost Game Two by a score of 8-3. He worked 8 innings, and it was the only postseason appearance of his career when he didn’t throw a complete game. He came back to beat the Yanks 5-2 in 10 innings, striking out 13 in the process. He and Stottlemyre both came back on two days’ rest for Game Seven, and Gibson overcame home runs by Mickey Mantle, Clete Boyer and Phil Linz to lead St. Louis to a 7-5 win. He was named the World Series MVP for his 2 wins, 3.00 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 27 innings — a record for K’s in a single World Series.
The Cardinals fell to seventh place in 1965, but Gibson won 20 games for the first time and even picked up a save in the All-Star Game by working the final two innings. He struck out Harmon Killebrew and Joe Pepitone to preserve the 2-1 NL win. Gibson ended the day with a sore arm, and catcher Joe Torre had to soak his catching hand in hot water to relieve the swelling from Gibson’s fastballs.
Gibson picked up his 100th career win with a 1-0 3-hitter against the Pirates on June 15, 1966. About the only thing that could stop him was a line drive off the bat of Roberto Clemente on July 15, 1967, that hit him in the leg, breaking his fibula. Incredibly, Gibson stayed in the game and pitched to three more batters before falling to the ground in pain. He was out of action for almost two months but returned in September, winning three more games to put his season record at 13-7.
Gibson was, once again, nearly unhittable in the ’67 World Series against the Red Sox. He started three games, won all of them, and struck out 26 in 27 innings to go with his 1.00 ERA. His 14 hits allowed matched a World Series record low for pitchers who threw three complete games — matching Christy Mathewson.
Then came 1968 — the Year of the Pitcher. However, no pitcher had a better year than Bob Gibson. If fact, you could make an argument that no pitcher in the 20th or 21st Century has ever had a better year than Gibson in 1968. The numbers are the stuff of video games: 22-9 record, 1.12 ERA, 28 complete games, 13 shutouts, 268 strikeouts versus just 62 walks, a WHIP of 0.853. By the end of May, Gibson was just 3-5. For the next two months, Gibson went 12-0 with a 0.50 ERA and 8 shutouts. Unsurprisingly, Gibson walked away with both the Cy Young Award and the MVP after the season. When Major League Baseball lowered the mound by five inches prior to 1969, it wasn’t just because of Gibson. But his ridiculous numbers were a major factor.
The Cardinals didn’t win the 1968 World Series against Detroit, but Gibson set some more records. He won two more games before losing Game 7, extending his World Series winning streak to a record seven games. He struck out 35 batters in the Series, breaking his own record. Gibson’s performance in Game One might be the most dominant pitching performance in the Series after Don Larsen‘s perfect game. He threw a 5-hit, 4-0 shutout while striking out 17 Tigers. Sluggers Al Kaline and Norm Cash fanned three times each, and Willie Horton, Jim Northrup and Bill Freehan went down twice each.
Lowering the mound in 1969 didn’t affect Gibson all that much. He still won 20 games and led baseball with 28 complete games. He did get knocked out of a game on July 4, 1969, when a 10th-inning RBI single by Ron Santo prompted Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst to take Gibson out for Joe Hoerner. It was the first time in 56 starts that he’d been removed from a game mid-inning, dating back to 1967. He earned his second Cy Young Award in 1970 with an NL-best 23 wins, a 3.12 ERA and 274 strikeouts. He became just the third pitcher to win the award multiple times, following Sandy Koufax and Denny McLain.
Starting with his age 35 season in 1971, Gibson’s strikeout totals began to decline noticeably. He injured his knee on a slide in 1970, and the pain remained. He spent three weeks on the disabled list in June 1971 with a torn thigh muscle, but he recovered enough to throw an 11-0 no-hitter against Pittsburgh on August 14. It was career win #202, as Gibson had reached the 200-win plateau 10 days earlier against the Giants. The no-no was a vintage Gibson performance, with 10 strikeouts and pinpoint control. “Gibson was throwing them right where he wanted them,” complained the Bucs’ Bill Mazeroski. “He hit the outside corner every time. I broke two of my bats.”
Gibson made one last All-Star team in 1972, with he had a 19-11 record and 2.46 ERA at the age of 36. After losing his first five decisions, he rattled off an 11-win streak that shut up anyone thinking he was a has-been. Gibson struck out 208 batters and completed 23 of his 34 starts. He started the All-Star Game and worked 2 scoreless innings in a 4-3 NL win.
Gibson reached one last milestone on July 17, 1974, when he fanned Cincinnati’s Cesar Geronimo for his 3,000th strikeout. He joined Walter Johnson (3,508) as the only two pitchers to reach that mark to that point.
Gibson’s last season in 1975 wasn’t up to his standards — a 3-10 record and a 5.04 ERA in 22 appearances, with 14 starts. Gibson was dealing with more injuries, and he still detested losing. The Cardinals honored him with a Bob Gibson Day on September 1, 1975. Governors from Missouri and Nebraska attended, and President Ford sent a letter congratulating the pitcher. He was gifted an RV and spent much of his retirement driving around the country. The Cardinals beat the Cubs 6-3 that day. Brock had three hits, stole three bases and scored twice, apparently determined to deliver a win for his long-time teammate.
Gibson’s last time on the mound came a couple days later against the Cubs on September 3. In an inning of relief work, Gibson gave up 5 runs, including a base-loaded home run to Pete LaCock. He took the loss as the Cubs won 11-6. Years later, the two faced each other in an old-timer’s game, and Gibson drilled LaCock with the first pitch.
In Gibson’s 17-year career, he had a 251-174 record and a 2.91 ERA. He struck out 3,117 batters, which is currently 14th all-time. He made 482 starts among his 528 appearances and completed 255 of those games, including 56 shutouts. He also picked up 6 saves along the way. His postseason pitching record is 7-2 with a 1.89 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 81 innings. As far as hitting goes, Gibson batted .206 and hit 24 home runs, and 2 World Series homers as well. He had 5 homers in 1965, which was as many as teammates Dick Groat, Mike Shannon and Julian Javier hit combined. Gibson had 119 plate appearances; the three Cardinals had a total of 1,183. Along with the 2 Cy Young Awards, the MVP and the two World Series MVP Awards, Gibson also won 9 Gold Glove Awards for his fielding.
Gibson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981, his first year of eligibility, and he was named to MLB’s All-Century Team in 1999. He also wrote a couple of books with Lonnie Wheeler, Stranger to the Game: The Autobiography of Bob Gibson and Pitch by Pitch: My View of One Unforgettable Game. He would also dispute that he was a particularly intimidating presence on the mound. His teammates would not that he was a fine jokester in the locker room — just not on days when he was pitching. “I was always a nice guy,” he said in a 2019 interview. “They just didn’t know it. I got my bluff in early, and I’m glad I did.”
Major League Baseball has put together this wonderful video tribute to Gibson, featuring many of his teammates and contemporaries.
For more information: Omaha World-Herald