On Gibson’s Legacy – a Memorial

Funny.  It’s a moment that I thought I remembered perfectly – one of those incidents that, I thought, was seared into my brain.  But as I review the game account (here), I find that a few important details didn’t play out as I remembered it – causing me to wonder how much else of my memory of this is faulty.

Nonetheless, combining recorded fact with whatever remains of memory, I take you to the top of the third inning of an August 4, 1973 game in Shea Stadium, New York, with the Mets holding a 1-0 lead (the run unearned).

After Cardinal shortstop Mike Tyson lead the inning off with a double off of Met lefty Jerry Koosman, St Louis’ starting pitcher Bob Gibson beat out a bunt for a hit, sending Tyson to third.  (I had remembered that Gibson had singled, but it didn’t seem to me like it was a bunt).

In my memory. It was Lou Brock who hit the line drive.  And it was Wayne Garrett playing at third.  According to the record, Brock hit the sacrifice fly that tied the game (and provided the innings’ first out) and it was second place hitter Ted Sizemore who hit the line drive to third-baseman Ken Boswell.

Anyway, Boswell (if not Garrett) gloved the liner and fired to first to double off Gibson.  As he pivoted to return to the bag Gibson completely tore up his left knee.  In my boyhood imagination (I would have been 14 at the time), I see every ligament and tendon shearing away from the bone – although I’m sure the reality was much less severe.

Regardless, the injury was profound enough.  It would require surgery, and, frankly, Gibson would never really be the same again.  But that was still the future.  It’s at this point that the most vivid part of the memory occurs.

The inning was over, and the Mets trotted off the field.  Bob Gibson, the legendary ace of the staff, was rolling in agony just short of the first-base bag.  A relief pitcher hurried to the mound and began to warm up (it was Al Hrabosky, by the way), and a stretcher came out of the dugout to carry Gibson off the field.

Moments later the stretcher returned empty to the dugout.  In spite of what must have been unimaginable pain, Gibson had somehow managed to pull himself back onto his feet, had chased the stretcher off, and limped his way resolutely to the mound – where he chased Hrabosky from the scene as well.  Improbably, incomprehensibly, Gibson – his knee hanging by a thread – was intending to pitch – not just the upcoming third inning.  In his mind, he had seven more innings to pitch before his evening was done.

Of course, Gibson didn’t throw another pitch that counted that Saturday afternoon.  He collapsed attempting his first warmup pitch – a predictable outcome, considering the structural damage done to the knee – and was really out of the game at that point.

Of the, perhaps, thousands of more-or-less vivid memories I have of the great Bob Gibson, this one almost always bubbles to the top.  This wasn’t a playoff game – or even a terribly vital end of season game.  He wasn’t an up-and-coming kid trying to cement an opportunity to stray in the rotation.  He was already a legend, with all of his achievements and records already in the books.

This was just, if you will, another game – one of 482 that he started in his sterling career.  Nothing about this game against the Mets marked it as any more important than any other game St Louis would play that year.  And, in retrospect, that’s what made this moment so impactful.

If it had been a playoff game, or a must-win, end of September contest, you could almost understand an athlete trying to overcome the physical damage done to him by sheer will power to win a must-have game.  And that was the thing about Gibson.

To Bob Gibson, every game was a must-have game.  More than anyone else, possibly, who ever donned the uniform of any professional team, Bob Gibson lived to win.  On every play of every game, he would find a way to beat you.  He would beat you with his head, he would beat you with his arm, he would beat you with his legs, he would beat you with his glove, he would beat you with his bat (I thank the living God that the obscenity of the designated hitter didn’t deprive his legend of this aspect of his game).

In the end, he would beat you with his heart.

He would beat you by one run or by a dozen.  He would win an artful, dominating 1-0 game, or he would beat you in a messy 7-6 affair.  But at the end of the day, at whatever cost to his body, Gibson would have poured his whole soul and being into expending every effort to come away the victor.

It is, I believe, how he defined himself.  He was Bob Gibson, today’s winning pitcher.

It had been nine years earlier – in the midst of another pennant chase – that a similar incident occurred.  A line drive off the bat of Roberto Clemente had broken Gibson’s leg.  Undeterred, Gibson returned to the mound, collapsing again attempting to make a warm-up pitch.

Bob Gibson’s statistical footprint in the annals of baseball history is huge.  A five-time 20 game winner, a two-time Cy Young award winner, holder of the all-time ERA record (1.12 in 1968) and the very first National League pitcher to strike out 3,000 batters – there is more, of course, but you get the idea.

To me, though, Gibson’s impact far exceeded the statistical evidence of his greatness.  Gibson’s name listed as the starting pitcher brought with it a kind of magic – some anticipation of greatness beyond what might be expected from mere mortals.  There was never a boastful moment, no bat flips after any of his home runs, no swagger or any need for any kind of showmanship.  Gibson beat you stoically – as though no other result should have ever been expected.

