Farewell, Bob Gibson
Bob Gibson passed Friday of pancreatic cancer.
He was one of the most competitive athletes I ever covered – a fierce, purposeful flame.
I wrote about Gibson (below) 26 months ago when he disclosed the fearsome diagnosis.
I would also recommend today’s obit in the NYT by my friend Rich Goldstein:
Also, you might want to see the piece I did in 2009 when Gibson and Reggie Jackson were promoting a book they had written (with Lonnie Wheeler) about the eternal struggle – that is, between pitchers and hitters.
I watched the rivalry play out over a power breakfast in New York, and when I asked a question Gibson considered cheeky, he verbally buzzed me, high and inside. I thought Reggie was going to choke on his oatmeal, or whatever he was eating. His look said: “And you writers think I’m a hard guy.”
I consider myself fortunate to have been around Gibson, in the tight little sanctums of the Cardinal clubhouse in the old, old ballpark. That kind of access to athletes is gone during the pandemic, with writers minimally getting sterile, mass interviews with a few principals, and I’m just guessing it never comes back. No writer today will see a star like Gibson, up close, the way I did in the tense last weeks of the 1964 season and World Series.
Finally, a word about superstars. My admired colleague Dave Kindred has a mythical mind game called “The Game to Save Humanity,” meaning “we” get to play Martians, or whatever, one game, Pick your team. My pitchers are Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson, lefty and righty, even beyond numbers and longevity, but just, well, just because. I saw them.
RIP, Hoot. It was an honor to observe you.
From July, 2018:
Don’t Mess With Bob Gibson
Bob Gibson is fighting pancreatic cancer – “fighting” being the operative word.
Everybody knows Gibson’s combative pose 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 to taunt an opponent in 1960. Gibson was still very much a work in progress after Hemus was canned in 1961, and 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 default the computers of today’s analytics gurus. Yes, really good pitchers really did finish a lot of games.
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.
“Horseshit!” Gibson said. 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 of coach about a player. 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 (8 innings, lost to Jim Bouton), won the fifth game in 10 innings) and the seventh game in 9 innings to won the World Series.
He had pitched 56 innings in 22 days, become a superstar after some delay, just as Sandy Koufax had done earlier. In over 70 years as fan and reporter, I will take the two of them over any lefty-righty pair you want to pick.
Gibson never put away his testy edge. He was rough on rookies, rough on how own catchers and pitching 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 base hit, but Gibson insisted that 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, glowing 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 smiled 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 that Musial 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 formidable disease.
Knock it on its ass, Hoot.
* * *
(Below: video of Christopher Russo interviewing Gibson (Reggie in background) about the friendly little incident with Fairly, back in the day.)
10/3/2020 09:30:04 am
As long as we have fingers to type with and voices to speak with, people will talk about Gibson. I remember Bob Costas hosting a TV discussion with Gibson and Willie Mays. Gibson puts on his glasses at one time. Mays almost shrieks: "Gibson, you were glasses?! You gonna kill somebody one day." (paraphrase that I think is largely accurate).
10/3/2020 01:18:52 pm
Lee, I've heard about Mays saying that -- maybe every time they ran into each other. Reminds me of the Mets' first season when somebody on the Mets told his new teammates that Bob Veale -- tall, fast, with thick glasses he wiped with a bandana -- was blind in one eye. Just the thing to tell your teammates. That's why I loved the Mets, instantly.
10/3/2020 10:46:45 am
"I have a commitment to his heart" is a most telling and much underrated loyalty. Some of the best people who I have either played and worked with or coached would have been considered underrated.
10/3/2020 01:22:01 pm
Alan, Johnny Keane was one of the finest people I ever met, particularly among managers. He had been a seminarian and some of the best stuff stayed with him. I will never forget walking in Forest Park on the off day between the pennant clincher and the first game of the World Series and Keane slowed his car and gave me a ride and introduced me to his wife, Lela. A civil person.
10/3/2020 11:46:58 am
I call that story about Gibson hitting Ron Fairly false. Torre's first year with the Cards was 1969. Gibson faced the Dodgers twice. Both games were in May. Fairly went 0-7 and one walk. Fairly was traded to Montreal on June 11th. He did face Fairly twice more in September. He went 1 for 8. He didn't hit him then either. Gibson hit Fairly one time while he was on Montreal. Gibson did not get a hit in that game.
10/3/2020 11:48:41 am
Just to make it clear, I just looked at the games after Torre was traded to the Cards.
10/3/2020 01:27:47 pm
Dear Sanford Slutsky: You're right. I repeated that story in my 2018 piece and later looked it up with that wonderful resource, Retrosheet.Never happened. But I have heard Fairly, Torre and Gibson all go along with it, at different times, so I'm sure some variation did take place. The wonderful thing about baseball is box scores, play by play and Retrosheet. When I was working on my Musial biography in 2008-9, two famous ball players told me their first-hand involvement in plays, one in 1947 and one in early 60s.Each had himself in the wrong place for those episodes. Then again, I sometimes have to check whether I was actually at a certain game, or heard it on radio or TV, or heard some raconteur tell it. Things blur and blend. Thanks for calling attention to the Fairly play that didn't quite happen (although it could have) GV
10/3/2020 11:47:39 am
Another reason for me to re-read Halberstram’s “October 1964”
10/3/2020 01:32:30 pm
Dear PT: I don't think I've read it., (I am a great admirer...I sort of followed after him on the NYT National staff, he was a legend in Nashville and at NYT.) That World Series was great -- so was the last week -- the Phillies losing 3 straight (I was there. Johnny Keane saw this kid from Newsday on Monday at the ball park and said, "Boys, I know why you are here -- and I'm glad to see you/" -- meaning, pennant race.) The Mets series was amazing. The Mets scared the daylights out of the Cards, and Gibson had to pitch in relief on Sunday afternoon to win the pennant -- hence his comment about his arm: "Horseshit!" Then the World Series. Like yesterday, to me GV
10/3/2020 01:55:58 pm
I very much enjoy this book, and while I was around at that time too young (7) to have been following closely. I envy your ability to read it with an insider’s perspective.
10/3/2020 05:57:22 pm
10/4/2020 07:13:02 am
10/4/2020 03:09:59 pm
As always, enjoying the column and gang’s comments. When I first read it a link jumped up in my alleged mind, Koufax and Gibson, top of the line back in the day—probably still.
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“I don’t think people understand how Covid affects older Americans,” Mr. Caretti said with frustration. “In 2020, there was this all-in-this-together vibe, and it’s been annihilated. People just need to care about other people, man. That’s my soapbox.”
---Vic Caretti, 47, whose father recently died of Covid at 85.
---From an article by Paula Span, who covers old age for the NYT, which currently has 2646 comments, the majority criticizing the American public – and public officials – for acting as if the pandemic is “over.”
Classic wishful thinking, at a lethal level.