Wednesday, December 16, 2009

High and Inside: Appreciating Bob Gibson

It all came together in the summer of 1967, when I was eight years old, and baseball entered my life for good. I caught my first fly ball that summer, a high arcing loop hit by a fungo from my little league coach. A bright, blue sky in the background, the whiteness of the ball reflecting the sun’s glare, my eyes were glued on the rotating seams as the ball sailed high in the air, drifted ten feet to my right and landed square in the web of my glove. Learning to overcome the fear of the ball and recognizing my capacity for the game bestowed a quiet confidence in me – on the baseball diamond – that has remained with me ever since. From that moment forward, there was no ball hit in my direction that I could not glove, or so I believed – the most important dimension of any sport. A bond was formed between baseball and me. The smell of grass in the air, the feel of leather on my hand, the sound of the ball connecting with a wooden bat, the beauty of the fenced-in green fields and perfectly dimensioned base paths, this became my religion. Hitting, fielding, and throwing a baseball became part of my everyday existence as the game took on a higher dimension. Baseball was more than just a game; it was a serious activity with meaning and purpose. Above all, it exposed my competitive instincts. I became someone who wanted to win, who needed to win, my identity tied to success or failure on the baseball field.

It was during that summer I first learned of Bob Gibson, the great pitching ace of the St. Louis Cardinals. As a young boy with a love of baseball and a passion for the Cardinals, there was no player I wished to emulate more than Gibson. From the na├»ve and innocent longings of a young child in central New Jersey, Gibson was everything I desired to become – a talented athlete, a great competitor, a winner.

I recently stumbled across a Bob Costas interview of Gibson and Tim McCarver on the MLB Network, which caused me to reflect on Gibson and his significance to me. When I think of Gibson, a portion of me reverts to when, as a nine year-old boy, I watched on our black-and-white television as Gibson pitched the first game of the 1968 World Series, striking out seventeen Detroit Tigers and setting an all-time Series record that stands to this day. Watching Gibson pitch was like observing a great artist at work. He had a full, overhead windup and a graceful, athletic delivery. His left leg kicked and looped around his waist as he leaned back, peering over his left shoulder, until his body shifted toward home plate. When he delivered the pitch, his arms flailed as his right leg sweeped across his body with a sudden sidewise rush that finished with all his weight on his right foot, wrenching his body and all his momentum toward first base. As Roger Angell described it in Late Innings (Ballentine Books, 1982), “the pitch and its extended amplifications made it look as if Gibson were leaping at the batter, with hostile intent. He always looked much closer to the plate at the end than any other pitcher; he made pitching seem unfair.”

For much of Gibson’s career, his pitching did indeed seem unfair. In seventeen seasons with the Cardinals, Gibson won 251 games, struck out 3,117 batters, and threw 56 shutouts and 255 complete games. He no-hit the Pirates in 1971 (I still have the newspaper clipping from that one), won two Cy Young Awards (1968 and 1970) and an MVP (1968), nine consecutive gold gloves (1965-1973), and he was the last pitcher to win 20 games and hit for a .300 average (1970). In 1968, his best year, Gibson achieved near perfection, throwing 13 shutouts and finishing with an almost inhuman 1.12 earned run average in 305 innings pitched. Unlike today’s starting pitchers, who rarely throw more than a few complete games in a season, Gibson completed 28 games in 34 starts, and he was not removed once from a game in the middle of an inning all season long. It is difficult to comprehend that Gibson actually lost nine games that season (he finished with a 22-9 record), until you realize he lost five games by a score of 1-0. His teammates provided him with meager run support, averaging just 2.8 runs per game in his starts. “No wonder I was always grumpy,” Gibson later recalled. Gibson’s performance was so spectacular (in a year of many great pitching performances) that the Major Leagues lowered the pitching mound by five inches and shrunk the strike zone in all directions at the start of the 1969 season.

Gibson became my all-time favorite player when I read his book, From Ghetto to Glory (Popular Library, 1968), an autobiographical account of his life and, for me at the age of nine, the first full-length book I ever read. The youngest of seven children, Gibson was raised without a father in the slums of Omaha, Nebraska, when segregation and racism prevailed throughout much of the country. From Ghetto to Glory and a later, updated version, Stranger to the Game (Penguin Books, 1994) exposed Gibson as an exceedingly intelligent and thoughtful man possessed of an honest frankness, a strong sense of justice, and an intensely competitive spirit.

