Home > African-American Culture, Authors/Literature, Baseball, Bob Gibson, Creighton University, Omaha, Omaha Black Sports Legends, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness (a series), Social Justice, Writing > Bob Gibson, A Stranger No More (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)

Bob Gibson, A Stranger No More (from my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness)


Omaha‘s produced many black sports legends, and I’ve had the privilege of meeting, interviewing, and profiling most of them.  Arguably, the biggest name of this group is Bob Gibson, the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher.  The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) introduced me to Gibson, who had agreed to an hour or so interview and thereupon shocked and delighted me when he ended up giving me almost five hours. The occasion for the interview and story was a charitable golf tournament he was starting up.  He had no idea who I was and by rights I had no business getting that much of his time, but I believe he indulged me because, one, he was motivated to get the word out about his new event, and two, I had done my homework, which I assume he respected.  Also, not long before the interview his second autobiography had come out, and so he was probably also interested in promoting that.  He also had me and a photographer over his home for another couple hours.  Whatever the reasons, I’m glad he did share himself with me so generously, as it led to this quite extensive piece and a few others. Look for more Gibson posts. There is a second Gibson story already on the site, entitled “My Brother’s Keeper,” which details the story of how his older brother Josh schooled him to become the great competitor he became. Another, titled “Master of the Mound,” goes into the dominance Bob Gibson displayed out on the field.

 

 

 

Bob Gibson, A Stranger No More

From my Omaha Black Sports Legends series, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness

©by Leo Adam BIga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Homegrown baseball icon Bob Gibson normally shuns the media spotlight. Even during a Hall of Fame pitching career with the St. Louis Cardinals (1959-1975), this sober, wary, intensely private man barely tolerated reporters’ intrusions.

But the Omaha native is letting his guard down now to promote the Bob Gibson All-Star Classic, a June 14 charitable golf tournament at the Quarry Oaks course near Mahoney State Park. The event will benefit two groups he’s long been involved with – the American Lung Association of Nebraska and the Baseball Assistance Team, an organization helping indigent ex-baseball personnel. He serves on BAT’s board of directors.

He will host an impressive array of sports figures and celebrities at Quarry Oaks, including fellow baseball Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Lou Brock, Sandy Koufax and Stan Musial, basketball Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, actor Bill Murray and former NBC sportscaster and Today Show host Bryant Gumbel. He’ll also welcome some high-profile Omaha natives, including former NBA players Bob Boozer and Ron Boone, football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers and world-class investor Warren Buffett.

Gibson’s return to the public arena is apropos given this is the 50th anniversary of the late Jackie Robinson’s breaking of major league baseball’s color barrier.  Growing up in Omaha’s Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects, Gibson idolized Robinson. “Oh man, he was a hero,” he told The Reader. “When Jackie broke in, I was just a kid. He means even more nowthan he did then, because I understand more about what he did” and endured.  When Gibson was at the peak of his career, he met Robinson at a Washington, D.C. fund-raiser, and recalls feeling a deep sense of “respect.”

A baseball-basketball standout at Tech High and Creighton University, Gibson became, in 1957, a two sport pro athlete – playing hardball with the Cardinals’ Triple AAA club in Omaha and hoops with the famed Harlem Globetrotters. After making the St. Louis roster in ’59, he concentrated solely on baseball and within a few years became a premier pitcher.

Gibson was in the forefront of black athletes who, following Robinon’s lead, helped secure African-Americans’ foothold in professional sports.  Like Robinson, he’s distinguished himself as a fiercely proud, highly principled man with, as author David Halberstam put it, a “samurai” sense of honor and duty.

“He has certain beliefs and he sticks with those. He doesn’t waver one way or another in his decision-making. I admired him as a young man and teammate, and I admire him as an individual to this day,” said Jerry Parks, a teammate of Gibson’s at Tech, who today is Omaha’s Parks, Recreation and Public Property Director.

