On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)
NEXT BOOK: Once More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader, by Roger Angell.
This long essay could be counted as a New Yorker profile of Bob Gibson, pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1959 to 1975. Gibson was, famously, a very prickly individual with the press, and damn near unhittable as a pitcher. He had 17 strikeouts in a single World Series game. I am sure there are more fabulous stats out there, but I am not a sabermetrics aficionado (I wish I was – my brother and sister could rattle off a bunch of stats automatically). But the 17 strikeouts certainly sticks in the mind as an almost otherworldly accomplishment.
Gibson did not like talking with the press, or with members of other teams. Or even with members of his own team. He expressed discomfort with All-Star Games because he had to suddenly be teammates with guys he would pitch to a week later, and he didn’t want to be friends with them, he didn’t want to get close to them. He was an intimidating monster on the mound. Everyone talks about how frightening he was, and how scary/unforgettable it was to face off with him. I love his gravity-defying follow through. It’s like an attack.
Continuing on with his obsession with pitchers, Angell wanted to know more about Bob Gibson, as a player and a man. Gibson did not have a cozy relationship with the press. He would answer questions bluntly, without the ingratiating quality that many expected (and there was probably a lot of unconscious racism in the reaction to Gibson’s arrogant demeanor as well). At one press conference after a game, Gibson was asked if he was “surprised” that the pitch he threw at one point ended up closing out the inning – or something like that – and Gibson’s reply was: “I am never surprised by anything I do.”
Why a bunch of baseball writers would be shocked, SHOCKED, by a pitcher who had an arrogant personality, I don’t know.
Listen, this isn’t Sesame Street. This is competitive sports.
Baseball is a team sport, but being a pitcher is a different sort of position. It can be seen as a big mystery to those of us who do not pitch at a major league level (which means the most of us), but that’s why Angell is obsessed with it, especially those who are masters at it, like Bob Gibson. Angell wanted to get to the heart of this very “distant” man. What made him tick? How did HE think about pitching? How did HE analyze what he did?
It’s an extremely lengthy essay (written in 1980, when Gibson was retired and living back in his hometown of Omaha, where he owned a restaurant). Angell goes into Gibson’s career, the impressive stats, the crazy talent. He talks to teammates, to get a line on who he was as a pitcher, what it was that made him HIM. (And that’s part of the excerpt today. I love it when athletes talk about each other.) And then Angell went out to Omaha and spent a week with Bob Gibson, following him around, talking, observing.
It’s a glorious essay. Here’s just a short excerpt.
Once More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader, ‘Distance’, by Roger Angell
In the next week or two, I mentioned my forthcoming trip to some friends of mine – good baseball fans, all of them – and noticed that many of them seemed to have forgotten Bob Gibson’s eminence and élan, if, indeed, they had even been aware of them. In the history of the game, it seemed, as in his playing days, he already stood a little distance from the crowd, a little beyond us all. But then I talked about Gibson with some players – old teammates or opponents of his – and they responded more warmly.
Pete Rose, who talks in the same runaway-taxi style in which he runs bases, said, “I’m always afraid I’ll forget some pitcher when I start rating them, because I’ve faced so many of them. I started out against people like Warren Spahn, you know. But the best pitcher I ever batted against was Juan Marichal, because he threw so many goddam different kinds of good pitches against you. The hardest thrower of them all was Sandy Koufax, and the greatest competitor was Bob Gibson. He worked so fast out there, and he always had the hood up. He always wanted to close his own deal. He wasn’t no badman, but he never talked to you, because he was battling you so hard. I sure as hell don’t miss batting against him, but I miss him in the game.”
Billy Williams, now a coach for the Cubs, who hit four hundred and twenty-six home runs during his sixteen years with that team and two years with the Oakland A’s, told me, “Bob Gibson always got on with it. He didn’t stand around out there and look around the park, you know. You always got the same message from him: ‘Look, I’m goin’ to throw this pitch and either you hit it or I get your ass out.’ You like a guy like that. The infielders were never on their heels out there behind him. Everyone’s on their toes, and it’s a better game for everybody. I used to love the afternoon games at Wrigley Field when Gibby pitched against our Fergie Jenkins, because you could always plan something early for that evening. They hurried. Gibby was as serious as anybody you ever saw, and you had to be ready at all times. There was hitters that tried to step out on him, to break his pace, but if you did that too often he’d knock you down. He let you know who was out there on the mound. Made himself felt. He never let up, even on the hottest days there in St. Louis, which is the hottest place in the world. Just walked out there in the heat and threw the ball past people.”
Tim McCarver said, “He was an intimidating, arrogant-looking athlete. The arrogance he projected toward batters was fearsome. There was no guile in his pitching, just him glaring down at that batter. He wanted the game played on his own terms. He worked very fast, and that pace was part of his personality on the mound, part of the way he dominated the game. One of the things he couldn’t stand was a catcher coming out there to talk to him. In my first full year with the Cardinals, when I was only twenty-one years old, our manager was Johnny Keane, who was a fanatic about having a catcher establish communications with his pitcher. So I’d get a signal from Keane that meant ‘Go on out there and settle him down,’ but then I’d look out and see Hoot glaring in at me.” McCarver laughed and shook his head. “Well, sometimes I’d walk out halfway, to try to appease both parties!”
