In a year of assassinations, an angry Bob Gibson pitched his way into the record books
Cardinals ace faced Denny McLain 50 years ago in Game 1 of the World Series
(Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Oct. 2, 2018. Bob Gibson died on Oct. 2, 2020, at the age of 84.)
Fifty years ago, on Oct. 2, 1968, Cardinals ace Bob Gibson stood on the mound at Busch Stadium in St. Louis for Game 1 of the World Series. The 6-foot-2 Gibson glared toward the plate, his jaw dripping with sweat, his cap pulled low over his face. Batters stood in against Gibson with trepidation, facing an arsenal that included a sharp curve, a devastating slider and a high-90s fastball that often came in high and tight.
All of baseball had been waiting to see this day’s pitching matchup: the nearly unhittable Gibson vs. 31-game winner Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers. A record crowd of nearly 55,000 fans came to see what promised to be a pitcher’s duel for the ages.
For Gibson, the Series was the culmination of a historic season in which he won 22 games, struck out 268 batters, collected 13 shutouts and posted an ERA of 1.12, a number so low it hasn’t been equaled since. Even in the so-called “year of the pitcher” — the season that hurlers allowed a stingy 6.84 runs per game, the lowest since the “dead ball era” — Gibson’s season was otherworldly. (There are several theories as to why pitchers were so dominant that year. One is that the height of the pitching mound was 15 inches, 5 inches higher than today, and that the strike zone was inordinately large; it went from the top of the batter’s shoulders to the bottom of his knees. It has since shrunk to accommodate more offense.)
But 1968 was about much more than baseball.
Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been shot dead by assassins’ bullets. Arthur Ashe became the first black player to win a major tennis title. Black athletes debated boycotting the Summer Olympics, and John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in protest after winning Olympic medals in Mexico City.
Donald Spivey, a professor at the University of Miami who specializes in African-American history and sports, says, “For black athletes, it was just an incredible time. Was there any issue we weren’t dealing with? Muhammad Ali is still on the front burners. Jim Brown is doing a lot of good things. It was an incredible period of consciousness, consciousness-raising, a period when you couldn’t hide.”
For Gibson, a black man raised during the Jim Crow era, the events of that summer ignited a fire that burned inside of him. And he channeled its heat into every pitch he threw.
On April 4, 1968, when King was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, virtually every sports league except baseball stopped play in honor of the slain civil rights leader. Baseball commissioner William Eckert, rather than postpone Opening Day, left it up to the individual teams to decide how they would acknowledge King. Gibson, along with other black players (most notably those on the Pittsburgh Pirates), made it clear he wouldn’t take the field. Only after the holdout did Eckert reschedule the start of the season for the day after King’s funeral.
Gibson didn’t fully understand how deeply he’d been shaken by King’s assassination until he came back to his hotel one night after a game — and ran into an FBI agent standing outside his room. The agent was there in response to death threats sent to Gibson. “[That’s when] he realized how anxious he really was,” Lonnie Wheeler, Gibson’s biographer, told The Undefeated. “He describes the assassination of King as sort of a wave of emotion. It was outrage and anger, hurt, sadness, all of those things. And the emotions were hard for him to sort out after that event.”
In his autobiography, Stranger to the Game, written with Wheeler, Gibson said, “I reeled from the impact of the assassination, the cold-blooded murder of the one man in my lifetime who had been able to capture the public’s attention about racial injustice, break through some of the age-old social barriers and raise the spirits and hopes of black people across the country.”
Tim McCarver, the Cardinals’ catcher, approached Gibson to offer his condolences. “Bob and I had a long conversation, just the two of us in the clubhouse,” he said. “I made a comment that we all grow up with prejudices, and mine was that in Tennessee at the time, Tennessee was about 6 percent Catholic. I said, ‘That was kind of my burden. It wasn’t racism, but it was as close to racism as I could get.’ Bob said, ‘That’s right, and you were white.’ ”
Two months after King’s murder, presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy was shot and killed just after winning the California Democratic primary. An enraged Gibson began pitching with a vengeance. The day after the shooting, he shut out the Houston Astros on three hits. Then he shut out the Atlanta Braves, the Cincinnati Reds, the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates. This was war, and each pitch Gibson threw was a missile.
Was it Kennedy’s assassination that spurred Gibson? It’s impossible to say. But Gibson himself said he pitched better angry. And although his teammates referred to him as affable and humorous, the opposition saw his anger and talent as pure intimidation.
