The sad news broke Saturday that Bob Gibson has pancreatic cancer. We all know what a fighter Gibby is. Our thoughts are with him. I spent some time with him a few years ago when I wrote for Sports Illustrated. This is what I wrote.
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 overenthusiastic, ‘Oh, 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 for the glare and the 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 along with the sweat.
“Mr. Gibson!” this particular man says. He is balding and he wears glasses and he sounds a bit the way a taxi driver might in the movies. “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 soft voice that always surprises for its warmth. You would expect Gibson to sound like a pro wrestler. Instead, he sounds like your favorite history professor. And it is only after the man has walked away and is out of hearing range, that Bob Gibson asks — not angrily but with a weariness — “Is that all I did? Hit batters? Is that really all they remember?”
Bob Gibson thinks this might be the first time in 50 years that he has talked to a reporter from Sports Illustrated. He isn’t sure that it has really been 50 years; he might have slipped up a couple of times through the years and talked to one by mistake. It’s better to say that this is the first time in memory that he has willfully talked with a reporter from Sports Illustrated. See, something happened a half century, something he h has not forgotten, something he will never forget.
He only agrees to talk now because the subject is Stan Musial, and Bob Gibson would do anything for Stan.
“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.”
He smiles that hard Gibson smile again.
“Sports Illustrated,” he says again, and he shakes his head. “I don’t know. I really don’t know that I want to talk with someone from Sports Illustrated.”
Let’s get back to Bob Gibson’s voice: It is so measured, so welcoming, so proper. It never stops jarring people because that voice runs counter to the terrifying aura of the man.
No baseball player, not even Ty Cobb, has been so closely connected to dangers. Most baseball players, for example, have not thrown at a batter in Old-Timers Game. That probably goes without saying. Gibson did it twice. The first time, he brushed back his friend Reggie Jackson because Reggie had dared to hit a home run off him.
The second time, he plunked Pete LaCock. Why? LaCock had the nerve to hit a grand slam off Gibson in the last inning of Gibby’s major league career. When the two faced in the old-timers’ game, Gibson did not even hesitate. He threw it right into LaCock’s back. “I’ve been waiting YEARS to do that,” Gibson shouted.
Bob Gibson stories are only funny because it is Bob Gibson at the center of them. If you told the same stories but replaced Gibson with, say, Tom Seaver or Steve Carlton or Sandy Koufax, eh, it lacks a spark. 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 wrote), 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.
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.”
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 stature and aura of Bob Gibson. Inescapable. And unlike ordinary auras, his grows larger every year. Some of the most devoted Gibson disciples are not nearly old enough to have seen Gibson pitch. They 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, they love him 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 has a storehouse of Bob Gibson stories. One of the best ones is this: One night, when they were both playing, he saw Gibson in a restaurant. He wanted to go over and say hello — he idolized Gibson, then and now — but he was nervous. Baker’s teammates encouraged him. “No, it’s OK now,” they told him. “He’s different 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.”
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.”
Years later, Baker told Bob Gibson that story. Gibson nodded, entirely unsurprised, 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. He was known for his ferocious dunks.
Now think of him on the mound, that scowl, that glare. “He looked like a giant out there,” his catcher and friend, Joe Torre, will tell you.
So how tall do you think Bob Gibson is? Six-foot-four? Six-foot-five? Bigger?
No, of course not. Gibson is 6-foot-1. He was inches shorter than Don Drysdale and Ferguson Jenkins, Sudden Sam McDowell and Gaylord Perry, Sandy Koufax and Bob Veale and most of the other big and intimidating pitchers of the era.
He was, for that matter, an inch shorter than Joe Torre.
And yet, he was the fearsome one. Why? Gibson did not intimidate with size. And you know what else might surprise you? He did not intimidate by hitting an excessive number of batters, either. People miss that Gibson never once led the league in hit-by-pitch. In fact, he only finished in the top three in hit batsmen one time, and that was in 1963, when he was young and still a bit wild.
No, Gibson’s power grew out of something else. He needed to win. It wasn’t a choice He could not live with losing. He could not live with failure. That threat, that pain, it threatened his very existence. Gibson once opened up a bit with The New Yorker‘s Roger Angell. “I’ve played a couple hundred games of tic-tac-toe with my little daughter,” he said. “And she hasn’t beaten me yet. I’ve always had to win. I’ve got to win.”
This sounds like a common sentiment of great athletes. You will often hear one say something like: “I want to win even if we’re playing ping-pong/tic-tac-toe/tiddlywinks.”
But Gibson’s quote is a little different. He doesn’t say that he wants to win. He doesn’t say that he hates losing so much, he will not let his little daughter win at tic tac toe. He isn’t talking theoretically. No, they had already played hundreds of games with his daughter, and he NEVER ONCE LET HER WIN. The games are over, the lessons — if there are lessons — have been learned.
