#CardCorner: 1983 Topps Jim Bibby
Hall of Fame staffers are also baseball fans and love to share their stories. Here is a fan's perspective from Cooperstown.
By the end of the 1970s, the baseball card industry/hobby had become somewhat stale. The hobby needed a transfusion, which it received in the form of a major court ruling that eliminated the Topps monopoly and opened the door for two other companies (Donruss and Fleer) to enter the fray. That court decision created new streams of competition, while simultaneously prompting Topps to improve and refine its product.
In 1983, Topps started to turn the corner with the release of a card set that would become a huge hit with collectors. For the first time since the early 1960s, the Topps cards featured two photographs: A larger, base photograph, complemented by a smaller inset photo contained in the lower corners of the card. To make matters more appealing, Topps made a majority of the base photographs action shots, satisfying the desires of many young collectors.
The photography on the cards also appeared much sharper than what had been produced in 1981 and ’82. The Jim Bibby card is a good example. Given the clear, crisp presentation of the main photograph, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ black and gold colors of that era, so gaudy in their brightness, practically jump off the cardboard. The sunny background, in what appears to be a picture perfect Spring Training day in Bradenton, Fla., only reinforces the boldness of the color. This is a card that cannot help but to grab your attention.
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The Bibby card also presents us with a bit of artistic license. In feigning a practice pitch (notice how Bibby continues to hold onto the ball even at the finish of his follow-through), he appears upright while the Spring Training landscape behind him looks to be tilted. In reality, it is Bibby who should appear to be bending over more appreciably as he completes his practice pitch, and it is the field that should be flat and even. Whether intended or not, it’s a nice piece of photo trickery that gives the card an offbeat twist.
As a player, Bibby was best known for a few matters of note: Being the brother of NBA shooting guard Henry Bibby, authoring the first no-hitter in the history of the Texas Rangers in 1973, and pitching for a world championship team in 1979. Those are all notable facts, but they only begin to scratch the surface of a memorable player who was also a war veteran, a positive character in the clubhouse and an underrated pitcher for many years.
I’ll also remember Bibby for relatively trivial reasons. He was one of the biggest pitchers of the era, a hulking 6-foot-5, who pushed the scales to the 250-pound mark. In today’s game, such dimensions are more common, but in the 1970s, few pitchers had that kind of a massive frame. Bibby also perspired more than any other player I’ve ever seen. On hot and humid days, he would look like comic actor Albert Brooks in the wonderful 1980s film, Broadcast News. Remember the scene where Brooks auditioned to read the news? Overcome with nervousness, Brooks’ character perspired so much that the producers had to change his shirt in the middle of the newscast. Bibby was similar. He sweated so much on the mound that it was hard to watch him work; the more you watched him, the more that you started to sweat.
Perhaps my most profound memories of Bibby come from the riotous book, Seasons in Hell, an account of the Texas Rangers of the 1970s written by Mike Shropshire. According to Shropshire, Bibby used to go by the “stage name” of “Fontay O’Rooney.” (I’m not exactly sure what “stage” Bibby was appearing on, but that’s a question for another day.) And no one understood why he picked the odd moniker of Fontay O’Rooney. The alter ego just made him more colorful, a man whose friendly, amicable personality belied his intimidating physical appearance. Teammates enjoyed being around Bibby in St. Louis, Texas, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
As good-natured as Bibby was, his road to the major leagues was not easy. He was signed by the New York Mets in 1965, but his career was interrupted by both a back injury and military service in the Vietnam War. After his first year of professional ball, in which he pitched poorly, he was drafted by the U.S. Army and put into service in Vietnam, where he drove supply trucks. That was particularly dangerous duty during wartime, but Bibby escaped the assignment without injury or incident.
Later in his career, Bibby downplayed the level of danger. “We handled everything from dead bodies to plastic trucks,” Bibby told Murray Chass of The New York Times in recalling his work as a truck driver. “My unit never got hit, and I didn’t see anybody get killed so things weren’t bad for me. But the war messed up a lot of minds.”