“Not only as a baseball player, but as a man, he’s got a lot of dignity,” said Preston Love, Sr., an Omaha musician who’s known Gibson for years. “He’s really an exquisite man. An elegant man. A class act.  is private life, during and after his years in baseball, has been just exemplary.”

Friends appreciate the fact that Gibson has never left the area or abandoned his roots. He and his wife, Wendy, and their 12-year-old son, Christopher, live in a spacious home in Bellevue’s Fontenelle Hills.

“He didn’t get big-headed and go away and hide somewhere,” said Parks. “He continues to stay in communication with all of his teammates.”

“What I admire about him most is that he’s very loyal to people he likes, and that’s priceless for me,” said Rodney Wead, a close friend. Wead, who grew up with Gibson and became a noted social services director, is president and CEO of Grace Hill Neighborhood Services in St. Louis.

In a recent interview at a mid-town Omaha eatery, Gibson spoke about Robinson’s legacy, about racism in and out of baseball and about his own pitching prowess.  A trim, handsome man of 61, he arrived promptly, sans entourage, dressed in a sweater and slacks. At times he displayed the same no-nonsense, I don’t suffer fools gladly, bluntness of his 1994 autobiography, “Stranger to the Game,” and at other times revealed an engaging, shy congeniality that suits him well.

To Gibson’s dismay, media coverage of the Robinson anniversary has focused on the paucity of blacks filling managerial roles in baseball and not on the larger issue –- that 50 years later blacks continue facing widespread discrimination. He feels it’s hypocritical to make baseball a scapegoat for what’s a systemic problem.

“This is a perfect opportunity for anybody to cleanse their soul through baseball,” he said. “But the problem with racial prejudice goes far beyond baseball. And as soon as this Jackie Robinson thing wears off, everybody’s going right back to where they were before. That’s why when people talk about the lack of black managers and coaches, I just laugh, because we’re talking about a sport where we’re supposedly accepted. But you get into the business world, and we’re not accepted. We’re only able to go so high and then we’re limited to making some lateral movements.”

Gibson’s playing career coincided with the nation’s civil rights struggle, when change in baseball, as everywhere else, came slowly. When he joined the Cardinals the franchise adhered to custom at its spring training complex in St. Petersburg, Fla. by having black and white players stay in separate quarters. By the time Gibson firmly established himself in the early ‘60s, he and his black teammates had begun confronting even the hint of racism head-on, fostering a progressive, tolerant attitude throughout the organization that led the Cardinals to flaunt existing Jim Crow laws.

In his book Gibson describes the camaraderie on the club as “practically revolutionary in the way it cut across racial lines.” Perhaps the best testament to it is his friendship with former Cardinal catcher and present FOX network sportscaster Tim McCarver, a Southern-born and bred white, who credits Gibson with helping him move beyond his bigotry.

Gibson said the brotherhood the Cardinals forged then could be a model for America today, if we only let it: “Just like it happens in sports, it can happen in other aspects of our lives, but people won’t allow it to. They just won’t allow it. A couple of my best friends just happen to be white. Now, I don’t know if I hadn’t been playing baseball if that would be possible. It could be…I don’t know.” He adds the special feeling between him, McCarver and their old teammates “will always be there.”

His St. Louis experience wasn’t always blissful, however. He and his first wife, Charline (with whom he has two grown daughters), were discouraged from moving into predominately white areas during the ‘60s. They met similar resistance in Omaha.

He confronted blatant racism during a brief ‘57 stay with the Cardinal farm team in Columbus, Ga. “I was there for three weeks, but that was a lifetime,” he said. “I’ve tried to erase that, but I remember it like it was yesterday. It opened my eyes a little bit, yeah. You can see movies, you can hear things, but there’s nothing like experiencing it yourself.”

He acknowledges the progress made in and out of baseball, but sees room for improvement: “Some of the problems we faced when Jackie Robinson broke in and when I broke in 10 years later don’t exist, but then a lot of them still do. I think people are a little bit more sophisticated now in their bigotry, but they’re still bigots.”

