Lots has been written since Bob Gibson’s passing on Friday at age 84. That’s what happens when baseball loses an all-time great, even more so when said great carries a reputation like Gibson’s. The guy was a flag-bearer for the pitcher-as-intimidator mindset, standing alongside Don Drysdale as the most ferocious competitors of his generation in this regard, to the point that it has, to varying degrees, obscured what a brilliant pitcher he actually was.
In researching The Baseball Codes—a book with chapters on both intimidation and retaliation—Gibson’s name came up repeatedly in interviews. “Oh, definitely, Gibson was mean,” longtime shortstop and current Astros coach Chris Speir told me in one representative comment. “Oh, hell yeah. I think Gibson was probably, overall, the meanest.” (Speier hit .132 against him in 42 career at-bats.)
When it comes to Gibson’s legacy, however, the distinction that must be drawn is one of motivation. The man did not drill players for the sake of the thing—that would have nothing to do with winning, he said. In fact, Gibson not only never led the big leagues in HBPs, he finished among the top-10 only five times—only once within the top five—and is tied for 85th all time in the category.
Gibson’s was a strategic bullying, far more reliant on knockdowns than HBPs. His general philosophy went like this: the outer half of the plate belonged to him. The right-hander would allow hitters to make their livings on the inner portion, but the moment that they began to crowd him, or leaned to reach pitches on the outside corner, his response was assured. Inside pitches would back them away. Should a leaning hitter get drilled in the process, so be it. “It was a matter of doing what was necessary to get the batter out,” he once said. “If that made me mean, then what the hell, I guess I was mean.”
Take Bill White, a teammate on the Cardinals from 1959 to 1964 and one of Gibson’s best friends in the sport. White was traded to Philadelphia in 1965, and in his first at-bat against Gibson, the left-hander leaned across the plate to pull an outside offering sharply down the first base line, just foul. With his next pitch, Gibson drilled him in the elbow.
After Duke Snider homered after leaning to reach to an outside pitch at the LA Coliseum in 1961, Gibson brushed him back in his following at-bat, and ended up breaking his elbow. Snider missed more than a month. “As far as I was concerned, he had named the tune and there was no need to apologize,” Gibson said later.”
The pitcher went into great detail about his philosophy in his book, Stranger to the Game, which came out in 1994 (and which now sells for absurd prices on Amazon and eBay). “It was said that I threw, basically, five pitches—fastball, slider, curve, change-up, and knockdown,” he wrote. “I don’t believe that assessment did me justice, though. I actually used about nine pitches—two different fastballs, two sliders, a curve, change-up, knockdown, brushback, and hit-batsman.”
An event that helped to cement Gibson’s reputation as a head-hunter came with the first pitch he threw to the first batter he faced in St. Louis’ first spring training game of 1968. It was against the Mets, and Tommie Agee was batting leadoff in his debut as a National Leaguer after being acquired from the White Sox, with whom he had stolen 72 bases over the previous two seasons. Gibson hit Agee in the head, a warning, said many of those in attendance, for the bright young star to mind his manners in his new environs. Agee was carted off on a stretcher.
Gibson addressed the moment in Stranger to the Game, writing: “I didn’t apologize for the scare—that wasn’t my style—but the fact is, I had no reason or desire whatsoever to hit Tommie Agee on the first pitch of the spring. If I’d wanted to hit him, or anybody, I wouldn’t have aimed at the head. It’s strange how stories circulate, but the newspapers made quite a to-do about the incident, surmising that it was my bullyish manner of introducing myself to the new kid on the block. What a crock. The story has taken on greater proportions as the years pass, becoming a popular tale to describe what a surly, unforgiving son of a bitch Bob Gibson was on the mound.”
That wasn’t entirely true. Longtime big leaguer and longer-time coach Dave Nelson relayed a slightly different version of the story.
“I’ve often talked to Bob about this, because Bob is a buddy of mine,” Nelson said in an interview for The Baseball Codes. “Gibby told me, ‘I didn’t want to hit him in the head, but I was going to drill him just to let him know that he ain’t coming over here to steal all these bases off me.’ ”
Whichever version is more accurate, the pitcher’s reputation only grew in the aftermath.
One of Gibson’s opponents, Dodgers outfielder Von Joshua, was intimidated for a different reason. “Jerry Doggett, one of the Dodgers announcers, made a statement on the radio show that Gibson had been accused of throwing at black ballplayers,” he recalled. “He asked Bob if there had been any truth to that, and Gibson said, yeah, it was true—because they were the only ones dumb enough to think they could hit me. So in other words, the white guys were already intimidated, and the black ballplayers thought that they had a chance.” Joshua, an African American, took the message to heart.
My favorite Bob Gibson story has to do with his memory for events that he felt merited response. It doesn’t line up with his intimidation-as-strategy methodology, but it does line up with the rest of his reputation. From The Baseball Codes:
Gibson felt entitled, after giving up a grand slam to Pete LaCock in 1975 [on a pitch he felt should not have been reached], to knock the hitter down. The only problem was that Gibson, two months shy of his fortieth birthday, faced exactly one more batter, left the game … and retired. So, fifteen years later, the Hall of Famer did what he had been unable to do as an active player: When he faced LaCock in an old-timers’ game, he hit him in the back with a pitch. (“Bob Feller was throwing when I came up to the plate,” LaCock recalled. “All of a sudden, Gibson comes running out of the dugout and makes his own pitching change. He sends Feller back to the bench and starts warming up, and I’m thinking, he’s not really going to hit me. Sure enough, ﬁrst pitch—whammo.”)
The amazement with which LaCock recounted that story for me, more than a decade after the fact, was apparent. The guy was left in befuddled awe by Gibson, which in that regard, made him just like everybody the great pitcher ever faced.
Gibson’s era is long gone, and with his passing, its principal practitioners nearly are, too. Baseball won’t see his like again.