Editor’s note: A huge SABR Baseball Cards thank you to guest writer Bijan C. Bayne for contributing this Bob Gibson memorial retrospective to our blog. For more from Bijan, see his blog at or follow him on Twitter at @bijancbayne.
Bob Gibson died on October 2, 2020, a couple weeks after his fellow Omaha bred sports hero Gale Sayers. Gibson would have been 85 on November 9, and his storied athletic career is an intriguing as anyone’s. “Athletic,” because for a pitcher, Gibson embodies “athlete” like few others, and is one of a handful of top level hurlers capable of defeating you with his glove, arm, legs, or bat.
Gibson was raised in the aforementioned Omaha, tutored in youth sports by a much older brother who happened to be named “Josh” (who was a role model for a lot of boys in their close knit community), and excelled in basketball and baseball. In that order. The hoops proficiency earned the 6’1” Gibson a basketball scholarship to local university Creighton, where the All-American prospered. He actually had dreams of playing for Indiana University, but Gibson got the impression their head coach Branch McCracken had a small finite tolerance concerning roster spots for Black guys.
Gibson’s collegiate success was such that he toured on a College All-Star squad which toured nationally against the Harlem Globetrotters, who in those days boasted NBA level talent. The leaping, undersized Creighton Blue Jay forward torched the Trotters nightly during the tour, leading Globies owner Abe Saperstein to sign Hoot to his ballclub. Ever the fiery competitor, Gibson tired of clowning with the exhibition outfit, and shifted his focus to the diamond.
In the Cardinals’ system Gibson faced early frustration because manager Solly Hemus didn’t deem him worthy of the starting rotation, and would excuse him from pitchers’ meetings on the grounds Gibson wasn’t cerebrally able to understand mound nuance. For his part, Gibson characterized Hemus to be similarly bigoted as McCracken. Gibson was primarily deployed in relief. His first four big league seasons he was a combined 34-36, but he recorded strikeouts in roughly two-thirds of the innings he pitched.
New Cardinals skipper Johnny Keane exhibited more confidence in Gibson, who went 18-9 with more than 200 K’s in 1963. Some have even compared Gibson’s early career mediocrity to Sandy Koufax- who also attended college on a basketball scholarship at a Missouri Valley Conference school (Cincinnati). Of course by 1964, Gibson was a World Series hero who helped defeat the Yankees. Gibson could hit and hit for power, and he occasionally pinch ran (on a club that had speedsters Lou Brock and Curt Flood). Despite his signature follow through, whose momentum carried him off the mound to his left, Gibson was awarded nine Gold Gloves.
The World Series catapulted Gibson into cultural prominence. He epitomized postseason perfection, he was a product spokesperson for both asthma medication, and (demonstrating his fastball in the ad), shatter-proof plexiglass. He guested on an episode of “The Big Valley.” His drop dead gorgeous wife Charline appeared on the 1970’s incarnation of “What’s My Line.”
I followed his career closely, even moreso after a school carpool mate rode home with Gibson’s autobiography “From Ghetto To Glory,” and I flipped through the photo midsection in my father’s backseat. In my backyard, where I had chalked a strike zone on our back wall next to the basement door, I’d fall off the mound sideways in my pitching follow through. Like Willie Mays and Dick Allen (the latter a brief Gibson teammate), Gibson was always depicted in long sleeves under his uniform jersey, or even his warmup jacket underneath it on some trading cards.
I owned his ‘71 Topps—one of the few years he’s shown in an action shot, and also rarely, in profile (a less confrontational Gibby).
The ‘67 Gibby Topps is intriguing in that it captures him at the cusp of superstardom, still boyish in countenance and pose (he was 31). Contrast that with his ‘72 Topps, where he bears the elder statesman status of a Mudcat Grant.
You didn’t think I was done discussing Gibson’s prowess at the plate did you? He hit 24 career homers- five of them in 1965. He drove in 20 runs in 1963, and 19 each in ‘65 and ‘70 (the latter campaign he was 34 years old). He stole 13 bases, five of them in 1969. He recorded six doubles in both 1969 and 1972. The man who hated batters, loved to bat. Dick Allen once asked Gibson at the All-Star Game, “Why do you throw at us colored guys?”
Gibson: “Because you guys are the ones killing me!” When Tim McCarver would come out to conference at the mound, Gibson would bark “Get back behind the plate—the only thing you know about pitching is you can’t hit it.” When Michael Jordan returned from a foray into baseball, as a uniform number 45 in basketball, it reminded me the last person that competitive, to sport that numeral was Bob Gibson.
Gibson’s ‘67 World Series dominance is all the more remarkable because on June 15 of the regular season, Roberto Clemente had shattered the ace’s leg with a line drive. The clutch performer returned in time to lift his team in seven games over the Boston Red Sox, including a home run as a batter. Invariably when a 2000’s slugger crowded the plate, or sported body armor on his elbows and shins, tv commentators or former ballplayers remarked as if on cue, “He wouldn’t stand in that close if Bob Gibson were still pitching—Gibby would show him who owns the plate.”
Thus Gibson symbolized an era- one during which he and Don Drysdale, ummm, discouraged opponents’ digging in too close to the dish. Gibson’s trademark tenacity extended to exhibition games—he didn’t socialize with N.L. teammates at All-Star Games because he didn’t want to become friendly with batters. Ask Dick Allen. Off the field, while Gibson wasn’t mild mannered, he did wear glasses, which appeared incongruous. But so did Clark Kent and Ray Nitschke. One wonders what extra fear the specs stoked in opposing batters.
Because of cultural changes and contemporary baseball rules protecting batters, we will never see another Bob Gibson. Because of Gibson, we will never again see pitchers’ mounds 15 inches high—in 1968’s Year Of The Pitcher, he posted a 1.12 ERA and 13 shutouts.
Bullet Bob Gibson. Hoot. Gibby. The man so fiercely combative he quit a touring basketball team that generally went several consecutive seasons without a loss. The last of a breed. Nine World Series starts. Eight complete games, seven victories. Twice named Series MVP. Overcame ethnic bias, asthma, and a broken leg.
I cannot be the only person who imagined The Grim Reaper approached Gibson this week and asked for the ball. Gibson fixed the scythe bearing scepter with his laser beam stare, and said with that clipped Midwestern accent “If you don’t go sit your behind down somewhere I’m gonna plunk you.” Though the tactic may not have proved successful, it was certainly on brand.