I recently read Gibson’s Last Stand: The Rise, Fall, and Near Misses of the St. Louis Cardinals, 1969-1975 by part-time baseball scout Doug Feldmann, who grew up a St. Louis Cardinals fan in Illinois. The book was released in paperback this past June.
Feldmann’s book covers the final years of Bob Gibons’s brilliant pitching career. Gibson would finish his career towards the end of the 1975 season with a career win-loss record of 251-174, 3,117 strikeouts, and a 2.91 ERA. The pitcher took home both the National League Cy Young Award and MVP in 1968. He would win another Cy in 1970. He was one of the best defensive pitchers in the league, having won 9 Gold Glove Awards. Gibson would be elected into the Hall of Fame in 1981 on the first ballot.
Gibson wasn’t a bad hitter either as he knocked 24 balls out of the park.
For Gibson and the Cardinals, his final six seasons were a different time. The business and pastime of baseball was changing. Teammates were traded left and right, some that would forever change the history of baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals.
Curt Flood and Tim McCarver were amongst the Cardinals traded to the Philadelphia Phillies following the 1969 season. A few seasons later, Steve Carlton would be traded away during the offseason following the 1971 season.
While there was no doubt that the Cardinals were changing, they were no longer the team that won three National League pennants in the 1960s. They traded an NL MVP in Orlando Cepeda for another one in Joe Torre. This would prove to be beneficial when Mike Shannon‘s kidney would not let him play.
Feldman sets his book against the backdrop of what’s happening in America and pop culture at the time, be it the Vietnam War or the Beatles breaking up. Salary raises and free agency were changing baseball and it had an impact on a small-market team such as St. Louis, who were owned by Anheuser-Busch’s August A. Busch, Jr. Gibson and Brock were the sole constants on the team, dating back to the 1964 World Series run. With Red Schoendienst as manager and Bing Devine as general manager, the Cardinals tried to be competitive in the early 1970s but they fell short a few times, losing out to the New York Mets by 1.5 games in 1973 and to the Pittsburgh Pirates by 1.5 games in 1974.
The near-misses in both 1973 and 1974 were the closest the Cardinals would come to a playoff chase until Whitey Herzog was able to right the ship in 1982.
In ways, Gibson blamed himself for the end of the Golden Era of baseball. The pitching mound was lowered due to his success during the 1968 season. Owners wanted base hits and home runs but Gibson felt the shrinking strike zone, lower mound, and the softening of the rancor between hitter and pitcher were changed forever after 1968. He looked at the new baseball as being a politically correct version of the American pastime.
In the book, Feldmann keeps readers captivated with the action both on and off the field. He throws in some tidbits on player backgrounds and how they tie in to the past and future. Feldmann also entwins the team history with Missouri history such as Eisenhower’s funeral procession that coincided with the end of spring training, Dizzy Dean, Mark McGwire, and Stan Musial. There’s also the fall of Harry Caray and the rise of Hack Buck.
There’s no dispute that Gibson is one of the most unique, complex, and beloved players in franchise history. Feldmann takes the readers into the heart of what made home such a complex persion as he examines the final seasons of his career.
It was a truly great read that I enjoyed very much. I highly recommend it to other St. Louis Cardinals fans even though it was a dark time in team history, but nowhere close to the darkness that the rest of the 1970s would bring.
But it does leave me wondering: What if? What if players like Flood, McCarver and Carlton are never traded? Does Torre end up being traded to St. Louis? What about catcher Ted Simmons? Had McCarver not been traded, does Simmons become one of the greatest hitting catchers of all time? Simmons should be in the Hall of Fame. I can’t explain why he keeps getting overlooked.