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Tough-as-steel Gibson also had a softer side

Tough-as-steel Gibson also had a softer side

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Two-time Cy Young Award winner and a Most Valuable Player. World Series hero. Immortalized the numbers 1.12, as in his earned-run average in 1968. Fierce competitor. Beyond fierce, perhaps.

This was the Bob Gibson on display for all to see.

“What you saw was what you got,” said Bill White, the first baseman on the 1964 World Series champions.

“His reputation was that of a violent competitor,” said longtime catcher Tim McCarver after learning his friend had died in Omaha, Nebraska, on Friday night from pancreatic cancer. “But few realized that one of the best things about Bob was his ability to laugh — the way it came so easily to him. That’s one of the things I admired and am going to miss about him.”

Backup catcher and resident funnyman Bob Uecker, who has broadcast Milwaukee Brewers games for 50 years, recalled grabbing Gibson’s hand as the two sat side by side for the Cardinals’ team picture near the end of the 1965 season.

“He really hung onto my hand,” Uecker said. “It was good.

“The funny thing was nobody could tell until they developed the pictures and there was one on the bulletin board the next morning and a note for me to see Red Schoendienst, the manager. Just me. Not Bob.”

Uecker, a frequent guest on the “Tonight Show,” brought the picture with him one night and broke up host Johnny Carson. Gibson and Uecker reprised their hand holding at Cooperstown, N.Y., when Uecker was honored several years ago by the Hall of Fame for his broadcasting exploits. From his home in the Phoenix area, Uecker said, “I can see the picture hanging on the wall right in front of me.”

Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith said, “When they look at Bob’s exterior, they see the ‘stare.’ There were three or four guys who had the ‘look.’ It’s a defensive mechanism that they’ve all had to use in their lives but once you’re able to get by the stare, you find a very funny, very astute, a very cerebral person who understood his craft and performed it as well as everybody’s ever performed it.

“I think he was the perfect example of what represents the St. Louis Cardinals. The toughness. The grit. The grind.”

But then Smith said, “When I was giving him a hard time, he’d say, ‘Ozzie, let me tell you something. If I had played shortstop, they would probably never know who you are.’

“And he’s probably right,” Smith said, laughing.

‘King of the Hill’

“He was King of the Hill and all those platitudes and perhaps the greatest pitcher ever,” said McCarver, who caught Gibson regularly from 1963-69 and again in the mid-1970s. “I’m not going to say he was the greatest, but he was close. He was in the running. And that says a lot right there.”

McCarver’s words choked as he discussed his friend, his emotions getting the better of him. But then he thought of the 2014 St. Louis Baseball Writers’ dinner, on the 50th anniversary of that World Series championship team and the way Gibson poked fun at all his teammates on stage.

“He laughed at Bob Uecker. He laughed at Dick Groat. He laughed at Mike Shannon. He laughed at me,” said McCarver, his mood lightening for a moment. “He laughed at the things we accomplished because we accomplished a lot.”

Before the dinner, Uecker had tricked Gibson into thinking Groat was Julian Javier, who wasn’t on hand, when Gibson approached Groat from behind. Gibson had asked “Hoolie” how he was doing and Groat wasn’t amused.

Gibson immediately correctly targeted Uecker as the culprit and later, during a panel discussion of 1964 team players, Gibson turned to Uecker and said, “I don’t even remember you being on that team.”

Cardinals broadcast veteran Mike Claiborne said, “Bob was quick. He could observe something and he always had a comeback. The older he got, the funnier he became.”

McCarver saw Gibson as a galvanizing force off the field, as well as on.

“He never requested respect,” McCarver said. “He just got it. People paid attention when they were around Bob Gibson.

“He tethered teammates and that was a talent.”

Gibson had this manner of intimidating reporters, sometimes when he wasn’t even trying to. But then there was the other side to that, too.

In his Hall of Fame year of 1981, a Post-Dispatch reporter flew to Omaha to interview Gibson. They first met at a restaurant in which Gibson had an ownership stake. After spending a couple of hours there, the two repaired to his house where Gibson insisted on a barbecue on his new deck and then he and his wife, Wendy, patiently waited while the reporter participated in a 45-minute radio show he had neglected to tell them about.

After dinner, there was more conversation and then another trip down to the bar at Gibson’s restaurant. Finally, as it neared midnight, Gibson, his wife and the scribe headed to the parking lot and suddenly Gibson stopped in his tracks.

