Gibson

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Bob Gibson. June 2010.

Bob Gibson smiles hard. It’s about to happen again. Over the years, Gibson has learned to tell when someone is about remind him how ferocious… heartless… intimidating he used to be. He has learned to brace himself for those peppy, ‘You were vicious!” compliments (they are compliments, right?) and the awed “You were a killer out there!” tributes (they are tributes, right?). He has learned to see them coming, the fans — they’re definitely fans — who remember him fondly for that glare and those up-and-in fastballs, who think of him as young and raging and invincible, with fury and pride and the purest annoyance oozing from his forehead instead of sweat.

“Mr. Gibson,” this man says. “Oh, do I remember the way you pitched. I remember all those batters you hit. They were so scared of you.”

Yes, Bob Gibson smiles hard. He shakes the man’s hand warmly, and he signs a baseball, and he says thank you in that voice that always surprises, that soft voice tinged with warmth. And it is only when the man has walked away and is long out of hearing range, that Bob Gibson asks — not angrily but with a sense of wonder — “Is that all I did? Hit batters? Is that really all they remember?”

* * *

Bob Gibson thinks this might be the first time in about 50 years that he has talked to a reporter from Sports Illustrated. He isn’t sure — he might have slipped up a couple of times through the years and talked to one by mistake. It’s probably better to say that this is the first time in memory that he has willfully talked with someone from the magazine. Something happened a half century ago that he has not forgotten. He will not forget. He only agrees to talk now because the main topic is Stan Musial. He has deep respect for Stan Musial.

“A good man,” he says. “I remember I was a rookie, and Stan woke me up. I fell asleep on the end of the bench. And the game ended, and Stan walked by and said to me: ‘Game’s over kid. Wake up.’ Stan’s a good man.”

More than one person has made a point about Bob Gibson’s voice: It is so measured, so welcoming, so proper; he sounds like a professor teaching class. The point is usually brought up in irony — the point being that the tenderness of Bob Gibson’s voice does not match the terrifying aura of the man.

Certainly no baseball player, not even Ty Cobb, has had so many stories told about menace. There are two — TWO — famous stories about Gibson throwing at a batter in an Old Timers’ Game. In one Old Timers’ Game, he plunked Pete LaCock, who had the gall to hit a grand slam off Gibson in the last inning of Gibson’s career in the major leagues (after he hit LaCock, Gibson shouted, “I’ve been waiting YEARS to do that”). In another, Gibson brushed back Reggie Jackson, who had the gall to hit a home run off him IN AN EARLIER OLD TIMERS’ GAME.

The stories are enjoyable largely because Gibson is the man pitching — much in the same way that the stories in Curb Your Enthusiasm are funny because it is Larry David in the middle of them. The Gibson stories would not be as fun if you replaced him with, say, Marichal or Feller or Koufax or Seaver or even another intimidating pitcher. There were other renowned intimidators, of course — Wynn and Drysdale, Maglie and Clemens — but Gibson is a man apart. If the name “Lombardi” evokes images of duels in the snow and the cold November mud (as Steve Sabol at NFL Films so memorably suggested), then the name “Gibson” evokes images of a batter lying in a cloud of dust and the merciless man on the mound, glowering, daring, never ceding ground, never forgetting.

A quick scan of famous quotes about Gibson:

Dick Allen: “Gibson was so mean, he’d knock you down and then meet you at home plate to see if you wanted to make something of it.”

Don Sutton: “He hated everyone. He even hated Santa Claus.”

Red Schoendienst: “He couldn’t pitch today because they wouldn’t let him. The way he’d throw inside, he’d be kicked out of the game in the first inning.”

Tim McCarver: “I remember one time going out to the mound to talk with Bob Gibson. He told me to get back behind the plate where I belonged, and that the only thing I knew about pitching was that I couldn’t hit it.”

Dusty Baker: “The only people I ever felt intimidated by in my whole life were Bob Gibson and my Daddy.”

