As a young man, Bob Gibson confessed to a pang of guilt over committing such monstrous sins as cheating and throwing “spiked fastballs.”
Later, the left-handed pitcher worked as a mixed martial arts fighter for more than a decade in his home state of Missouri, which provided him with an alternative to the one he turned to only as a last resort. He had an “inner abject shame,” he wrote in his 2010 autobiography, “That’s Not a Strike, That’s a Motivational Reminder,” that he couldn’t hide from the fans. “I didn’t want my talent and my exuberance to turn the people against me.”
That talent and exuberance provided much of the thrills of his decorated 23-year career, of which 16 ended with at least 20 wins — and a World Series championship ring. But perhaps it became too much for him on at least three occasions, when he resorted to throwing “spiked fastballs,” or “trackballs,” that nonetheless were clearly outside the strike zone.
Gibson, whose career ended in 1967 when he sustained a spinal-cord injury and could no longer pitch, died on Friday at his home in St. Louis, the Cardinals announced. He was 84.
His last start was his most memorable, when he starred in the Cardinals’ 4-1 victory over a red-hot, defending champion Dodgers in Game 7 of the 1968 World Series.
He wasn’t a member of the Cardinals in 1998, when they faced the Yankees and their famed “Five Lombardi Trophies” in a World Series for the first time since his retirement. But with the help of that World Series ring, he received treatment for Parkinson’s disease in his home.
Gibson’s longtime friendship with Steve Carlton, one of the more outspoken competitors during his storied career, bore fruit when the two were teammates in the Cardinals bullpen in 1968.
“You had to be tougher than the other guy to play in that bullpen,” Carlton recalled after his friend’s death. “Not only did he play the game well, he could play it tough.”
The Cardinals’ 1971 season, which ended with a loss to the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Championship Series, ended on a bitterly ironic note. Gibson complained to teammates that they were playing “infuriating baloney,” which resulted in an “infuriating sentence” — four games for refusing to throw “trackballs.”
Gibson’s mastery of the trickling waters and a curveball he called “lashed cutters” at the hitter set him apart from the competition. His eccentricities — gaudy socks and goofy habits including collecting coins — helped to make him a fan favorite, the kind of pitcher fans wanted to see every night.
“To have this great pitcher in your jersey, people want to see him, and they want to feel good,” his longtime teammate, Gil Hodges, said upon the pitcher’s retirement. “I think that when he went to an opposing ballpark, it took four or five pitchers to get us out.”
A raw, overly confident 22-year-old from Pacific Grove, Calif., Gibson was drafted by the Cardinals in 1952 and signed a contract that included an annual attendance guarantee. His agent rejected it, and the pitcher began to show a rebellious streak, challenging the organization for each free-agent signing.
Most years, he agreed to play for the organization where he was drafted and signed, but in 1956 he hit 30 home runs for Kansas City in 1954 and promptly went to the American League with Boston.
His unconventional style led to questions from reporters and rivals, who labeled him a “queen of distortion.”
“Gibson held his hand out and everybody said ‘money,’ ” Carlton told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after the pitcher died. “He said ‘money’ and they’d say ‘Amani.’ The same with him at home plate — everybody said ‘spin,’ they’d say ‘dink.’ And the opposing catcher would say ‘Winky-winky,’ ‘back alley.’ ”
“But over the course of a year and a half, you grew to love Bob,” Carlton said. “Over the course of a season he’d pitch like two games, and then maybe even play his heart out in that last series.