Bob Gibson, fierce Hall of Fame ace for Cards, dies at 84

Gibson's death came on the 52nd anniversary of perhaps his most overpowering performance, when he struck out a World Series record 17 batters in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series against Detroit.


Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, the dominating St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who won a record seven consecutive World Series starts and set a modern standard for excellence when he finished the 1968 season with a 1.12 ERA, died Friday. He was 84.

The Cardinals confirmed Gibson's death shortly after a 4-0 playoff loss to San Diego ended their season. He had long been ill with pancreatic cancer in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska.

Gibson's death came on the 52nd anniversary of perhaps his most overpowering performance, when he struck out a World Series record 17 batters in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series against Detroit.

One of baseball’s most uncompromising competitors, the two-time Cy Young Award winner spent his entire 17-year career with St. Louis and was named the World Series MVP in their 1964 and ’67 championship seasons. The Cards came up just short in 1968, but Gibson was voted the National League’s MVP and shut down opponents so well that baseball changed the rules for fear it would happen again.

Gibson died less than a month after the death of a longtime teammate, Hall of Fame outfielder Lou Brock. Another pitching great from his era, Tom Seaver, died in late August.

At his peak, Gibson may have been the most talented all-around starter in history, a nine-time Gold Glove winner who roamed wide to snatch up grounders despite a fierce, sweeping delivery that drove him to the first base side of the mound; and a strong hitter who twice hit five home runs in a single season and batted .303 in 1970, when he also won his second Cy Young.

Baseball wasn't his only sport, either. He also starred in basketball at Creighton and spent a year with the Harlem Globetrotters before totally turning his attention to the diamond.

Averaging 19 wins a year from 1963-72, he finished 251-174 with a 2.91 ERA, and was only the second pitcher to reach 3,000 strikeouts.

During the regular season, Gibson struck out more than 200 batters nine times and led the National League in shutouts four times, finishing with 56 in his career. In 1968, thirteen of his 22 wins were shutouts, leading McCarver to call Gibson “the luckiest pitcher I ever saw. He always pitches when the other team doesn’t score any runs.”

He was, somehow, even greater in the postseason, finishing 7-2 with a 1.89 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 81 innings. Despite dominating the Tigers in the 1968 Series opener, that year ended with a Game 7 loss — hurt by a rare misplay from star center fielder Curt Flood — and a rewriting of the rules that he would long resent.

Gibson’s 1.12 ERA in the regular season was the third lowest for any starting pitcher since 1900 and by far the best for any starter in the post-dead-ball era, which began in the 1920s.

Gibson had a long major league career even though he was a relatively late bloomer and was in his early 30s in 1968. Signed by the Cards as an amateur free agent in 1957, he had early trouble with his control, a problem solved by developing one of baseball’s greatest sliders, along with a curve to go with his hard fastball.

Only the second Black (after Don Newcombe) to win the Cy Young Award, he was an inspiration when insisting otherwise. Gibson would describe himself as a “blunt, stubborn Black man” who scorned the idea he was anyone’s role model and once posted a sign over his locker reading “I’m not prejudiced. I hate everybody.”

But he was proud of the Cards’ racial diversity and teamwork, a powerful symbol during the civil rights era, and his role in ensuring that players did not live in segregated housing during the season.

He was close to McCarver, a Tennessean who would credit Gibson with challenging his own prejudices, and the acknowledged leader of a club which featured whites (McCarver, Mike Shannon, Roger Maris), Blacks (Gibson, Brock and Flood) and Hispanics (Orlando Cepeda, Julian Javier).

“Our team, as a whole, had no tolerance for ethnic or racial disrespect,” Gibson wrote in “Pitch by Pitch,” published in 2015. “We’d talk about it openly and in no uncertain terms. In our clubhouse, nobody got a free pass.”

Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty, who is Black, grew close to Gibson in recent years. The right-handers would often talk, the 24-year-old Flaherty soaking up advice from the great who wore No. 45.

“That one hurts," said Flaherty, the Cardinals' losing pitcher Friday night. “He’s a legend, first and foremost, somebody who I was lucky enough to learn from. You don’t get the opportunity to learn from somebody of that caliber and somebody who was that good very often.”

“I had been kept up on his health and where he was at. I was really hoping it wasn’t going to be today. I was going to wear his jersey today to the field but decided against it,” he said.

Born Pack Robert Gibson in Omaha on Nov. 9, 1935, Gibson overcame childhood illness that nearly cost him his life. His father died soon before his birth, and he grew up in poverty. His mother was a laundry worker, trying to support Gibson and his six siblings.

Gibson went to Omaha Tech High School and stayed in town, attending Creighton from 1954-57, and averaging 20.2 points during his college basketball career. The roughly 6-foot, 2-inch Gibson, who seemed so much taller on the mound, spent the 1957-58 season with the Globetrotters before turning his full attention to baseball.

At Omaha in the minor leagues, he was managed by Johnny Keane, who became a mentor and cherished friend, “the closest thing to a saint” he would ever know in baseball.

Gibson was often forced to live in separate hotels from his white teammates and was subjected to vicious taunts from fans, but he would remember Keane as “without prejudice” and as an unshakeable believer in his talent.

The pitcher’s career soon took off. He made the first of his eight National League All-Star teams in 1962, and the following year went 18-9 and kept the Cardinals in the pennant race until late in the season.

In 1964, a year he regarded as his favorite, he won three times in the last 11 games as the Cardinals surged past the collapsing Philadelphia Phillies and won the National League title. Gibson lost Game 2 of the World Series against the New York Yankees, but he came back with wins in Games 5 and 7 and was named the MVP.

Gibson enjoyed 20-game seasons in 1965 and 1966 and likely would have done the same a third straight year, but a Roberto Clemente line drive broke his leg in the middle of the season. (Gibson was so determined he still managed to finish the inning).

Gibson returned in September, finished 13-7 during the regular season and led the Cardinals to the 1967 championship, winning three times and hitting a home run off Red Sox ace Jim Lonborg in Game 7 at Boston’s Fenway Park.

But 1968 was on a level few had seen before. He began slowly, losing five of his first eight decisions despite an ERA of 1.52, and fumed over the lack of hitting support.

But from early June to late August, Gibson was unbeatable. He won 15 straight decisions, threw 10 shutouts and at one point allowed just three earned runs during 101 innings. One of those runs scored on a wild pitch, another on a bloop hit.

He was at his best again in the opener of the World Series, giving a performance so singular that his book “Pitch by Pitch” was dedicated entirely to it.

By the mid-1970s, his knees were aching and he had admittedly lost some of his competitive fury. On the last day of the 1974 season, with a 2-1 lead and a division title possible, he gave up a two-run homer to the Montreal Expos’ Mike Jorgensen in the eighth inning and the Cards lost 3-2.

He retired after 1975, humiliated in his final appearance when he gave up a grand slam home run to the Chicago Cubs’ Pete LaCock. (When the two faced off a decade later, at an old-timers game, Gibson beaned him).

Gibson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1981, and the Cards retired his uniform number. He had a far less successful career as a coach, whether for the New York Mets and Braves in the 1980s, or for the Cardinals in 1995.

He was married twice, most recently to Wendy Gibson, and spent much of his retirement at his longtime home in the Omaha suburb of Bellevue. He was active in charitable causes and hosted a popular golf event in Omaha that drew some of the top names in sports.