And so on. Perhaps the most telling words about Bob Gibson’s persona came from Hank Aaron in his poetic advice to Dusty Baker (as remembered by Baker):

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.

This is the reputation of Bob Gibson. Inescapable. And unlike ordinary reputation, it seems to grow larger every year. Children whose fathers are not old enough to have seen him pitch, still come up to Gibson to say he’s their favorite pitcher, not because of his 3,117 career strikeouts or his 1.12 ERA in 1968 or his unrelenting brilliance in the World Series. No, it’s because he was mean, tough, a symbol of badass. Gibson smiles when they say that, and he says that he appreciates it, and he certainly feels good for being remembered.

“The only real problem is,” he says, “they got it all wrong.”

* * *

Dusty Baker, now Cincinnati’s manager, seems to have an endless supply of Bob Gibson stories, and he tells another one. He idolized Gibson, of course, and one night he saw Gibson eating in a restaurant. His teammates encouraged him to walk over and say hello. “It’s OK,” they told him. “It’s away from the field. This is a good time. Bob will be happy to talk.” Then, while those teammates snickered, Baker and his wife walked over and, Dusty said, “Excuse me, Mr. Gibson.”

And Gibson looked up and without even a hint of a smile he snarled, “Why the *$*#&$* should I talk to you?” Then he looked past Dusty, to his wife, and said, “It’s very nice to meet you Mrs. Baker.”

The story’s punch line, though, comes years later, when Dusty retold the story to Gibson, now his close friend. The way Dusty remembers it, Gibson nodded, and without even a hint of a smile said: “Well, what do you want? I said hello to your wife.”

* * *

Here’s a question: How tall do you think Bob Gibson is? Before you answer, you might remember that before he played in the big leagues, Gibson played for the Harlem Globetrotters, and he was known for his ferocious dunks. Player after player from his time will talk about the larger-than-life image of him scowling on a pitcher’s mound. “He looked like a giant out there,” his catcher and friend, Joe Torre, will tell you.

So how tall? Six-foot-four? Six-foot-five? Bigger?

No, of course not. Gibson is 6-foot-1. He was inches shorter than Drysdale and Jenkins, Sudden Sam and Gaylord Perry, Koufax and Bob Veale and the other big pitchers of the era. He was, for that matter, an inch shorter than Joe Torre.

But Gibson did not dominate with size, not exactly. And you know what else? He did not dominate by hitting an excessive number of batters, either. Not exactly. He never once led the league in hit-by-pitch. He only once finished in the top three in that category (and that was in 1963, when he was young and still quite wild).

Instead, perhaps, Gibson’s aura grew out of something else. He needed to win. It wasn’t a choice with him. The pain of failure was something that threatened his very existence, something that he simply could not live with. Gibson has never enjoyed revealing much of himself — he certainly did not talk much during his playing days. But he once opened up a bit with The New Yorker‘s brilliant Roger Angell. He said this: “I’ve played a couple hundred games of tic-tac-toe with my little daughter. And she hasn’t beaten me yet. I’ve always had to win. I’ve got to win.”

This is a common theme — the much used “I want to win even if we’re playing ping-pong/tic-tac-toe/tiddlywinks” quote. But Gibson turned it on its head. He doesn’t say that he WOULD NOT let his daughter win at tic-tac-toe. He doesn’t say he HATES LOSING even when playing tic-tac-toe with his daughter.

No, he says that in hundreds of games he NEVER HAD let his daughter win at tic-tac-toe. The games are over. The lessons, if there were lessons, have been learned. And Bob Gibson won.

* * *

What is more intimidating than a man who is hungrier, more determined, willing to go farther to win than you are? What made The Terminator in the first movie so savage, I think, was not that he was strong, and not that he was virtually indestructible, and not that he had Arnold Schwarzenegger’s muscles… but instead it was that he wanted to kill you more than you wanted to stay alive. There is no easy human response to that sort of intensity.

