Delivering the Heat: Bob Gibson

Hall of Fame hurler reflects on a career that ended in Cooperstown in this piece from the 2014 Hall of Fame Yearbook

May 14, 2014
Over 17 seasons with the Cardinals, Hall of Famer Bob Gibson won 20 games five times. (NBHOF Library)

Born on Nov. 9, 1935, as the youngest of seven children to Victoria and Pack Gibson in Omaha, Neb., Bob “Hoot” Gibson overcame amazing odds to become one of the game’s most dominant pitchers.

Fifty years ago this summer, Gibson experienced his breakout campaign, posting a 19-12 record with a 3.01 ERA, recording 245 strikeouts in 287 innings and guiding the Cardinals to an unexpected World Championship over the New York Yankees. The 1964 season served as the launch point for one of the most dominant seven-year periods ever for a major league pitcher.

Between 1964 and 1970, Gibson went 138-72, posting a 2.52 ERA and averaging nearly a strikeout per inning. The 1964 season also marked Gibson’s World Series debut, setting in motion one of baseball’s most amazing October records. After taking the loss in Game 2, he would win the first two of a record seven straight World Series games between 1964 and 1968.

When he retired following the 1975 season, Gibson’s 251-174 record, with a 2.91 career ERA and 3,117 strikeouts earned him a first-ballot election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981.

In February, Gibson took some time at his Omaha home to share his thoughts on his Omaha roots, the 1964 season, his remarkable career, this year’s Hall of Fame Induction class, which includes his good friend, Joe Torre, and his legacy with the Hall of Fame’s Brad Horn. This piece focuses on Gibson’s arrival into baseball and the 1964 season.

HOF: What role did your older brother, Josh, play in your childhood?

BG: Josh took over the role as my mentor and my father. He was 18 or 19 years older than me. We lived in the housing projects in Omaha, and he always coached baseball and basketball teams. He worked for the YMCA, and he loved to work with kids. He would have all of us all around him all the time. He also helped promote the importance of education. He graduated from Creighton University. We would be ready to practice and Josh would walk in with an armful of books. He’d say, "I was in school," and we’d kind of laugh. "School? What are you doing going to school?" We only went to school because they made us, but a lot of the guys that grew up under Josh ended up getting a college education. He was an influence not only in sports, but also in other aspects of life.

HOF: As you battled illness as a child, when did Josh introduce you to the game of baseball?

BG: I don’t really remember much about those illnesses. But I do remember, when I was probably five or six, Josh got me a baseball glove and told me that if I got well, he was going to teach me how to play baseball. I was pretty happy with that. When I was sick, I remember thinking that I could get over it and become a ballplayer, and he was a big part of getting well.

HOF: As a high school athlete, was basketball your main focus?

BG: I thought I was going to be a hotshot basketball player because basketball was a lot easier for me than baseball. It came more natural, and I worked at it all the time.  Baseball was kind of difficult, and I didn’t know that I wanted to work at it that hard. I didn’t find out until after my induction ceremony at the Hall of Fame that I wasn’t allowed to play baseball in high school until my senior year because they didn’t want to allow black players on the baseball team. I couldn’t quite grasp that, and I was really surprised to find that out.

HOF: You went to Creighton University on a basketball scholarship, and it was there that you first became a professional – with the Harlem Globetrotters.

BG: The Globetrotters toured the country in those days with a College All-Star Team as the opponent and they asked Creighton if I could play with the College All-Stars for the game in Omaha. Creighton said yes. The game drew more than 15,000 people, a really good turnout. I got into the game in the fourth quarter after the fans started chanting, “We want Gibson. We want Gibson.” I scored 14 points, and we ended up beating the Trotters by one point. After the game, the Globetrotters asked if I would play with them when school was out.

HOF: You had a signed contract with the St. Louis Cardinals organization to play baseball before you joined the Globetrotters after Runt Mar had scouted you, both in high school and in college. But it was a phone call from Bing Devine that changed your career path while you were on tour.

BG: I signed the Cardinals contract in July at the end of the College World Series and then that fall, I went on to play basketball with the Globetrotters. The game with the Globetrotters was more clowning than anything else, and I’d never wanted to clown very much. I didn’t enjoy that nearly as much as I thought I was going to enjoy it. Bing Devine called me and said he didn’t think I could be very good at either one if I split my time into two sports. He asked me why was I playing basketball anyway, and I said it was a good winter job. He asked me how much money I was making. I was making just over $4,000 just in three months playing basketball.  He said, if I give you a $4,000 raise will you quit and I said, 'Yes', and that was the end of my basketball career.

HOF: You joined the Cardinals for the first time at Spring Training in 1958 and you immediately found that discrimination was rampant, even more than a decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.

BG: Before I even got to spring training, I had problems, with some guys on a train from Omaha to St. Petersburg, Fla. They were going to jump me for whatever reason. When I got to St. Petersburg, the Cardinals were all staying at the Bainbridge Hotel. When I got to the desk, I said, “My name is Bob Gibson and I’m with the Cardinals. You’re supposed to have a place for me here.” The guy at the desk pointed me out the side door to a driver and said there’s a lady named Mrs. Williams at the address he gave me. “Give him this and he’ll take you to where you’re supposed to be.”  He took me across town to Mrs. Williams' house and when I got there, Elston Howard, who was with the Yankees at the time, greeted me, and a couple of other guys. This was where all the black players in that area stayed. That was my first experience with professional baseball. I thought: “Maybe being with the Cardinals is not going to be that easy,” but then I found out when I was talking with Elston is just what they did with all the black players, not for just us. And other teams in other areas, they never stayed with the teams, either. That’s just the way it was. And we stayed with Mrs. Williams for a year, maybe two years. And then some of us got together and rented a house. We had a lot of fun, but the next day, after you got through having fun, you had to go to the ballpark and try to be better than the rest of those guys, because back in those days, they didn’t carry any dead weight on a team that was black. If you weren’t good enough to make the team, you weren’t going to be there. We did not stay with the rest of the team in Spring Training until 1961. August Busch bought a motel and put the whole team in it in 1961, and that was the first time we experienced living with the rest of the players.

HOF: And in 1959, when you reached the major leagues for the first time, what did you expect from yourself?

BG: I thought I had the ability to become a good player. I knew that I wasn’t a good player yet, because I had all the ability in the world, I just didn’t know how to play. I was a good college player, but being a good college player doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good professional ballplayer. There’s a difference. So I thought I had the ability, but I didn’t know that I was going to get the chance. The manager on that team (Solly Hemus) didn’t particularly care for me and the other black players. He made it very difficult. He said things to me like, “you probably should have stayed in basketball. You’d probably be a better basketball player." I don’t know if his idea was to discourage me or what it was, but nonetheless, he said things like that regularly. One day, after I got pulled out of a game, I went upstairs and packed my bag. I said to myself, “To Hell with this. I’m going to play basketball.” Thankfully, Harry Walker, one of our coaches, caught me and said, “Put your clothes back in the locker. You just be patient. You’re going to be here a lot longer than he is.” I unpacked my bad and just sat there and pouted, like a little kid. I was 23 years old and I didn’t think I was ever going to make it, but I did.”

HOF: In 1961, Johnny Keane took over as manager and things began to change for you.

BG: I had known Johnny Keane because he was my manager in Omaha (for the minor league Cardinals) when I signed. I knew what kind of person he was, and when he took over, I was just happy. He called me into his office and he said, "You’re going to start every fifth day regardless of how you pitch, so I just want you to take that off your mind. Go out and learn how to pitch."

HOF: Was there a teammate who helped mentor you as a young player to help overcome some of your early struggles?

BG: George Crowe, who was a really good pinch-hitter and, in his day, a pretty good first baseman.  He became my mentor, not just on the field, but off the field, teaching me how to be a decent individual.  I never really had a lot of problems with the ballplayers themselves. 

HOF: Following the 1963 seasons, Stan Musial retired. What influence did he have on you as a young player?

BG: Stan Musial wasn’t the kind of guy to say, "Let’s go everybody." He led by example more than anything else, but he paid attention to me, for whatever reason. I was really bad about if I knew I wasn’t going to get into the game, I'd sit down at the end of the dugout and mess around. Early in my career, I was kind of the mop-up pitcher, so I didn’t behave myself all the time.  I’d stay out late sometimes, so I’d be tired and fall asleep in the corner of the dugout. Musial would come down and wake me up, just kind of trying to keep me in it. I don’t know why but he kind of took an interest in me, and that was fun because he was a superstar, we all knew that.

HOF: Your success really clicked in the 1964 season, winning 19 games and emerging as a dominant pitcher in the game. What clicked for you in 1964?

BG: It didn't just instantly happen in 1964.  If you go back to ’61, when I started regularly, I won 13 games, and then in ’62, I won 15, and then in ’63, I won 18, and then in ’64, I won 19 and probably should have won 20, but I got kicked out of a game – I had to open my mouth to an umpire and he kicked me out of the game. But it was a progression of me getting better and learning how to pitch. By '64, I had it pretty much under control – knowing how to pitch. It doesn’t mean you’re going to win every day – you just don’t win every day. Sometimes the other team is just better, but I knew what I was doing. I knew what I was all about, and when you’re successful, it comes with confidence, and I had confidence. I knew that I was capable of doing what I thought I was capable of doing, and that was pretty fun.    