He cautiously welcomes the recent pledge by acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig to hire more blacks in administrative roles. “I’m always encouraged by some statements like that, yeah. I’d just like to wait and see what happens. Saying it and doing is two different things.”

He’s encouraged too by golfer Tiger Woods’ recent Masters’ triumph. “What’s really great about him being black,” he said, “is that it seems to me white America is always looking for something that black Americans can’t do, and that’s one other thing they can scratch off their list.” Gibson’s All-Star Classic will be breaking down barriers too by bringing a racially mixed field into the exclusive circle of power and influence golf represents.

When the very private Gibson announced he was holding the very public event, it took many people aback. Gibson himself said at a press conference:  “I have never done anything like this before.” “I was as surprised as anyone,” said Wead, “but so pleased.  He has so much to offer.” Why then is he returning to the limelight?  “The golf tournament is not to get back in the public eye,” Gibson elaborated for The Reader. “That’s not what it’s for.” The purpose is “to raise money” for two causes very close to him and do it via an event “unlike any Omaha’s ever seen before.” Efforts to treat and cure lung disease have personal meaning for Gibson, who’s a lifelong asthma sufferer. A past Lung Association board member, he often speaks before groups of young asthma patients.

“I’ve been going around talking to kids with asthma and trying to convince them that you can participate in sports even though you have asthma, as long as you have a doctor who’s on top of everything. The kids listen. They ask questions.  They’re interested. A lot of them are frightened when they’re out running around and they get a little short of breath and don’t quite understand what it’s all about…when, a lot of times, all they need is a little TLC. I think it’s helpful to have somebody there that went through the same thing, and being an ex-baseball player, you get their attention.”

His involvement with BAT dates to its 1986 inception. The organization assists former big league and minor league players, mangers, front office professionals, and even umpires, who are in financial distress.  “Unfortunately, most people think all ex-players are multimillionaires,” Gibson said. “Most are not. Through BAT we try to do what we can to help people of the baseball family.”

Gibson hopes the All-Star Classic raises half-a-million dollars. The event will feature, arguably, the greatest gathering of sports idols in Nebraska, something Gibson takes obvious pride in, but characteristically doesn’t dwell on. An indication of his standing in the sports world is that no one he contacted to participate turned him down, although some have since bowed out due to scheduling conflicts. It promises to be an event befitting a living legend like Gibson, even if he winces at being called one.

But living legend he is. His career marks support it: 251 wins, including 56 shutouts; 3,117 strikeouts; and a lifetime 2.91 ERA. The two-time Cy Young Award winner and perennial All-Star was also a superb fielding and hitting pitcher. His record-setting feats in three World Series earned the admiration, even the awe, of hard-bitten fans, sportswriters and players. He was named Series MVP in ‘64 and ‘67, each time leading the Cardinals to the title.

 

 

 

Then there’s Gibson’s legend-making 1968 season, when he won the Cy Young and MVP awards, threw 13 shutouts and posted the lowest ERA (1.12) in modern baseball history. Many observers consider it the greatest season ever by a pitcher and rank his performance alongside Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Roger Maris’ swatting of 61 homers as an all-time standard. In that Year of the Pitcher, no one was more dominant than Gibson, and baseball’s rulesmakers responded by lowering the mound and shrinking the strike zone to level the playing field.

But statistics alone can’t capture his brilliance. What set him apart, beyond great stuff and superb control, was a fearsome burning intensity.  He exuded a commanding presence on the field unlike anyone else’s. He simply gave no quarter.  His competitiveness was reflected in an inscrutable game-face whose icy glare bore in on batters as ruthlessly as his searing fastballs. He pitched with an attitude. He messed with opponents’ minds.

