I came into the world on the day of The Catch. That event, now viewed in grainy black and white, where Willie Mays raced towards the fence to improbably catch the liner that seemed destined to create victory for the Indians. I remember rooting for the Yankees, because I thought they had Yogi Bear playing for them. The images of Dizzy and Pee Wee broadcasting the game of the week, interspersed with advertisements for the Ole Pro and Falstaff beer, remain embedded in my memory.
Thus it is not surprising that in the 1964 season, my allegiances switched from the Yankees to the Cardinals. St. Louis was the team I could follow on an AM radio, switching from the St. Joseph MO station in the daytime, to KMOX in St. Louis when daylight faded. Those were the days when Harry Caray and Jack Buck formed the Cardinals broadcast team, and their prose flavored my formative years. Of all of the Cardinals during those teams of the sixties, the one who stood the highest was Bob Gibson. To receive word of his passing this past week meant that my own mortality was just brought a little bit closer.
How many individuals in any sport were so dominant that they caused the rules of the game to change? Though he was not the only pitcher who shone brightly in 1968, it was his complete dominance that caused the pitching mound to be lowered from 15″ to 10″ in height in 1969. In fact, it was not surprising that he won 22 games in 1968. It was surprising that he lost 9 games that same year. Gibby was undoubtedly the best pitcher in the game, even with McLain winning 30 games that year in the other league.
How fortunate I was in those days. Even though baseball on TV was limited to only Saturday afternoon games, I saw matchups like Koufax and Marichal, Seaver and Gibson, Drysdale and Ferguson Jenkins. Even now I can remember the high leg kick of Marichal and his bewildering variety of pitches. Maybe it is a case of less being more, since back in those days, not having the cable channels feed me a baseball buffet, made me value the games I saw more highly. Now, you look back to the complete game statistics, and number of pitches thrown, and you compare it to the 100 pitch limits seemingly enforced upon all but the very best pitchers of today, and you marvel that those old-timers were able to withstand the rigors of the season without debilitating arm disorders.
But there was little doubt that the fiercest competitor among pitchers was Gibson. You need only look back to July 15, 1967, when Gibson’s leg had a collision with a liner hit by Roberto Clemente (a fierce competitor in his own right). Gibson pitched for 3 more batters, then collapsed. It was discovered that the liner had fractured his fibula. Ironically, the injury only kept him out for a couple of months, and by the time of the World Series in October, he won 3 complete game victories.
When you’ve been a baseball fan for as long as I have, there are many memories that sustain you. I’ve seen the battles between Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the 70’s, the advent of the Big Red Machine in the 70’s, the unbelievable pitching dominance of Atlanta in the late 80’s and 90’s (but only winning one championship among all of that pitching brilliance). Since I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, when the Royals emerged, I became a fan of the grit of George Brett, and the determination of 5’5″ Freddie Patek. I’ve become a fan of the Pirates over the years, even through their 20 year drought of losing teams. But the memories of the Cardinals of the 60’s, and of listening to their games on my transistor radio (remember when they told you how may transistors the radio held?), are still fresh in my memory.
Seeing pictures of those World Series in the 60’s was like visiting a foreign era. All the images were of the daytime, since the World Series was not contaminated by the need for every bit of television revenue. Seeing the mainly male crowd, almost exclusively in white dress shirts and ties, reminds me that it was not so long ago that a different ethos and culture existed then vs. now. But recalling the almost superhuman feats of Bob Gibson, brought back to me the purity of a different age.
I know now that under the surface, the image of baseball would begin to crack. In fact, it was a Cardinal – Curt Flood, who literally opened the floodgates and challenged the legal structure that bound players to teams. Thus came the age of free agency, and the loss of team loyalty, so that today you celebrate the careers of players who spend their entire playing time with a single team. With the need to pay for free agents, came the need to switch to night baseball for the Series, thus forever changing the ability of the kids to follow the events of the Series breathlessly. Even worse, the designated hitter surfaced as an attempt to appeal to the casual fan by increasing offensive stats.
Still, those of us who remember the joys of watching 1-0 games with complete games thrown by both winning and losing pitchers, were brought up short with the death of Bob Gibson.