erik lundegaard

Sunday October 04, 2020

Bob Gibson (1935-2020)

I practically cried when I heard about this Friday night. Why in this awful year did this latest awful bit of news make me almost break down? Was it the pile-on aspect of it all—not just the horror of Trump, not just the horror of Covid, not just wildfire smoke blanketing my city, but the loss of so many towering figures: from John Prine to John Lewis; from Chadwick Boseman to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In the last month alone, in the world of sports alone, we've lost Tom Seaver, Lou Brock and Gale Sayers. It wears you down. I think of Shakespeare: When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.

I also think it's partly this: Bob Gibson doesn't die. No. Bob Gibson stares you down and then comes at you. He brushes you inside. He plunks you in the ribs without a thought. He was so well-known for it, other players named the message pitch for him: 

So many stories. He brushed back Reggie Jackson in an Old-Timers game because the previous Old-Timers game Jackson had the temerity to hit a homerun off him. He was so competitive he wouldn't talk to fellow National Leaguers during the All-Star Game because they were the enemy and he didn't want to lose his edge. The New York Times obit mentions he lost two months of the 1967 season when a line drive off the bat of Roberto Clemente broke his leg, but not the fact that he kept pitching in that game for three more batters. He had a broken leg and kept pitching.

This may be my favorite Gibson story. I read it in the New York Times 25 years ago. It was for a department called “A Question for...” and this question went to Gibson's former battery mate Tim McCarver, who had since become a loquacious color announcer:

What's the most boring part of baseball?
When the pitcher gets on base and they stop the game to bring him a jacket—so the guy's arm won't get cold. That's boring. What does he need a jacket for? His arm's not going to get cold. Another boring part is the small talk a first baseman will make with a base runner. They'll ask: “How ya hittin' 'em? How's the family?” And they could care less. It's the “Have a nice day” syndrome. I hated it, and Bob Gibson really hated it. One time, against the Expos, Bob got on and [ first baseman ] Ron Fairly told him, “Hey, you're throwing well.” Fairly came up to bat a couple innings later and Gibson hit him square in the ribs. I think more players ought to retaliate like that.

I laughed so hard at that. By then, Ron Fairly had become our loquacious color announcer, so all the elements were perfect. Everyone acted as they do—Fairly gabbed, Gibson plunked—and the result was comedy. One wonders if Fairly got the message. I doubt it. I assume everyone kept acting the same. 

I didn't know all this at first. Gibson was in the NL, I was in an AL city, and I didn't start watching baseball really until 1969 or '70, a year or two after his great 1.12 ERA season, and the record-setting 17 Ks in the first game of the 1968 World Series. From 1964 to 1968 he won seven World Series games in a row, and for most of that he was unhittable. From Game 1 in '67 to Game 4 in '68 he started five games, completed five games, and went 5-0 with a 53-8 K/BB ratio and a 0.80 ERA. Yes, that's right: 0.80. In 45 innings, he gave up just four earned runs. The opposition batting average against him was .199. Sorry, that's the oppositiion on-base percentage. And in the most important games of the year. He dominated October—but the Octobers before I began to watch. The Cardinals didn't make the postseason when I was first watching. 

No, my first impression of him was via one of those story booklets that came with Topps baseball cards in 1970. Topps made 24 of them—one for each team?—and you got a bit of a player's life but without their personality, really. Everyone had the same personality. Think Bazooka Joe:

(Thanks to RoundtheDiamond87)

The Globetrotters thing was true, and so incongruous once you realized who he was. Later, I read a quote from him dismissing his time with the Globetrotters. He said there was too much “clowning around.” That, too, made me laugh.

I think I got to know his true personality via Roger Angell and Roger Kahn and Joe Posnanski. It was from the stories the other players told. In his countdown of the greatest 100 players of all time, Posnanski put Gibson at No. 45, in honor of his number, and because it kind of felt right. He tells a story about Gibson's older brother, LeRoy, called Josh for no apparent reason, that should be made into an HBO movie. 1947 opened doors for Black Americans, and Josh saw an opportunity for his kid brother, and drilled him every day in the basics to make sure when the time came he'd bust through those doors. “It wasn't a prophecy,” Posnanski writes. “It was an order.”

Poz also told the other stories, the stories that apparently Gibson tired of, because he felt it overshadowed the other aspects of his game. But that's what happens. Who can keep the whole equation in mind? Sometimes not even friends and family. Posnanski quotes advice that Hank Aaron gave to a young Dusty Baker about Gibson and turned it into a poem. Or it was already a poem and Poz just recognized it was and broke it into lines:

Don't dig in against Bob Gibson.
He'll knock you down.
He'd knock down his own grandmother.
Don't stare at him, don't smile at him, don't talk to him.
He doesn't like it.
If you happen to hit a home run, don't run too slow.
And don't run too fast.
If you want to celebrate, get in the tunnel first.
And if he hits you, don't charge the mound.
Because he's a Golden Gloves boxer.

Baker has his own beautiful quote about the man: “The only people I ever felt intimidated by in my whole life were Bob Gibson and my daddy.”

That's the sadness of it. Even Bob Gibson. He was 84.

Posted at 10:24 AM on Sunday October 04, 2020 in category Baseball  
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