So Bob Gibson looked bigger than 6-foot-1. Yes, by the numbers he only hit 10 or so batters a year, but those 10 never, ever forgot. He threw his 95-mph fastball and savage slider by unfolding into a windup that screamed ancient violence — Bill James would say that Gibson “sort of looks like he is attempting to fly.” This was a windup without guile; it was all business. David used this windup when smiting Goliath. Yes, Gibson didn’t look like he was trying to strike out batters. He looked like he was trying to smite them.

“That’s a whole lot of [expletive],” Gibson says. “I wasn’t trying to intimidate anybody, are you kidding me? I was just trying to survive, man.”

* * *

Nothing came easy to Gibson. He signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1957, and his first stop was Columbus, Ga. — his memories of his eight games in the South in the 1950s are pungent and unpleasant and too personal to talk about. That was how baseball began for him. He made it to the big leagues in 1959, when he was 23, and then got beat around for a year and a half. He became a full-time starter in 1961 and led the league in walks. He was no instant sensation, no Stephen Strasburg. He won 20 games for the first time when he was 29.

And, he felt threatened. “People don’t know what it was like to be a young, black pitcher in those days,” he says, not defensively but as a point of fact. The way Gibson saw it, people wanted him to fail. Hitters wanted him to fail. Racists wanted him to fail. Opposing fans wanted him to fail. And, in they end, he had to beat them all. Every game was a fight to the finish, every hit against him a dagger that could get him sent down, every loss a disaster from which he might not recover.

Yes, he had to figure out ways to beat them all. That is one of the things that people missed. It wasn’t about the fastball. It wasn’t about the slider. It wasn’t about coercion. Hell, he wasn’t getting Henry Aaron out by scaring him. Aaron didn’t scare, no matter what funny quotes he may have offered to the newspapers. No, Gibson couldn’t throw his fastball by Henry Aaron — nobody could. He learned to throw slow stuff to Aaron, tried to get the great man to twist himself into a knot. That was the only thing that might work.

It was always like that. Nothing was easy. You had to match up. Billy Williams owned Gibson’s slider, so he had to throw him something else. Gibson figured out how to pitch Mays, held him to a .196 average over the years. Roberto Clemente couldn’t touch Gibson. But for every Clemente and Mays, there was an Eddie Mathews or a Richie Hebner who hit him hard. He could not rely on being Bob Gibson to get them out — there WERE NO easy outs.

So, he did things, small things, stuff nobody ever noticed, because they were so enraptured with his image as bully. Never throw the same pitch in the same place to the same batter — that was Bob Gibson’s thing. Field every single bunt and ball up the middle — Gibson won nine straight Gold Gloves. Drive in every run possible — Gibson hit .206 with 24 home runs (two more in the World Series) in a low-scoring era, he was a brilliant bunter, and he hit 18 sacrifice flies, more than any other pitcher since they started keeping track. Twenty-six games in his career, Gibson drove in more runs than he allowed.

“It wasn’t easy,” Gibson says. And that’s the point, that’s the thing he’s most proud of, that he kept on going, kept finding new ways, kept answering the challenges, kept winning. And it wasn’t easy.

* * *

Gibson does not blame today’s pitchers for not completing as many games as he did. (AP)

Bob Gibson started nine World Series games. He finished eight of them. The only game he didn’t

finish was his first — that was at Yankee Stadium, 1964. He was pulled for a pinch-hitter with the Cardinals down by three runs in the eighth inning. After that, he went 7-1 with a 1.60 ERA in World Series games. And no manager dared take him out.

The complete games… this comes up often. People are always eager to ask Bob Gibson how he feels about today’s pitchers and the way they come out of games in the fifth or sixth inning. What’s wrong with America? Why can’t people finish games the way Bob Gibson did? They always want to ask him about it, always want to listen to him celebrate himself and his time. Only to ask Gibson this question is to once again misjudge him.

