Bob Gibson, the Master of the Mound Remains His Own Man Years Removed from the Diamond (for similar stories, click on the Omaha Black Sports Legends and/or Out to Win categories)
Omaha’s bevy of black sports legends has only recently begun to get their due here. With the inception of the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame a few years ago, more deserving recognition has been accorded these many standouts from the past, some of whom are legends with a small “l” and some of whom are full-blown legends with a capital “L.” As a journalist I’ve done my part bringing to light the stories of some of these individuals. The following story is about someone who is a Legend by any standard, Bob Gibson. This is the third Gibson story I’ve posted to this blog site, and in some ways it’s my favorite. When you’re reading it, keep in mind it was written and published 13 years ago. The piece appeared in the New Horizons and I’m republishing it here to coincide with the newest crop of inductees in the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame. Gibson was fittingly inducted in that Hall’s inaugural class, as he is arguably the greatest sports legend, bar none, ever to come out of Nebraska.
Bob Gibson, the Master of the Mound Remains His Own Man Years Removed from the Diamond (NOTE: for similar stories, click on the Omaha Black Sports Legends and/or Out to Win categories)
©by Leo Adam Biga
Orignally published in the New Horizons
Bob Gibson. Merely mentioning the Hall of Fame pitcher’s name makes veteran big league baseball fans nostalgic for the gritty style of play that characterized his era. An era before arbitration, Astro-Turf, indoor stadiums and the Designated Hitter. Before the brushback was taboo and going the distance a rarity.
No one personified that brand of ball better than Gibson, whose gladiator approach to the game was hewn on the playing fields of Omaha and became the stuff of legend in a spectacular career (1959-1975) with the St. Louis Cardinals. A baseball purist, Gibson disdains changes made to the game that promote more offense. He favors raising the mound and expanding the strike zone. Then again, he’s an ex-pitcher.
Gibson was an iron man among iron men – completing more than half his career starts. The superb all-around athlete, who starred in baseball and basketball at Tech High and Creighton University, fielded his position with great skill, ran the bases well and hit better than many middle infielders. He had a gruff efficiency and gutsy intensity that, combined with his tremendous fastball, wicked slider and expert control, made him a winner.
Even the best hitters never got comfortable facing him. He rarely spoke or showed emotion on the mound and aggressively backed batters off the plate by throwing inside. As a result, a mystique built-up around him that gave him an extra added edge. A mystique that’s stuck ever since.
Now 61, and decades removed from reigning as baseball’s ultimate competitor, premier power pitcher and most intimidating presence, he still possesses a strong, stoic, stubborn bearing that commands respect. One can only imagine what it felt like up to bat with him bearing down on you.
As hard as he was on the field, he could be hell to deal with off it too, particularly with reporters after a loss. This rather shy man has closely, sometimes brusquely, guarded his privacy. The last few years, though, have seen him soften some and open up more. In his 1994 autobiography “Stranger to the Game” he candidly reviewed his life and career.
More recently, he’s promoted the Bob Gibson All-Star Classic – a charitable golf tournament teeing off June 14 at the Quarry Oaks course near Mahoney State Park. Golfers have shelled out big bucks to play a round with Gibson and fellow sports idols Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Whitey Ford, Lou Brock and Oscar Robertson as well as Nebraska’s own Bob Boozer, Ron Boone and Gale Sayers and many others. Proceeds will benefit two causes dear to Gibson – the American Lung Association of Nebraska and BAT – the Baseball Assistance Team.
When Gibson announced the event many were surprised to learn he still resides here. He and his wife Wendy and their son Christopher, 12, live in a spacious home in Bellevue’s Fontenelle Hills.
His return to the public arena comes, appropriately enough, in the 50th anniversary season of the late Jackie Robinson’s breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier. Growing up in Omaha’s Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects, Gibson idolized Robinson. “Oh, man, he was a hero,” he told the New Horizons. “When Jackie broke in, I was just a kid. He means even more now than he did then, because I understand more about what he did” and endured. When Gibson was at the peak of his career, he met Robinson at a Washington, D.C. fundraiser, and recalls feeling a deep sense of “respect” for the man who paved the way for him and other African-Americans in professional athletics.
In a recent interview at an Omaha eatery Gibson displayed the same pointedness as his book. On a visit to his home he revealed a charming Midwestern modesty around the recreation room’s museum-quality display of plaques and trophies celebrating his storied baseball feats.
His most cherished prize is the 1968 National League Most Valuable Player Award. “That’s special,” he said. “Winning it was quite an honor because pitchers don’t usually win the MVP. Some pitchers have won it since I did, but I don’t know that a pitcher will ever win it again. There’s been some controversy whether pitchers should be eligible for the MVP or should be limited to the Cy Young.” For his unparalleled dominance in ‘68 – the Year of the Pitcher – he added the Cy Young to the MVP in a season in which he posted 22 wins, 13 shutouts and the lowest ERA (1.12) in modern baseball history. He won the ‘70 Cy Young too.
Despite his accolades, his clutch World Series performances (twice leading the Cardinals to the title) and his gaudy career marks of 251 wins, 56 shutouts and 3,117 strikeouts, he’s been able to leave the game and the glory behind. He said looking back at his playing days is almost like watching movie images of someone else. Of someone he used to be.
“That was another life,” he said. “I am proud of what I’ve done, but I spend very little time thinking about yesteryear. I don’t live in the past that much. That’s just not me. I pretty much live in the present, and, you know, I have a long way to go, hopefully, from this point on.”
Since ending his playing days in ‘75, Gibson’s been a baseball nomad, serving as pitching coach for the New York Mets in ‘81 and for the Atlanta Braves from ‘82 to ‘84, each time under Joe Torre, the current Yankee manager who is a close friend and former Cardinals teammate. He’s also worked as a baseball commentator for ABC and ESPN. After being away from the game awhile, he was brought back by the Cardinals in ‘95 as bullpen coach. Since ‘96 he’s served as a special instructor for the club during spring training, working four to six weeks with its talented young pitching corps, including former Creighton star Alan Benes, who’s credited Gibson with speeding his development.
Who does he like among today’s crop of pitchers? “There’s a lot of guys I like. Randy Johnson. Roger Clemens. The Cardinals have a few good young guys. And of course, Atlanta’s got three of the best.”
Could he have succeeded in today’s game? “I’d like to think so,” he said confidently.
He also performs PR functions for the club. “I go back several times to St. Louis when they have special events. You go up to the owners’ box and you have a couple cocktails and shake hands and be very pleasant…and grit your teeth,” he said. “Not really. Years ago it would have been very tough for me, but now that I’ve been so removed from the game and I’ve got more mellow as I’ve gotten older, the easier the schmoozing becomes.”
His notorious frankness helps explain why he’s not been interested in managing. He admits he would have trouble keeping his cool with reporters second-guessing his every move. “Why should I have to find excuses for something that probably doesn’t need an excuse? I don’t think I could handle that very well I’m afraid. No, I don’t want to be a manager. I think the door would be closed to me anyway because of the way I am – blunt, yes, definitely. I don’t know any other way.”
Still, he added, “You never say never. I said I wasn’t going to coach before too, and I did.” He doesn’t rule out a return to the broadcast booth or to a full-time coaching position, adding: “These are all hypothetical things. Until you’re really offered a job and sit down and discuss it with somebody, you can surmise anything you want. But you never know.”
