The internet often combines the worst aspects of the Tower of Babel and the Library of Alexandria in that it’s often hard to search out objective truth amidst smoldering, unsorted chaos intermixed with invective spewed from a fire hydrant the size of the Olympus Mons. One great exception is baseball, where there is a surfeit of old footage available that can validate the greatness that accrued to players of previous eras. One of those is St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson, whose historic 1968 World Series Game 1, a tour de force performance in which he struck out 17 Detroit Tigers in nine shutout innings, can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.
Gibson, who died Friday at the age of 84, stood six-foot-one but, viewed at the height of his powers from the worm’s eye, on-deck circle view of the plate that NBC favored, looked much taller. What baseball has gained in accuracy over the years it has lost in mystery: Going on 33 years old but at the height of his powers, Gibson hurls fastballs that, the game taking place before the proliferation of radar readings, invokes literally measureless appreciation. We can’t know precisely how much movement his cut fastball and surprisingly hard-thrown slider had, we can only watch the Tigers hitters commit to swinging at what they think is a fastball until the pitch makes its last-second turn in on a right-handed hitter or away from a lefty.
Really the only thing we can observe with complete accuracy is Gibson’s trademark intensity of focus. St. Louis’s Busch Stadium was a notoriously intemperate environment; asked what he thought of the ballpark when it opened in 1966, Casey Stengel said, “It sure holds the heat well.” Gibson also typically pitched with a long-sleeved sweatshirt regardless of the weather. That said, game-time temperature that October 2 was only about 80 degrees, and to look back at Gibson is to see a man perspiring more intensely than anyone else in the ballpark. Let’s not romanticize body chemistry: The heavy sheen on Gibson was probably just a quirk of biology—some people sweat more easily, more profusely than others—but it is tempting to see the pitcher’s saltwater-beaded face as being the exteriorization of a tenuous path to that moment that brooked no relaxation, this despite Gibson already having won five World Series games (and thereby two World Series) to that point in his career.
Intensity is also a quirk, not only of biology, but also of an interaction of personality and personal history. Some people meet obstacles and are deflected by them. Gibson could have been knocked off his path many times, for this simple reason: Though in 1940 Gibson’s hometown of Omaha, Nebraska had a population of about 224,000 and African Americans made up only 5 percent of that number, the city still possessed segregated public housing, or, as Gibson referred to it, a ghetto. It had discrimination in other forms as well—when Gibson, who had established himself as a promising amateur player, reached Omaha Technical High School, he was told he could not play baseball because he had supposedly applied a day late. The real reason was that the coach did not allow Blacks on the team. Similarly, when Gibson applied to colleges, he was told he could not be offered a basketball scholarship to Indiana University because the team had already admitted its “quota of Negroes.”
No wonder, then, that he seemed to pitch in anger. His first autobiography, From Ghetto to Glory, written with the sportswriter Phil Pepe, was published after the Cardinals’ triumph in the 1967 World Series. Gibson was credited with the win in three of the team’s four victories, having pitched three complete games, allowed just three runs in 27 innings, and hit a home run in Game 7. As in 1964, when he had been instrumental in defeating the dynastic New York Yankees (and effectively ending that dynasty), he was named World Series Most Valuable Player. Despite these achievements and accolades, he expressed contempt for his own place in the world:
In a world filled with hate, prejudice, and protest, I find that I too am filled with hate, prejudice, and protest. I hate phonies. I am prejudiced against all those who have contempt for me because my face is black and all those who accept me only because of my ability to throw a baseball. I am not proud of that ability. It is not something I earned or acquired or bought. It is a gift. It is something that was given to me—just like the color of my skin.
Simultaneously, when asked to be a civil rights leader, or even a role model, he demurred. Prior to that historic World Series start in St. Louis, a reporter asked Gibson to comment on a civil rights demonstration also taking place in the city. “What do you think of the Black people demonstrating under the arch?” the reporter asked. “I don’t give a fuck,” Gibson replied. “I’ve got a ballgame to pitch.” In 1970, Gibson asked, “Why do I have to be an example for your kid? You be an example for your kid.”
