Sad day at the Thompson household. Wife Amy’s beloved St. Louis Cardinals lost a playoff game to San Diego to end their 2020 season, but that doesn’t even register against the news that Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson died at age 84 from pancreatic cancer.
His death came on the 52nd anniversary of Gibson’s dominating performance against the Detroit Lions in the 1968 World Series when he struck out 17 batters in Game 1 of the series that the Cards lost in the seventh and deciding game.
This hasn’t been a good year for the St. Louis team. Outfielder and acclaimed base stealer Lou Brock died last month.
Amy is the baseball fan in our house and she refers to the St. Louis team “my Cardinals.” She went to many games at Busch Stadium, right across the Mississippi River from her hometown of Belleville, IL. An autographed baseball sits in a proud spot in her baseball memorabilia.
Another cherished ball has the signatures of Roger Maris and Whitey Ford, who she met at a reception in Washington during our time in the nation’s capital. Roger, she said, “pinched my butt.” Another is an original baseball card and a ball signed by Carl Erskine, who, like Gibson, played his entire career with one team (in Erskine’s case the Brooklyn Dodgers).
But Gibson is her favorite. He broke the record of 15 strikeouts in a single World Series game set by Sandy Koufax in 1953.
Gibson won two Cy Young Awards and, like Erskine, spent his entire career with one team. He was World Series MVP in 1964 and 67 victories by the Cardinals. He averaged 19 games a year from 1963-72, finished his career with a lifetime 2.91 ERA.
His intensity was legendary, as was his determination to win.
“I’ve played a couple of hundred games of tic-tac-toe with my little daughter and she hasn’t beaten me yet,” he once told The New Yorker’s Roger Angell. “I’ve always had to win. I’ve got to win.”
Baseball announcer Vin Scully said Gibson “pitched as if his car was double-parked.” On days he pitched, teammates knew to stay away from him. He didn’t want to talk. He didn’t like his catcher coming out to the mound during the game.
“The only thing you know about pitching is you can’t hit it,” Gibson would respond to hitters who tried to heckle him.
In postseason games, he had a 1.89 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 81 innings. In 1968, his regular-season ERA as 1.12, and his domination on the mound was among the reasons that Major League Baseball lowered the mound height and made other changes the following season to try and limit pitchers like him.
Hank Aaron offered Atlanta teammates Dusty Baker this advice about Gibson:
“Don’t dig in against Bob Gibson; he’ll knock you down,” The Boston Globe reported Aaron said. “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.”
Gibson called himself a “blunt, stubborn Black man” and said he hated being called a “role model.” He posted a sign over his Cardinals locker. “I’m not prejudiced,” it read. “I hate everybody.”
“Our team, as a whole, had no tolerance for ethnic or racial disrespect,” Gibson wrote in “Pitch by Pitch,” published in 2015. “We’d talk about it openly and in no uncertain terms. In our clubhouse, nobody got a free pass.”