His book is full of testimonials about the daunting figure he cut on the mound, including this one by Richie Ashburn, the Tilden, Neb.- native and former Philadelphia Phillies great: “…Gibson dominated…with a vengeance that savaged the batters….His fastball was equal to Koufax’s and Ryan’s, and his slider had no equal. And more’s the pity, Gibson was mean on the mound. He had a menacing, glowering intensity that more than occasionally deepened into a sneer. His intimidating demeanor, his lack of concern for the welfare of the hitter, combined with his almost-unhittable pitches, put Gibson in a class by himself.”

Gibson swears his bad-ass persona was not a facade he developed. “No, I didn’t cultivate that. That’s the way people perceived me. It was strictly business with me, and that’s the way it was. They (opponents) saw it some other way, which was fine, and I didn’t do anything to try and defuse it, but just leave it be. If I had known they felt that way, I would have been a lot worse than that. I would have really played the part,” he said, smiling.

His equally sharp, direct manner off the mound, especially with the press, got him saddled with a reputation for being “difficult.” Looking back, he feels he was “respected” by the press, “but not liked,” adding, “I wasn’t concerned whether they liked me or didn’t like me.”

He resents the public’s and media’s expectation that he explain or expose more of himself. It’s why he’s never been interested in managing.

“Well, I don’t think I need to be understood, and that’s the whole thing. Yes, they misunderstood what they saw, not that I was concerned about it. When you’re in the public eye people want to know all about you,…and I’m not so sure it’s their business. But that’s the only time they want to understand you. If you’re not in the public eye, they could care less.”

Wead said Gibson’s occasional aloofness and curtness stems, in part, from an innate reserve: “He’s shy. And therefore he protects himself by being sometimes abrupt…but’s it’s only that he’s always so focused.”
Gibson suspects he’s paid a price for being a black man who’s dared to speak his mind and go his own way. It’s why he chose “Stranger to the Game” as his book’s title. “I’ve found out that people don’t want you to be truthful about most things.  People don’t like honesty. It hurts their feelings. But I don’t know any other way.  I’ve been basically like that all my life – blunt. Definitely.”

It’s an apt description of the way he pitched too. He epitomized the hard-nosed style of his era, a style dictating whenever a batter cheated –- by leaning too far out over the plate – the pitcher felt obligated to throw inside. In classic brushback tradition, Gibson hummed a 95-plus mile per hour dart toward the batter’s ribs, sending the guy bailing out for cover. The idea then or now wasn’t to hit somebody, although a wild pitch occasionally did, but instead make him feel insecure up there. To plant a seed of doubt for the next swing, the next at-bat, the next game. To gain “an edge” in the confrontation with the batter.

“What you want him to think about is the ball inside,” Gibson said. “He can’t look for a ball inside and away at the same time. That’s why you throw in there…to make him think about it. You can actually see guys thinking. They give it away with their body language and everything.”

 

Gibson card

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gibson, who admits to having strong opinions “about everything,” dislikes the “kinder-gentler” version of baseball played today, when the brushback is frowned on.  e said rulesmakers have essentially taken the purpose pitch away from today’s hurlers. To the point that when pitches sail too far inside, fights often ensue and umpires eject offending pitchers and their managers. He said the reason pitchers get lit up for more runs these days isn’t due to lack of talent, but to changes which penalize pitchers and favor hitters (the near ban on brushbacks, the lowered mound, the reduced strike zone, more tightly wound balls, the Designated Hitter, smaller parks).

“They’ve screwed with the game enough where it’s taken away a lot of the effectiveness of pitchers,” he said.

If it was up to him, he’d raise the mound and do away with the DH. Despite its changes, he still savors the game. He even dreams baseball: “Oh, I dream all the time about it,” he said. “It drives me crazy.  I guess I’m going to do that the rest of my life.” After a certain restlessness, he said, he’s grown more “mellow” in retirement –- devoting his energy to hobbies and home improvement projects. He enjoys working with his hands.

Although he’s kept a hand in the game, he’s never found a permanent niche within the baseball establishment. In the ‘80s he served as pitching coach for the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves (each time under current Yankee skipper Joe Torre, a close friend and former teammate) and as an expert commentator for ABC and ESPN. He was a full-time coach with the Cardinals in ‘95, and the past two spring training camps has worked as a special instructor with the club’s pitching staff.  During the season he performs PR duties at special club functions –- “schmoozing” with officials and VIP guests at Busch Stadium.