McCarver is an intimate friend of Bob Gibson’s, and he told me that Gibson was much the same off the field as on the mound. “Bob is relatively shy,” he said. “He’s a nice man, but he’s quiet. He doesn’t enjoy small talk. He doesn’t like to waste his time with anything that’s weak or offhand. He wants to deal from strength all the time. That’s why he projects this uppity-black-man figure that so many people in baseball seem to hate. He’s very proud, you know, and he had a ghetto upbringing, so you could understand why he was so sensitive to bigotry – up to a point. But we have a great relationship – me, a kid from Memphis, Tennessee, and him, an elegant, black man from Omaha. Any relationship you get into with Bob is going to be intense. He’s a strong man, with strong feelings.”
Joe Torre, the manager of the New York Mets, who played with Gibson from 1969 to 1974, is also a close friend. When I called on him late in June, in the clubhouse at Shea Stadium, and told him I was about to go west to visit Gibson, he beckoned me over to a framed photograph on one wall of his office. The picture shows the three friends posing beside a batting cage in their Cardinal uniforms, Torre, a heavy-faced man with dark eyebrows and a falsely menacing appearance, and McCarver, who has a cheerful, snub-nosed Irish look to him, are both grinning at the photographer, with their arms around the shoulders of Bob Gibson, who is between them; it’s impossible to tell if Gibson is smiling, though, because his back is turned to the camera. “That says it all,” Torre said. “He alienated a lot of people – most of all the press, who didn’t always know what to make of him. He has this great confidence in himself: ‘Hey, I’m me. Take me or leave me.’ There was never any selling of Bob Gibson. He’s an admirable man. On the mound, he had very tangible intangibles. He had that hunger, that killer instinct. He threw at a lot of batters but not nearly as many as you’ve heard. But he’d never deny it if you asked him. I think this is great. There’s no other sport except boxing that has such a hard one-on-one confrontation as you get when a pitcher and a hitter go up against each other. Any edge you can get on the hitter, any doubt you can put in his mind, you use. And Bob Gibson would never give up that edge. He was your enemy out there. I try to teach this to our pitchers. The more coldness, the more mystery about you, the more chance you have of getting them out.
“I played against him before I played with him, and either way he never talked to you. Never. I was on some All-Star teams with him, and even then he didn’t talk to you. There was one in Minnesota, when I was catching him and we were ahead 6-5, I think, in the ninth. I’m catching, and Tony Oliva, a great hitter, is leading off, and Gibby goes strike one, strike two. Now I want a fastball up and in, I think to myself, and maybe I should go out there and tell him this – tell him, whatever he does, not to throw it down and in to Oliva. So I go out and tell him, and Gibby just gives me that look of his. Doesn’t say a word. I go back and squat down and give him the signal – fastball up and in – and he throws it down and in, and Oliva hits it for a double to left center. To this day, I think Gibby did it on purpose. He didn’t want to be told anything. So then there’s an infield out, and then he strikes out the last two batters, of course, and we win. In the shower, I say, ‘Nice pitching,’ and he still doesn’t say anything to me. Ask him about it.”
Torre lit a long cigar, and said, “Quite a man. He can seem distant and uncaring to some people, but he’s not the cold person he’s been described as. There are no areas between us where he’s withdrawn. Things go deep with him. I miss talking with him during the season, and it’s my fault, because I’m always so damn busy. He doesn’t call me, because he never wants to make himself a pain in the ass to a friend. But he is my friend. The other day, I got a photograph of himself he’d sent me, and he’d signed it ‘Love, Bob.’ How many other ballplayers are going to do that? How many other friends?”
Most ballplayers who are discussing a past rival or a teammate go directly to the man’s craft – what pitches he could hit, his arm, his range afield, or (with pitchers) his stuff and what he threw when the count was against him. But I had begun to notice that the baseball people talking about Bob Gibson all seemed anxious to get at something deeper; Gibson the man was even more vivid and interesting to them than Gibson the great pitcher. Bill White, the well-known TV and radio announcer with the Yankees, played first base behind Gibson with the Cards for seven years, and was then traded to the Phillies and had to play against them. “He was tough and uncompromising,” White told me. “Koufax and Dan Drysdale were just the same, with variations for their personalities – they had that same hard state of mind. But I think a great black athlete is sometimes tougher in a game, because every black has had it tough on the way up. Any black player who has a sense of himself, who wants to make something of himself, has something of Bob Gibson’s attitude. Gibson has a chip on his shoulder out there – which was good. He was mean enough. He had no remorse. I remember when he hit Jim Ray Hart on the shoulder – he was bending away from a pitch – and broke his collarbone. Bob didn’t say anything to him. I’d been his rookie for a while on the Cards, but the first time I batted against him, when I went over to the Phillies, he hit me in the arm. It didn’t surprise me at all.”
And, once again, Mike Shannon: “I think every superior athlete has some special motivation. With Bob Gibson, it wasn’t that he wanted to win so much as that he didn’t want to lose. He hated to lose. He just wouldn’t accept it.”