He feels his outspokenness off the field and fierceness on it cost him opportunities in and out of baseball: “I guess there’s probably some negative things that have happened as a result of that, but that really doesn’t concern me that much.”
He believes he’s been misunderstood by the press, which has often portrayed him as a surly, angry man. “
When I performed, anger had nothing to do with it. I went out there to win. It was strictly business with me. If you’re going to have all these ideas about me being this ogre, then that’s your problem. I don’t think I need to go up and explain everything to you. Now, if you want to bother to sit down and talk with me and find out for yourself, then fine…”
Those close to him do care to set the record straight, though. Rodney Wead, a close friend of 52 years, feels Gibson’s occasional wariness and curtness stem, in part, from an innate reserve.
“He’s shy. And therefore he protects himself by being sometimes abrupt, but it’s only that he’s always so focused,” said Wead, a former Omaha social services director who’s now president and CEO of Grace Hill Neighborhood Services in St. Louis.
Indeed, Gibson attributes much of his pitching success to his fabled powers of concentration, which allowed him “to focus and block out everything else going on around me.” It’s a quality others have noted in him outside sports.
“Mentally, he’s so disciplined,” said Countryside Village owner Larry Myers, a former business partner. “He has this ability to focus on the task at hand and devote his complete energy to that task.”
If Gibson is sometimes standoffish, Wead said, it’s understandable: “He’s been hurt so many times, man. We’ve had some real, almost teary moments together when he’s reflected on some of the stuff he wished could of happened in Omaha and St. Louis.” Wead refers to Gibson’s frustration upon retiring as a player and finding few employment-investment opportunities open to him. Gibson is sure race was a factor. And while he went on to various career-business ventures, he saw former teammates find permanent niches within the game when he didn’t. He also waited in vain for a long-promised Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship from former Cardinals owner, the late August Busch. He doesn’t dwell on the disappointments in interviews, but devotes pages to them in his book.
Gibson’s long been outspoken about racial injustice. When he first joined the Cardinals at its spring training facility in St. Petersburg, Fla., black and white teammates slept and ate separately. A three-week stay with the Cardinals’ Columbus, Ga. farm team felt like “a lifetime,” he said, adding, “I’ve tried to erase that, but I remember it like it was yesterday.” He, along with black teammates Bill White and the late Curt Flood, staged a mini-Civil Rights movement within the organization – and conditions improved.
He’s dismayed the media now singles out baseball for a lack of blacks in managerial posts when the game merely mirrors society as a whole. “Baseball has made a lot more strides than most facets of our lives,” he said. “Have things changed in baseball? Yes. Have things changed everywhere else? Yes. Does there need to be a lot more improvement? Yes. Some of the problems we faced when Jackie Robinson broke in and when I broke in 10 years later don’t exist, but then a lot of them still do.”
He’s somewhat heartened by acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s recent pledge to hire more minorities in administrative roles. “I’m always encouraged by some statements like that, yeah. I’d like to wait and see what happens. Saying it and doing it is two different things.”
He’s also encouraged by golfer Tiger Woods’ recent Masters’ victory.“What’s really great about him being black is that it seems to me white America is always looking for something that black Americans can’t do, and that’s just one other thing they can scratch off their list.” Gibson’s All-Star Classic will be breaking down barriers too by bringing a racially mixed field into the exclusive circle of power and influence golf represents.
Some have questioned why he’s chosen now to return to the limelight. “It’s not to get back in the public eye,” Gibson said of the golf classic. “The reason I’m doing this is to raise money for the American Lung Association and BAT.”
Efforts to battle lung disease have personal meaning for Gibson, who’s a lifelong asthma sufferer. A past Lung Association board member, he often speaks before groups of young asthma patients “to convince them that you can participate in sports even though you have asthma…I think it’s helpful to have somebody there that went through the same thing and, being an ex-baseball player, you get their attention.”
He serves on the board of directors of BAT – the tourney’s other beneficiary. The organization assists former big league and minor league players, managers, front office professionals and umpires who are in financial distress. “Unfortunately, most people think all ex-players are multimillionaires,” he said. “Most are not. Through BAT we try to do what we can to help people of the baseball family.”
He hopes the All-Star Classic raises half-a-million dollars and gives the state “something it’s never seen before” – a showcase of major sports figures equal to any Hall of Fame gathering. Gibson said he came up with the idea over drinks one night with his brother Fred and a friend. From there, it was just a matter of calling “the guys” – as he refers to legends like Mays. Gibson downplays his own legendary status, but is flattered to be included among the game’s immortals.
What’s amazing is that baseball wasn’t his best sport through high school and college – basketball was. His coach at Tech, Neal Mosser, recalls Gibson with awe: “He was unbelievable,” said Mosser. “He would have played pro ball today very easily. He could shoot, fake, run, jump and do everything the pros do today. He was way ahead of his time.”
Gibson was a sports phenom, excelling in baseball, basketball, football and track for area youth recreation teams. He enjoyed his greatest success with the Y Monarchs, coached by his late brother Josh, whom Mosser said “was a father-figure” to Gibson. Josh drilled his younger brother relentlessly and made him the supreme competitor he is. After a stellar career playing hardball and hoops at Creighton, Gibson joined the Harlem Globetrotters for one season, but an NBA tryout never materialized.
No overnight success on the pro diamond, Gibson’s early seasons, including stints with the Omaha Cardinals, were learning years. His breakthrough came in ‘63, when he went 18-9. He only got better with time.
Gibson acknowledges it’s been difficult adjusting to life without the competitive outlet sports provided. “I’ll never find anything to test that again,” he said, “but as you get older you’re not nearly as competitive. I guess you find some other ways to do it, but I haven’t found that yet.”
What he has found is a variety of hobbies that he applies the same concentrated effort and perfectionist’s zeal to that he did pitching. One large room in his home is dominated by an elaborate, fully-operational model train layout he designed himself. He built the layout’s intricately detailed houses, buildings, et all, in his own well-outfitted workshop, whose power saw and lathe he makes use of completing frequent home improvement projects. He’s made several additions to his home, including a sun room, sky lights, spa and wine cellar.
“I’m probably more proud of that,” he said, referring to his handiwork, “than my career in baseball. If I hadn’t been in baseball, I think I would of probably ended up in the construction business.”
The emotional-physical-financial investment Gibson’s made in his home is evidence of his deep attachment to Nebraska. Even at the height of his pro career he remained here. His in-state business interests have included radio station KOWH, the Community Bank of Nebraska and Bob Gibson’s Spirits and Sustenance, a restaurant he was a partner in from
1979 to 1989. Nebraska, simply, is home. “I don’t know that you can find any nicer people,” he said, “and besides my family’s been here. Usually when you move there’s some type of occupation that takes you away. I almost moved to St. Louis, but there were so many (racial) problems back when I was playing…that I never did.”
His loyalty hasn’t gone unnoticed. “He didn’t get big-headed and go away and hide somewhere,” said Jerry Parks, a Tech teammate who today is Omaha’s Parks, Recreation and Public Property Director. “What I admire most about him is that he’s very loyal to people he likes, and that’s priceless for me,” said Rodney Wead. “He’s helped a lot of charitable causes very quietly…He’s certainly given back to Omaha over the years,” said Larry Myers.
