The St. Louis Cardinals legend of the 60’s and 70’s and arguably the greatest pitcher of all time turns 83 today. As many have before us, let us take a trip down memory lane and celebrate the career and the life of the unforgettable Bob Gibson.
Bob Gibson was a pitcher larger than life, his electric heat and fierce drive overwhelmed most hitters. But I didn’t need to tell you that. I could tell you about the moments, the 17 strikeouts, the 1.12 season, but you’ve heard those stories a thousand times before. Whether you were alive to watch him or you heard tales from those who did, it’s very difficult to not love the player that Bob Gibson was. Especially as a St. Louis Cardinals fan.
Instead, I want to look at some of the things that he said, and the personality that truly makes Bob Gibson a transcendent player and unforgettable person. He has a very unique eloquence to his speech. Today, his voice is calm with the cracks and buzzes of an older age, yet the flame that made him the fiercest competitor of his time is still burns bright. When he says something he believes in, you can truly feel it in his voice.
His way with words also shows a carefully calculated wisdom, a wisdom that he used to dissect hitters in his heyday. Each word that he speaks seems to come with consideration and thought, which has resulted in some great quotes to think about.
Here are some of my personal favorites of his (all quotes courtesy of Baseball Almanac)
“My pitching philosophy is simple. I believe in getting the ball over the plate and not walking a lot of men.”
This is probably my personal favorite part about Bob Gibson. While it’s not great to throw your pitches down the middle every time, staying ahead in counts and keeping every pitch competitive is an entertaining and effective way to go about pitching.
The idea of “waste pitches” is becoming more popular in the modern age. However, many old-school guys like Bob Gibson don’t believe in purposefully throwing balls in the dirt; in their minds, it’s the pitcher’s equivalent to a child playing with his food before eating it.
For a pitcher with the stuff that Bob Gibson had, it wasn’t hard to overwhelm people close to the zone, and this obviously translated into elite results. From 1966-1973, Gibson gave up just 2.52 BB/9 and registered a 1.08 WHIP. Caught in that time frame is his legendary 1.12 ERA season in 1968, where Gibby walked just 1.83 batters per 9.
Gibson didn’t like to over think things, he simply went out on to the field every game and do what he did best: getting hitters out. That’s part of what made him special: the unwavering confidence in his ability to get guys out, no matter the circumstance.
“You’ve got to have an attitude if you’re going to go far in this game.”
I would actually like to let one Henry “Hank” Aaron start us off with one of his own memories of what a coach told him about facing Gibson. I think it says more about the legendary St. Louis Cardinals pitcher than I ever could.
"“Don’t dig in against Bob Gibson, he’ll knock you down. He’d knock down his own grandmother if she dared to challenge him. Don’t stare at him, don’t smile at him, don’t talk to him. He doesn’t like it. If you happen to hit a home run, don’t run too slow, don’t run too fast. If you happen to want to celebrate, get in the tunnel first. And if he hits you, don’t charge the mound, because he’s a Gold Glove boxer. I’m like, ‘damn, what about my seventeen-game hitting streak?’ That was the night it ended.”"
The word “overwhelming” comes to mind when thinking about the presence that would force such respect out of guys like Hank Aaron and his coaches. Gibson was a warrior in every sense of the word during his career, and he brought a unique psychological presence to his game through his unshakable demeanor and the will to do the less courteous or unpopular things that he needed to on the field to gain an advantage.
Gibson understood that having a mental edge was a huge part of dominating on the mound, Gibson used a unrelenting and almost mean attitude towards other players with the intent of dulling their edge with intimidation and hesitation.
It certainly helped that he had a blazing fastball and knee-buckling curve ball to go with it.
“I’ve played a couple of hundred games of tic-tac-toe with my little daughter and she hasn’t beaten me yet. I’ve always had to win. I’ve got to win.”
It’s hard to overstate how much Bob Gibson wanted to win, even stating recently that he was “glad” that he “didn’t have to make the choice” as to whether or not he would have taken steroids. He professed that he did whatever it took to keep an edge.
Of course, this shouldn’t be considered as incriminating or wrong, it’s just pure honesty. There’s no reason to believe that he did in fact cheat, he is simply accepting of the fact that it’s what people do.
This is more demonstrative of the fact that Gibson was one of those guys that didn’t just want to win, they needed victory for them to feel that they succeeded. It was very hard for Gibson to accept not being the best, and it was this difficulty that played a part in his ferocious drive.
That drive lead to great success for both him and the St. Louis Cardinals. From ’61-’74, Gibson’s best years, the St. Louis Cardinals had a record of 1,206-1,045 (.535) and won 2 World Series. Gibson picked up a pair of World Series MVP’s to match, on top of a pair of Cy Young awards, a League MVP win, and 9 Gold Gloves.
It is that drive and almost desperation for victory that allowed him to dominate many of the hitters he faced, and that will is a huge part of what makes Bob Gibson the St. Louis Cardinals legend that he is.
“(The ability to pitch) is not something I earned or acquired or bought. It is a gift. It is something that was given to me – just like the color of my skin.”
Unfortunately, racial issues were still a predominant part of life in the 60’s and 70’s, but Bob Gibson was incredibly proud to be an African-American. There was a legitimate population of black baseball players by this point, including the aforementioned (steroidless) home run king in Hank Aaron, but they still faced plenty of challenges in society
But Gibson was one of the proudest of these players, and that pride manifests itself in what he says here. He demonstrated a positive outlook characteristic of a man with the the confidence and will to be the best at what he does.
Despite all the circumstances and the struggle that came with being African-American, Gibson embraced his heritage and all the things that came with it, both positive and negative. He certainly heard the stories of the great Jackie Robinson, and knew he had the ability to carve a career that was nearly as legendary as number 42. Most St. Louis Cardinals fans would agree that he did.
He, like many other trailblazing athletes, understand that it is not what you are born into, but what you do with life that makes the man you become. That understanding is what got Bob Gibson to where he is today, and is what made him both a great baseball player and an inspiring person.
So happy birthday Bob Gibson, and thank you, for everything you are and everything you’ve done. You’ve left a irreplaceable and unforgettable mark not only on the St. Louis Cardinals, but on baseball as a whole.