This was disingenuous, as Gibson well knew the value of father figures, even if the individual in question wasn’t actually one’s father. His father had died before he was born. His older brother Josh (no relation to the great Negro Leagues slugger of the same name) took on that role and, by all evidence, performed it incredibly well. He coached Bob in his early athletic endeavors and, in 1947, when Gibson was just 11, explained to him how what Jackie Robinson was going through that summer might just open up possibilities for him as well.
Having that kind of support must have allowed Gibson to develop his famously standoffish sense of self-possession. Roger Angell described Gibson the pitcher as wearing a “habitual aura of glowing intensity on the mound [which] seemed to deepen towards rancor.” Tim McCarver, Gibson’s catcher for much of his career, was occasionally sent out to the mound by their manager to calm Gibson. This is a common tactic on the part of managers and catchers, so common that Major League Baseball now curtails the number of these visits per game. Gibson didn’t like them either; he was a fast worker and wasn’t inclined towards conversation in any case. McCarver later said that, caught between Gibson’s hostility and the manager’s insistence, he would sometimes go halfway to the mound as a way of placating both sides. On one occasion when McCarver actually made it up to Gibson’s redoubt, the pitcher snarled, “What are you doing here? Just give me the ball. The only thing you know about pitching is that it’s hard to hit.”
Gibson’s 1968 season redefined the very concept of “hard to hit.” He dominated pitching in a year in which the game had become so unbalanced that the average major league player hit just .237 and, in the American League, Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox won the batting title despite averaging just .301. Gibson’s 1.12 ERA was recognized as the all-time single-season record, surpassing Walter Johnson’s 1.14 of 1913. To observe that Gibson did that in a year which saw the average pitcher post an ERA of 2.98 seems to imply that it needs to be discounted for context (even Gibson later wrote, “at the time I wasn’t that impressed myself… for all the great players around, nobody really hit that year”). That could not be further from the truth. In any sport, the better a league’s talent level, the harder it is to escape the gravity of being average; it takes extraordinary talent to out-perform a group of athletes who are extraordinarily talented themselves. To put it another way, the universe has rarely aligned in such a way that the perfect player has been placed in the perfect environment at the perfect time. At the height of baseball’s turn-of-the-millennium offensive boom, the Colorado Rockies never possessed a Ted Williams type who would have been able to fully exploit having the perfect bat in the perfect high-altitude place at the perfect time.
Some of that missed opportunity is due to the fact that nature doesn’t make too many Williamses or Gibsons to start with—that’s why they’re special. Some is that the Rockies have generally been so poorly run that had they been presented with a Williams they might not have known what to do with him. Presented with Gibson, the Cardinals did know, only just barely, and thus got to enjoy the confluence of a player and the environment required for him to set records.
Even then, Gibson’s era provokes misplaced skepticism. Yes, 1968 was the “Year of the Pitcher,” but the things Gibson did that year, such as pitching 13 shutouts, including five straight in the month of June, were only a refinement of what he had done and would continue to do: Over the course of his career he would win 20 or more games a season five times and 251 overall; pitch a no-hitter; retire as the all-time National League leader in strikeouts; take home two Cy Young awards, the 1968 Most Valuable Player award, two World Series Most Valuable Player awards, and receive nine Gold Gloves—these last souvenirs of the same athleticism that earned him a spot on the Harlem Globetrotters early in his career. The Globetrotters’ high-agility showboating wasn’t for Gibson, but he could keep up if he wanted to. He was a first-ballot baseball Hall of Famer in 1981.
Gibson was repeatedly told he could not do these things, usually for reasons of race rather than an objective evaluation of his talent. When Gibson first reached the majors in 1959, his manager was Solly Hemus, a recently-retired Cardinals infielder who was 36 going on three. He told both Gibson, then 23, and his 21-year-old teammate Curt Flood, also an African American and soon to be one of the game’s great defensive outfielders, that they would never succeed in the major leagues. Either Hemus was one of the worst scouts in the history of baseball or some cosmetic quality the two players shared had clouded his vision.