Several great players have that one play or one moment that seems to encapsulate everything they are.  Sometimes these moments happen under the glare of the World Series – think of Babe Ruth’s called shot, or Willie Mays’ back-to-the-infield catch.  Gibson had one of those moments, too.  It was the Joe Pepitone play.

In the ninth inning of Game Five of the 1964 World Series (an impossible 56 years ago this coming week).  The Cards held a 2-0 lead in the game, while the series – at that point – was tied at two games each.

Gibson’s two-run lead was threatened almost immediately when Mickey Mantle led off the inning reaching on an error.  Gibson rebounded by striking out Elston Howard.  Then came Yankee first baseman Pepitone.

Joe scorched a line drive right back up the middle, drilling Gibson squarely in the back.  The ball ricocheted off of Gibson and began to hop its way toward the Cardinal dugout, the path of the ball almost perfectly bisecting the third base line.

The hit would obviously be a single.  The question was could anyone get to it before it rolled into the dugout, an occurrence that not only would score Mantle, but might possibly leave Pepitone – the potential tying run – on third with just one out.  With third-baseman Ken Boyer well off the bag (Joe being a left-handed batter), the only likely possibility had catcher Tim McCarver somehow bouncing out of his crouch and managing to get to the ball – which was not moving slowly – before it escaped the field of play.

No one even thought of Gibson.  In the first place, the fury of his delivery always had him tumbling off the mound to the first base side – his considerable momentum was carrying him away from the play.  In the second place, Gibson, you’ll remember, had just been smoked by a line drive.  It was questionable whether he could even continue in the game.  Bob Gibson was the last person you would ever expect to see making this play.

And then, there he was, running the ball down at top speed.  He reached the ball at about the time it reached the chalk of the third base line, deftly grabbed it in his bare hand, swirled and – without looking – fired a dart to first base.  Out by a step.

On display in this moment, of course, was his amazing arm.  But beyond that was the raw athleticism and foot speed that many have forgotten he had.  It is infrequently remembered that Gibson played basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters for a while.  (Can you imagine a more stylistic mismatch than the show-off Globetrotters and the no-nonsense Gibson on the same court?).  Still, as far as ability goes, Gibson may have been as good a pure athlete as anyone who has ever toed the rubber.

But even beyond all of that, that moment revealed Gibson’s undiluted confidence in himself and his unwavering belief that he could make any play.  No other pitcher – even among the great fielding pitchers – even attempts that throw.  If this were, say, Greg Maddux – who was also a multiple gold glove winner at the position – he would have been ecstatic just to catch up with the ball, preventing any damage beyond a single.  He would then have put the ball in his pocket and prepared to face the next hitter.

But not Gibson.  There was no concession in his game.

In the succeeding years, I have often wondered what it must have been like to play on the field with him.  It would seem to me that you couldn’t play the game as you would with someone else starting.  His passion and fierce thirst for victory couldn’t do anything but demand the very best from everyone else on the field with him.  Add that, too, to the legend of the great Bob Gibson.  His presence on your team raised everyone’s game.

With the passing of Bob Gibson (and, of course, Lou Brock just before him), a great chuck of my childhood has succumbed to the mortal inevitability.  It’s a sobering thing to watch your boyhood heroes cross over.  Stan Musial was my father’s hero.  Stan defined baseball to an entire generation of Cardinal fans – as Gibson and Brock did to mine.  For my wife’s son, that generational player was Ozzie Smith.  For his son, it may have been Albert Pujols, or perhaps Yadier Molina.  For all we know, for the next generation of Cardinal fans, perhaps it will be Jack Flaherty and/or Dylan Carlson.

It’s the enduring beauty of the game of baseball – the true game, the old game.  The legendary players connect the generations of Americans.  From Cobb to Trout, from Matthewson to Kershaw, baseball has underpinned the American experience from the opening of the twentieth century up through the heartbreaking COVID year of 2020.

Blessed among the baseball community are those fortunate fans of the Cardinals, who for generations have been provided with a steady stream of those transcendent players that galvanize this otherwise unremarkable mid-Western town into a community – a passionate family that celebrates and sorrows over the fortunes of this singular franchise.

But even among the Cardinal pantheon, Gibson stands out.

If the Great Creator of Baseball Players should ever appear to me and say, “Joe, you’ve been such a great Cardinal for so many years, that – just for you – I’m going to create a pitcher who will be destined to be a Cardinal.  And for you, I will give him any attribute from any of history’s great pitchers that you choose.”

Given the choice of Nolan Ryan’s fastball, or Sandy Koufax’ curve, or Warren Spahn’s longevity – or any other pitch or trait from any other pitcher ever – I would turn to the Great Creator and ask Him for Bob Gibson’s guts.  For Gibson’s indomitable heart.

Any pitcher so endowed would find the pitches – would figure out the process – would work tirelessly in a dogged, single-minded pursuit of victory.  And along the way, he would make all the other players that would cross his path better by association.

Truly, Bob Gibson was a remarkable athlete.  But his success, and his legend, were rooted in so much more.

Rest in Peace, Gibby.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.