Jerry Mosser may have summed it up best: “He’s just a true-blue guy.”
Because Gibson’s such a private man, his holding a celebrity golf tournament caught many who know him off-guard. “I was as surprised as anyone,” said Wead, “but so pleased – he has so much to offer.” Gibson himself said: “I have never done anything like this before. If I don’t embarrass myself too badly, I’ll be fine.”
If anything, Gibson will rise to the occasion and show grace under fire. Just like he used to on the mound – when he’d rear back and uncork a high hard one. Like he still does in his dreams. “Oh, I dream about it (baseball) all the time,” he said. “It drives me crazy. I guess I’m going to do that the rest of my life.”
Thanks for the memories, Bob. And the sweet dreams.
- Gibson (joeposnanski.si.com)
- It’s finally the Year of the Pitcher again (denverpost.com)
- National League Treasures: The Best Players in Each Franchise’s History (bleacherreport.com)
- Book Review: Sixty Feet, Six Inches by Bob Gibson & Reggie Jackson (othemts.wordpress.com)
- Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
My lukewarm feeling about baseball got raised to a high fever the summer of 1998 because of an assignment I did that found me joining a baseball tour of the Midwest with some two dozen die-hard fans. The tour was actually offered as part of a local community college class looking at baseball in the context of popular culture. It was a good if exhausting experience that I may repeat one day.
The thing that sold me on the trip is that it coincided with the great home run race that season between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, each of whom was chasing the single season record of Roger Maris. The fact that two star players involved in history were on two of the teams that we would be seeing play, in their home ballparks no less, was enough to convince me the timing was right. That and the fact that I felt a bit stale by then with my usual story projects. This would be something different, something away from my home base of Omaha, something that would push me out of my comfort zone.
I was happy with the results of the trip and with the story I wrote about it. The piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
My Midwest Baseball Odyssey Diary
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Hearts and Minds
An overcast Sunday afternoon last summer found me joining 22 other pilgrims at Iowa Western Community College for the start of an eight day bus journey (July 26-August 2) exploring America via its most cherished game — baseball. As part of IWCC’s first “Baseball and American Culture” class/tour, we made a Midwest circuit of professional ball, attending games, visiting archives and speaking with players and officials, past and present.
Synergy was on our side too as, in the Year of the Home Run, we saw the two men chasing Roger Maris’ single season record in action.
Before departing we filed inside a lecture hall for an orientation by class instructors John Shorey and Bill Ricketts, young professors with the shaggy good looks of sandlot bums. In the spirit of the class, Shorey, a Cubs fan, and Ricketts, a Mets fan, showed their team colors. They laid-out the groundrules for the tour and had Creighton University professor and baseball author, Jerry Clark steel us with diamond lore.
“Baseball is America’s game,” Clark told us. “There are those who feel this is no longer true. With things like players’ strikes and runaway salaries souring a lot of fans and sportswriters, some have been predicting the demise of baseball. Its demise has been forecast before. But baseball has always bounced back. It survived the Black Sox Scandal, the talent drain in World War II, the coming of TV. Now, we’re seeing a new resurgence of fans, fresh talent and new ballparks. What’s THE story in sports this year? Mark McGwire. He’s a folk hero. I envy you guys.”
Why follow the baseball muse down Mid-American byways? For me, it was about discovering what this game, that looms so large in the collective American conscience, means to people. These diaries are a compendium of what my fellow travelers and I found on our 1,700-mile journey. The result is a road story winding through the very heart of baseball and America.
Day One — On the Road
We look like any other tour group in our assorted ball caps, T-shirts, sneakers, shorts, shades and cameras. Our ranks range from die-hard fans (mainly Cubs rooters) to casual followers. The youngest aboard is 18, the oldest 65. Most squarely fit the demographics of baseball fans: white middle class Baby Boomers with disposable income to burn. Among our ranks are teachers, coaches, professionals, retirees. Most hail from Iowa. The rest from Nebraska. Eight days of total baseball immersion await us.
“Our traveling class,” as Ricketts calls it, finally hits the road at 3:30, bound for Kansas City. Hauling ass south on I-29, the Grant Wood Iowa landscape sweeps by in flat green and gold-speckled corn-row swatches. Marshy fields and roadsides are evidence of recent flooding along this bottomland. Traffic grows heavier the farther south we go, the undulating landscape taking on Thomas Hart Benton dimensions, spilling over itself like a wind-swept ribbon of earth. We arrive, just before dusk, at the Holiday Inn Sports Complex across from Kauffman Stadium. That night, a group of us descend on the sports bar off the lobby for some grub and get-to-know-you gab.
John Hazel of Omaha sports the full brush mustache, slicked-back hair, middle-age paunch, seasoned insight and avuncular ease of an old-time manager. His soulful eyes reveal hard times (He’s a recovering alcoholic working as a drug and alcohol counselor at St. Gabriel’s). His wiseguy voice betrays his Chicago roots. This lifelong student-of-the-game and Cubs fan is soon my personal guru on tour. Always ready to talk baseball, he explains what makes the game so special.
“Baseball is very unique in that there’s no time limit. A game can go on forever. It’s a team sport that’s built on individualism. There’s nothing like the one-on-one confrontation of pitcher and batter in any other sport. And there’s so much going on on any given play. There’s always something new, always something unexpected. In most sports you control the ball to score points. In baseball, the other team controls the ball while you try to score runs. It can be as cerebral as you want. It can be as basic as you want. It’s different things to different people.”
Speaking of differences, we’ll view baseball through the prism of the black experience, followed by the Royals-Anaheim Angels game tomorrow.
Day Two –The Best of Times, The Worst of Times
Setting out this morning we cross the George Brett overpass and traverse age-old racial lines en route to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at the epicenter of Kansas City’s 18th and Vine historic district, a traditional hub of black commerce and culture in the midst of a revival.
We pass the Holy Ghost New Testament Church, whose sign out front implores passersby “Don’t Give Up!” As we pull up to the baseball museum, which shares the same building as the Kansas City Jazz Museum, the area’s renaissance is apparent in the glut of nearby restaurants, clubs and theaters, which stand silent this early in the day. Lamp post banners proclaim “The Legacy Plays On,” no doubt referring to the legends honored inside and displayed in life-size neon cutout figures above the entrance.
We’re led into a small screening room with bleacher-style seating and watch a short film on the Negro Leagues. Later, we tour the museum’s vibrant exhibits, which give a fine sense for the dynamic flavor of black baseball and the heady impact it had on many communities. But the real treat is meeting Negro Leagues veteran Henry “Pistol” Mason, who still cuts a trim figure in his 60s. With the fervor of a Pentecostal preacher (He is a United Methodist minister today.) the former hard-throwing pitcher recalls breaking in with the Kansas City Monarchs . “I dreamed of being in the Negro Leagues. I came up by bus to Kansas City in 1951 from my hometown in Marshall, MO to try out. I can remember it as if it was yesterday.” Arriving with nothing but the clothes on his back, his strong right arm so impressed player-manager Buck O’Neil he was signed on the spot.
Mason toiled with the team during the 1951, 1952 and 1954 seasons, earning $250 a month. After their some 100-game regular season, Negro Leaguers like Mason went barnstorming in the off-season. Then, he says, it was all about “the love of playing baseball.” And wowing the crowd.