HOF: That 1964 team had great makeup of players and personalities. Talk about what made your teammates so special.

BG: It was the combination of people that were on that ball club. Dick Groat was our shortstop, and he was All-American basketball player, a great athlete. We had Dave Ricketts, Tim McCarver, Lou Brock, Bill White.  We just had a bunch of guys that were – as a reporter told me – relatively intelligent.  I don’t know what means, but I guess according to him, we had some pretty smart individuals. I think that makes for the possibility of having a pretty good ball club. If you get some guys that are pretty intelligent and they have a lot of ability, chances are you’re going to have a pretty good ball club. That doesn’t mean you’re going to win 'em all. We just put it together, and we liked each other. We would go out after the game together. A big group of guys, like a gang, and we’d go have dinner and do whatever. We hung out.  When you find that guys don’t like each other, they don’t hang out. We hung out, and it was a lot of fun.

HOF: Talk about the trade that mid-season in 1964 that brought the Cardinals Lou Brock and changed the lineup.

BG: The Cardinals traded Ernie Broglio, who had just won 18 games the year before, and Lou Brock was relatively unheard of. We were a little unhappy about that. Why in the world would they give up Broglio, an 18-game winner, for Brock?  He could run, but what else could he do? Well, once we got him, he hit about .500 in the three weeks before we ended the season. After the season was over, we said, OK, that was a pretty good deal. And then, of course, he goes on to become Lou Brock.

HOF: You needed a win on the last day of the season to get to the World Series, and you ended up playing a big role – but in relief.

BG: On that Friday, we were playing the Mets. We thought we were going to run out there and beat them.  I pitched against Al Jackson, a little left-handed pitcher, and he beat me, 1-0, on Friday. I pitched nine innings on Friday and lost. Then on Sunday, with one day of rest, I came back and pitched four innings in relief, because we had to win that game. And thankfully we did. I then started on Wednesday in Game 2 of the Series. By the end of the Series, I pitched so much and my arm hurt so bad, that I didn’t know if my arm was ever going to get well after the Series was over.

HOF: Were you in awe of facing the Yankees? They had just won their first straight pennant and 14 of 165 overall going into the 1964 Series. Were you just happy to be there?

BG: I thought that before we played the first game. I said, "Well, we’re playing the Yankees. At least we got here." That was my thought. I didn’t expect us to win. I pitched on Wednesday and I didn’t win the ballgame but I pitched really well. After that game, I thought, “I think we can beat this team.” After the World Series was over and we had won it, I said, “You know, they weren’t the best team in the world, we were.” And that’s just the way it seemed to me.

HOF: In that Series, you made a remarkable defensive play in Game 2, a play your teammates raved about for years and that left fans of the game marveling over your athleticism. How do you recall it happening?

BG: Joe Pepitone was hitting and he hit a line drive that really wasn’t a line drive. On my follow-through, I usually ended up with my back to the hitter. Then to field, I'd have to bounce back around. Well, he had hit it on one hop and the ball hit me in the butt. The ball started toward the third base line, and I ran over, picked it up, jumped in the air, threw it over my shoulder, and I got Pepitone by one step at first. That was a good play.  It’s the play that (Derek) Jeter makes all the time where he goes in that hole, picks it up, jumps and throws. I did it before Jeter!

HOF: Did you comprehend at the end of the Series that you were a world champion?

BG: I was just enjoying the ride. I never got that deep into thinking about it. It was something that happened. I was thinking, it may never happen again – and it did – but that’s what you think at the time. You just enjoy it. I can remember being at home, smiling to myself, saying, “We are the best team in the world right now.” That was a great feeling.

HOF: Flash forward to 1967 – the team is in a pennant chase for the first time in a couple of years since the 1964 title and you experience a bad break, literally, as a ball off the bat of the Pirates’ Roberto Clemente fractured your right leg.

