I always viewed Bob Gibson as the first modern baseball player.
Like all St. Louis Cardinals fans, I grew up revering Stan Musial, even though I had never seen him play. Not only had I never seen him play, but I couldn’t even comprehend the idea that he really did play. He seemed like an ethereal slice of Americana who existed beyond the scope of anything resembling reality. He was nicknamed “The Man”, of course, but he felt like no less than a saint.
Bob Gibson, a man who spent five seasons as teammates with Musial but who, fifteen years his junior, was quite decisively a man of a different generation, was every bit the gentleman that Stan Musial was, but he didn’t feel like a saint. He felt like a real, human man. Maybe it was because large swaths of his playing career, particularly his prime, are captured in vivid color video. Maybe it was because he remained a visible fixture at Cardinals games, becoming an annual mainstay at Busch Stadium’s home opener and wandering into the Fox Sports Midwest booth at his leisure. Maybe it was because the realities of who he was–a Black man in America who reached his cultural zenith during the heart of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and who was acutely aware of and unapologetic about the role he could and should serve in the fight. The constant reminders of Bob Gibson’s humanity made his seemingly otherworldly feats all the more impressive.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1935, Bob Gibson overcame poverty and a series of childhood illnesses to become a gifted high school athlete at Omaha’s Technical High School. He became an all-state high school basketball player who was rejected from playing at his dream school, the University of Indiana, because they had “filled their quota” on Black players. Instead, Gibson became a two-sport star at Creighton University, where his prowess in each sport caught the attention of professional teams–the Cardinals in baseball, who signed him to a minor league contract, and the Harlem Globetrotters in basketball, who signed Gibson to be a part of the barnstorming team. A likely apocryphal story suggests that Bob Gibson quit the Globetrotters because he was sick of their trademark pranks, but he entered the realm of folklore with them as well–legendary Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon, Gibson’s former roommate whom Wilt Chamberlain once claimed was the greatest basketball player he had ever seen, claimed that Bob Gibson was a better basketball player than he was a baseball player.
In his early years with the Cardinals, Gibson joined teammates Curt Flood and Bill White in a movement to fully integrate the team’s facilities, becoming the first Major League Baseball team to do so. His first manager in St. Louis, Solly Hemus, became notorious for his treatment of Black players, and he would frequently shuffle Gibson between the starting rotation and the bullpen. Hemus would later be succeeded as manager by Johnny Keane, a warmer, kinder, and frankly much smarter man who recognized Gibson’s immense talents and put him, for the first time in his professional career, in a position to succeed.
In 1962 (Keane’s first full season as manager), Bob Gibson was an All-Star for the first time in his career. In 1964, Gibson received regular season MVP votes as the clear ace of the St. Louis Cardinals and capped off his best season yet with a World Series MVP award to go along with his first career championship. In 1967, despite breaking his right fibula on a line drive off the bat of Pittsburgh Pirates legend Roberto Clemente and missing (incredibly, only) two months, Gibson was once again the team’s World Series MVP in another championship run. But then, in 1968, Bob Gibson put up the most legendary single season in St. Louis Cardinals history, and one of the most legendary individual seasons in baseball history. There are no words I could possibly summon–about Gibson’s 1.12 ERA, or his 13 shutouts and eight more one-run complete games, or his eleven-start stretch in the heart of summer in which he surrendered a total of three runs over 99 innings, or his 17-strikeout performance in Game 1 of the World Series, or the fact that Gibson was so dominant and effectively broke the sport so much that Major League Baseball responded by lowering the pitcher’s mound by five inches–that haven’t been said by those lucky enough to have experienced the moments in real time.
I can only speak of Bob Gibson in hindsight, having been born more than thirteen years after his final appearance in the Majors. But doing so has never felt like a chore, nor did learning about the history of Bob Gibson feel like some sort of tedious, ritualistic obligation. It’s still fun, a half-century later, to watch him pitch. With all due respect to the many great pre-World War II hurlers, I am unable to imagine them competing in the modern era in the way I can with Bob Gibson. Peak Bob Gibson is as close to 2020 as it is to Peak Walter Johnson, but it feels much closer to 2020. Not every pitcher in 1968 feels that way.
Bob Gibson passed away yesterday following a fifteen-month battle with pancreatic cancer at the age of 84. With his death, everybody moves up one spot on the list of the greatest living St. Louis Cardinals. Both statistically and in the hearts and minds of Cardinals fans, Bob Gibson was far and away the greatest pitcher in franchise history–by Wins Above Replacement, if you combined the value of the team’s next two greatest pitchers, Dizzy Dean and Adam Wainwright, you’d still come a Cy Young Award-caliber season away from reaching what Gibson accomplished by himself.
Only two pitchers in baseball history, according to FanGraphs, were more valuable with one particular team than Gibson was with the Cardinals–Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson, two of the first five players in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Johnson, the longer-living of the two, died four months before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. In baseball history, Gibson is simultaneously a player so unique to his era that his only peers are a pair of workhorses who pre-date Babe Ruth and were not alive to see Major League Baseball integrated, and a player who exudes vitality and modernity to such an extent that I cannot wrap my head around the idea that he is no longer with us. I’m not sure that I can wrap my head around the idea that he isn’t going to somehow mount a Major League comeback.
It is appropriate that on the night that Bob Gibson died, one of his many protégés, Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty, delivered a superb start against the San Diego Padres. Flaherty allowed just one run and struck out eight over six innings and spoke after the game about the impact Gibson had on him. That Jack Flaherty was nearly sixty years younger than Bob Gibson did not dissuade Gibson from developing a relationship with him, just as an age gap didn’t stop Gibson from working with the likes of Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter throughout the years. He always believed that he could help talented future Cardinals legends become their best selves. But none has ever been Bob Gibson. And even if, against every physical boundary I can even conceive, a pitcher somehow topped Bob Gibson statistically, it will be because, whether he realizes it or not, he was standing on the shoulders of a gentle giant who will be sorely missed and forever cherished.