“As a black man, I was a member of a race that had been intimidated by the white man for more than two hundred years, in which time we learned something about the process,” Gibson wrote in Stranger to the Game. “This was apparently disconcerting to many white batters, in particular. They seemed to be much more aware of my color than I was of theirs.”
With his shutout of the Pirates on June 26, Gibson had strung together 47 consecutive scoreless innings. In his next start, against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, he faced Don Drysdale, who weeks earlier had set the all-time regular season mark at 58 2/3. Gibson’s chase of Drysdale ended abruptly in the first inning when Gibson threw a wild pitch that nicked off backup catcher Johnny Edwards’ glove, scoring Len Gabrielson from third. Gibson went on to win the game, 5-1, but the streak was over.
In the clubhouse after the game, Gibson’s comments to the press spoke volumes about his loose presence in the clubhouse — and the angst that boiled inside of him.
“It was the catcher’s fault,” he joked. “He loused it up.”
“Forget it,” the team’s center fielder, Curt Flood, said. “If it wasn’t the wild pitch, you’d have found some other way to louse it up.”
“Did you throw a spitter?” the left fielder, Lou Brock, said, cracking up the players and reporters alike.
But the press continued to prod Gibson. Did you feel any pressure trying to maintain the scoreless streak?
“Pressure?” Gibson said. “Call it aggravation. I face more pressure every day just being a Negro.”
Growing up in the Logan Fontenelle housing project in Omaha, Nebraska, Gibson learned early on that racism came from all directions. In his autobiography, he recalls how, being a black kid, he couldn’t play on the baseball team at Omaha Technical High School. Blocked from his chosen sport, he took up basketball. But even after proving his worth on the court, and having every reason to believe he’d be admitted to Indiana University, he discovered that the college had already met its quota of black players: one. When Creighton University, the local Jesuit school, offered him a basketball scholarship — the first it had ever given to a black student — Gibson took it. He returned the favor by breaking every Creighton scoring record before graduating in 1957.
Gibson’s father died before he was born. Josh, the eldest of the family’s seven children, became a surrogate father, training Bob as an athlete and, to some extent, as a person. Josh himself had been no stranger to bigotry. Even with a master’s degree in history, he’d been denied the opportunity to become a high school teacher in Omaha — and thus developed a justified chip on his shoulder. By the time he coached his younger brother’s all-black American Legion Baseball team, which traveled to small towns throughout the Midwest, a hardened Josh wouldn’t stand for mistreatment from anyone.
“On one of their trips,” said Wheeler, “their hosts, being hospitable, would give the [players] watermelon after the game. In one instance, they noticed that the parents and townsfolk were standing back, taking pictures of them — until Josh told everybody to stop. And he said, ‘We’re not eating this watermelon unless you can give us forks.’ Of course, none of the kids had ever eaten watermelon with a fork. But from then on, that was the standard: When the town served them watermelon, it had to be accompanied by a fork or they were having none of it.”
Coming out of college, Gibson was still unsure which sport to pursue, and he signed with the Harlem Globetrotters and the St. Louis Cardinals. He finally chose baseball and broke into the majors in 1959, playing for manager Solly Hemus. To “motivate” his black players, the bigoted Hemus freely hurled racial epithets at them, and demeaned Gibson’s intellect by telling his pitcher not to bother attending pregame strategy meetings.
Third baseman Mike Shannon spent nine years in the majors, each of them alongside Gibson. Shannon, who is white, was raised in Missouri and got his first taste of Jim Crow in the late 1950s as a minor leaguer in Albany, Georgia. “Man, I was shocked when I got down there,” Shannon says now. “I had never seen drinking fountains that said black and white. The indignity of it was terrible. You had to be blind if you didn’t see the indignity that black players had to live with — it was that blatant.”
In 1968 — despite playing for a new manager, the broad-minded Red Schoendienst — Gibson hadn’t forgotten the abuse he’d been dealt. He didn’t speak out in the way Ali or Brown did, but he contributed to the civil rights struggle the best way he could: by excelling on the baseball diamond.
“Everyone doesn’t fight the battle the same way,” Spivey said. “For many black athletes, their civil rights platform was the field. Once you appreciate that, you can appreciate a Satchel Paige, a Joe Louis, a Jesse Owens, a Bob Gibson, who have their way of making their own statement. And I think Gibson did it brilliantly on the mound.”
