Forty years later, Gibson's 1.12 ERA remains magic number

Bob Gibson threw only two basic pitches.

It was all he needed.

Throwing only a blazing fastball and a knee-buckling slider, Gibson made hitters look foolish time and again through power and guile. Gibson didn't just dominate at his peak. He made hitters pray for a swift, easy death.

And never did they pray as much as in 1968.

Ask most historians to name the most important season in Major League Baseball history, and you'll get a lightning-quick response: 1947. That year, Jackie Robinson didn't just break the color barrier and end decades of African-American players being excluded from the game. He did so in style, running away with the Rookie of the Year award that's now named in his honor, flirting with MVP honors and leading the Dodgers to just their second National League pennant in 27 years.

Fixating on 1947 ignores one of the greatest accomplishments in baseball history: On April 8, 1974, Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's "unbreakable" career home run record. Aaron's historic homer came after receiving thousands of angry letters and taunts from baseball fans, many of them threatening his life. Though the big homer came at the start of the season, 1974 became something of a coronation for Aaron, a tribute to both his ability and his courage under fire, just as Robinson had shown a generation earlier.

Yet as great as 1947 and 1974 were for Robinson and Aaron, in between the two lies one of the most amazing performances in the annals of the game. Nineteen sixty-eight was The Year of the Pitcher. And in the Year of the Pitcher, Bob Gibson was the Pitcher of the Year.

Gibson's numbers make the case for one of the greatest seasons ever produced by a starting pitcher. His 1.12 ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals ranks as the third-best mark since 1900, the lowest figure in a season not played in the Deadball era. At a time when complete games were dwindling, Gibson completed 28 of his 34 starts, 13 of them for shutouts. Adjust his accomplishments for the much lower offensive numbers of that season, and Gibson's ERA+ (earned run average normalized against league-wide offensive levels) still ranks sixth among all seasons after 1900, trailing the likes of Walter Johnson, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez.

Forty years later, that 1.12 ERA has retained its place among baseball's immortal numbers. But the statistics alone don't tell the whole story. Dig into the box against Gibson, and he'd stuff a fastball in your ear. Sometimes he'd knock a hitter down for apparently no reason. Then a minute later, teammates would remember. Oh yeah, that guy hit a homer off Gibson a month ago.

"Bob Gibson's demeanor was as menacing and terrifying as any athlete I've ever run across in any sport," said Tim McCarver, Gibson's long-time catcher in St. Louis turned long-time baseball broadcaster for Fox.

Both McCarver and opposing hitters describe Gibson's repertoire as simple, but nearly impossible to hit. When he wasn't striking batters out with that fastball-slider combo, he was often making them hit his pitch. Teammates from that era say they never had to put on a shift defensively. Even an elite hitter like Willie Mays or Aaron wasn't going to pull many pitches off Gibson.

When the Cards faced the Detroit Tigers in the 1968 World Series, Willie Horton tried to get the best of Gibson. Apparently seeking retaliation for some perceived slight, Gibson threw a pitch right at Horton. The Tigers outfielder, a feared slugger in his own right with 36 homers in that offense-challenged year, looked terrified as the pitch bore in on him. Turning away from the plate, he winced. When he turned around again, the ball was nestled in McCarver's glove -- it had veered its way over the plate for strike three.

"It was just so hard to beat him," recalled Cubs slugger and fellow Hall of Famer Billy Williams. "One year, Roberto Clemente hit a line drive that hit him right in the shin. He pitched another five, six innings to finish the game, then it turned out he had a broken leg.

"He fell off the mound going toward first base, so people thought they could bunt against him. But when you'd try to sacrifice, when you thought he couldn't get back, he'd regroup and make a double play. Plus if you tried to bunt, he might throw one under your chin the next time."

That was the thing about Gibson. Describe his greatness for longer than a few seconds, and you inevitably come back to how surly he was, how intimidating, even terrifying. Opposing hitters suffered the brunt of his wrath, of course. But Gibson also hated talking to the media (he declined to comment for this story). One clubhouse legend describes a scene where reporters were hovering around his locker, grilling him about an arm injury. After a while, Gibson grew so sick of their questions he pinned a note to his chest, advising the scrum that no, it doesn't hurt, and "not much longer," as in, he'll be back soon. Just like that, no one had anything left to ask.