“Pitchers are just doing their jobs, man,” he says. “The game has changed. Pitchers today want to win as much as we did. When I pitched, you were expected to finish what you started, but it’s not like that now. Pitchers have different jobs. There are different expectations.”

Asking Gibson if he likes the new expectations is to misjudge him further. He doesn’t care all that much. He doesn’t watch a lot of baseball now. He watches the Cardinals, of course — he feels like the team has treated him well. Gibson also finds himself rooting quietly for the Dodgers, of all teams, because his close friend, Joe Torre, manages them (“I was even a Yankees fan there for a while, believe it or not,” he says). But, mostly, he has other things to do. He has a different life to live. Baseball does not define him.

This does not change. Bob Gibson has always refused to let any one thing define him.

“This guy came up to me a little while ago,” Gibson says. “Did you hear him? He goes: ‘You were so mean when you pitched. You hit all these guys.’ Stuff like that. I mean, that’s all right, people can think what they want. They can have their own memories. But you know how many times I’ve heard that? And I was thinking: Who comes up to you and says something like that?

“I wasn’t mean. I don’t buy into any of it. I was just doing my job. You hear people talk about this glare that I had. You know, I’ve been wearing glasses for almost 60 years. I wasn’t glaring… I just couldn’t see the catcher’s signals. I was just trying to see. That’s all. But people turn everything into something else.”

He shakes his head. People turn everything in something else. He’s not angry, or anyway he does not sound angry. That voice. So friendly. He seems almost amused by it all — the reputation, the aura, the way people seem endlessly fascinated by the way he looked, the way he threw a baseball. It’s like there was this part he once played, when he was young, this part of a pitcher who scowled and raged and struck out hitters on high fastballs… and that part lives on, grows bigger every year.

Only he doesn’t play the part anymore.

* * *

Gibson leans close and explains why he has not consciously talked to Sports Illustrated for a long time. It is over a story he says ran a long time ago, 50 years ago, a story that was filled with condescension and disdain, a story that quoted him saying “Ahs really hums dat pea,” or some such cringe-inducing and racist thing. Gibson doesn’t remember the precise quote. But he remembers it well enough to still feel its sting.

“You know, a few years ago I was writing my book,” he says, “and I called Sports Illustrated and asked for a copy of that story. And they wouldn’t get it for me. They said they didn’t have it. But I know they have it.”

I tell him that I’m sorry, and he shrugs. “It’s not your fault,” he says. “That’s why I’m talking to you.” I tell him that I will find that story and get him a copy of it. He shrugs again. “It doesn’t matter,” he says.

Only, of course, it does matter. As soon as I got home, I began to look through the Sports Illustrated archives. I looked under Bob Gibson. I looked under Robert Gibson. I looked under Gibby. I looked and looked. I could not find much at first. Gibson is right — he did not spend much time talking with Sports Illustrated through the years. The first story I saw that was entirely about Gibson was in 1963, when he was emerging as one of baseball’s best pitchers. It was about how Gibson had overcome injuries and it quoted umpire Al Barlick saying that Gibson threw harder than any pitcher he had ever seen. That wasn’t it.

There was a short item about Gibson in 1964, a funny little story about how Gibson, when he was pitching at Creighton, faced a promising young hitter named Jesse Bradshaw. Gibson threw one of his high inside fastballs, and it was such a menacing pitch that Bradshaw twisted violently out of the way and swallowed his chewing tobacco. He became the Rev. Jesse Bradshaw not long after that.

Gibson was quoted in the “They Said It” section in 1967: “I get a lot of dopey questions, and women ask some of the silliest. One lady asked me, ‘Are you going to play next year?’”

In late 1967, there was another short item — this one about Gibson visiting a school in a poor area of Omaha. Gibson, for his reputation, was always doing things like this. “We love you, Bob,” a little girl yelled. And the magazine reported with surprise: “Gibson wept.”

