- CLASSIC - SportsCentury biography of Bob Gibson

 Monday, July 31
Big Game Bob
 By Larry Schwartz
Special to

When it came to winning "the big game," there were few pitchers who compared with Bob Gibson. As outstanding as the St. Louis Cardinals' scowling righthander was at other times, he was at his most ferocious when the spotlight shined brightest.

Twice in the 1960s this fierce competitor won the seventh game of the World Series (and he might have done it a third time if not for a misjudged fly ball). He holds Series records for winning seven consecutive games and pitching eight straight complete games. And nobody has ever struck out as many batters in a Series game (17) or in a Series (35).

Not that the intense Gibson was a slouch in the regular season. One doesn't get into the Hall of Fame just for October successes. In a 10-year stretch, Gibson averaged 19 wins a season. In a six-year period, he was a 20-game winner five times (the only time he missed was when he was sidelined two months in 1967 after taking Roberto Clemente's line drive on the leg).

And there was that marvelous year of 1968 when Gibson entered the record book for compiling a 1.12 ERA, the lowest number by a National League pitcher in modern times. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder threw 13 shutouts, five consecutively, and in one 92-inning stretch, he allowed only two earned runs. He won the MVP and the first of his two Cy Young Awards.

An intimidating presence who believed the inside part of the plate belonged to him, the hard thrower was the second pitcher in history (Walter Johnson was the first) to strike out 3,000 batters. Overcoming injury and illness, "Hoot" (he was nicknamed after the old cowboy Hoot Gibson) compiled a 251-174 record in his 17 seasons - all with the Cardinals. His 2.91 ERA is ninth lowest of all modern pitchers with at least 3,000 innings.

Gibson was mean and tough on the mound. And not just to the opposition. Once, when catcher Tim McCarver walked out to settle down Gibson, the pitcher told him to get back behind the plate. "The only thing you know about pitching," Gibson said, "is how hard it is to hit."

Gibson himself was a good hitter for a pitcher, batting .303 one year and slugging 26 homers in his career, including two in the World Series. A superb fielder, he won nine straight Gold Gloves from 1965 to 1973.

The youngest of seven children, he was born on Nov. 9, 1935, in Omaha, Neb. His father died of tuberculosis before his birth and his mother Victoria worked in a laundry as she raised her kids in an Omaha ghetto. Gibson's early years were filled with many medical troubles: rickets, pneumonia, asthma, hay fever and a heart problem.

Despite all the illnesses, Gibson became an all-around athlete, starring in baseball, basketball and track in high school. He accepted a basketball scholarship from Creighton in his hometown after he was turned down by Indiana, which already had its quota of black athletes. He also played baseball for Creighton and the Cardinals were impressed enough that they gave him a small bonus to sign in 1957.

However, before deciding that he would devote himself exclusively to baseball, he played basketball one winter with the Harlem Globetrotters. It seems an odd pairing, the serious Gibson and the fun-loving Trotters. But just like the Globetrotters, who almost always won, Gibson always expected to win.

He didn't do much of it, though, in his first two seasons (1959 and '60) with the Cardinals, going 6-11. He became a regular in the rotation in 1961 and though he led the National League in walks with 119, he went 13-12 with a 3.24 ERA. Improving his control and curve, Gibson had a 15-13 record with a 2.85 ERA in 1962. It also was the first of nine 200-strikeout seasons (208, compared to 95 walks).

Gibson was on his way. In the next 10 seasons, he won 191 games. In 1964, the Cardinals rallied to overtake Philadelphia, winning the pennant by a game over the Phillies and Cincinnati Reds. Gibson did his part by winning nine of his last 11 decisions, including the pennant clincher as a reliever on the season's final day, to give him a 19-12 record. What made his performance even more impressive was that he pitched much of the season with severe arthritis in his right elbow, causing him quite a bit of pain.

Gibson lost his first Series start to the New York Yankees in Game 2. He pitched eight innings, the only time he would fail to complete a game in nine Series starts. He gained a complete-game, 10-inning victory in Game 5 and then, pitching on two days rest and in pain, won the seventh game. The score was 8-5, with all the Yankees runs coming on three homers. "He pitched the last three innings on guts," manager Johnny Keane said about the Series MVP.

Three years later, Gibson won the postseason honor again. He had missed two months of the 1967 season because of the Clemente line drive that broke his leg, but returned to pitch the pennant clincher against the Phillies in September. This was his only non-20-win season from 1965 to 1970, as he went 13-7. His teammates were delighted he was back as he won Games 1, 4 and 7 of the Series, limiting the Boston Red Sox to just three runs and 14 hits while striking out 26 in 27 innings.

In 1968, Gibson dominated. Completing 28 of his 34 starts (304 2/3 innings), he went 22-9, with a 15-game winning streak. He won his only strikeout title with 268. The opening game of the Series matched, for the first time, Cy Young Award winners. Gibson was up to the challenge, striking out a record 17 Tigers in outdueling 31-game winner Denny McLain, 4-0. He beat McLain again in Game 4, and also homered in the 10-1 rout.

Gibson had a different mound opponent in Game 7, Mickey Lolich, and the two locked up in a scoreless battle until centerfielder Curt Flood uncharacteristically misjudged a fly ball, allowing Jim Northrup's drive in the seventh inning to land for a two-run triple. While Gibson lost 4-1, he set the strikeout record with 35. In his nine Series games, Gibson had a 7-2 record with a 1.89 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 81 innings.

The overpowering pitching by Gibson, McLain and others contributed to a significant change for 1969 - the lowering of the mound five inches in order to put more offense back into the game. It didn't bother Gibson much as he went 20-13 with a 2.18 ERA and 269 strikeouts. In 1970, he won a career-high 23 games, against just seven losses, with a personal-best 274 strikeouts and a 3.12 ERA. This performance earned him his second Cy Young Award.

Gibson pitched his only no-hitter on Aug. 14, 1971, striking out 10 Pirates and walking three in an 11-0 victory.

Arthritis and injuries took their toll and Gibson had losing records his final two seasons. He joined Johnson in the 3,000-strikeout club when he fanned the Reds' Cesar Geronimo on July 17, 1974 on his way to a total of 3,117 strikeouts. When he retired at 40 after going 3-10 in 1975, he had 56 shutouts and had completed 255 of his 482 starts.

Gibson became a part owner of a bank and radio station in Omaha. He also stayed in baseball as an attitude coach of the New York Mets (1981), Atlanta Braves pitching coach (1982-84) and Cardinals bullpen coach (1995), as a television analyst and as a consultant to former American League president Gene Budig. Since 1996 he has worked for the Cardinals as a special instructor for their pitchers during spring training.


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