BG: You have a tendency to feel sorry for yourself, and I was thinking – not just me, but the people in St. Louis are thinking: There goes our pennant chances. I believe it was Nelson Briles who came in and took my spot and pitched really, really well. I was out for seven weeks. He held the team together to the point where, I made sure, when I was out, that I was going to be ready when they took that cast off. I used to go out and pitch with the cast on. I’d pitch every day in St. Louis and throw with the cast on. I didn’t want my arm to deteriorate. I wanted it to be strong, and I figured I could work on my leg later on.  Nowadays when you have injuries like that, they send you to the minor leagues, you pitch two or three games, and you do all this rehab before you get back up. For me, over seven weeks, I threw on the side, in my cast. When I took the cast off, I went out and started pitching. I can remember when they took X-rays of my ankle. It looked like the bones were separated, but I think it was just whatever was starting to grow over the bone, you weren't able to see it. I got kind of dizzy and thought, "Whoa! Maybe I shouldn’t be throwing." But I kept throwing. The very first day I came back, I pitched six innings and we won the pennant that day in Philadelphia and I was ready to go.

HOF: How did a World Series victory taste the second time around?

BG: Delicious. It was delicious. I think we actually had a better team than the one we had in ’64.  We had some guys who could flat out play, and we hardly ever beat ourselves.

HOF: The Year 1968 will be forever remembered as the year of Bob Gibson. Compared to the year before, did you sense that special nature of that season?

BG: I was more aware in ’68 than in ’67, certainly. I had a little cartoon that I cut out of the newspaper that I hung over my locker in 1968. Sammy Davis Jr. used to always do a little skit on television, called, “Here Comes the Judge.” He’d sashay across the stage and say, "Here Comes the Judge." I liked that cartoon, because I knew I was doing it. I was in the zone. I thought I could do anything I wanted with the ball. I could throw it anywhere I wanted to. Pretty much I did just that, and I didn’t think I was going to get beat. Of course I got beat nine times. I think five of them were 1-0, but I was in the zone.

HOF: Your teammates didn’t give you a lot of run support in 1968. Do you think they were in awe of what they were seeing?

BG: I think they were confident that we were going to win the game, and I think that’s one of the reasons why, when I pitched, we never got any more than one or two runs.  I think they felt if they got one or two runs that we were going to win a ballgame. They played hard. I just think they had a false sense of security there. Shoot, I lost nine games that year. I shouldn’t have lost nine games. All we had to do was get two or three runs in a couple of games, and we would have won them, but it’s just the way it goes.

HOF: 1968 didn’t have a storybook ending for the Cardinals or for you, taking the loss in Game 7 to the Detroit Tigers. Did you think they that it would be your last World Series game?

BG: No, I did not. I thought that we had a good enough team that we should get there again, but when we didn’t win the World Series in ’68, (the Cardinals) started getting rid of some of the players and that was something I didn’t really like. Just because we didn’t win the World Series, they started to separate the club after that.

HOF: Many call the changes that happened in the game after the 1968 season “The Gibson Rules”, as the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches. You have long said, though, that the change to the strike zone was the more noticeable difference.

BG: They always messed with the strike zone. It was very difficult to know what they’re going to call. You’re working on getting your control to the point where you can do what you want to do and, all of a sudden, they change the strike zone and make it smaller. Or they’d lower it or they’d raise it. Then they cut that mound down five inches which made guys who threw over the top make their breaking balls a little higher. It didn’t affect me that much because I threw more three quarters or side-arm, but it did effect where you had to work at it in order to get your pitches where you wanted. I thought that was really unfair to do that. And I still think to this day that shouldn’t have happened.

HOF: On Aug. 14, 1971, you threw the second no-hitter ever in Pittsburgh, the first in more than 60 seasons. You doubted that you’d ever throw a no-hitter, so were you surprised?

BG: I never figured I’d throw a no-hitter because I was basically a high ball pitcher, and guys like to hit the ball up in the strike zone. Rather than walk a guy like Hank Aaron, I would challenge him. And when you challenge a guy, they’re going to hit the ball, period. So I never figured that I throw a no-hitter. I had several games where I would throw three hits, four hits, two hits but never a no-hitter. So, to do it was a good feeling. I enjoyed that. Especially against Pittsburgh because they had probably the best hitting ball club in baseball in 1971.

HOF: What are your memories of the St. Louis fans and what does it mean to you today to be a revered member of the Cardinals family?

BG: I’m reminded of it every time I go back. It’s been 38 years since I’ve played, and the fans remember me like it was last night. It is a really, really wonderful feeling. I enjoy going back there at the beginning of the season or at the World Series games or playoff games. They always take us out on the field, and it’s a great feeling to know that the fans remember and that's a good thing.

HOF: Your No. 45 is retired by the Cardinals and that’s the one you wore for most of your career. Was it

BG: No, it was just happenstance. I had 45 when I was at Creighton and people asked me if I requested 45 when I got into baseball but no.  When I first when to the Cardinals I think my number was 32. After I got sent down for a couple of weeks, when I came back, it was 45. I didn’t ask for it, but that’s just the way it turned out. 

