A handful of pitchers possessed as much talent as Bob Gibson. None, however, matched his competitiveness.
“Failure was not an option,” Gibson once said, and he meant it. This is a man who was so engrossed in his task that he faced three batters after Roberto Clemente broke Gibson's right leg with a line drive in July 1967. This is a man who so fiercely fought for an edge that, when he thought San Francisco’s Jim Ray Hart appeared too comfortable in the batter’s box during the first game of a 1963 doubleheader, he fired a high, inside fastball that broke the rookie’s shoulder in the nightcap.
On his birthday, here’s a look at 10 great Gibson moments from his St. Louis Cardinals career.
1) “I was awed”
Oct. 2, 1968
Gibson delivered a breathtaking regular-season performance, which included 13 shutouts in 34 starts and a 1.12 ERA -- a Major League record for the live-ball era (since 1920). He would earn the National League Most Valuable Player Award and the NL Cy Young Award. Gibson proceeded to outdo himself in Game 1 of the World Series against the Detroit Tigers, amassing 17 strikeouts to break Sandy Koufax’s 1963 Series record of 15 while issuing one walk and yielding five hits in St. Louis’ 4-0 victory. It was Gibson’s sixth of seven consecutive complete-game World Series triumphs, encompassing the '64 and '67 Fall Classics. Detroit’s Denny McLain, who finished 31-6 in the regular season, freely admitted feeling overmatched. “I was awed,” said McLain, as Roger Angell of The New Yorker reported. “I was awed.”
2) “A commitment to his heart”
Oct. 15, 1964
Gibson’s pitching line -- five runs allowed on nine hits in Game 7 against the Yankees -- was his worst in World Series competition. Nursing a 7-3 lead, the right-hander surrendered ninth-inning homers to Clete Boyer and Phil Linz. But, summoning all of his resolve, he sandwiched strikeouts of Tom Tresh and Johnny Blanchard around Boyer’s homer before ending the Series by inducing Bobby Richardson’s pop-up to second base. Cardinals manager Johnny Keane had a reliever warming up, but he wanted Gibson to finish the game. “I had a commitment to his heart,” Keane said.
3) A significant season
1968 and beyond
Here’s a quick factual look at Gibson’s astounding 1968 season:
• He completed 28 of 34 starts and was never removed from a game in the middle of an inning.
• He finished 22-9 and absorbed those defeats primarily because he lost three 3-2 decisions and endured a pair of 1-0 setbacks.
• Though he dropped five of his first eight decisions, his ERA was 1.52 at that juncture.
• He went 6-0 in June and July, completing all 12 starts and compiling an 0.50 ERA in each month.
Gibson was at the forefront of a Major Leagues-wide pitchers’ takeover. Whether they were that much better than hitters at that point (Carl Yastrzemski won the 1968 American League batting title with a .301 average), the lords of baseball decided to jump-start offenses by lowering the mound five inches and reducing the height of the strike zone from a batter’s armpits to the top of the jersey lettering. Many experts believe that Gibson’s dominance was at least partly responsible for these changes.
4) Excellence in triplicate
Oct. 4-12, 1967
Which of Gibson’s three complete-game victories over the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 World Series proved most essential? Was it Game 1, when he and the Cardinals prevailed, 2-1, and halted the momentum of a sky-high Boston club that emerged from a four-team race to win the pennant on the regular season’s final day? Could it have been his five-hit, 6-0 shutout in Game 4, which gave the Cardinals a 3-1 edge in the Series and enabled them to fend off the Red Sox, who won the next two games? Wait -- it had to be the World Series-clinching Game 7, which featured Gibson’s commanding three-hitter that paced St. Louis’ 7-2 triumph, right? With Gibson involved, they’re all big games.
5) Monumental milestone
July 17, 1974
Gibson continued to set himself apart from even the greatest of pitchers. He became the second pitcher in Major League history, after Walter Johnson, to strike out 3,000 batters. At the time, Gibson was the only National Leaguer to achieve this status. Cincinnati’s Cesar Geronimo was the strikeout victim who ushered Gibson into history.
6) Confidence builder
Oct. 12, 1964
This game, more than any other, convinced the Cardinals that they could outclass the star-studded, tradition-rich Yankees in the World Series. As usual, Gibson stood at the forefront of the effort in Game 5. He worked all 10 innings of the 5-2 victory, yielding six hits and zero earned runs while striking out 13. The outcome gave St. Louis a 3-2 Series lead.
7) You’re pulling my leg
July 15, 1967
Gibson’s focus on the mound was known to be unshakable, and this moment cemented that notion. Pittsburgh’s Roberto Clemente christened the fourth inning by hitting a line drive off Gibson’s right leg for a single. Nobody suspected that the baseball’s impact had caused a fracture. Gibson faced three more batters, walking two and retiring Bill Mazeroski on a fly ball, before he left the mound. Soon, it was discovered that Gibson had sustained a broken fibula above his right ankle, and his legend grew.
8) A pair for an ace
The rule changes that Gibson had at least partially prompted after the 1968 season didn’t seem to affect him. His ERA soared by more than a run over the previous year, yet it remained admirable at 2.18, which complemented his 20-13 record. Gibson was even better in '70, finishing 23-7 to win his second NL Cy Young Award. His win total was a personal best and matched San Francisco’s Gaylord Perry for the league lead in that category.
9) Achieving the inevitable
Aug. 14, 1971
With his combination of stuff, savvy and intimidation, Gibson was always a threat to pitch a no-hitter. He fulfilled this expectation against the Pittsburgh Pirates in an 11-0 rout. Gibson struck out 10 batters, including Willie Stargell three times.
10) It’s never too late
Game 162: 1964-65, '69
Gibson had a penchant for late dramatics -- really late, such as the last day of the season. In the 1964 season finale, with the Cardinals needing a victory to clinch the pennant, Gibson pitched four effective innings of relief, despite having thrown eight innings two days earlier, and received the decision in St. Louis’ 11-5 win over the Mets. In '65, one victory shy of logging his first 20-win season, Gibson threw a stifling complete game against Houston in Game 162 to reach the milestone.
Gibson closed with a rush once more to amass 20 wins in 1969, though this was an extended finishing kick. Owning a 16-11 record with six starts left, he threw a complete game in each one while earning the four wins that got him to 20. The last one came in the season-ender against Philadelphia, a 12-inning affair which the Cardinals captured, 3-2. Many players would have been mentally through the ballpark exit before the game even started. Not Gibson, who regarded winning 20 games as his duty.