He also conducts baseball clinics, including one last fall at the Strike Zone, an indoor baseball academy in Omaha. Strike Zone general manager Joe Siwa said Gibson was a hit with participants: “He did a fabulous job working with the pitchers. The kids really enjoyed being around a Hall of Famer. He did a big autograph session afterwards.”

Whether working with Little Leaguers or professionals, Gibson stresses fundamentals. What made him such a successful pitcher? His velocity? Control? Intensity?  “All of those things,” he said. “Ability doesn’t hurt. But I think it’s concentration, as much as anything.  eing able to focus and block out everything else going on around you. I think you’re probably born with it. There’s a lot of guys with great ability –- with more ability than I had –- but they don’t master it because they can’t focus.“

 

 

 

It’s a quality others have noted in him off the field. Countryside Village owner Larry Myers, a partner of Gibson’s in a now closed bar-restaurant, said he often marveled at his “ability to focus on the task at hand and devote all his energy to that task.  Mentally, he’s so disciplined.”

Parks recalls even as a youth Gibson demonstrated the qualities he later displayed as a pro. “Bob was very dedicated and conscientious. As far as that drive, he always did have that,” he said. “I know his brother Josh worked him real hard too.”

Gibson credits his late brother Josh, who was 15 years his senior, with instilling in him an indomitable will to win and a strong work ethic. Josh, a beloved YMCA coach in North Omaha, was father figure to his younger brother (their father died months before Bob was born). Josh coached and Bob starred on the Y Monarchs, a youth baseball squad that traveled to all-white Iowa burgs for games. Gibson recalls how whenever Josh felt the team was getting homered, his big brother would “walk out to the middle of the field and challenge to fight everybody there. He was very competitive. And we’d all be sittin’ there thinkin’ we’re going to get killed…You see enough of that, and that gets in back of your mind. You think, ‘Is this the way it’s supposed to be? Maybe you’re supposed to fight like that.’ Well, I had no problem fighting.”

Gibson’s fought “the racist thing” during his remarkable life‘s journey -– from the projects’ poverty to college privilege to minor league limbo to major league stardom. He’s never backed down, never given up. His tenaciousness has seen him through tough times, like his divorce from Charline, and the loss of his mother Victoria, brother Josh and close friend and former Cardinal teammate Curt Flood.   It’s helped him endure various slights, like being denied a promised Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship by former Cardinals’ owner, the late August Busch. Or waiting 20 years before being brought back as a coach. Or finding employment-investment opportunities closed to him in his hometown and then seeing various business interests go sour. His book’s dedication sums it up: “To my son… May your life be as rewarding as mine, and, I hope, a little easier.”

If Gibson is sometimes standoffish, Wead said, it’s understandable: “He’s been hurt so many times, man. We’ve had some real, almost teary moments together when he’s reflected on some of the stuff he wished could of happened in Omaha and St. Louis.”

Publicly, Gibson’s borne the snubs and disappointments with characteristic stoicism.  Through it all, he’s remained faithful to his hometown. “He’s helped a lot of charitable causes very quietly and without a lot of fanfare,” said Myers. “He likes helping people. He’s certainly given back to Omaha over the years. He’s very sincere.”

Some question Omaha’s commitment to him. The city threw a parade and day in his honor years ago, but there’s no lasting monument. “Omaha has never recognized him the way it should,” said Wead. “For instance, there’s no question the North Expressway should be the Bob Gibson Expressway.“ Efforts by Wead and others to name a park, street or facility after him have come up empty. If it happened, Gibson would undoubtedly be annoyed by all the fuss, but probably secretly cherish the sentiment.

Until then, the June 14 golf classic is Omaha’s chance to embrace one of its best and brightest. To let him know he’s a stranger no more.

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