And it wasn’t just Hemus. When Gibson reached the majors, just 12 years had passed since Jackie Robinson, and despite his success and that of so many players of color who followed him, certain pernicious myths persisted. One can count the number of Black starting pitchers in the years before Gibson on very few fingers because, despite trailblazers like the Brooklyn Dodgers battery of pitcher Don Newcombe and catcher Roy Campanella, Blacks were thought by white baseball men to lack the brains to play the more cerebral positions. Newcombe, Joe Black, Toothpick Sam Jones, and the aging Satchel Paige helped put the lie to that racist sentiment for moments at a time, but it was Gibson who made it an implausibility for all but the most twisted of bigots.
“It’s nice to get attention and favors,” he told Angell in his retirement years, “but I can never forget the fact that if I were an ordinary Black person, I’d be in the shithouse like millions of others.” In the aftermath of the 1968 World Series, Gibson was asked if he was surprised by his performance. “I’m never surprised by anything I do,” he replied. At the time, this was viewed as arrogance. It should have been seen as practiced self-defense.
That’s not to say that Gibson wouldn’t have kept his distance given a more egalitarian set of life experiences. “I don’t like all of this personal contact with the press,” he said. “The press expects everyone to be congenial. Everyone’s not congenial.”
That lack of approachability hurt Gibson after his 1975 retirement, or maybe that too was just an excuse to deny a no-bullshit pitcher of color a job, a putting-him-in-his-place gesture that couldn’t be carried out so long as he was dominating on the mound. Former teammate Joe Torre was the only career baseball man who showed any interest in Gibson, employing him as a coach with the 1981 New York Mets, the 1982-1984 Atlanta Braves, and the 1995 St. Louis Cardinals. That last required a change in team management, a preliminary to Anheuser-Busch ownership—the same ownership and executives that had known Gibson intimately (though perhaps not on terms they thought fitting) going back to his earliest playing days—selling the team. Between Torre assignments in 1982, Gibson had applied to manage the Cardinals’ Triple-A team at Louisville. Louisville ownership was prepared to offer him the job provided the parent organization approved. It did not. No explanation was ever given.
Game 5 of the 1964 World Series took place at Yankee Stadium, long a bastion of segregated baseball even years After Jackie. Prior to the series, the Yankees’ scouts told their players that Gibson’s pitching style was to “nibble” at the plate. This was like saying Tyrannosaurus Rex nibbled. In Game 5, Gibson went 10 innings, allowing only a two-run home run to Tom Tresh while striking out 13. He walked two, and 10 innings of baseball lasted just two hours, 37 minutes: no nibbling. The win was the first of Gibson’s record seven consecutive World Series victories.
It almost didn’t happen; Cards manager Johnny Keane, who was as supportive of Gibson as Hemus was dismissive, tabbed him to start Game 7 on only two days’ rest. Exhausted, Gibson labored but still took a 7-3 lead into the ninth. In his second autobiography, Gibson explained why his extreme focus was mistaken for hostility. “I’d like to think that the term ‘intensity’ comes much closer to summarizing my pitching style than do qualities like meanness and anger, which were merely devices. Intensity, to me, was a matter of focus and desire and energy and power, all packed into nine hellacious innings.” Intensity, though, will only take you so far when you’ve been used as often and as long as Keane used Gibson that fall. The manager sent him back out for the ninth, but knowing he was gassed, just told him to throw the ball over the plate and let the Yankees hit it. “They’re not going to hit four home runs off you.”
Keane was only half-wrong. The Yankees hit two. Still, Keane left Gibson in the game. After, he was asked why he had stuck with the pitcher despite his obvious fatigue. Keane’s reply: “I had a commitment to his heart.” That heart was Bob Gibson’s greatest strength. It’s counterintuitive, but the fact that Johnny Keane was one of the few white men in a position of authority to recognize that he possessed it was the reason that Gibson had needed to cultivate it in the first place. “My pitching career,” Gibson said, “offers a lot of evidence to the theory that baseball is a mental discipline as much as a physical one.” Keane had made a commitment to Bob Gibson’s heart. Bob Gibson had had to make a commitment to himself.