RIP Bob Gibson: Appreciation Of A Total Badass

Bob Gibson is dead. The legendary St. Louis Cardinals pitcher passed away Friday night of pancreatic cancer at the age of 84.

Bob Gibson.

For a baseball fan of a certain vintage, the name said it all. You knew exactly what and who you were dealing with.

When we were kids, baseball was everything. Sure, there was football, and basketball, and even hockey when it got cold enough to ice up the streams and ponds. But baseball carried us from the chill of early spring, when the bat would sting like hell right up your arms when you got jammed inside, well into autumn, when the leaves turned brilliant reds and oranges, and the sounds of the World Series would crackle from the transistor radio a classmate had hidden inside a fat old book into which he’d carved out a perfect radio shaped hole like Andy Dufresne’s rock hammer bible in Shawshank.

We’d play little league until school let out, and then in the summer on our own, in schoolyards, or makeshift diamonds in vacant lots. All day long, all summer long. In Jersey, most of us were either Yankee or Met fans, with a few other teams thrown in. Pirates, Giants (someone would invariably and hilariously attempt to imitate Juan Marichal’s leg kick), Cubs, Orioles or even the odd Red Sox fan.

We’d emulate our heroes. “I’m Mickey Mantle.” “I’m Tom Seaver.” And so on.

I don’t remember anybody saying “I’m Bob Gibson,” and I don’t know if that was because we were all white kids. I do remember people invoking Willie Mays, Willie Stargell, and Hank Aaron, so that likely was not the reason.

In retrospect, I think very few of us kids tried to “be” Bob Gibson because no one in our circle had the audacity, the presumption, to be that much of a badass.

Because Bob Gibson was a total, otherworldly kind of badass. And just like the big leaguers competing against him, we all felt his influence. It was unspoken, but visceral, an understood part of playing baseball. Yes, we’re talking about the “unwritten rules of baseball” that are so dismissed and ridiculed by recent generations. 

We all knew, even in our little summertime games, that if we pulled certain stunts, we’d pay the price. If you crowded the plate, if you made a show of digging in too hard, if you pointed the bat out to center field like you were the Babe himself, if you showboated around the bases after knocking one into the old lady’s yard next to the school, the next time you came up, you knew it was coming. A first-pitch fastball right in the ribs. Or as we got older, a little chin music. Why? You knew why. It was simple. It was payback for being a jerk. 

I know. OK boomer, man yells at cloud meme, whatever. This was baseball. It was competition. And it was the influence of guys like Bob Gibson. Gibby wasn’t alone in this regard. Don Drysdale of the Dodgers comes to mind, and Seaver, who also recently passed away. There were others, many others, fierce competitors who never gave an inch, who showed no quarter and expected none in return.

Speaking of the Dodgers, guys like Joe Kelly. These days, when the conventional, acceptable mode of thought is to be shocked and disgusted over Kelly pitching “just a tad inside” like he did against the Astros, you know there were old-school, long time baseball fans silently doing the fist pump for Joe Kelly, whether they liked him or the Dodgers or not.

Because Kelly was standing up for baseball, and for guys like Bob Gibson.

For a much more eloquently expressed examination of Gibson’s life and career, read this piece by Roger Angell from the Sept. 22, 1980 edition of the New Yorker. (Subscription required, but you can probably catch it as a freebie.) It’s worth the time.

Written by Steve Miller

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  1. His Hall of Fame plaques says it all: FIVE TIME 20-GAME WINNER. HIS 3,117
    STRIKEOUTS MADE HIM ONLY 2ND PITCHER TO
    REACH 3,000. FIRST TO FAN 200 OR MORE IN
    A SEASON 9 TIMES. SET N.L. MARK WITH 1.12
    ERA IN 1968, HURLING 13 SHUTOUTS. TWICE
    WORLD SERIES MVP, SETTING RECORDS FOR
    CONSECUTIVE VICTORIES (7), CONSECUTIVE
    COMPLETE GAMES (8), AND STRIKEOUTS IN A
    GAME (17) AND A SERIES (35). VOTED N.L.
    MVP IN 1968 AND CY YOUNG AWARD WINNER IN
    1968 AND 1970. WON NINE GOLD GLOVE AWARDS.

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