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Cardinals Hall of Famer Bob Gibson dies at 84 after bout with cancer
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Cardinals Hall of Famer Bob Gibson dies at 84 after bout with cancer

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The Cardinals have a goodly number of pitchers enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, including Dizzy Dean and Jesse "Pop" Haines. But by any account, the greatest Cardinals pitcher of them all was Bob Gibson, who died at age 84 Friday night in Omaha, Nebraska, under hospice care after fighting pancreatic cancer for more than a year. 

Gibson was the Cardinals’ second National Baseball Hall of Famer to die in the past month. His longtime teammate, Lou Brock, died at age 81 on Sept. 6. Gibson’s death came on the 52nd anniversary of perhaps his greatest game, a record 17-strikeout performance in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series.

“Bob Gibson was arguably one of the best athletes and among the fiercest competitors to ever play the game of baseball,” said Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., in a statement.  "Even during the time of his recent illness, Bob remained a strong supporter of the team and remained in contact with members of the organization and several of our players.  He will be sorely missed.”

Gibson, like Hall of Famer Stan Musial a rarity who played his entire career (1959-75) with the Cardinals, set club records for games won at 251 and complete games at a staggering 255, let alone a franchise-best 56 shutouts, strikeouts (3,117) and innings pitched at 3,884.

But, when he was young, there was little to suggest Gibson would achieve what he achieved. His father died before Gibson’s birth on Nov. 9, 1935, and his mother, Victoria, worked in a laundry to raise her seven children. Gibson’s early years were filled with medical troubles — rickets, pneumonia, asthma, hay fever and a heart problem.

Despite all the illnesses, Gibson became an all-round athlete, starring in baseball, basketball and track in high school in Omaha. He then played baseball and basketball for Creighton University before becoming a Harlem Globetrotter for one year. After going a combined 6-11 for his first two seasons with the Cardinals, he put together 14 straight seasons of double-figure wins.

Great success, new rules

Gibson had five 20-win seasons, two with 19 victories and another of 18. He was so good in 1968 when he was voted the National League's Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner (he won two of those) that baseball, because of the dominance by Gibson and other power pitchers like Los Angeles' Don Drysdale and San Francisco's Juan Marichal, had to change its rules. Gibson compiled a modern-day best earned run average of 1.12 while winning 22 games and throwing 13 shutouts to lead a parade of pitching dominance in baseball and, for 1969, the height of the mound was lowered by 33%, from 15 inches to 10.

This didn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference, though, to the hard-throwing righthander with the nasty slider. Gibson was 20-13 with a 2.18 ERA in 1969 while pitching 314 innings, nine more than his previous season and striking out 269 hitters, one more than he had in 1968.

But, he had leapt to the national forefront in 1964 when he worked five times, 40 innings’ worth, in a 14-day span, four of them starts, as he helped the Cardinals win the National League pennant by one game and then starred as the Cardinals beat the New York Yankees four games to three in the World Series, the Cardinals’ first Series crown since 1946.

Gibson pitched 27 innings in three Series games. One of the starts went eight innings but his second went 10 as he won Game Five, 5-2. Then he came back on two days’ rest and worked a complete-game 7-5 win in Game Seven.

“That last game ... I was tired,” admitted Gibson.

The Cardinals held a 7-3 lead into the top of the ninth and manager Johnny Keane had lefthander Ray Sadecki warming up in the bullpen.

“In the ninth inning, I wasn’t pitching, I was throwing,” Gibson had said. “Before the inning started, Keane said, ‘I don’t want you to try to be fancy. Just throw it over the middle of the plate. I don’t believe they’re going to hit four home runs.’

“They hit two, by Clete Boyer and Phil Linz. And Phil Linz couldn’t hit home runs. Clete knocked the crap out of it and then they did it again.

“I had good stuff. I didn’t just lay it in there, but I looked in the dugout and Johnny wasn’t anywhere to be found,” Gibson said.

At this point, Gibson said he thought he would try a different approach.

“I thought maybe I should start pitching instead of just throwing,” said Gibson, who got Bobby Richardson to pop to second baseman Dal Maxvill for the final out.

World Series dominance

With that putout, Gibson had started a string of pitching nine-inning complete games in the World Series. In 1967 and 1968, he pitched six times, with all of them complete games.

The best of that lot was one of the most dominant games in World Series history. In the first game of the 1968 Series, he struck out 17 Detroit Tigers although the Tigers would win the Series in seven games. In his book “Pitch by Pitch,” centering on that game, Gibson revealed that, perhaps for inspiration, he had put a button over his locker before the series that said, “I’m not prejudiced. I hate everybody.”

Gibson pitched a no-hitter on Aug. 14, 1971, at Pittsburgh and three years later became the second pitcher in history, behind Washington’s Walter Johnson, to reach the 3,000-strikeout plateau. How tough was he? He faced three more batters after suffering a broken leg when hit by a Roberto Clemente liner on July 15, 1967. Gibson missed 52 days, returned in time to pitch the pennant-clincher and then won three games in the World Series besides hitting a home run in Game Seven at Boston.

Besides being the best Cardinals pitcher, Gibson perhaps was the most intense Cardinals player ever. When he was pitching, he rarely even talked to his own teammates, let alone the opposing players. And if he did have something to say, it was brief and to the point.

When a catcher, even longtime batterymate Tim McCarver would come to the mound, to ask a question, or, dare to offer a suggestion, Gibson was said to have snarled, “The only thing you know about pitching is that it’s hard to hit.”

After outfielder Mike Shannon was switched to third base, Shannon came to the mound on Opening Day to ask Gibson where to play a certain hitter. Gibson said, “Don’t worry about it.”

Shannon replied, “What do you mean?”

Replied Gibson, “I won’t let them hit the ball to you.” And, basically, he didn’t. Shannon rarely had a chance when Gibson was pitching, other than when Gibson needed a double play against a righthanded pull hitter.

‘I’m out of here’

Gibson announced in January 1975, that that would be his last season and the club had a day for him on Sept. 1. Two days later, having been banished to the bullpen, Gibson allowed a pinch-hit, game-losing grand slam to unheralded Chicago Cubs first baseman Pete LaCock. Gibson retired the next batter, Don Kessinger, on a groundout and then walked off the mound for the final time.

“I had reached my absolute limit in humiliation,” Gibson said in his book “Stranger to the Game.” “I said to myself, ‘That’s it. I’m out of here.’”

Gibson remained idle while the Cardinals fell out of contention and on Sept. 15, two weeks after his special day, Gibson said goodbye to his teammates and headed home with 10 games remaining in the season, knowing he’d never pitch again. No one ever wore his uniform No. 45 again, either. And some six years later, he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Although his team just had been eliminated from postseason consideration in San Diego, Cardinals manager Mike Shildt took time to talk afterward about Gibson, for a long time a spring training fixture, 

"It's another big loss, right there with Lou, that is hard to swallow," said Shildt. "We know he's in a place with a little comfort and peace. But it's a big loss for our organization.

"Everything I've talked about, Bob Gibson stood for. Stood up for himself. Stood up for his teammates. He was an elite athlete. He was a great competitor. He was a winner. I think he would have enjoyed playing on this team. We're going to miss him."

Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement, “This is a very sad day for all of baseball.

Rick Hummel @cmshhummel on Twitter rhummel@post-dispatch.com

Rick Hummel

@cmshhummel on Twitter

rhummel@post-dispatch.com

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