St. Louis Cardinals: Nine-plus Connections to the great Bob Gibson

From Meadowlark to Reggie, the St. Louis Cardinals ace Bob Gibson had links to stars and coaches in multiple sports.

Cardinals legend Bob Gibson’s death on Oct. 2 occurred just nine days after Chicago Bears’ icon Gale Sayers passed away on Sept. 23rd, robbing us of two sports icons who had much in common.

Both Gibson and Sayers attended high schools in Omaha, Nebraska, and both owed a debt to Josh Gibson (not the Negro League Hall of Famer), Bob’s oldest brother, who essentially raised his younger sibling after their father died and coached countless local athletes, including the Sayers brothers, Roger and Gayle. A 1999 Sports Illustrated piece listed Gibson and Sayers first and second in a list of the “50 Greatest Sports Figures from Nebraska.”

Sayers, seven-and-a-half years younger than the Hall of Fame pitcher, once told the Omaha-World Herald that “Bob Gibson showed people that minority players could come out of Omaha and play professional football or baseball or whatever it may be.”

Here are nine others who had a meaningful or quirky connection to the greatest African-American pitcher of all time:

Meadowlark Lemon

In 1957-58, Gibson played for the Harlem Globetrotters and roomed with Lemon, known as “The Clown Prince of Basketball.” “I thought Bob was a better basketball player than a baseball player,” Lemon once said. “I think Bob could have played with any NBA team. He was that good.”

Gibson averaged 20.2 points as a collegian at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. “As good a baseball player as he was, he was a finer basketball player,” agreed Bob Boozer, an 11-year NBA player from Omaha. “He could play. He could get up and hang.

Branch McCracken

Both Gibson and basketball Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson were reportedly snubbed by McCracken, the long-time Indiana Hoosiers coach who led IU to NCAA championships in 1940 and 1953.

Gibson wished to play for McCracken but was denied because the school had “already filled (its) quota of Negroes,” which was one. Robertson, from Crispus Attucks High in Indianapolis, said, “I really did want to go to IU; Branch McCracken did not want Oscar Robertson to go there.” Gibson instead attended Creighton, and Robertson became a three-time All-American at the University of Cincinnati.

Bill Fitch

Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019, Fitch coached Creighton’s baseball team, which included Gibson, in 1957, and also served as an assistant basketball coach. Playing for Fitch in 1957, Gibson batted .318 and was 3-0 as a pitcher. Fitch coached in the NBA for 25 seasons and was twice (1975-76, 1979-80) named Coach of the Year.

Bob Boozer

Two years younger than Gibson, Boozer was a life-long friend of the pitcher. Boozer attended the same high school, Omaha Technical, and, like Gibson, was turned down by Indiana University because they’d met their quota of Black players.

The 6-8 Boozer (no relation to Carlos Boozer) was the first overall pick in the 1958-59 NBA draft and played 11 years in the NBA, winning a title with the Milwaukee Bucks in his final season. In 1971, Gibson and Boozer joined an ownership group that purchased two Nebraska radio stations.

Don Drysdale

Gibson was often compared to the Dodgers Hall of Famer, who shared a propensity for brush-back pitches and hitting home runs — Drysdale ranks sixth all-time among pitchers with 29 career homers while Gibson is tied for seventh with 24.

In June of 1968, Drysdale set a record (eclipsed by Orel Hershiser in 1988) with 58 consecutive scoreless innings and Gibson fashioned a record-smashing 1.12 ERA. “Bob Gibson with a 1.12 ERA? That’s almost obscene,” Drysdale later said.

Gibson had a 1968 scoreless streak that reached 47.2 innings before he threw a run-scoring wild pitch in a game against Drysdale and the Dodgers on July 1. Gibson won that game 5-1 despite allowing 11 base-runners (nine hits and two walks). Both pitchers had 10-5 records after the game.

Ron Fairly

Fairly was a fairly good player (.266/.360/.408, 215 HRs) who played 21 years and hit Gibson as hard as anyone. A Dodger and an Expo before joining the Cardinals in 1975, Fairly had 48 career hits and 10 doubles against the Cardinals ace, the highest totals of anyone who faced Gibson. “I don’t have to make a mistake against Fairly,” Gibson wrote in 1968’s From Ghetto to Glory.

“Whatever I throw, he just hits it — I don’t care what it is — and always when somebody is on base.” Cubs’ Hall of Famer Billy Williams had the most home runs (10), RBIs (31), and walks (24) against Gibson, but he also had the most at-bats (174).

Roberto Clemente

Gibson had a mixed history with the Pirates’ star. A .317 career batter, Clemente hit just .208 with 32 strikeouts against Gibson. “I always threw at him,” Gibson wrote in 1994’s Stranger to the Game. “He swung way too hard against me.” But it was Clemente who struck Gibson on July 15, 1967, hitting a line drive that broke the pitcher’s leg. Incredibly, Gibson remained in the game, facing three more batters before leaving the contest.

The Cardinals pitcher missed nearly two months recovering, then came back to win three games in that year’s seven-game World Series victory over the Red Sox.

Willie Mays

Gibson dominated the Say Hey Kid, holding Mays to a .196 average with 30 strikeouts in 108 plate appearances. Gibson further intimidated the Giants superstar by showing up at Mays’ home wearing glasses (one source referred to the pitcher’s specs as “Coke-bottle” glasses). “You wear glasses?” Mays said. “ Man, you’re going to kill somebody one of these days.” “After that, he never leaned over the plate too much,” Gibson recalled.

Reggie Jackson

In 2009, Gibson and Jackson co-wrote, with Lonnie Wheeler, Sixty Feet, Six Inches: A Hall of Fame Pitcher and a Hall of Fame Hitter Talk about How the Game Is Played. Although the two were friends, Gibson once brushed back Jackson during an old-timer’s game in retaliation for Reggie hitting a homer against him in an earlier old-timer’s game.

Countless others have spoken of Gibson’s proclivity for throwing at — or close — to batters. Hitters rarely objected because pitchers were more aggressive during Gibson’s era and the pitcher had the opponents’ respect. “Don’t stare at him, don’t smile at him, don’t talk to him,” Hank Aaron warned young Dusty Baker. “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.”

Next: Former Cardinals playing key roles in the playoffs

 

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We will never see a pitcher as simultaneously fearsome and fantastic as the late, great Bob Gibson.