HOF: Talk about your friendships with Curt Flood, Tim McCarver and Joe Torre.

BG: Curt was probably the closest friend I had in professional sports because he was there with me from day one. In fact, he was a roommate of mine here in Omaha until he got called back up in 1958. When I get to St. Louis in ’59, Curt was my roommate again. We were together more than I was together with my family. I lived with him for six-to-seven months out of the year, and he was probably as close to me as anybody. Like a brother. And that’s a good thing. And then it changed. Curt got traded. 

Joe came in ’69, and he thought I was just the biggest jerk he’d ever saw because he tried to talk to me at an All-Star game – he was catching and I was pitching – and I wouldn’t talk to him. When he got traded, he said, "I’m gonna really hate this," but we turned out to be really, really good friends. I think Joe’s probably right under Curt as far closeness is concerned.

Over the time, over the years playing and since then, Tim and I have become very close. These are good people and you enjoy being around these people. 

What a great group of guys...I have had some friends I can call real friends and that’s good.

HOF: In 1981, you were elected to the Hall of Fame on your first time on the ballot, just the 11th player ever and only the fifth pitcher elected on the first ballot. How did you take the news?

BG: I was very surprised, because I didn’t think that I would ever be elected into the Hall of Fame, because I wasn’t exactly cordial to the press and there was reason for that. From the time we started in l958 until my career was over it was a long, hard journey trying to deal with the press and everything they had to say about you. I took the attitude that I was just going to make them respect me, regardless of what they thought of me. I didn’t want them to come to me and joke around with me, or say that I was something that I wasn’t. A lot of times, they would take things you’d say and turn it around to make it mean something else, so I made sure I wasn’t going to be that person. If I said something they wrote and it was an out and out lie, I would say it was an out and out lie. So I wouldn’t say anything they could take different ways. You’re going to pretty much take it the way I say it if you’re going to write it. So I prompted that, and kind of ticked them off, and I didn’t think they would ever vote me into the Hall of Fame so that was really a surprise.  After that, I said, well, maybe your personality has nothing to do with it. Maybe it’s the ability that you have.

HOF: Following your retirement – and for the 1981 season when you were elected to the Hall of Fame – you were on Joe Torre’s staff with the Mets as “Attitude Coach”.

BG: I can’t say what I told the reporter who asked me, "What’s an attitude coach." (Laughter.) I yelled it at him, and he laughed. That’s a coach with an attitude. You need to ask Joe what an attitude coach is. 

HOF: Will you be sending Joe any special congratulations this summer when he is inducted to the Hall of Fame?

BG: No, no. You know, Joe could very well have been inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player. He had a lifetime batting average of .297.  That’s a lot of hitting for a guy who couldn’t run at all. I think right now I could beat Joe running back then, and I can’t walk! I could beat him running when he was playing. No, I’m just going to enjoy it and I think he’s going to enjoy it. I know he’s going to enjoy it. And I’ll be there. No way I would miss it.

HOF: Two pitchers are going into the Hall of Fame this summer. Your thoughts on the election of Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux.

BG: They  are different types of pitchers. (Greg) Maddux defines what pitching is all about, and showed that you don’t necessarily have to throw the ball 200 miles an hour if you can pitch where you want to. You can make the ball do different things. I think he’s a little different than Glavine. Maddux could throw a ball through the eye of a needle. Glavine was more of an away, away pitcher. He just stayed away. I think Maddux was a different type pitcher than Glavine, but with guys like that on the same team, there’s a really good chance of having a good ball club. The reason being is that they’re not going to go four or five games and have bad games combined. If you have a pitching staff that falls into a slump, there’s this one guy you’re going to stick in there to break that slump and there’s a good chance that he’s going to win the ballgame.  With two guys like that on the same team, you’re not going to have many slumps as far as pitching is concerned. 

HOF: You were recognized in your hometown of Omaha with a bronze statue dedicated in 2013 by Sarpy County at Werner Park. How did that dedication contribute to the connection to your hometown?

BG: When I made the decision to stay in Omaha, it was partially because of the people that are here. For them to honor me like that, I knew I did the right thing to stay here, because I don’t know that there’s a better place to live. The people are great, and I just enjoy being here.

HOF: You closed your Induction Speech by saying that you wanted to be remembered for giving it your all every time out there. Thirty-three years later, do you view your legacy differently?

BG: No, it hasn’t changed. I do believe I gave 100% every single time.

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