In 1968 — that remarkable year of the pitcher when Gibson had a 1.12 ERA and the league hit .184 against him — he offered perhaps his most famous quote: “Too many people think an athlete’s life can be an open book. You’re supposed to be an example. Why do I have to be an example for your kid? You be an example for your own kid.” Gibson does not back off the quote. He says his proudest achievement still was being an example for his son.

Still, though I looked and looked, I could not find the story and the quote that had wounded him. I started over and began looking inside other stories that were not about him. I found that Gibson was mentioned in a story back in 1959 — the story said that the young Gibson (along with fellow rookie Gary Blaylock) might offer some help to the Cardinals. His first big league victory was mentioned in another story about the Cardinals (along with an unrelated quote from Musial saying that he’d been out of the lineup so long “I’ve forgotten the strike zone”).

Gibson was mentioned in passing in Roger Kahn’s story about how pitchers throw at hitters (Gibson had hit Duke Snider with a pitch, fracturing his elbow). In 1962 there was quote from Musial about Gibson: “He’s the fastest I’ve seen over nine innings since I’ve been in the league.” And so on. I could not find the offensive quote. I could not find that story that Bob Gibson remembered.

So I went back to the beginning again. I went through issue-by-issue from Gibson’s rookie year through the mid 1960s. There was one story — a story that has not aged especially well — written in March of 1960 called The Private World of the Negro Ballplayer. The story was a direct effort to get into the inside world of black ballplayers back when nobody else in mainstream America was really trying to do such things. There were 57 black players in the big leagues then — it was only one year after the Red Sox became the last team to bring a black player to the big leagues. The story cannot be judged by today’s sensitivity, of course, but that said, there are paragraphs in it that crash against the ears:

Slang is a rich field. The words mullion, hog-cutter, drinker and pimp apparently came from the Negro leagues. Drinker and pimp barely survive today. A pimp is a flashy dresser, and a drinker — so Jimmy Banks, a Negro Memphis Red Sox first baseman, told me — is “a fielder who can pick it clean. He catches everything smooth. He can ‘drink’ it.” Ernie Banks also told me about some other words, but I have been unable to find them used in the majors. A choo-choo papa was a sharp ballplayer. An acrobat was an awkward fielder. A monty was an ugly ballplayer, and a foxy girl was a good-looking girl. Unfortunately, my research came to an abrupt end when I foolishly asked Banks if he had a nickname. “I’m a ballplayer, man,” he said as he walked away. “I’m not gonna nickname myself. Man, you have to calm down!”

There are no quotes in the story from Gibson… or more to the point there are no quotes that name him. There are, however, a few anonymous quotes in there. There is one in particular, from a pitcher, probably a National League pitcher, that goes like this:

“Negroes play harder against Negroes than against whites. I’d rather anybody in the world get a hit off me than Mays or Aaron. If they hit, they tease me about it, and that doesn’t go down well with me.”

That could be Gibson, of course. There were only a few black pitchers in the big leagues at the time — Earl Wilson… Sam Jones… Don Newcombe was about to retire… a handful of others. That could be Gibson. There’s something about it that superficially sounds like Gibson.

But maybe not. This was 1960 — Gibson had only pitched in 13 big league games when the story came out. And anyway, the quote is not recorded in the insulting language that offends the senses. I kept looking.

But could not find anything else. Maybe I was missing it. Maybe the story had run in another magazine or a newspaper. I did a few other searches in a few other publications, but could not find it.

I have no doubt that the quote is out there, scorching the page, forever spurring a young Bob Gibson to win more, to leave broken bats and broken hitters in his path, to win more, to avoid Sports Illustrated reporters, to win more, to smile hard when fans tell him how scary he once was, to win more, to create a legend that would impress everyone except himself. And, even now, I go back to the beginning, start again, pore through the archives, look more for Bob Gibson’s pain. I still have not found it.


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