And Bob Gibson won ‘em all.
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 frightening was not his strength, not his indestructibility, not Arnold Schwarzenegger’s muscles. No, it was this fear 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, yes, Bob Gibson was 6-foot-1. He looked bigger. Yes, he only hit 10 or so batters a year, but each of those 10 never forgot (nor did the others who Gibson made hit the dirt). He threw his 95-mph fastball and searing 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.” Gibson’s was a windup without diplomacy, without tact, without deception. You watched Gibson unfold and fire, yes, you knew what he wanted to do. This was the windup. David used when smiting Goliath.
“OK, come on, 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 Bob 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 him to talk about. He made it to the big leagues in 1959, when he was 23, and he got beat around pretty good for a year and a half. He missed the plate a lot. He got hit a lot. Gibson became a full-time starter in 1961 at age 25 and though he pitched pretty well, he also led the league in walks.
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, everywhere he turned he saw people who wanted him to fail: Hitters; opposing fans; racist,
He had to beat them all. There was no choice. Survival! Every game was a war, every hit against him a dagger that gave comfort to his enemies, every loss a disaster from which he might not recover.
He had to overcome. He had to win. It wasn’t about the fastball. It wasn’t about the slider. It wasn’t about beanballs — hell, he laughs at Henry Aaron’s quote too, but he says it’s all a bunch of #$*#*(@. Aaron didn’t scare, no matter what funny quotes he may have offered to the newspapers. And Gibson couldn’t just throw his fastball by Aaron. Zeus could just throw a fastball by Aaron. No, Gibson had to LEARN how to get Aaron out, had to figure out the patterns, had to come up with a combination of fastballs and breaking balls and slow stuff that would twist the great man into a knot.
It was always like that. Nothing was easy. Nobody really cowered. Billy Williams owned Gibson’s slider, so he had to throw him something else. Willie Mays could hit anything, but Gibson figured out how to hold him to .196 average over the years. Roberto Clemente couldn’t touch Gibson. But Eddie Mathews crushed Gibson. Richie Hebner hit him hard. Point is: He could not rely on being Bob Gibson to get easy outs. There WERE NO easy outs.
So, he did things, small things. 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 also 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.
But people didn’t notice a lot of that stuff.
They didn’t notice because it was more fun to think of Bob Gibson, the bully.
“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.
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.
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 hear him talk about how today’s pitchers are soft. 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 because he feels like the team has treated him well. Gibson roots quietly for the Dodgers 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.
“That guy who 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 does not sound angry. That voice. So friendly. So professorial. Gibson seems almost amused by it all. 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.
And, he says, nobody actually sees him.
Gibson leans close and explains why he has not talked to Sports Illustrated for a long time. He remembers a story from 50 years ago, a story 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 the story he remembered.
There was a short item in 1964, a classic Gibson story. When he was pitching at Creighton, he faced a promising young hitter named Jesse Bradshaw. Gibson threw one of his high inside fastballs, and it scared the life out of Brady. He twisted violently out of the way, in the process, 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 was always doing things like this. “We love you, Bob,” a little girl yelled. And the magazine reported: “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, I could not find the story, the one that wounded Bob Gibson. I started over and began looking inside other stories that were not about him. I found that the young Gibson was briefly mentioned as a potential aid to the Cardinals in a 1959 story. His first big league victory drew raised (along with an unrelated quote from Musial saying that he’d been out of the lineup so long “I’ve forgotten the strike zone”).
Roger Kahn wrote a story about how pitchers throw at hitters, and pointed out that Gibson had fractured Duke Snider’s elbow with a pitch. 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 story.
So I tried again, this time I went through issue-by-issue from Gibson’s rookie year through the mid 1960s.
And I think I found it. There was a strange story in March of 1960 called The Private World of the Negro Ballplayer. The story was a clumsy effort to get into the inside world of black ballplayers back. At least it was an effort, I suppose; few in mainstream America was even trying.
There were 57 black players in the big leagues in 1960; this 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, maybe it’s better to say that Gibson is not named in the story. But there are some anonymous quotes. One comes from a National League pitcher:
“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. There were only a few black pitchers in the big leagues at the time — Earl Wilson, Sam Jones, Don Newcombe, a handful of other — and something about it superficially sounds like Gibson.
But it is probably not Gibson. 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 Gibson mentioned. It’s possible that Gibson was offended by that story, even if he was not directly quoted.
I could not find anything else. Maybe I missed it. Maybe the story had run in another magazine or a newspaper and Gibson simply misremembered it being Sports Illustrated. I did a few other searches in a few other publications, but could not find it.
There is 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, always, to win more. Even now, I go back to the beginning, start again, pore through the archives, look harder for the source of Bob Gibson’s power. I still have not found it.