Gibson was such an intense competitor that he hated playing in All-Star games because it required him to talk with players he pitched against all year. He especially hated pitching to a catcher from another team for fear the catcher would discover something about his pitching techniques. He refused to sacrifice any competitive edge he might have. After his record setting performance in the 1968 World Series, a reporter asked him if he had always been as competitive as he appeared that day. Gibson said yes, noting that he had played his young daughter in several hundred games of ticktacktoe and had beaten her every time. Although he said it with a slight smile, no one doubted he spoke the truth. Gibson would not let himself lose to anyone.

As a young boy, I viewed Gibson as nothing short of a hero and role model, yet I have since read that many people perceived Gibson to be somewhat distant, even cold and impersonal at times. I find this interesting if only because it is so at odds with my perception of him. His friends and teammates have always described a warm and caring man who takes seriously the bonds of friendship. Joe Torre, who played with Gibson on the Cardinals in the early 1970’s and became one of his closest friends, told Roger Angell in Late Innings that Gibson “can seem distant and uncaring to some people, but he’s not the cold person he’s been described as. . .. Things go deep with him.” Torre described how Gibson once sent him a photograph of himself and signed it, “Love, Bob.” In the machismo-filled world of professional athletics, Torre asked, “How many other ballplayers are going to do that?”

During the Costas interview, McCarver told the story of how, when he was first called up to the Cardinals as a young catcher in the early 1960’s, manager Johnny Keane urged McCarver to tell Gibson to slow his pace (he was always a very fast worker on the mound). In one game early in the season, Keane instructed McCarver to visit the mound and talk with Gibson. When McCarver approached the pitching mound, Gibson just stared at him with that famous Gibson glare and said, “What are you doing here? Just give me the ball. The only thing you know about pitching is that it is hard to hit.” McCarver walked back to home plate having not said a word. He told Keane between innings, “If you want Gibson to work slower, you tell him.” For the next six years, McCarver refused to approach the mound when Gibson was pitching. That was just how Gibson liked it. Yet despite their different styles and backgrounds, the two men became very close friends and remain so today.

Gibson told Costas that, after he retired, he learned that everyone thought he was mean because he glared in at the batter, as if he was trying to intimidate him. Gibson said this was simply not true. He wore glasses off-the field, and due to his poor vision, he had to squint to see the catcher’s signs. He said had he known that batters were intimidated by him, “I would have tried to look even uglier!”

Gibson’s competitive intensity and mastery of the brushback pitch enhanced his reputation for intimidating opposing hitters. Some thought he intentionally threw at batters, but this was not so and, in Gibson’s mind, smacked of racism. He did what all good pitchers did then, including Drysdale, Koufax, Wynn, and Seaver – he pitched inside to prevent the batter from feeling comfortable at the plate and trying to extend his arms on pitches on the outside corner. As Gibson explained in Stranger to the Game:

I pitched in a period of civil unrest, of black power and clenched fists and burning buildings and assassination and riots in the street. There was a country full of angry black people in those days, and by extension – and by my demeanor on the mound – I was perceived as one of them. There was some truth to that, but it had little, if anything to do with the way I worked a batter. I didn’t see a hitter’s color. I saw his stance, his strike zone, his bat speed, his power, and his weaknesses.
In the world according to Bob Gibson, most batters that get hit have only themselves to blame. They fail to respect the inside pitch and find themselves lunging over the plate, looking for the outside pitch. Gibson believed that the outside part of the plate belonged to him. If he caught a batter leaning to get an advantage, he would drill a fastball six inches inside “to make an honest man out of him.” To Gibson, the brush back is “the most misunderstood pitch in baseball. It is not meant . . . to punish a batter for the pitcher’s own mistake, as is often speculated. If I threw a bad pitch, I deserved to get creamed. But if I threw a good pitch and the batter still hit it hard, then I had to find another way to establish myself. [P]itching inside might be a starting point – to let the batter know, at least, that I’m out there and have to be reckoned with.”

Of course, Gibson willingly took advantage of his reputation. In 1968, after the White Sox traded Tommie Agee to the Mets, Gibson hit Agee on the helmet on the first pitch in the first inning of the first Cardinals spring training game. When Agee slowly rose to his feet, several baseball writers called out, “Welcome to the National League, Tommie!” Agee would never be comfortable batting against Gibson, who had successfully established his presence.

Gibson was all business, in everything he did. He knew no other way. When he played with the Harlem Globetrotters in the late 1950’s (Gibson was a star basketball player in high school and college), Gibson later said that he “hated that clowning around. I wanted to play all the time – I mean, I wanted to play to win.” He played for two seasons before devoting all his energies to baseball.

