Saturday, September 28, 2013

Flashback, September 1968: Gibson Gem Caps Career Year on Mound

St. Louis Cardinals ace Bob Gibson capped a career year for himself—and major-league pitchers in general—by blanking the Houston Astros 1-0, at Busch Stadium on September 27, 1968—his 13th shutout of the season, the first time a National Leaguer had recorded that many since 1916.

This same season, Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles Dodgers set a consecutive-innings scoreless streak record (surpassed by Orel Hersheiser 20 years later); Denny McLain became the last 30-game winner to date; and Juan Marichal, in a relatively forgotten performance, won 26 games while pitching 328 innings. But it was Gibson’s statistical and psychological dominance that made 1968 “the Year of the Pitcher.” He not only was a unanimous winner of the NL Cy Young Award, but also won the Most Valuable Player award.

For an idea of the great right-hander at this personal peak, you can start with this excerpt from a 1980 Roger Angell profile, “Distance,” in The New Yorker:

“Everything about him looked mean and loose—arms, elbows, shoulders, even his legs—as, with a quick little shrug, he launched into his delivery. When there was no one on base, he had an old-fashioned full crank-up, with the right foot turning in mid-motion to slip into its slot in front of the mound and his long arms coming together over his head before his backward lean, which was deep enough to require him to peer over his left shoulder at his catcher while his upraised left leg crooked and kicked. The ensuing sustained forward drive was made up of a medium-sized stride of that leg and a blurrily fast, sling-like motion of the right arm, which came over at about three-quarters height and then snapped down and (with the fastball and slider) across his left knee.”

The picture accompanying this post completes the motion. The force of the follow-through has not only taken Gibson off his feet, but well toward third base—seemingly way out of position to field a bunt. But that proved increasingly unlikely, not only because the ball, like so many others he hurled around this time, is at the high end of the strike zone and blindingly fast, but because the pitcher was a nine-time Gold Glove Award winner, not to mention a superb athlete who had been a Harlem Globetrotter before he settled on baseball as his profession.

This is what the 32-year-old pitcher looked like on the mound. What it leaves out is the view from the plate, where one batter after another meekly waved his bat at pitches. In fact, it might be said that while everyone else in the park was playing baseball, Gibson excelled at Fear Factor.

There was, for instance, his competitive streak—highly pronounced in any major leaguer, utterly ineradicable in him. "I've played a couple of hundred games of tic-tac-toe with my little daughter and she hasn't beaten me yet,” Gibson told Angell. “I've always had to win. I've got to win." Seventeen years after hanging up his spikes, Gibson sent a brushback pitch against Reggie Jackson in an Old-Timers Game. It didn't escape anyone's notice that at the same event the year before, Mr. October had hit a home run off him. Even now, the proud old Cardinal couldn't bear to be shown up.

That desire also fed on fierce pride (even teammates didn’t offer encouragement on the mound, lest he scare them away), resentment over racism still experienced by most black athletes in the civil-rights era, and a Darwinian instinct for survival of the fittest. If you were seeking a competitive edge against Gibson by crowding the plate, you could expect a fastball boring in you. Who did you think you were? He owned the corners of the plate.

If you celebrated after a homer, the outcome would be even more dangerous. Today, if they had the unenviable task of facing Gibson, instead of watching their handiwork sail over the fence, David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez would be on their rear ends—and thankful that was the only thing to happen to them. "When I knocked a guy down, there was no second part to the story," Gibson remembered.

Remember the score of this particular victory: 1-0. Many pitchers today would want to sue for such lack of run support. But a single run was often all Gibson needed to get the job done, because in 24 of his 34 starts, he allowed zero runs or only one run. His earned run average for 1968—1.12, the second-lowest ever in the National League--became one of the best-remembered baseball stats of the 20th century. Over 99 innings in June and July, he allowed only two runs. The Cardinals weren’t a hard-hitting team, but each time he took the mound he gave them another shot of repeating as NL champs.

In addition, Gibson was about to extend his mastery into October. In his first start in the World Series, he made the Detroit Tigers look very foolish as he recorded 17 strikeouts.     

Gibson was truly King of the Mound in 1968, and in the off-season the lords of baseball monkeyed with the rules to ensure that neither he nor any other pitcher would reign with such dominance again, lowering the pitching mound from 15 to 10 inches.   

There is yet another sense in which we’ll never see his like again: Gibson set the mood and the pace for games that year. He never dawdled or agonized on the mound, demanding balls back immediately from catchers—and, partly because, after several years, he had learned to throw the curve almost as well as his fastball and slider, he wasn’t about to beat himself with walks, either. The result: fans and players could enjoy a great afternoon game and be done by 3:30, in plenty of time for other activities.

In recent years, Gibson seethed when he would be held up as an exemplar of winning through intimidation for modern pitchers. (And well he might: in the case of Roger Clemens and who knows how many others, their headhunting tendencies derived at least partly from the aggression fueled by performance-enhancing drugs, not from following any markers laid down by a classic pitcher.)

They missed the larger point: Gibson entered Cooperstown in 1981 because he refused to be conquered by adversity. As a ghetto child whose father died before he was born, he was diagnosed with a heart murmur. His career was repeatedly threatened: by a fractured leg (1962), severely damaged elbow (1966), broken other leg (1967). In the deciding game of the 1964 World Series, he was running on fumes in the last couple of innings against the New York Yankees, but he gutted out the complete-game victory. In explaining why he did not resort to a reliever—a move today’s managers would have made without a second’s thought—manager Johnny Keane gave one of the best tributes ever made to a champion: “I had a commitment to his heart.”

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