“Wendy. Wendy. Wendy,” Gibson started babbling. “Can you believe I’ve been talking to a reporter for nine hours?”

White said, “Bob was a helluva person. He was aware of a lot of things. He could talk about anything.

“People think he was mean or whatever. He was just a good person. His bark could be bad. But … you could talk to him. He told you what he thought. You didn’t have any questions until it was all over.”

Tough times

Gibson and White came up to the majors in 1950s when Black players in St. Petersburg, Florida, and other places had to stay in different places in spring training than the white players. That often applied to their regular-season housing, too.

“We came through it,” White said. “We made it a little easier for a lot of guys later on. You can’t put a number on how hard it was. We survived it. We were successful at it.”

Claiborne often talked with Gibson about those days and said, “He saw it and wasn’t going to take it. But he wasn’t sure how to take the next step to do more about it. That’s one of the things he’s most proud of with (Cardinals righthander) Jack Flaherty. I know that Bob was really happy with Jack for taking that role of trying to create social justice and trying to right some wrongs that had been going on in this country.

“I talked to Jack (Friday night) and he was in a bad way,” Claiborne said. “He said the (loss to San Diego) didn’t mean as much to him as losing Bob.”

Cardinals veteran catcher Yadier Molina had a similar sentiment.

“We lose another one. Hard to imagine. We lose another one,” said Molina, referring to Hall of Famers Lou Brock, who died at age 81 four weeks ago, and Gibson.

Longtime Cardinals athletic trainer Gene Gieselmann, lamenting the loss of Dr. Stan London, Brock and now Gibson in the past few months, brought to light a little-known trip he had taken with Gibson after the end of the 1975 season, Gibson’s final one.

The Cardinals had given Gibson a motor home--Gibson had noted more than once that the front office wanted him to pay taxes on it--so Gibson  and Wendy invited the Gieselmanns to go with them on a two-week trip in it to California.

“He paid for everything,” Gieselmann said. “A lot of people don’t realize how generous a person and how nice a person he was. People thought he was gruff but if you were somebody who was special to him, you couldn’t have asked for a nicer guy.”

Gieselmann and Gibson, both early risers, would talk sometimes on the phone at 4 a.m. as to who made the better chili.

“He claims he did,” Gieselmann said. “He was always going to win, of course, whether it was pick-up-sticks or tiddly winks. He was always going to win.

“The only thing he ever lost in his life was his battle with cancer.”

Softer side

Want to know something else about Bob Gibson? This tough guy liked the sob stories of soap operas on television. “The Young and the Restless” was his favorite.

“There was a soft side to him that a handful of people knew,” Claiborne said. “You would think he was this rough, tough guy who ate razor blades for breakfast.

“He knew the plots and the stars of the soap operas with the best of them. One time somebody was talking about a soap opera and he had the episode wrong and Bob corrected him and went into every detail. I just kind of looked at Bob and he said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’

“Every day, you learned something new about him. Somebody put on Twitter that he had played the guitar on the Ed Sullivan show (a Sunday night TV variety show that originated in the 1960s).”

Claiborne knew Gibson for nearly 40 years and said “he introduced me to my first glass of wine — the good wine. This one had a cork in it. He had this gruff appearance from time to time — just to remind you that he hadn’t forgotten — but if he was around people he was comfortable with, he’d be the funniest guy in the room.”

And often the best athlete in the room, or on the field.

In the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 1964 Series with the Yankees down 2-0, Joe Pepitone hit a smash off the leg of Gibson, who chased after the ball and, straddling the third-base line after recovering it, whirled and threw a strike to first to White. Pepitone was out. Tom Tresh eventually hit a two-run homer to tie the game before McCarver untied it with a 10th-inning homer. But had Gibson not made his play, Tresh’s homer might have been a three-run drive to win the game.

“He’s the only man who could have made that play and made a perfect throw to first base,” White said. “Nobody else makes that play.”

Just as in nobody else could face three hitters after suffering a broken leg, which Gibson had after taking a Roberto Clemente liner off his leg on July 15, 1967. The only way anyone really knew anything was wrong was when he walked two of the next three batters, his balance understandably affected.

The Gibson way

Gibson never moved here but he had a street named after him, “Bob Gibson Way,” in the spring of 2019.

“I think I’ve done something right,” said Gibson at a ceremony. “I don’t know if I did the right thing but at least I made an effort and, evidently, some of it worked.

“I was always a nice guy,” Gibson said, smiling. “They just didn’t know it.”

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