Gibson’s teammates knew that whatever bond they enjoyed with him as his teammate or friend could work against them as his opponent, should they ever be traded. Bill White, who played first base for the Cardinals and roomed with Gibson in 1964 (when they beat the Yankees in the World Series), was one such friend. When White was traded to the Phillies after the 1965 season, Gibson hit him with a fastball the first time he faced him. As Gibson later explained to Angell, “Even before Bill was traded, I used to tell him that if he ever dived across the plate to swing at an outside pitch, the way he liked to, I’d have to hit him. And then, the very first time, he went for a pitch that was this far outside and swung at it, and so I hit him on the elbow with the next pitch.” For Gibson, this was all part of the game. “That pitch, that part of the plate, belongs to me!”

Gibson is a proud man, confident of his self-worth, and sensitive to racial slights and historical discrimination. A man of strong opinions about race and politics, in his playing days he rarely expressed them in public and did not let his social concerns interfere with his competitive instincts. One day, in 1968, a television reporter asked Gibson about a civil rights demonstration that was taking place that day. Gibson replied, “I don’t give a [expletive]. I have a ballgame to pitch.”

Gibson, however, has always had a strong sense of right and wrong. A victim of racism and extreme poverty, his father died before he was born and Gibson suffered from numerous childhood ailments, including asthma, a heart murmur, and rickets, from which he contracted pneumonia and nearly died; as a young infant, he was bitten on the ear by a rat. He overcame all of this to become a star athlete in high school basketball, baseball, and track, yet he was turned down by Indiana University because it had already filled its quota of black basketball players (one). When he was an 18 year-old sophomore at Creighton University, he accompanied his basketball team to Oklahoma by train to play the University of Tulsa. On the way, Gibson was told that he would not be able to eat or sleep with his teammates when they arrived. “I cried when I was told that,” Gibson recalled to Angell. “I wouldn’t have gone if I’d known. I wasn’t ready for that.” In 1959, when he arrived for spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida, and tried to check into the team hotel, he learned that the black players had to stay in a separate part of town.

Shaped by these experiences, Gibson developed a compassion for the victims of hatred and prejudice. In Late Innings, Angell described an incident many years ago in which another player made anti-Semitic remarks about a Jewish public relations man who was Gibson’s friend. Gibson stopped the player mid-sentence and advised him to keep his distance. “And if I ever pitch against you, I’m going to hit you on the coconut with my first pitch.” (According to Angell, this particular player, fortunately or unfortunately, never faced Gibson).

Curt Flood, who played center field for the Cardinals during most of Gibson’s career, and who was a very close friend of Gibson, once reminiscensed to Peter Goldenbock in an interview published in The Spirit of St. Louis (Spike, 2000) about the human dimension of baseball, about friendships made and bonds formed. Although Flood would eventually change baseball forever when he challenged the reserve clause in a case that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, he reflected on the impact that Gibson and others had on the St. Louis Cardinals teams of 1967 and 1968, and how this racially and geographically diverse group of ballplayers overcame their differences to develop lasting relationships. Flood’s description reinforces for me what I most admire about Bob Gibson, and leaves me with a sense of hope and optimism:

The men of that team were as close to being free of racist poison as a diverse group of twentieth-century Americans could possibly be. Few of them had been that way when they came to the Cardinals. But they changed. The initiative in building that spirit came from black members of the team. Especially Bob Gibson. . . . It began with Gibson and me deliberately kicking over traditional barriers to establish communication with the palefaces.

“How about coming out for a drink after the game?” Hoot [Gibson] would ask a player who had never gone to a bar with a black man in his life. He was turned down more than once. So was I. But the spirit was infectious. After breaking bread and pouring a few with us, the others felt better about themselves and us. Actual friendships developed. Tim McCarver was a rugged white kid from Tennessee and we were black, black cats. The gulf was wide and deep. It did not belong there, yet there it was. We bridged it. We simply insisted on knowing him and on being known in return. The strangeness vanished. Friendship was more natural and normal than camping on opposite sides of a divide which none of us had created and from which none of us could benefit. . . .

It was baseball on a new level. On that team, we cared about each other and shared with each other, and face it, inspired each other. As friends, we had become solicitous of each other’s ailments and eccentricities, proud of each other’s strengths. We had achieved a closeness impossible by other means.

There we were, including the volatile [Orlando] Cepeda, the impossible [Roger] Maris, and the impenetrable Gibson – three celebrated noncandidates for togetherness. There we were – Latins, blacks, liberal whites, and redeemed peckerwoods – the best team in the game and the most exultant. A beautiful little foretaste of what life will be like when Americans finally unshackle themselves.

Towards the end of From Ghetto to Glory, Gibson wrote, “I would much rather be known as Bob Gibson, great American, than Bob Gibson, great baseball player.” Here’s to you, brother.

2 comments:

  1. Great article! Thank you Scrow! Merry Christmas!
    Tom B.

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  2. Tom - Have a blessed and merry Christmas and a peaceful new year. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

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