This week’s Blast From the Past continues with the series on the baseball career of St. Louis Cardinals legend Bob Gibson. Last week’s segment ended with the World Series Championship of 1964. Gibson was instrumental in leading that Cardinals team to the top, winning Games 5 and 7 as the starting (and only) pitcher.
Gibson’s career began with the racially troubled relationship between manager Solly Hemus and the black players on the team. Hemus was replaced mid-season in 1961 with Johnny Keane. Keane had a much better relationship with Gibson and the pitcher flourished under his guidance.
Keane resigned immediately after the 1964 World Series and was replaced by former Cardinal second baseman Red Schoendienst. Schoendienst had spent his prime years as a player with St. Louis but was traded to the New York Giants in 1956. After a year, he was dealt to the Milwaukee Braves. After a bout with tuberculosis in the 1958-59 offseason in which his baseball career was assumed to be over, Schoendienst returned to play baseball with the Braves but was released at the end of the 1960 season. He returned to the Cardinals in 1961 and spent the next three seasons as a player-coach. In 1965, Schoendienst took over as St. Louis’ manager.
The Cardinals as a team struggled for the next two seasons following the 1964 championship. Gibson, however, pitched well and blossomed. He won 20 games in 1965 and 21 games in 1966 and made the National League All-Star team both years. Gibson also won the first two of his nine Gold Glove Awards in those seasons.
In 1967, the offense was led by a group that included Orlando Cepeda, who won the NL Most Valuable Player Award. Gibson was joined by future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, who debuted as a 20-year old with the Cardinals two years earlier and became a regular in the rotation by 1967. By mid-season the Cardinals had a 3 ½ game lead over the San Francisco Giants. On July 15, Gibson was hit on the leg by a line drive off the bat of Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Gibson continued to pitch to three more hitters before his right fibula snapped just above the ankle. The injury could have been season-ending, but Gibson returned to pitching on September 7 in a game against the New York Mets. Gibson started five games in September, winning three.
The Cardinals won the NL pennant by 10 ½ games over the Giants as Gibson finished with a record of 13-7. St. Louis met the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 World Series. Gibson started and won Games 1, 4 and 7 and was named World Series MVP. Gibson pitched all nine innings of the three games and allowed only three runs in total. He allowed only three hits in Game 7 and struck out 10. He also hit a home run in the fifth inning as the Cardinals took the series finale by a score of 7-2.
1968 became known as “The Year of the Pitcher”, with Gibson as the star of the show. Gibson threw 28 complete games, which included 13 shutouts. He led the NL with 268 strikeouts and finished with a record of 22-9. His most astounding feat, however, was his season ERA of 1.12. This set a major league record and was the lowest ERA of any pitcher since the Deadball Era. This record has never been broken. Gibson capped off his record-breaking season with the first of his two Cy Young Awards and also won the NL MVP award.
Major League Baseball decided to lower the pitching mound after the 1968 season to 10 inches from 15 inches, and it has been said Gibson’s dominance was the driving force behind this decision. Whether this is true is up for debate.
The Cardinals won the 1968 pennant by nine games over the Giants and played the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. Gibson set another record by striking out 17 batters in Game 1 to set a World Series record that remains to this day. Gibson won Game 4 over Tigers pitcher Denny McLain, who he also bested in the opener. Gibson pitched Game 7 against Mickey Lolich but unfortunately lost that contest and the series to the Tigers. A two-run triple off Gibson by Jim Northrup went over the head of center fielder Curt Flood in the seventh inning, leading the Cardinals to a heartbreaking defeat.
1969 was a low point for the Cardinals as the season began with labor troubles. Talk of a player’s strike over salaries led to low morale and a season that ended with the Cardinals dropping to fourth place in the newly created NL East Division. Gibson won 20 games that year, however. He led the league in complete games with 28 and played in his fifth consecutive All Star game.
Gibson won his second Cy Young Award in 1970 after posting a 23-7 record. This was the last season Gibson would win at least 20 games. The team finished in fourth place in the NL East for the second season in a row and had a losing record of 76-86. Center fielder Curt Flood had been traded to the Philadelphia Phillies at the end of the 1969 season but refused to report, leading to a prolonged legal battle with Major League Baseball that would eventually spark the beginning of player free agency. Gibson also lost his catcher and friend, Tim McCarver, in the Flood trade.
The years 1965-70 were the pinnacle of Gibson’s career. The next and final five years of his career would have some bright spots, but his decline was inevitable.
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