“We had a different brand of baseball. People wanted to see our brand of baseball, with its action and enthusiasm, running and bunting. It was more festive when we played. The fans enjoyed the game. Going to the ballpark was just like going to a picnic. We had something to prove too. We wanted to prove we were good enough to play in the major leagues.”
The then recent emergence of black players in organized ball gave new hope. “It meant that maybe, just maybe someday I could be signing a major league contract, and that dream came true when I signed my first contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.” In the Phillies minor league system he played for the Miami Marlins, with the legendary Satchel Paige as a teammate, and for the Schenectady Blue Jays. Off-seasons he earned big bucks playing south of the border. Back home, he endured racism.
“When we sent to spring training in Clearwater, Florida we couldn’t stay in the hotels. I was the only black baseball player in Schenectady. I ran into some difficulties there. When I walked into the clubhouse the first time I could just feel the tension. But you learned not to shoot your mouth off and to let your ability do your talking for you, and that’s what I did.”
Mason finally made it to The Show in 1958, recording only a few innings that year and in 1960. By then the Negro Leagues were dying, a casualty of the majors siphoning off the best black talent. Mason says the end of all-black baseball meant progress, but at a price. “It was good in one way because we were finally getting a chance to play in the majors, but bad in another way because it hurt a lot of black businesses that thrived off it.”
The game that night proves a let down. The reeling Royals lose 6-1 in a boring affair. The action’s scarce. The pace lethargic. The 17,000 fans apathetic. No spark, no panache, no pizzazz. That, and the scarcity of black players today, is why Mason doesn’t care to attend. Kauffman Stadium is a dreary concrete fortress outside and a gentrified gated-community inside. A white bread theme park with all the bells and whistles but minus the grit of the old stadiums or the charm of the new ones.
Day Three – Flirting with History
On the road by 8:30, we head east on I-70 for St. Louis and a rendezvous with destiny, we hope, in the form of a McGwire blast. But the Cardinals rate a poor second on this trip. Fittingly, Shorey announces, “It’s a great day today. Sammy hit two last night and we picked up a half-game on the Mets in the wild card race.” His fellow Cubbies roar approval. Ricketts stews. A daily tour ritual is getting USA Today or the local daily for overnight game summaries and box scores. The results invariably spark debate.
While in-transit Shorey prompts a discussion about yesterday’s activities. Dan Schleisman, a coach-teacher from Shelby, Iowa who likes getting a rise out of the home fans with his bench-jockeying, remarks, “I was really disappointed in the Kansas City crowd. Here I am cheering for the other team and they’re not even saying anything. Usually you can get a reaction from the home team.”
As for the museum, Laura Barker of Council Bluffs says, “Before I started this class I had no idea what blacks went through in baseball. Now I suppose every time I think about baseball that will be a part of what I think about.” From an educator’s viewpoint, Shorey feels “it reinforced what we’ve been talking and reading about and made it come to life.”
Heading into St. Louis a bridge takes us across the majestic Mississippi River. We check in at the Henry VIII Lodge and Inn and catch a bite before reaching Busch Stadium. First, we wend our way through the club’s front office for a briefing by P.R. man Marti Henden. In keeping with the Cards-Cubs rivalry, the big huckster needles us, saying, “Let me show you something you haven’t see before,” and holding out a fat finger adorned by a World Series ring. Cubs fans are used to such abuse, even revel in it. Calling 1998 “a very abnormal year for us,” he adds, “Thanks in large part to Mr. McGwire we’re going to sell three millions tickets for only the third time in our history.” St. Louis averted losing its fan base (as some cities did) during the ‘94 strike season, he says, by courting fans as never before. “That started the turnaround.”
Next, we tour the Cardinals Hall of Fame Museum across from the stadium. It recounts the club’s rich heritage in loving detail. With the gates opening at 5:10 for the start of batting practice, I join the line. Any other year, you’d find a mere trickle of fans this long before game time (7:10 start), but with the McGwire phenomenon in full swing the queue snakes around Busch. It’s humid, and by the time we settle in the upper right center field bleachers, downright stifling. Hardly prime home run hunting territory as McGwire, a dead pull hitter, rarely hits one out here. The stands are packed anyway. His every move scrutinized. His every swat “Ooohed” and “Ahhhed” by the faithful.
None of his pregame moonshots come our way.
In the game Big Mac is kept well in check through the 7th by the Milwaukee Brewers. Even with his Cards trailing 8-5 and the putrid air hanging still in this fish bowl of a stadium, the crowd is alive and involved, a sharp contrast to K.C. The excitement builds as the Cards stage a dramatic comeback in the 8th, loading the bases with Ray Lankford up and McGwire on deck.
Lankford caps the rally with a grand slam, pulling the home team ahead, and igniting a wave of noise. With the place still buzzing McGwire settles in and suddenly, sweetly IT HAPPENS. His powerful uppercut sails a ball directly toward us, carrying up and over into a tangle of bodies rushing the lip of the fence for a crack at the prized souvenir. In the ensuing melee one lean young man emerges with the ball and, improbably, it’s our own Matt Oviatt, 18, of Logan, Iowa, who leaped several rows below. He deliriously holds the ball aloft, twirling around, charged with the good vibrations of 38,000 cheering fans, repeating over and over, “Oh, my God.” For one moment anyway, he shares the stage with a superstar.
The solo shot is only the second opposite field homer of the year by McGwire, his 45th overall, and gives him his 100th RBI.
Later, a still juiced Oviatt says, “I can’t believe I caught this ball. I’m feeling nothing but freaking joy. I was just hoping we could see Mark McGwire bat one more time before we go. I never thought I’d catch a home run ball. Then, I saw it coming and I just jumped for it. It hit my left hand, bounced, and I caught it in my right hand. I just had to squeeze hard when everybody started tackling me. It’d be awesome if I could get it signed.”
An ESPN Magazine reporter on the scene interviews The Kid and tries pulling strings to secure The Man’s autograph, but to no avail. Meanwhile, the Cards’ weak relief pitching falters in the 9th, giving up five runs, and the home team goes on to absorb a numbing 13-10 loss. Later, on the bus, Hazel expresses all our sentiments about Matt’s feat. “It’s got to be the thrill of a lifetime. One he’ll treasure for years. That’s what this game’s all about. It’s one of the reasons people keep coming back.”
Day Four – If It’ll Play In Peoria, It’ll Play Anywhere
The morning after, and The Catch is still the topic of the tour. Matt’s grab even made ESPN’s Sports Center highlights. His celebration must have lasted into the wee hours as he and his roomie straggle aboard some 15 minutes late. A sheepish Matt’s given a good razzing too. “This grandstanding has got to stop,” jokes Ricketts. Our star stores his coveted possession in a backpack he never lets out of sight.
Our next stop is Peoria, Ill. and a date with Rocky Vonachen, general manager and co-owner of the Peoria Chiefs, the Class A Cardinals affiliate we’ll see play this evening. We tool northeast on I-55, crossing the grand Mississippi again into Illinois. Shorey pops in a tape of “Bull Durham” to get us in a minor league frame of mind. You know, the band box parks, the kitsch sideshow antics, the groupies. As groupie extraordinaire Annie Savoy declares: “The only church that truly feeds the soul is the church of baseball…” Shorey asks, “Is baseball a religion?” Nancy Mulholland of Malvern, Iowa replies, “No, it’s an addiction though.” Shorey says we’re getting a taste of what life on the road is like for minor leaguers with the long bus rides, the motel stays, the fast food pit-stops. It’s getting old fast.
