I was planning on writing a new piece on Bob Gibson for this series … but I find that almost everything I want to say is in this piece I wrote five years ago. I have edited and reworked for context.
* * *
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?”
* * *
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.
Story 1: Gibson once plunked Pete LaCock in an Old Timers’ Game because 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.”
Story 2: Gibson brushed back Reggie Jackson in an Old Timers’ Game. Why? Because he had the gall to hit a home run off Gibson in an EARLIER OLD TIMERS’ GAME.
The stories are enjoyable almost entirely because Gibson is the man pitching. They would not be as fun if you replaced him with, say, Marichal or Feller or Koufax or Seaver or even another famously intimidating pitcher like Early Wynn or Don Drysdale or Roger Clemens. Gibson is a man apart. If the name “Lombardi” (as NFL Films reminds us) evokes images of duels in the snow, the name “Gibson” evokes images of a batter lying flat 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 inescapable reputation of Bob Gibson. It grows larger every year. Children whose fathers are not even old enough to have seen him pitch 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, says that he appreciates it.
“The only real problem is,” he says, “they got it all wrong.”
* * *
Dusty Baker has an endless supply of Bob Gibson stories. A favorite: One night he saw Gibson 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.
Dusty said: “Excuse me, Mr. Gibson.”
Gibson looked up and 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. The way Dusty remembers it, Gibson nodded. The story did not surprise him at all. “Well, what do you want?” he asked. “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 his friend and rival Joe Torre.
See 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. 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 still quite wild).
Gibson’s aura grew out of something else: A need to win. t wasn’t a choice. The idea of failure threatened his very existence. Gibson has never enjoyed revealing much of himself. But he once opened up with The New Yorker‘s 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 didn’t say that he would not let his daughter win at tic-tac-toe. He did not say that he hated losing even to his daughter in tic-tac-toe.
No, he said that in hundreds of games, he NEVER ONCE 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 The Terminator wanted to kill you more than you wanted to stay alive. There is no easy human response to that sort of intensity.
So was Gibson. He looked bigger than 6-foot-1. He may have only hit 10 or so batters a year, but those 10 never forgot. He threw his 95-mph fastball and savage slider by unfolding into a windup that screamed ancient violence. This was the windup David used this windup when smiting Goliath. That is the word. 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. He won 20 games for the first time when he was 29.
“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. He had to beat them all. Every game was a fight to the finish, every hit him a dagger that could get him sent down, every loss a disaster from which he might not recover.
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. Hell no, he got out Henry Aaron by mixing in slow stuff, getting the great man to twist himself into a knot. “You talk about my fastball?” he asks. “Aaron could hit God’s fastball.”
Nothing was easy. Nobody really backed down. 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 easy outs. This was what people missed: There WERE NO easy outs.
So, he did things, small things nobody ever noticed, because they were 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. 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. Bully? Intimidator? Forget that. It wasn’t easy, but he kept on going, kept finding new ways, kept answering the challenges, kept winning. And it wasn’t easy.
* * *
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. 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. DeNiro will always be LaMotta, and Marilyn will always be the blonde bombshell, and Bogart will always be Rick. And Gibson will always be Gibson. The man has moved on. But the part lives on, grows bigger every year.