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
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,"
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
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.”