Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, the dominating St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who won a record seven consecutive World Series starts and set a modern standard for excellence when he finished the 1968 season with a 1.12 ERA, died Friday. He was 84.
The Cardinals confirmed Gibson’s death shortly after a 4-0 playoff loss to San Diego ended their season. He had long been ill with pancreatic cancer in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska.
Gibson’s death came on the 52nd anniversary of perhaps his most overpowering performance, when he struck out a World Series record 17 batters in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series against Detroit.
One of baseball’s most uncompromising competitors, the two-time Cy Young Award winner spent his entire 17-year career with St. Louis and was named the World Series MVP in their 1964 and ‘67 championship seasons. The Cards came up just short in 1968, but Gibson was voted the National League’s MVP and shut down opponents so well that baseball changed the rules for fear it would happen again.
Gibson died less than a month after the death of a longtime teammate, Hall of Fame outfielder Lou Brock. Another pitching great from his era, Tom Seaver, died in late August.
“I just heard the news about losing Bob Gibson and it’s kind of hard losing a legend. You can lose a game, but when you lose a guy like Bob Gibson, just hard,” Cardinals star catcher Yadier Molina said. “Bob was funny, smart, he brought a lot of energy. When he talked, you listened. It was good to have him around every year. We lose a game, we lose a series, but the tough thing is we lost one great man.”
At his peak, Gibson may have been the most talented all-around starter in history, a nine-time Gold Glove winner who roamed wide to snatch up grounders despite a fierce, sweeping delivery that drove him to the first base side of the mound; and a strong hitter who twice hit five home runs in a single season and batted .303 in 1970, when he also won his second Cy Young.
Averaging 19 wins a year from 1963-72, he finished 251-174 with a 2.91 ERA, and was only the second pitcher to reach 3,000 strikeouts. He didn’t throw as hard as Sandy Koufax, or from as many angles as Juan Marichal, but batters never forgot how he glared at them (or squinted, because he was near-sighted) as if settling an ancient score.
Gibson snubbed opposing players and sometimes teammates who dared speak to him on a day he was pitching, and he didn’t even spare his own family.
“I’ve played a couple of hundred games of tic-tac-toe with my little daughter and she hasn’t beaten me yet,” he once told The New Yorker’s Roger Angell. “I’ve always had to win. I’ve got to win.”
Equally disciplined and impatient, Gibson worked so quickly that broadcaster Vin Scully joked that he pitched as if his car was double-parked. He had no use for advice, scowling whenever catcher Tim McCarver or anyone else thought of visiting the mound.
“The only thing you know about pitching is you can’t hit it,” Gibson was known to say.
His concentration was such that he seemed unaware he was on his way to a World Series single game strikeout record (surpassing Sandy Koufax’s 15) in 1968 until McCarver convinced him to look at the scoreboard.
During the regular season, Gibson struck out more than 200 batters nine times and led the National League in shutouts four times, finishing with 56 in his career. In 1968, thirteen of his 22 wins were shutouts, leading McCarver to call Gibson “the luckiest pitcher I ever saw. He always pitches when the other team doesn’t score any runs.”
He was, somehow, even greater in the postseason, finishing 7-2 with a 1.89 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 81 innings. Despite dominating the Tigers in the 1968 Series opener, that year ended with a Game 7 loss — hurt by a rare misplay from star center fielder Curt Flood — and a rewriting of the rules that he would long resent.
Gibson’s 1.12 ERA in the regular season was the third lowest for any starting pitcher since 1900 and by far the best for any starter in the post-dead-ball era, which began in the 1920s.
His 1968 performance, the highlight of the so-called “Year of the Pitcher,” left officials worried that fans had bored of so many 1-0 games. They lowered the mound from 15 to 10 inches in 1969 and shrank the strike zone.
“I was pissed,” Gibson later remarked, although he remained a top pitcher for several years and in 1971 threw his only no-hitter, against Pittsburgh.
Gibson had a long major league career even though he was a relatively late bloomer and was in his early 30s in 1968. Signed by the Cards as an amateur free agent in 1957, he had early trouble with his control, a problem solved by developing one of baseball’s greatest sliders, along with a curve to go with his hard fastball. He knew how to throw strikes and how to aim elsewhere when batters stood too close to the plate.
Hank Aaron once counseled Atlanta Braves teammate Dusty Baker about Gibson.
“Don’t dig in against Bob Gibson; he’ll knock you down,” Aaron said, according to the Boston Globe. “He’d knock down his own grandmother if she dared to challenge him. 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, don’t run too fast. If you happen to want to celebrate, get in the tunnel first. And if he hits you, don’t charge the mound, because he’s a Gold Glove boxer.”
Only the second Black (after Don Newcombe) person to win the Cy Young Award, he was an inspiration when insisting otherwise. Gibson would describe himself as a “blunt, stubborn black man” who scorned the idea he was anyone’s role model and once posted a sign over his locker reading “I’m not prejudiced. I hate everybody.”
But he was proud of the Cards’ racial diversity and teamwork, a powerful symbol during the civil rights era, and his role in ensuring that players did not live in segregated housing during the season.
He was close to McCarver, a Tennessean who would credit Gibson with challenging his own prejudices, and the acknowledged leader of a club which featured whites (McCarver, Mike Shannon, Roger Maris), blacks (Gibson, Brock and Flood) and Hispanics (Orlando Cepeda, Julian Javier).
“Our team, as a whole, had no tolerance for ethnic or racial disrespect,” Gibson wrote in “Pitch by Pitch,” published in 2015. “We’d talk about it openly and in no uncertain terms. In our clubhouse, nobody got a free pass.”
Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty, who is Black, grew close to Gibson in recent years. The right-handers would often talk, the 24-year-old Flaherty soaking up advice from the great who wore No. 45.
“That one hurts,” said Flaherty, the Cardinals’ losing pitcher Friday night. “He’s a legend, first and foremost, somebody who I was lucky enough to learn from. You don’t get the opportunity to learn from somebody of that caliber and somebody who was that good very often.”
“I had been kept up on his health and where he was at. I was really hoping it wasn’t going to be today. I was going to wear his jersey today to the field but decided against it,” he said.