Ensconced at the Fairfield Inn, we head for the ballpark. It’s about on par with a major college baseball stadium. The outfield fence screams with ads for River City Demolition. Bliss Implement Co. and Butternut Bread. Dressed in sport shirt and shorts,Vonachen greets us in a small picnic area down the right field line. He’s a genial guy eager to share the ins and outs of running a minor league franchise. His father, Pete, for whom the stadium’s named, owned the club in the 1980s. Then, when the Chiefs languished under outside ownership and were in danger of moving, Rocky and a group of Peorians bought it in 1994. The timely investment came in a booming market. Where the franchise sold for $100,000 in 1982, it brought $2 million in 1994. Triple A clubs sell for five times that. Gate receipts are up too.
“Minor league baseball is growing by leaps and bounds. Back in the early ‘80s it was more of a Mom and Pop business. Now it is big business,” he says, adding the ‘94 strike provided a catalyst for the minors.“People still wanted to see professional baseball and started going to minor league parks. Parks across the country saw an influx of fans during the strike. As people got to see minor league baseball they found how affordable and fun it was. At the minor league level, it’s entertainment, folks. We do all the goofy promotions and all the giveaways at the gate because that’s what families come out for, and we focus on families.”
Chiefs tickets, typical of the minors, range from $3.50 to $5.50. During a pregame picnic-style repast players (in full uniform) grab supper at the concession stand. The game is marked by sloppy play, including drops of several easy fly balls. Maybe it’s the uneven grass field, which suffers from some kind of rot, or the low wattage lights overhead. The Chiefs’ fan-friendly attractions include a grocery cart race, a mascot, a contraption flinging T-shirts in the stands and Trash Man, a Generation-Xer in black tie, shorts and Day-Glo tennis shoes who dances in the aisles when not retrieving refuse. The distractions include the local groupies, brickhouse babes whose conspicuous primping behind the dugout and bullpen has heads turning all night. Still, far more families than singles are on-hand.
By 8:30, Magic Time rolls around, the setting sun muting the night sky in pastel shades of blue, purple and pink and, with the light towers, casting a burnished glow on the field that etches players in a kind of soft electric haze. Very Rockwellian. The Chiefs win in a rout 9-2 and personally greeting fans on the way out are Rocky, his dad and staff. “Thanks for coming. Hope you come back again.” They mean it too.
“That’s what minor league baseball is all about,” Rocky says.
Day Five – Baseball of Another Kind
By now we’re a caravan of gypsies wheeling from one baseball camp to another. We depart a little past 7 a.m., our earliest start yet. The discussion centers on last night. Everyone agrees the Chiefs put on a good show. Tom Lustgraaf of Council Bluffs, says, “To me, the things they’re doing are the things that will keep baseball alive and make it a positive experience for fans.” Lana Taylor, a nurse from Hastings, Iowa, notes how much more “relaxed” and “friendly” the confines were compared to the big league parks. “The goings-on really got me excited.”
Traveling northeast on I-80, we navigate our first toll roads and pass our first rock quarries. The Holy Scriptures of the tour, “The Baseball Encyclopedia,” is reverently consulted in settling trivia disputes. We’re bound for South Bend, IN, where we’ll meet All-American Girls Professional Baseball League veterans and catch the hometown Class A Silver Hawks. For proper inspiration we view “A League of Their Own.” Later, Shorey strikes a nerve asking why girls play softball, not baseball. A battle of the sexes erupts but nothing’s settled.
The site of our panel discussion with the All-American Girls is the Northern Indiana Center for History, an old stone mansion with extensive gardens. Inside it’s bright, modern, airy. We sit in an auditorium to watch a documentary on the women’s league, with some of the featured players right beside us. When the video shows a reunion of players singing the league’s anthem, the teary-eyed veterans present sing-along.
The five panelists, who played in the ‘40s and ‘50s, soon enchant us. We pepper them with questions about their uniforms (they began with skirts and went to pants), about the charm school set-up for them (“It didn’t rub off,” one quips), about breaking tradition (“We weren’t out to strike anything for women’s lib. We were just grateful we got to play baseball,” explains Janet “Pee Wee” Wiley.). Elizabeth “Lib” Mahon says when a scout asked her, “‘How’d you like to play ball for money?’” she replied, “‘Money? I’d play ball for nothing.’ It was the opportunity of a lifetime. It changed my life completely. I have friends all over the country now because of it.”
Betsy Jochum notes the attention the league’s received this decade “has made us realize how unique it was to have a league of our own.” Frances “Big Red” Janssen adds, “It’s amazing to us people would still be interested in what we did.” Adds Lou Arnold, “It’s a pleasure for us to be meeting you people today. It’s like the feeling at our reunions — so warm.” The feeling’s mutual.
After the Q & A we rush the stage for autographs and a chance to kibitz one-on-one. Then we all go downstairs, where the veterans proudly show us a case filled with league memorabilia. Later, at our Super 8, it’s clear the women left quite an impression.
“The ladies were fantastic. I’d love to sit in a bar some night and really have a ball,” says Mulholland, a lifelong fan who grew up a tomboy on an Iowa farm, played catch with her dad when he came in from the fields and avidly followed town ball. “They’re just plain ordinary women, as common as dirt, who made a great difference in baseball and America in general.”
Chris Hartwig of Logan, Iowa adds, “Hearing the women’s stories and seeing their emotion and excitement about being part of history touched me quite a bit. I think it gives me a more complete love and appreciation for the game.” Hazel, who saw All-American games as a boy with his dad, says, “Once the game began there were no differences. It was a baseball game.”
South Bend Stadium is a spiffy new facility out of character with the old brick and mortar warehouse district it occupies. The immaculate grass field puts Peoria’s to shame. The South Bend-Kane County Cougars game goes by in a blur, overshadowed by nearly non-stop music, promotions, gimmicks. The star attraction is Myron Noodleman, a Jerry Lewis knock-off whose geek show leaves us cold, though the abundance of kids present eat it up. Still, on a cool clear night like this nothing can detract from the magic amber dusk illuminating this Elysian field where men are made boys again.
Day Six – Take Me to the Promised Land
A sound night’s sleep and late start (9 a.m.) buoy us in advance of Chicago’s Wrigley Field, mecca for our Cubs contingent. After St. Louis, we feel fate leading us to Mr. Sosa, who’s been on a tear. As an added bonus, pitching phenom Kerry Wood is on the mound today. It’s gorgeous out and soon the virile Chicago skyline crops into view. Nearing downtown, a Cubs video treats us to a swinging version of “My Sweet Chicago” and Harry Caray’s signature “Holy Cow.” Tidy row houses and cozy bars line the narrow congested streets of the neighborhood around Wrigley Field.
Parked by noon, we walk to the promised land. The Cubs-Colorado Rockies game has a 2:20 start, leaving ample time to eat, shop, browse. The energy is palpable. A Chicago Sun-Times vendor notes my K.C. Royals hat and asks, “Sir, you have the wrong cap on today, don’t you?” Boy, do I.
Wrigley is a tavern of a stadium. A homey place where beer flows freely and patrons mix easily. It throbs with the pulse of the city, as fans root atop adjacent brownstones and arrive via L’s lumbering overhead. Back on his home turf, Hazel beams like a kid again on his old stomping grounds.
“That’s exactly what Wrigley Field is — home. So many memories are coming back of my Cubs childhood. I was born and raised within walking distance of Wrigley. I remember coming home from school in the middle of summer to our hot apartment and finding my mother in her bra and half-slip with a quart of Pilsner beer in one hand and an iron in the other, watching the Cubs game on TV. I was about 8 when my folks took me to my first game. Later, I went with buddies after school to catch the last couple innings of games. They let us in free. The homework could wait. Summers, we sat in the bleachers for 50 cents. It’s a fantastic place. There’s nothing like it, eh?”
Even with the Cubs winning handily (by a final score of 9-1) most fans remain boisterously attentive throughout. The few idiots who dawdle in the aisles elicit cries of “Down and front!” The 40,000 Cubs faithful leave happy, having seen Sosa smash his 42nd homer (it lands no where near us) and Wood notch his 11th win. A briskly played game on a crisp afternoon in the Tottling Town. Who could ask for more?
After crawling through rush-hour traffic we spend the night at a Quality Inn. Some do the town, scoring autographs at Harry Caray’s place. I enjoy my first decent meal at a Greek Town eatery. Sated, I sleep soundly.
Day Seven — Dream State
Another fair weather day finds us still in high spirits from the the Wrigley trip, which rates a rave from most. Ricketts sums it up with, “For me it was like going back into history. I feel like I could have been there in 1902 and experienced the same thing. I’m a Mets fan and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Wrigley Field.” Adds Hazel, “On behalf of the city, I appreciate the comments…It is a special place.”
Illinois-20, a classic American back country highway, follows the rolling contour of the planted fields and patchwork meadows spread out on either side. As we watch “Field of Dreams” I realize it’s search for simple truths parallels ours. Seeing it right before arriving in Dyersville, Iowa lends a surreal quality to an already other-worldly site. Sure, it’s a tourist trap, but with a difference. It may only be the film’s influence, but a ballpark merging with a cornfield into an endless horizon is a kind of never-never land come to life. A place where time stands still and dreams unfold.
The place is crowded, kids and adults alike lined up waiting for a crack at the ball, others jostling for a spot in the field. Why do we come? A pretty young Texas woman, traveling with her sister on a baseball pilgrimage of their own, offers a clue. Peering out at the field, Kris Flabiano says, “I mean, just look at this. There’s people here from every state and they’re all playing ball together. Everybody’s talkin’ to everybody like they’re next door neighbors. Baseball’s a staple. It holds people together.” Our own Lana Taylor adds, “It’s like living a baseball dream out there. It’s reliving things.”
Once back on the Illinois side of the Mississippi we meet two minor league umps who compare their travails of making it to the majors with that of players. They describe a “brotherhood” among The Men in Blue and the restraint needed to weather expletive-filled temper tantrums on the field.
Hopping the border to Davenport, we stow our gear at an, ugh, Super 8 and then make the Quad Cities River Bandits-Burlington Bees game. Davenport’s downtown riverfront provides a scenic backdrop. Just outside the quaint, brick-faced Quad Cities stadium, casino and cruise boats course down the Mississippi on one side and freight trains rumble past on the other. Added to the organ tunes, the vendor barkers, the lively fans and the heroics under the lights, it makes for a carnival atmosphere. After the River Bandits thump the Bees 11-1, a fireworks show sends us off with a bang.
Day Eight — Coming Home
Daytrippers at last. No more motels after tonight. “Headed for the home stretch” is how one of our group puts it. By 8 a.m. we’re bound for the Amana Colonies and a hearty brunch. We hit our first patch of inclement weather nearing the Bob Feller Hometown Exhibit in Van Meter, Iowa, a shrine to the fireballing Hall of Fame pitcher. A sculptual relief mural outside shows “Rapid Robert” delivering one of his high hard ones. Moving ever eastward, we gather at Sec Taylor Stadium in Des Moines, home of the Iowa Cubs, to hear hitting instructor Glenn Adams talk about helping players “be selective” at the plate, pitcher Kurt Miller describe life in the minors as “a job” and G.M. Sam Bernabe extol the virtues of “group sales.”
After a steady diet of Class A ball, this Triple A outing is a welcome way to end the trip. The park, a smaller version of Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium, features 44 skyboxes. Fixtures aside, the scene here or at any ballpark is much the same. Baseball invites fans to take it in their own measure. To banter back and forth about the game or life (maybe it’s the same thing), whether it’s Dan Schleisman yelling “C’mon guys, rally time!” or John Shorey musing why “there’s no phrase for an easy grounder,” unlike, say, “a can of corn” for an easy popout.
“Due to the nature of the game, with its momentary lulls,” says John Hazel, “there’s a camaraderie in the stands among the fans, be they rich-poor, whatever. It’s a real simpatico type thing.” Jack Duggan of Omaha adds, “What I like about it is you can keep up with what’s happening on the field and converse at the same time.”
Yes, the game flows like a great river from town to town, its mighty current rolling slowly, methodically on. You can return to it at your leisure and know it’s still there. “I think that’s the beauty of the sport,” says Shorey. “The times, the players, the issues, the settings may change, but the game itself doesn’t change.” There’s comfort in that. In its continuity and connection to more earlier times, like Nancy Mulholland playing catch with her dad or Hazel sneaking into Cubs games. In its being a proving ground and launching pad for the Henry Masons or Elizabeth Mahons of the world.
If I had to boil it down to one truth, baseball is big and enduring enough to embrace America’s dreams. It’s like coming home.
P.S. Iowa lost 6-4 to the Colorado Spring Sky Sox. But that’s besides the point, isn’t it?
“This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that was good, and that can be good again…”
From the film “Field of Dreams”
- Museum trying to keep history alive (thestar.com)
- Andre Dawson day at Wrigley Field (cubhub.net)
- Polish Heritage Night, First Time at Wrigley Field, sponsored by PEPSI (gloucestercitynews.net)
- Herzog’s teams surfed on artificial turf (mlb.mlb.com)
- Royals, Cards set to renew storied rivalry (mlb.mlb.com)
My Brother’s Keeper, The Competitive Drive MLB Hall of Fame Pitcher Bob Gibson’s Older Brother, Josh, Instilled in Him (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
The first time I met Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson he threw me for a loop, pun fully intended, when instead of the hour or so interview he agreed to he accorded me nearly five hours of his time. I had been steeled to expect the worst, having read and heard how difficult he could be to media types like me, but he was thoroughly charming, patiently answering question after question. Only once or twice I was on the receiving end of his icy stare, the same glowering, suffer-no-fools-gladly stare that had intimidated hundreds of batters. That marathon interview ended up feeding two profiles I did of him on the occasion of his second autobiography’s release.
The following story resulted from a second interview he gave me, this time by phone, that concentrated on his relationship with his late older brother Josh. He confirmed for me what an important figure Josh was in his life and in the lives of many young blacks in north Omaha. As the story reveals, it was Josh who really drove Bob to be the supreme competitor we came to marvel at. It was Josh, himself a fine athlete and coach in his day, who like so many blacks of an earlier era never got his own chance to shine.
A version of this story first appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as part of an Omaha black sports legends series I wrote called Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. I later updated it for Nebraska Life Magazine.
My Brother’s Keeper, The Competitive Drive MLB Hall of Fame Pitcher Bob Gibson’s Older Brother, Josh, Instilled in Him (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Nebraska Life Magazine (2005); an earlier version published in The Reader (2004) as part of my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness
When Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson dreams, he dreams baseball. “Oh, I dream all the time about it. It drives me crazy. I guess I’m going to do that the rest of my life,” he said. He may even relive some of the boyhood nights spent throwing from the crude mound his oldest brother Josh fashioned for him. He may see himself pitching and Josh catching, critiquing his every move. Together again, two brothers linked in a legacy of competitive excellence.
Gibson perfected the art of intimidation in a 17-year playing career with the St. Louis Cardinals. From atop the mound, he threw glaring daggers into batters, who felt the fury of his inscrutable game-face. Those foolish or brazen enough to lean-out over the plate got his trademark calling-card — a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, riding-in high-and-tight, perhaps grazing their shirt or helmet, sending the cowed interlopers cartwheeling backwards or even sprawling face down in the dirt.
The brushback or knockdown pitch sent a clear message: Back off, sucker, or I’ll put you down if you crowd the plate. It was all a mind game meant to gain Gibson an edge. He was a master at it. If anyone molded him to be this ultimate competitor it was his late brother, Leroy Josh Gibson, a guru, mentor, coach, teacher and worst nightmare all rolled into one. Growing up in the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects of north Omaha, Bob learned from Josh how to be a winner.
Bob Gibson at Tech High
Born into a poor family, Bob was the asthmatic youngest of five brothers whose father, Pack, died before he was born, leaving much of his rearing up to Josh, 15 years his senior. From the time Josh wrapped a sickly 3-year-old Bob in a quilt and carried him to the hospital, his big brother was his “protector.” The formidable Josh was a hard-boiled World War II Army vet disenchanted by racism in the service and at home. A standout athlete, he briefly attended Alabama State, where he played some football. He was also adept at basketball and baseball. Bob wasn’t around to see Josh in his athletic prime, but he said even in his 30s his older brother “could run. He could move for a big guy.
Intent on being a public school teacher and coach, Josh found opportunities denied him and settled, temporarily, for a Swift packinghouse job. He began working at the local north Omaha YMCA and Boys Club, organizing and coaching teams in basketball, baseball and softball (with the late Marty Thomas), all the while pursuing a bachelor’s degree from then Omaha University and, later, a master’s from Creighton University. Before they were called select teams, Josh recruited top athletic talent from north O to form the High Y Travelers, an elite adult basketball team, and the High Y Monarchs, a crack youth baseball team. “He got the best of the best,” said former Traveler John Nared. The teams, comprised wholly of blacks, took on all-comers across Nebraska, western Iowa and northern Kansas.
Josh left a big impression on Bob and hundreds more he taught athletic and life lessons to. “More than anything else, he was a father-figure to most of the kids down in the housing projects, me included,” Bob said. “There were a lot of kids there like me that didn’t have fathers at home and he was respected even more for the role he played in that capacity than for being a coach. What impressed us more than anything else was him coming down to the ballpark carrying his college text books, which he’d put aside to train us. We figured, Hell, here’s an ‘old man’ still going to school — it’s gotta be important. You’d be surprised how many of those kids out of the housing project were influenced by that.”
Jim Morrison, a teammate of Bob’s, said Josh had “the ability to elicit the best out of young potential stars. He started with the head down, not the body up. He taught you how to compete by teaching the fundamentals.”
Indeed, Bob called Josh “a fundamentals freak.” Bob explained, “We would have a basketball practice and everybody, you know, wanted to shoot and score points and, instead, he’d make us play defense for I-don’t-know-how-long while he and some of his friends played offense. He made sure we knew how to play the game and that every one of us knew exactly what to do and when to do it. He taught us to think on our feet more than anything else.”
Josh was not content with players knowing the basics and going hard. They had to win, too. “You know how you’re growing up and people are always telling you, It’s not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game? Well,” Bob said, “he didn’t have that thought. Winning is everything — that’s the attitude he had, and I grew up with that. It was like, Hey, I’m not out here just to play and have fun — I’m out here to win. I want to be better than the next guy.”
Josh’s fire burned so deep he sometimes lit off during games when he felt his team was getting jobbed or dis’sed. “Oh, no, he wouldn’t stand for it at all,” Bob said. “He was a fierce competitor.” He recalled how during Monarchs road game, typically played in some backwoods town, an irate Josh would get so worked-up he’d walk “out to the middle of the field… challenging to fight everybody there. Nobody wanted to take him on. You know, he was a pretty big guy. I mean, he was an imposing figure…about 5’11 and 240 pounds.”
That defiance came to define Bob’s own disposition. “You see that stuff and that gets in the back of your mind,” he said, “and you ask yourself, Is this the way it’s supposed to be? Maybe you’re supposed to fight like that. Well, I had no problem fighting.” Bob also felt Josh’s fury during pick-up basketball games, something the Gibson brothers often engaged in. Even with his little brother, Josh gave no quarter, “Oh, yeah, Josh was a bully,” Bob said, laughing. “He wouldn’t hesitate to run right over you…It was really kind of funny because as a real young kid I was small and skinny. I was 5’0 tall and weighed 99 pounds when I got to high school. But as I got older and I got bigger he used to try and run over me and couldn’t do it because I was just as much a competitor as he was.”
As hard as Josh drove his charges, he drove baby brother hardest. In his 1994 book Stranger to the Game Gibson writes, “There were…times when I wondered if Josh was going kill me himself. He was much harder on me than he was on the rednecks…no doubt because I had committed myself to becoming a pro ballplayer and Josh wasn’t going to let me default on the commitment. The other guys on the team would watch silently after practice when Josh would order me back on the field and hit me vicious ground balls until the sun set.”
It was the summer of 1947 when Josh first sat him down for a tough lecture about the then-11-year-old’s future as a “professional man,” by which Josh meant a pro athlete, a once distant dream made more real that summer by Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in major league baseball. Bob recalls Josh talking to him about making “the commitment” to become a ballplayer and for the next few years the big brother pushed his young sibling to the edge and back. Bob, who says his best sport from early youth on through college was basketball, naturally figured playing hoops would be his best shot at the pros. “I was actually a better basketball player and he realized that, too.” But he suspects Josh saw baseball as his ultimate ticket out of the ghetto. Indeed, it was Josh who first taught the future Hall of Famer how to pitch, even catching the wild but hard throwing youngster on a makeshift diamond outside Kellom School. Josh built-up a mound and marked-off a spot for home plate for what became a daily ritual.
“He used to have me pitch a lot,” Bob said.” He’d correct me on various things and teach me things. After I got a little bit older and I started doing a little thinking on my own, I disagreed with him a lot…the way kids do.” Under Josh’s tutelage, Bob’s natural gifts became apparent. “From March until the snow flew I had him out there throwing at me — starting at 10-minute stretches and moving up to a half hour,” Josh said in a 1964 Omaha World-Herald interview. “It wasn’t long before Robert could really hum that ball. There were times when he wanted to be off with the other boys, but I kept him at it.”
