A quick gander at Bob Gibson’s Baseball Reference page will tell you that the most similar pitchers to him were Jim Palmer, Jack Morris, and Amos Rusie. Comparing Gibson to these three is no insult–the trio are each Hall of Famers, with the most similar to Gibson, Palmer, also being a first-ballot Hall of Famer and the iconic ace of the semi-dynastic team for which he spent his entire career. Superficially, all of this is true, but this also demonstrates how simply looking at stat lines can miss the most interesting parts of baseball. This is no disrespect to Jim Palmer, who is an all-time great, but there is no comparable pitcher to Bob Gibson.
For an inner-circle legend, Gibson got a relatively late start to his career, not becoming a regular member of the St. Louis Cardinals’ starting rotation until he was 25–by contrast, Roger Clemens had already won two Cy Young Awards and an MVP before he began his age-25 season. Unlike perhaps the most pointed late bloomer in the recent annals of pitching, Randy Johnson, Gibson wasn’t narrow missing (and deserving) Cy Young awards at 41–he threw his final pitch at all before his fourtieth birthday. This isn’t to say Gibson was some supernova flash-in-the-pan: he was a firmly above-average pitcher for nearly a decade and a half. But when you think about Gibby, you don’t think about longevity. You think about peak. And his peak defies logic.
There isn’t a pitcher in MLB history whose career ERA I know off-hand. For my own curiosity, I ventured a guess at the career ERA of Cy Young (whose career win total of 511 I know like the back of my hand) and while I came closer than I thought I would, his 2.63 mark was elusive. There is one ERA burned in the brains of myself and of countless other baseball fans, and it is one from more than twenty years before I was born–Bob Gibson. 1968. 1.12.
The number is impossible to comprehend. Roger Clemens, perhaps the greatest pitcher of the last century, had a career earned run average two full runs higher than Gibson’s 1968 mark. The only pitchers who have even scratched the surface of 1.12 since have been relievers–Eric Gagne had a close-but-no-cigar 1.20 ERA in 2003 and won the Cy Young Award despite throwing only 82 1/3 innings. Gibson threw 304 2/3, eighty-four more than the MLB leader last season. Much has been said about Gibson’s 1968 dominance; I highly recommend one of the newer entries into the canon, the 18ish minute segment SB Nation’s Jon Bois did about Gibson in his off-beat look at the decline of Bobs in sports.
1968 was a famously pitcher-friendly season across the board, and surely Gibson benefited somewhat from that environment, but 1.12? Nobody else came close to 1.12. Luis Tiant had the next lowest ERA (in 46 1/3 fewer innings), and it was 43% higher than Gibson’s. The next-best National League ERA came from Bobby Bolin, who had a 1.99 mark in 176 2/3 innings. Without Gibson, 1968 was a really good season for pitchers. With Gibson, baseball was broken. And thus baseball changed its rules, lowering the mound and altering the strike zone and all but assuring that Gibson’s 1.12 ERA remains the gold standard.
Gibson never duplicated 1.12, but in each of his next two seasons, he was actually a more valuable player by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement. This is where adjusted statistics really come in handy. A raw look at ERA suggests that Gibson immediately declined, but the truth was that Major League Baseball tried to make Bob Gibson worse, but they were more effective at making everybody else worse instead. Gibson rode out the storm and remained the superstar he always was.
But as much as Bob Gibson is defined by 1.12, he is more defined by a more intangible factor–his attitude. Contrary to popular perception, Bob Gibson didn’t actually hit all that many batters–he never led the National League in batters hit and he ranks tied for just 85th all-time (for reference, #7 is Tim Wakefield and tied for 17th is Jamey Wright, two modern pitchers who don’t exactly have headhunter reputations). After all, Gibby didn’t want to let runners on base, so intentionally hitting them worked against his best interest. But he had a menacing demeanor which contrasted with his affable, friendly personality off the mound but which allowed him to gain the psychological edge over his opponents. If a batter faced Greg Maddux, they were rightfully scared of looking foolish trying to get a hit, but they weren’t scared of getting a 95 mile-per-hour fastball in their ears. If a batter faced Bob Gibson, the fear of retribution would keep him off the plate but also linger in his subconscious.
Bob Gibson was, and is, synonymous with toughness. And on Saturday, when it was revealed that the 83 year-old Gibson has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the temptation was to ascribe his baseball persona to the excruciating circumstances with which Gibson is now dealing. That Gibson is a fighter and that pancreatic cancer picked the wrong fight.
But the sad truth is that nothing Bob Gibson did on the baseball field translates to a fight against cancer. Some of the toughest people to ever walk the Earth succumb to the disease shortly after their diagnosis. Cancer is a relentless, unapologetic foe, and while it may be comforting in the short term to believe that Bob Gibson is indestructible, that does a great disservice to those who faced cancer and did not survive it. Which is why I’ll try to avoid saying I hope Bob Gibson beats cancer, because the converse implication is that Bob Gibson could lose to cancer, and Bob Gibson doesn’t lose.
That Bob Gibson could even be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is a sobering reminder of a fact which is both obvious and incomprehensible–Bob Gibson is human. He’s just a guy, not fundamentally different from you or me. A human pitched like that. A human altered the course of baseball so dramatically that the sport was forced, on the fly, to change its structure just to contain him. To call Bob Gibson a cheat code undersells how absurd his dominance was. Cheat codes are implemented by people capable of exerting complete control over the realm in which they operate. Bob Gibson broke baseball from the inside. Bob Gibson is human and that makes him all the more superhuman.