The 1968 Cardinals picked up where they had left off the previous season when they rode Gibson’s three complete-game victories against the Red Sox to a World Series title. Besides championing the team on the mound, Gibson led it in the clubhouse. His best friend on the Cardinals was Flood, who is perhaps best known for suing the league over the reserve clause, which kept a player bound to his team unless he was traded or sold. (Flood argued that the clause violated the 13th Amendment, which barred slavery and involuntary servitude.) In the book The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns, Flood said of the Cardinals, “The men of that team were as close to being free of racist poison as a diverse group of twentieth-century Americans could possibly be. … The initiative in building that spirit came from black members of the team, especially Bob Gibson.”
What Gibson helped create was an atmosphere where players openly shared grievances. It didn’t hurt that the team was well-integrated: There were six nonwhite players in its starting lineup (including Gibson); the rest of the league was nearly three-quarters white. Plus, the Cardinals’ core players had been together since the early 1960s, when baseball teams, in Florida for spring training, were beginning to defy Jim Crow laws that called for segregated housing. In 1962, Cardinals owner Gussie Busch leased a motel in St. Petersburg to house his entire team under one roof. As a result, Cardinals players of all races dined together, socialized together and got to know each other’s families.
“They were very uncommon in how they responded to racial issues in that day and age,” Wheeler said. “The black and white players always spoke about racial topics. If there was a difference of opinion, they aired it in the clubhouse and hashed it out. Gibson was a touchstone for that. He and Bill White would confront people who said something offensive. Those things would be reported to him — even by white players, sometimes. So everybody had a stake in that attitude, that mentality of the Cardinals.”
No member of the Cardinals benefited more from that camaraderie than Gibson himself. Said Wheeler, “To the extent that he was an angry black man, knowing that his teammates were all with him through those times floated his boat.”
“We had our own little family,” Shannon recalled. “We got along fantastic. At night you’d go out and have dinner or go to have some drinks and there’d be 10 or 15 guys. There wasn’t any black and there wasn’t any white. There was in society, but not with that team.”
McCarver agrees. “No question about it,” he said. “It was racial harmony at its best, at its apex. It was fabulous all the way around. That was the way we elected to run our ballclub. Curt Flood and I were the captains of the team, and that’s the way we were. In those days, it was not a given, believe me.”
The dialogue that McCarver and Gibson had begun after King’s assassination, the one about civil rights and race relations, continued throughout the 1968 season. “We went on to talk and talk and talk,” McCarver said. “We talked for the rest of the year, after every start, before every start, and in between every start. We had a lot in common. We were baseball players; Bob was educated, and I was trying to get educated.”
By the time Gibson stood on the mound at Busch Stadium in Game 1 of the ’68 World Series, he was so on top of his game that the Tigers didn’t stand a chance — despite a lineup loaded with great hitters.
Gibson struck out six of the first seven Tigers and struck out the side twice. He had a 4-0 lead when he took the mound in the ninth inning — familiar territory for a workhorse who’d thrown 28 complete games that season. After giving up a single to Tigers shortstop Mickey Stanley to start the inning, Gibson faced the heart of the order: Al Kaline, Norm Cash and Willie Horton — a murderer’s row with 71 homers during the regular season. After going two-and-two on Kaline, he struck him out on a fastball. Seconds later, a thunderous cheer rang out from the crowd. McCarver stepped in front of the plate and pointed with his gloved hand at something behind Gibson’s head. Gibson turned and looked for a second, and then yelled for McCarver to throw him the ball. What he didn’t see, or care to acknowledge, was the sign on the scoreboard announcing that he’d just struck out his 15th batter, tying Sandy Koufax’s World Series record.
Gibson took the ball and got back to business, striking out Cash on a two-two slider and freezing Horton with a picture-perfect curve that broke along the inside corner for strike three. The game was over, and Gibson’s 17-strikeout masterpiece was inked into the record books.
The Cardinals, however, would wind up losing the Series in seven games. Gibson won the first and fourth but lost the decisive seventh on a rare misplay by Flood, a Gold Glove center fielder. Still, his 1968 season is talked about as perhaps the greatest of the modern era.
In 1975, Gibson retired after 17 years in the big leagues. He walked away with a 251-174 record, 3,117 strikeouts and a 2.91 ERA. He won the Cy Young and MVP awards in 1968, took home another Cy Young in 1970 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1981. He now lives in Omaha and didn’t respond to interview requests.
“When you’re there on the mound, it’s the loneliest place in the world,” Spivey said. “You have the perfect opportunity to be great or to be a flop. In a World Series game, the whole world is watching you to see which way you go. You’re going to be great or you’re going to be a flop.
“And the thing about Gibson? He chose greatness.”