Somewhere in a box tucked away in a small storage room in our house back in Charlotte is a Canadian dollar bill with Bob Gibson’s autograph on it. The autograph got on that bill around 50 years ago, when my parents and some friends rented a Winnebago and motored north to Montreal.
My memory is fuzzy, but I assume that they went to a Montreal Expos-St. Louis Cardinals game at the old Jarry Park, and at some point someone approached Gibson for an autograph, knowing that Gibson, the dominating Cardinals pitcher known as “Gibby,” was my idol.
I don’t know who asked for the autograph. My father, who grew up in St. Louis and raised his four kids as Cardinals fans, is not the kind of guy to approach people for autographs. Neither am I, for that matter. And Bob Gibson was not the kind of dude you wanted to approach for an autograph. He was an intimidating and hyper-competitive force on the mound and not exactly warm and fuzzy off of it. He didn’t necessarily like being approached by fans, and from all appearances hated giving autographs.
Anyway, some brave (or blissfully ignorant) soul, maybe a friend of my parents’, approached Gibby to autograph the Canadian dollar bill. My recollection is that whoever asked for it also asked Gibby to write something like, “To Vance, my biggest fan.” But Gibby said he’d just sign his name, probably unsmiling. So he signed it, and that autographed Canadian dollar bill is still there in a box, thousands of miles across the Atlantic.
I awoke this morning to see a FB message from an old friend that began “Tough day to be a Cardinals fan.” I was a little put out at first because last night the Cardinals played the Padres in the final game of a best-of-three playoff series. Because U.S. games come on so late in London, I had to record it. I planned to watch it tonight. Now I’d been greeted by a spoiler hinting that maybe my beloved Redbirds lost.
Anyway, I peeked at the message and saw this: “Sorry to hear about Gibby.”
Well, you didn’t have to guess what that meant. Bob Gibson had died.
And he had, late in the evening of Oct. 2, 2020, at the age of 84.
You couldn’t be surprised, really. Gibby had been suffering from pancreatic cancer, so it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened. His death followed close on the heels of Lou Brock, Gibby’s teammate and fellow Cardinals legend who passed away in September. It was fitting that these two men should go out in the same season of the same year, during the pennant stretch and postseason, because they were so often linked in life. Gibby and Lou. Lou and Gibby. They were like Ruth and Gehrig or Mick and Keith to a certain generation of Cardinals fans.
Gibby died in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, where he’d grown up poor, fatherless and black in a housing project, as he put it in his 1968 autobiography, “From Ghetto to Glory: The Story of Bob Gibson.”
He was the only idol I really ever had. Lou Brock was a hero. N.C. State basketball legend David Thompson was a hero. Later, Bob Dylan and Hunter S. Thompson were heroes. But Gibby was the only idol, or ever will be.
He had been my idol for as long as I can remember, a full lifetime of it. He assumed that position the way any idol does – by being great for a favorite team. He shut down the New York Yankees in the 1964 World Series to lead the Cardinals to the championship, but I was too young to remember much about that one. I do remember the 1967 World Series, when Gibby shut down the Boston Red Sox for another championship.
A year later Gibby shut down the Detroit Tigers in Games 1 and 4 of the World Series, striking out 17 batters in the first game to set a World Series record. But in Game 7, the impossible happened. The Tigers touched him for four runs, helped by a misplayed foul ball by Cardinals centerfielder Curt Flood, a gold glover most of his career. The Cardinals lost 4-1. I still remember the shock of that loss, and the image of Gibby staring into the sky after the Tigers scored three runs in the top of the 7th, as if thinking to himself, “Now how the f**k did that just happen?”
I can reel Gibby’s stats off the top of my head. Career wins: 251. Career strikeouts: 3,117. I think those are correct. If not, let me know. I do know he won 13 games during an injury-plagued 1967 season, followed by 22 wins in 1968, 20 in 1969, 23 in 1970, 16 in 1971 and 19 in 1972. In ’68 he went 22-9 with 268 strikeouts and a now legendary 1.12 ERA. He and other pitchers were so dominant that year that a year later they lowered the mound to make things easier on hitters.
I hoarded Gibby’s baseball cards. I read his autobiography over and over as a kid. When he was on the cover of a magazine, I had to have it. His name was like magic to me. In my first job out of college I worked at the daily newspaper in Greenwood, S.C., and rented an apartment above a garage in a place out in the country. Another renter was a Native American dude from Oklahoma, whose name I long forgot. One day we got to talking, and I learned that he’d also grown up idolizing Gibby and pulling for the Cardinals. My eyes nearly popped out of my head. We talked baseball for the next two hours.
I once worked for a man named Bob Gibson. White, overweight, gray haired, not quite 60. He once said he often got mistaken for the other Bob Gibson. Ha ha.
Gibby was maybe the best athlete in the majors back then, good enough at basketball to earn a scholarship to Creighton University and have a brief turn with the Harlem Globetrotters. He was an excellent fielder and hitter. His fastball came in like a bullet, and he powered down off the mound like a freight train.
If an opposing batter crowded the plate, Gibby would not hesitate to send a fastball under the guy’s chin to back him right the hell off of it. He would narrow his eyes on the mound in an intimidating glare that probably had more to do with his poor eyesight than anything else. Gibby had to squint to see the catcher’s signals. But he didn’t mind that batters were intimidated.
Gibson was also the fiercest competitor in the majors back then, and hated being visited on the mound by either coaches or catchers. One of my favorite stories involved a game when catcher Tim McCarver approached the mound to talk with Gibby about the game plan for a particular hitter. Gibby glared at McCarver and told him to turn back around.
“The only thing you know about pitching is that you can’t hit it,” Gibby growled.
And they were good friends and longtime teammates.
Gibby was so competitive that he refused to trade pleasantries with the opposition, before or after the game. When he showed up for All-Star games he was frosty to his National League teammates, knowing that as soon as the game was over they’d go back to being the enemy.
He was an intelligent and proud man who did not suffer fools gladly and raged at the inequities of the world he’d grown up in. He spoke his mind about racial injustice, unapologetically, even as a young ballplayer trying to make the majors in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In those days black players and white players stayed in separate hotel rooms during spring training in Florida, and even in certain major league cities. Gibson, Curt Flood and Bill White – all African Americans – started a movement that required all players to stay in the same rooms and use the same clubhouses. In 1961 the Cardinals were the first team to end segregated hotel rooms, three years before the Civil Rights bill was passed.
Gibby didn’t like any kind of racial or ethnic bigotry. He once lashed out at a teammate for calling Washington Senators slugger Mike Epstein “SuperJew.”
Bob Gibson’s athletic prowess made him my idol. His pride and uncompromising attitude kept him there through the ensuing decades, all the way up to today, when I celebrate his life and count myself lucky to have chosen him as someone to look up to.