Compared to many other veterans, Bibby emerged from the war relatively unscathed. But his service in the Army did cost him two full years of minor league time, thereby delaying his major league arrival.
Finally discharged in January of 1968, Bibby returned to the Mets’ organization and reported to their affiliate in the Carolina League. There he greatly improved his control, which had been horrendous during his rookie season. With better control of his overpowering fastball, Bibby lowered his ERA to 2.82 and struck out 118 batters in 131 innings.
Based on the strength of that performance, the Mets invited him to Spring Training in 1969, before assigning him to Double-A Memphis. He pitched so well there that he earned a promotion to Triple-A Tidewater in July. From there, the Mets promoted him to New York in September. Bibby never actually appeared in a game for the “Miracle Mets,” but did participate in the team’s celebration that followed the clinching of the newly formed National League East.
With any luck, Bibby would have made the Mets’ Opening Day roster in 1970. But health would not permit that. One day, while trying to cover first base in a Grapefruit League game, Bibby injured his back, which was already bothered by a congenital bone spur. Doctors determined that Bibby needed spinal fusion surgery, a major procedure that gave him only a 50 percent chance of ever pitching again. The surgery, which involved a piece of bone from his hip being removed and then reattached to his spine, left him with two mammoth scars.
After the surgery, Bibby missed all of the 1970 season. Successfully able to rehabilitate his back, Bibby made a remarkable comeback in 1971. He pitched most of the season at Tidewater, before earning a late-season promotion to New York, but once again did not appear in an actual game for the pitching-rich Mets.
The lack of an opportunity to pitch frustrated Bibby. That’s why he welcomed the news that came that winter: An eight-man trade that landed him and veteran outfielder Art Shamsky in St. Louis. The Mets would come to regret the deal. Although they were flush with pitching at the time, left-handed ace Jerry Koosman was facing injury problems. Furthermore, the organization would soon part with a young Nolan Ryan, lessening the depth of the staff even further.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Cardinals did not include Bibby on their Opening Day roster. Instead they optioned him to Triple-A Tulsa, where he dominated minor league hitters. In September, Bibby received a call to the major leagues, and finally made his debut – at the age of 27. Making six starts, Bibby pitched creditably, to the tune of a 3.35 ERA.
The Cardinals hoped that Bibby could become a fulltime starter in 1973, but he pitched so poorly in six early-season appearances that the organization lost patience. In early June, the Cardinals traded him to Texas for young catcher John Wockenfuss and pitcher Mike Nagy. The deal was heartily endorsed by new Rangers manager Whitey Herzog, who knew Bibby well from his days overseeing the farm system of the Mets.
Fully believing in Bibby, Herzog made the big right-hander part of his five-man rotation. Finally given a long-term opportunity, Bibby emerged as a highly capable starter. In July, he made headlines when he fired a no-hitter against the defending world champion Oakland A’s. Bibby threw 148 pitches that day, the last pitch resulting in a short fly ball to right field, caught by Dave Nelson. Bibby relied mostly on his 95 mile-an-hour fastball, which he used to pile up 13 strikeouts. He was also wild that day, issuing six walks, but the wildness only made him more intimidating to Oakland hitters.
Bibby remained at Lynchburg through 2000, when he agreed to move on to Nashville, at the time the top affiliate of the Pirates. After the season, he had to undergo double knee replacements; the surgery convinced him that it was time to retire. He retired to a life of playing golf, attending church and doing charity work for a number of organizations.
Sadly, Bibby was diagnosed with bone cancer in his later years. In 2010, he succumbed to the disease at the age of 65. For many of his friends and former teammates, it was hard to believe that this massive man, so large and strong, had been taken at such a young man.
Shortly after his passing, one of his former teammates paid tribute to Bibby by referencing his deceptive physical appearance. To a stranger, the 250-pound Bibby might have been an intimidating sight, but those who became friends with him knew otherwise.
“You saw Bibby, that size, and you’d think of this giant of a man,” former Pirates closer Kent Tekulve told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Yet his personality didn’t fit his size at all. Just a very gentle, caring person who just happened to be a great pitcher.”
Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame