ST. LOUIS — By almost any account, Stan Musial was considered the greatest Cardinals player. By the same accounts, Bob Gibson, who died at age 84 Friday night in Omaha, Neb., under hospice care after fighting pancreatic cancer for more than a year, was considered the franchise’s greatest pitcher.
Gibson was the Cardinals’ second National Baseball Hall of Famer to die in the past month. His longtime teammate, Lou Brock, died at age 81 on Sept. 6. Gibson’s death came on the 52nd anniversary of perhaps his greatest game, a record 17-strikeout performance in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series.
Gibson, like Musial a rarity who played his entire career (1959-75) with the Cardinals, set club records for games won at 251 and complete games at a staggering 255, let alone a franchise-best 56 shutouts, strikeouts (3,117) and innings pitched at 3,884.
But, when he was young, there was little to suggest Gibson would achieve what he achieved. His father died before he was born and his mother, Victoria, worked in a laundry to raise her seven children. Gibson’s early years were filled with medical troubles — rickets, pneumonia, asthma, hay fever and a heart problem.
Despite all the illnesses, Gibson became an all-round athlete, starring in baseball, basketball and track in high school in Omaha. He then played baseball and basketball for Creighton University before becoming a Harlem Globetrotter for one year. After going a combined 6-11 for his first two seasons with the Cardinals, he put together 14 straight seasons of double-figure wins.
Gibson had five 20-win seasons, two with 19 victories and another of 18. He was so good in 1968 that baseball had to change its rules. Gibson compiled a modern-day best earned run average of 1.12 while winning 22 games and throwing 13 shutouts to lead a parade of pitching dominance in baseball and, for 1969, the height of the mound was lowered by 33 percent, from 15 inches to 10.
This didn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference, though to the hard-throwing right-hander, who was 20-13 with a 2.18 ERA in 1969 while pitching 314 innings, nine more than his previous season and striking out 269 hitters, one more than he had in 1968.
But, he had leapt to the national forefront in 1964 when he worked five times, 40 innings’ worth, in a 14-day span, four of them starts, as he helped the Cardinals win the National League pennant by one game and then starred as the Cardinals beat the New York Yankees four games to three in the World Series, the Cardinals’ first Series crown since 1946.
Gibson pitched 27 innings in three Series games. One of the starts went eight innings but his second went 10 as he won Game 5, 5-2. Then he came back on two days’ rest and worked a complete-game 7-5 win in Game 7.
“That last game ... I was tired,” admitted Gibson.
The Cardinals held a 7-3 lead into the top of the ninth and manager Johnny Keane had left-hander Ray Sadecki warming up in the bullpen.
“In the ninth inning, I wasn’t pitching, I was throwing,” Gibson had said. “Before the inning started, Keane said, ‘I don’t want you to try to be fancy. Just throw it over the middle of the plate. I don’t believe they’re going to hit four home runs.’
“They hit two, by Clete Boyer and Phil Linz. And Phil Linz couldn’t hit home runs. Clete knocked the crap out of it and then they did it again.
“I had good stuff. I didn’t just lay it in there, but I looked in the dugout and Johnny wasn’t anywhere to be found,” Gibson said.
At this point, Gibson said he thought he would try a different approach.
“I thought maybe I should start pitching instead of just throwing,” said Gibson, who got Bobby Richardson to pop to second baseman Dal Maxvill for the final out.
With that putout, Gibson had started a string of pitching nine-inning complete games in the World Series. In 1967 and 1968, he pitched six times, with all of them complete games.
The best of that lot was one of the most dominant games in World Series history. In the first game of the 1968 Series, he struck out 17 Detroit Tigers although the Tigers would win the Series in seven games. In his book “Pitch by Pitch,” centering on that game, Gibson revealed that, perhaps for inspiration, he had put a button over his locker before the series that said, “I’m not prejudiced. I hate everybody.”
Gibson pitched a no-hitter on Aug. 14, 1971, at Pittsburgh and three years later became the second pitcher in history, behind Washington’s Walter Johnson, to reach the 3,000 strikeout plateau. How tough was he? He faced three more batters after suffering a broken leg when hit by a Roberto Clemente liner on July 15, 1967. Gibson missed 52 days, returned in time to pitch the pennant-clincher and then won three games in the World Series besides hitting a home run in Game 7 at Boston.
Besides being the best Cardinals pitcher, Gibson perhaps was the most intense Cardinals player ever. When he was pitching, he rarely even talked to his own teammates, let alone the opposing players. And if he did have something to say, it was brief and to the point.
When a catcher, even longtime batterymate Tim McCarver would come to the mound, to ask a question, or, dare to offer a suggestion, Gibson was said to have snarled, “The only thing you know about pitching is that it’s hard to hit.”
After outfielder Mike Shannon was switched to third base, Shannon came to the mound on opening day to ask Gibson where to play a certain hitter. Gibson said, “Don’t worry about it.”
Shannon replied, “What do you mean?”
Replied Gibson, “I won’t let them hit the ball to you.” And, basically, he didn’t. Shannon rarely had a chance when Gibson was pitching, other than Gibson needed a double play against a right-handed pull hitter.
Gibson announced in January, 1975, that that would be his last season and the club had a day for him on Sept. 1. Two days later, having been banished to the bullpen, Gibson allowed a pinch-hit, game-losing grand slam to unheralded Chicago Cubs first baseman Pete LaCock. Gibson retired the next batter, Don Kessinger, on a groundout and then walked off the mound for the final time.
“I had reached my absolute limit in humiliation,” Gibson said in his book “Stranger to the Game.” “I said to myself, ‘That’s it. I’m out of here.’ “
Gibson remained idle while the Cardinals fell out of contention and on Sept. 15, two weeks after his special day, Gibson said goodbye to his teammates and headed home with 10 games remaining in the season, knowing he’d never pitch again. No one ever wore his uniform No. 45 again, either. And some six years later, he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame.