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)