Bob Gibson is fighting pancreatic cancer – “fighting” being the operative word.
Everybody knows Gibson’s combative posture as the best right-handed pitcher in the universe, starting in 1964.
I was lucky enough to be present when Gibson morphed from very good pitcher to legend, in 22 epic days at the end of that season.
He had been underestimated by his first manager, Solly Hemus, who had lost his black players by using a racial taunt on an opponent in 1960. Gibson was still very much a work in progress after Hemus was canned in 1961, replaced by Johnny Keane, who reminded me of the kindly commanding officer, Col. Potter, in the classic series, “M*A*S*H.”
After mid-season of 1964, Gibson pitched eight straight complete games – a statistic that probably would blow out the computers of today’s analytics gurus giving orders to managers from the laboratory. Yes, kids, really good pitchers really did finish a lot of games, back in the day.
As the Phillies started to fold, the Cardinals and Reds put on a run.
On Sept. 24, Gibson lost a complete game in Pittsburgh. On Sept. 28, he beat the Phillies, going 8 innings. On Oct. 2, with the Cardinals in first place on the last Friday of the season, Gibson lost, 1-0, to the lowly Mets as Alvin Jackson pitched the game of his life.
Then on a very nervous Oct. 4, Gibson pitched 4 innings in relief, gave up two runs, but was the winning pitcher, as the Cardinals won their first pennant since 1946.
I can still see him on the stairs to the players-only loft.
“Hoot, how’s your arm?” a reporter asked, using the nickname from the movie cowboy.
“Horseshit!” Gibson bellowed. Then he was gone, up the stairs.
When Manager Keane gave his pennant-winning media conference, somebody asked why he went so often with a certifiably fatigued pitcher.
“I had a commitment to his heart,” Keane said softly.
Those words gave me a chill as Keane spoke them; they remain one of the great tributes I have ever heard from a manager or coach. Keane’s faith, his shrewd understanding of the man, helped Gibson demolish the stereotype that many black players had to overcome.
Gibson then started the second game of the Series (8 innings, lost to Jim Bouton), won the fifth game in 10 innings) and the seventh game in 9 innings to win the championship.
He had pitched 56 innings in 22 days, becoming a superstar after some delay, just as Sandy Koufax had done earlier. In over 70 years as fan and reporter and now fan again, I will take the two of them over any lefty-righty pair you want.
Gibson never put away his testy edge. He was rough on rookies, rough on his own catchers and pitching coaches who trudged out to the mound to counsel him. (“You don’t know anything about pitching, except you can’t hit it,” he told Tim McCarver, who has relished that taunt ever since.)
He did not observe the fraternity of ball players, even chatty types like Ron Fairly of the Dodgers. One time Fairly stroked a couple of hits off Gibson, who then hit a single of his own. But Fairly made the mistake of engaging Gibson in a collegial way.
I always heard that Fairly praised Gibson for his hitting prowess, but Gibson insisted Fairly had raved about Gibson’s stuff and wondered how he had possibly made two hits off him. Either way, Gibson glared at Fairly. Didn’t say a word.
Next time up, Fairly observed Gibson, glowering on the mound, and mused to the catcher, Joe Torre, that he did not think he was going to enjoy this at-bat, was he?
Torre wasn’t going to lie about it; he just watched as Fairly took one in the ribs.
That is Gibson. Don’t mess with him. Torre later brought Gibson to the Mets as his “attitude coach,” as if you can coach attitude.
Gibson remains competitive. A decade or so ago, he and Reggie Jackson collaborated on a nice book about the age-old yin/yang of pitcher/hitter. They met me for a power breakfast in New York to discuss their book, and it went fine until near the end. Working on a book on Stan Musial, I asked Gibson if I could ask one question about Stan the Man.
“Absolutely not,” Gibson snapped. He and Musial had the same agent, and he knew Musial, long in retirement and otherwise friendly, had put out a fatwa against friends and family discussing him with writers.
Gibson’s abruptness caused Reggie to nearly choke on his bagel as he tried not to laugh.
This is the guy who is going to fight a nasty disease.
Knock it on its ass, Hoot.
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Bob Gibson's career stats:
(Below: video of Christopher Russo interviewing Gibson (Reggie in background) about the friendly little incident with Fairly.)
"The day after my 80th birthday, which overflowed with good wishes, surprises and Covid-safe celebrations, I awoke feeling fulfilled and thinking that whatever happens going forward, I’m OK with it. My life has been rewarding, my bucket list is empty, my family is thriving, and if everything ends tomorrow, so be it.
"Not that I expect to do anything to hasten my demise. I will continue to exercise regularly, eat healthfully and strive to minimize stress. But I’m also now taking stock of the many common hallmarks of aging and deciding what I need to reconsider."
--Jane E. Brody, my pal in the NYT newsroom, oh, a few years back, in the Personal Health column, Sept. 13, 2021.
"People have said to me, ‘You’re fully vaccinated. Why are you being so careful?’” said Dr. Robert M. Wachter, professor and chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “I’m still in the camp of I don’t want to get Covid. I don’t want to get a breakthrough infection.”
---Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times, Aug. 16, 2021.