Hall of Fame Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson dies at 84

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
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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.

“I just heard the news about losing Bob Gibson and it’s kind of hard losing a legend. You can lose a game, but when you lose a guy like Bob Gibson, just hard,” Cardinals star catcher Yadier Molina said. “Bob was funny, smart, he brought a lot of energy. When he talked, you listened. It was good to have him around every year. We lose a game, we lose a series, but the tough thing is we lost one great man.”

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. He didn’t throw as hard as Sandy Koufax, or from as many angles as Juan Marichal, but batters never forgot how he glared at them (or squinted, because he was near-sighted) as if settling an ancient score.

Gibson snubbed opposing players and sometimes teammates who dared speak to him on a day he was pitching, and he didn’t even spare his own family.

“I’ve played a couple of hundred games of tic-tac-toe with my little daughter and she hasn’t beaten me yet,” he once told The New Yorker’s Roger Angell. “I’ve always had to win. I’ve got to win.”

Equally disciplined and impatient, Gibson worked so quickly that broadcaster Vin Scully joked that he pitched as if his car was double-parked.

Ball in hand, he was no nonsense on the hill. And he had no use for advice, scowling whenever catcher Tim McCarver or anyone else thought of visiting the mound.

“The only thing you know about pitching is you can’t hit it,” Gibson was known to say.

His concentration was such that he seemed unaware he was on his way to a World Series single game strikeout record (surpassing Sandy Koufax’s 15) in 1968 until McCarver convinced him to look at the scoreboard.

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.

His 1968 performance, the highlight of the so-called “Year of the Pitcher,” left officials worried that fans had bored of so many 1-0 games. They lowered the mound from 15 to 10 inches in 1969 and shrank the strike zone.

“I was pissed,” Gibson later remarked, although he remained a top pitcher for several years and in 1971 threw his only no-hitter, against Pittsburgh.

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. He knew how to throw strikes and how to aim elsewhere when batters stood too close to the plate.

Hank Aaron once counseled Atlanta Braves teammate Dusty Baker about Gibson.

“Don’t dig in against Bob Gibson; he’ll knock you down,” Aaron said, according to the Boston Globe. “He’d knock down his own grandmother if she dared to challenge him. Don’t stare at him, don’t smile at him, don’t talk to him. He doesn’t like it. If you happen to hit a home run, don’t run too slow, don’t run too fast. If you happen to want to celebrate, get in the tunnel first. And if he hits you, don’t charge the mound, because he’s a Gold Glove boxer.”

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.

“Growing up without a father is a hardship and deprivation that is impossible to measure,” Gibson wrote in “From Ghetto to Glory,” one of a handful of books he published.

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.

His early years with the Cardinals were plagued by tensions with manager Solly Hemus, who openly used racist language and was despised by Gibson and other Cardinals. Hemus was fired in the middle of the 1961 season and replaced, to Gibson’s great fortune, by Keane.

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.

The series was widely regarded as a turning point in baseball history, with the great Yankee dynasty falling the following year and the Cardinals embodying a more modern and aggressive style of play. Keane stuck with Gibson in Game 7 even after the Yankees’ Clete Boyer and Phil Linz homered in the ninth inning and narrowed the Cardinals’ lead to 7-5. He would later say of Gibson, who retired Bobby Richardson on a pop fly to end the series, that he had a commitment to “his heart.”

Gibson was also close to Keane’s successor, Red Schoendienst, who took over in 1965 after Keane left for the Yankees. 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. The final out was especially gratifying; he fanned first baseman George Scott, who throughout the series had been taunting Gibson and the Cards.

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. (“Starvation fare,” Angell would call it).

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.

On a muggy afternoon in St. Louis, facing 31-game winner Denny McLain and such power hitters as Al Kaline – who also died this year – Norm Cash and Willie Horton, he allowed just five hits and walked one in a 4-0 victory. Gibson struck out at least one batter every inning and in the ninth fanned Kaline, Cash and Horton to end with 17, the final pitch a slow breaking ball that left Horton frozen in place.

“I was awed,” Tigers second baseman Dick McAuliffe later said. “He doesn’t remind me of anybody. He’s all by himself.”

In Game 4, Gibson homered as he led the Cards to a 10-1 romp over McLain and 3-to-1 advantage in the series. But the Tigers won the next two and broke through in the finale against Gibson, who had a one-hitter with two out in the seventh inning, and the score 0-0.

Gibson allowed two singles before Flood, a Gold Glove center fielder, misplayed Jim Northrup’s drive to left center and the ball fell, before the warning track, for a two-run triple. The Cardinals lost 4-1 and Gibson would grimace even decades later when asked about the game.

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.

Gibson worried that young people were forgetting about baseball history, and he spoke with dismay about a Cardinal player who knew nothing about Jackie Robinson. But in 2018, Gibson himself was honored when the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra commissioned a rap song in his honor.

The lyrics inspired by “From Ghetto to Glory” – “He was a game changer The complete gamer Throw a pitch so fast It’ll rearrange ya He’s no stranger He’s Bob Gibson been on a mission He changed the game forever The pitcher was his position.”

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.