It’s been a terrible month for St. Louis Cardinals greats. A month ago we lost Lou Brock to multiple myeloma (a blood and bone cancer) at age 81. Last Friday Bob Gibson lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. There’s much sadness in St. Louis, a great baseball town with a long list of great players and more World Series titles than any team save the New York Yankees.
Brock batted .293 with 3, 023 hits in 19 seasons in the bigs. And on his way to Cooperstown the whippet-fast Brock stole everything but the rosin bags and the stadium turnstiles. He set a single season MLB record for stolen bases at 118 in 1974. Walking or giving up a single to Brock so often equated to giving him a double, sometimes a triple. Brock’s record was the more impressive as he set it at age 35. The record stood until his record-pilfering performance was overtaken by Rickey Henderson.
But Brock’s value to the Cardinals could not be measured by numbers alone. He was a great energizer. It would be hard for Cardinal teammates not to give their A-games around a sparkplug like Lou. And he was at his best on baseball’s biggest stage. He batted over .400 in both the 1967 and 1968 World Series, with seven stolen bags in both Series.
In addition, by all reports Lou was a prince of a fellow, a positive clubhouse presence. After his baseball career, Lou, originally from a sharecropper’s family in Arkansas, stayed in St. Louis where he was successful in several businesses and became an ordained minister.
Bob Gibson was one of the most dominating and intimidating pitchers in the history of the game. His 1968 season, when he posted a minuscule 1.12 ERA (do not adjust your computer — that number is correct) and threw 13 shutouts, remains about the limit of what a Major League pitcher can do. His efforts that year netted him one of the two Cy Young awards that he won during his career as well as the Most Valuable Player award. Gibson won the first game of that year’s World Series while striking out 17, a World Series record that still stands. One of the peculiarities of Gibson’s monster season was how he managed to lose nine games while allowing only a run per game. The answer to that puzzle is the 1968 Cardinals were weak on offense, batting only .249 as a team with an anemic total of 73 home runs. Gibson’s loses tended to be 1-0 or 2-1.
From what I’ve read from Gibson’s teammates, he could be affable and relaxed enough on the days he wasn’t pitching, even displaying a fine sense of humor. Dr. Jekyll. But Mr. Hyde took over on the days he pitched. In the dictionary next to the entry for “intensity” there’s just a picture of Gibson standing on the mound with the ball in his hand and a scowl on his face. Gibson at work in Cardinal red got exactly zero votes for Miss Congeniality. He was so intense on game days he wouldn’t talk to anybody, not even his own teammates.
Gibson’s hard fastball and wicked slider, along with a willingness to back batters off the plate, made him about the least favorite pitcher for batters to have to face. Internet sports sites are full of anecdotes from former players admitting how they hated to face him. One of the more amusing comes from Hall of Famer Tony Perez, whose wife attended many of the games Tony played in. He said she so hated to watch him face Gibson that when Tony came up and Gibson was on the mound she would go to the ladies’ room so as not to see the encounter.
In addition to wicked pitches, Gibson brought a game-day game-face that clearly communicated to hitters that for the duration of the game they were his mortal enemies and they should expect no slack from him. They didn’t get any. In his defense, Gibson said after his playing days that he wasn’t really making faces at hitters. He said he just really needed glasses, which he never wore on game day, in order to see the catcher’s signs. It’s probably just as well that batters who had to face him didn’t know this. But he saw well enough to catch enough of the plate to strike out more than 3,000 batters while winning 251 games for the Cardinals and finishing with a fine 2.91 lifetime ERA. He won 20 or more games in five separate seasons. One of his qualities appreciated by both fans and his teammates was the fact that he worked fast. No fiddling around on the mound between pitches. He wanted the ball back and the sign down so he could deliver again with no lingering about. Calling a Gibson game one night the great announcer Vin Scully said, “Gibson pitches like he’s double parked.” Just so.
If the Baseball Hall of Fame had an elite inner circle of superstars, sort of Hall of Famers plus, these two fine players and real gents would belong in it.
RIP Lou and Bob. Thanks for the great memories.
(To share in some of these memories, go to this link.)