In games, Josh rarely pitched Bob. “I played outfield or shortstop most of the time, but I also played first base and I caught, too,” Bob said. The molding of Gibson did not go unnoticed and led to Bob and his friend, the late Jerry Parks, playing for different legion and sandlot teams. The pair were even recruited to play for a frequent road competitor — the Woodbine (Iowa) Whiz Kids, coached by Red Brummer. “We were kind of like ringers.”
But baseball was neither Gibson’s first love, nor his best sport. Former college basketball great and NBA All-Pro Bob Boozer, a teammate of Gibson’s for a short time at Omaha Technical High School and with the High Y Travelers, said, “He was a finer basketball player than baseball player. He could play. He could get up and hang.” When Gibson was coming up, word traveled fast that Josh’s kid brother had game. The buzz was, “This kid can really jump, man,” Tech teammate Lonnie McIntosh recalled. “He had to duck his head to dunk.”
As a prep hoops star, Gibson had few peers. His Tech High basketball coach, Neal Mosser, said, “He could have played today — that’s how good he was.”
Despite the time he spent developing his skills on the mound, Bob said Josh did not try swaying him to pursue baseball in favor of basketball. “He never tried to influence me one way or the other which I should do. Not at all.”
While his baseball prowess was more raw potential than reailty, Jim Morrison said, “He threw so hard, we called it a radio ball. You couldn’t see it coming. You just heard it.” He said Gibson exhibited his famous ferocity early on. “On the sideline, Bob could be sweet as honey, but when he got on the mound you were in big trouble. I don’t care who you were, you were in big trouble.”
During the summer American Legion baseball season before his junior year at Tech, Gibson earned all-city honors as a utility player. His talent was such that before graduating he got an offer from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues and long looks from scouts of several major league clubs. Even those credentials could not overcome racism back home in an era when public school coaches were uniformly white and either openly opposed playing blacks or did so sparingly. He even found himself turned-away by then-Tech baseball coach Ken Kennedy. It wasn’t until his senior year, under new coach Tom Murphy, he even got a chance to play baseball for Tech, making the team at shortstop.
Where the hard-driving Josh left off grooming Bob, Tech’s Mosser took over. “Neal Mosser was so much like my brother,” Bob said. “He taught fundamentals, too. He did a lot as far as me going from a young boy to a young man. It was more the way he carried himself than anything else and the respect he had for us as players.” By all accounts, Mosser was color-blind. “Race just never seemed to be a part of his thinking,” Gibson said. “As a matter of fact, we went to the state tournament in Lincoln my senior year and he started five black players. I give him a lot of credit for that. That night, you could hear a pin drop. And he didn’t give a shit. He just wanted to win.”
With the fast-breaking Tech team frustrated by Fremont High’s slow-down tactics, the referees seemingly conspired to give the edge in the nip-and-tuck stalemate to the Tigers. It was neither the first time nor the last time that a predominantly black team from Omaha got the shaft. As if he still can’t accept it, Gibson said, “By the end of the first-half four out of our five starters fouled-out, and within a couple minutes of the second half I fouled out, and I never fouled out. They were cheating us. It was that blatant. And Mosser did the same thing Josh did — he was out in the middle of the floor screaming, and I thought he was going to have a heart attack.”
There was nothing Mosser or anyone could do. Tech lost 40-39. Losing a game is one thing. Having it taken away is quite another. The pain of it made Gibson cry. He said it was the last time he ever shed a tear over a loss.
‘Desire to Win’
Gibson had his sights set on a major college hoops scholarship. He played summer AAU ball in an effort to capture the interest of powerhouse Indiana University. When Mosser contacted the Hoosiers’ head coach, he was told the program already had its “quota of blacks.” At Josh’s urging, hometown Creighton courted Bob and he accepted their scholarship offer, thus breaking the sports color line in the modern era there. He became CU’s career scoring leader. He also showed promise on the mound, further cementing his status as a pro prospect with his play in summer semi-pro ball.
Bob Gibson at Creighton University
Upon graduation, the only NBA feelers came from the Minneapolis Lakers, but when his play for a college all-star team sparked a rare win over the famed Harlem Globetrotters, he was promptly offered a contract to join the traveling hoops circus. Around the same time, he also signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. For a year, he pulled a Bo Jackson — playing two pro sports, pitching for the Cardinals Class A club in Omaha and, in the off-season, hooping it up with the Trotters on cross-country tours.
He moved quickly up the Cardinals’ farm system, joining the big league club in 1959. He became an everyday starter in ’61 and, by the mid-’60s, established himself as one of baseball’s premiere pitchers. In a 10-year stretch from 1963 to 1972 he was arguably the game’s best hurler, posting a 191-105 record, winning two Cy Young Awards, annually ranking near the top in strikeouts and ERA and leading the Cardinals to two World Series titles, capturing the series MVP award each time. His dominant 1968 MVP season was, as he put it in his book, “the year I mastered my craft.” In compiling a 1.12 ERA, 13 shut outs and 28 complete games, he enjoyed perhaps the best single year performance by a pitcher in the modern era.
Gibson, who’s observed his share of fine athletes during his days as a pitcher, coach (with the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves) and broadcaster, believes all the greats share some qualities. It’s no coincidence they include some of the same characteristics Josh helped instill in him years before. “Desire to win. Desire to be better than average,” he said. Then there are the unteachable things. “The will to stick with it. The focus to block out everything else going on around you. Ability doesn’t hurt, either.”
Along the way, Josh reveled in Bob’s ride to stardom and 1981 first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame, although the two rarely talked about it. Not long before his enshrinement, Bob paid Josh the ultimate compliment, saying, “He’s the one who taught me to be an athlete.”
During and after his career Gibson earned a reputation as a blunt, uncompromising man in speaking out against unfair housing practices and employment opportunities in St. Louis and Omaha, where he had various business ventures. For the past two decades, he’s lived with his second wife and family in Bellevue. Today, he maintains ties with the sports world by serving as a Cardinals special instructor in spring training and participating in fantasy baseball camps. From 1997 to 2004, he hosted an annual charity golf tournament that brought in dozens of sports legends.
He enjoys getting together with other athletes from the past and reminiscing about their shared youth. “I think one of the things that makes athletes different than the rest of society,” he said, “is that regardless of what game you play it allows you to remain as a youth…a child. You don’t get any older. You have that same type of feeling. As an athlete you want to cry when you have to quit. It’s something you’ll never be tired of.”
Hanging with Sandy Koufax or Bill Russell, Gibson feels young again. Then, too, there’s the unspoken warrior fraternity he and the others embody.
“There’s a mutual respect you have without even talking about it. It’s just simply understood.”
It’s the same way he and Josh felt about each other.
- It’s finally the Year of the Pitcher again (denverpost.com)
- Forever Connected (slidingintohome.blogspot.com)
- Ubaldo Jimenez, Roy Halladay, Armando Galarraga and now Stephen Strasburg — it’s the Year of the Pitcher in baseball, and we love it (sports.espn.go.com)
- Gibson (joeposnanski.si.com)
- Book Review: Sixty Feet, Six Inches by Bob Gibson & Reggie Jackson (othemts.wordpress.com)
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Lifetime Friends, Native Sons, Entrepreneurs Michael Green and Dick Davis Lead Efforts to Revive North Omaha and to Empower its Black Citizenry (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)