Gibson's focus, and thus his foul mood, became most evident on days when he pitched. Happy to grab dinner and drinks and kibitz with teammates after games, you never heard a word from Gibson in the hours and minutes leading up to him taking the mound. His teammates quickly learned not to mess with him during those moments, or any time during a game when he was pitching, for that matter.

"I went to the mound once after he'd put a couple men on base," said Dal Maxvill, a 14-year major league veteran and the starting shortstop on the '68 Cardinals. "I started to say something to him, like, 'Things are fine.' He looked me right in the eye and said, 'Get out of here. The only thing you know about pitching is that it's hard to hit.'"

Sure, some pitchers might object to the shortstop coming over to give advice. But most understand and appreciate that his catcher's role is to keep him focused on the hitter and throwing strikes. Gibson was not one of those pitchers.

"I never went to the mound when he was pitching," said McCarver. "What is a catcher going to tell someone like him -- how to throw a pitch?! Nobody had to tell him what to do. He was as locked in over a 34-start season as any pitcher in the history of the game."

Gibson wasn't the only pitcher to excel in '68. A convergence of great pitching talent, a lull in hitting talent and other variables came together to bring about the Year of the Pitcher. The biggest factor working in pitchers' favor that year was the high mound. At the time, the strike zone was enforced from the armpits to the knees, allowing pitchers with big, riding fastballs to blow smoke by even the game's best hitters. National League hitters hit just .242 that year, with a .299 on-base average and .341 slugging percentage.

No one took better advantage of the pitcher-friendly environment than Gibson. Already adept at striking hitters out on high pitches, he threw high fastballs at will that year, racking up 268 strikeouts. Gibson's intimidating stare and knock-you-on-your-butt approach scared hitters all the more when he threw from that high (a new rule lowering the height of the mound from 15 inches to 10 was instituted in 1969). The onslaught was relentless, too, with Gibson grabbing the ball from his catcher, rearing back and firing again before a hitter could stop shaking from the previous pitch.

"When he and Fergie [Cubs ace Ferguson Jenkins] were pitching, you could always schedule something after the game," Williams said. "The game would be done at 3:30, so you still had a lot of daylight left to go fishing."

Williams was one of many great hitters who felt the full power of Gibson's wrath during the pitcher's famous run that summer. From June 2 through July 30, Gibson threw 99 innings -- and gave up two runs. According to baseball researcher Bill Deane, the two runs Gibson allowed were the result of bad luck more than anything. One came on a catchable wild pitch, the other on a bloop double that landed inches fair. Earlier that season, Don Drysdale set the record for most consecutive scoreless innings with 58 2/3. Orel Hershiser would break that record 20 years later with 59. Yet Gibson's streak is regarded by many as the most dominant stretch of pitching in major league history.

For the Cardinals, the feeling that year was "if we could score a run or two, we were going to win," said Maxvill. "It wasn't just that year either. It was really from '63, all the way through."

"Did he make mistakes that year?" asked McCarver. "Yes, but not many. It was as though he could throw any ball over the plate, to a spot no more than two balls wide. He was almost computerized."

No performance better illustrated Gibson's dominance than Game 1 of the 1968 World Series. Led by Horton, Norm Cash and Al Kaline, the Tigers owned a loaded offense that year, fueling a 103-win season. Gibson's mound opponent was Denny McLain, whose 31-win campaign earned him AL Cy Young and MVP honors. As it turned out, McLain didn't have his best stuff that day, as the Cardinals scored three more runs than they needed.

Gibson had no such problems. Maxvill recalls standing out at short, watching in awe the whole game. He saw six of the first seven Tigers hitters go down on strikes, including Kaline, Cash and Horton back-to-back-to-back. Right-handed hitters watched in horror as Gibson's slider came boring in on their backs only to break over the plate for strikes -- Horton's famous caught-looking at-bat is merely the most famous of Gibson's punchouts that day. Gibson struck out the side twice, including another Kaline-Cash-Horton hat trick in the ninth inning. When the dust settled, he'd shut out the Tigers, allowing just five hits and one walk. His 17 strikeouts set a World Series record that still stands.

The Cardinals would go on to lose that World Series in seven games, failing to repeat after winning it all in '67 (when Gibson won all three of his World Series starts). But Gibson's 1968 masterpiece lives on 40 years later, as the crowning achievement in a season that people will still be talking about 40 years from now.

Jonah Keri is a regular contributor to Page 2. He can be reached at jonahkeri@gmail.com.