As Royals fans, we typically do not like the St. Louis Cardinals. Since the two teams don’t play all that frequently, it’s tough to have a true rivalry, so I can’t call the feeling “hate.” But there certainly seems to be some mutual dislike between the two fanbases.
However, that dislike should not prevent me, or my fellow Royals fans, from showing appreciation and respect to one of the game’s greatest pitchers, even if he spent his entire career with the team on the other side of the state.
Bob Gibson was honored on Thursday in his hometown of Omaha, with a statue in front of Werner Park, the Omaha Storm Chasers’ home ballpark. The event was filled with names any baseball fan should recognize: Tim McCarver, Joe Torre, & Bill White, who all were teammates of Gibson in St. Louis; Bill Dewitt Jr., the chairman of the Cardinals; and even MLB commissioner Bud Selig made his way to Omaha to help celebrate the career of the MLB Hall of Famer.
On Wednesday night, fellow Kings of Kauffman writer Mike Vamosi and I were invited to come hear McCarver, Torre, and White, as they spoke about their close friendships with Gibson, and why they were willing to come to Omaha, despite the cold weather. Said McCarver, “I wouldn’t miss this for anything.” The Hall of Fame broadcaster went on to tell a story about a speech he gave during Steve Carlton’s HOF induction ceremony. McCarver was talking about the pitchers with the greatest pitches in the game, and mentioned that Carlton had the best slider in baseball history. As he had has arm around Carlton, McCarver saw a figure out of the corner of his eye sweeping through a crowd of people, trying to force his way toward the podium. He finally realized that it was Gibson, who shouted out, “The best left-handed slider!”
Stories like this were common throughout the evening and the statue unveiling ceremony. Gibson has always been known as one of the most competitive, fiery players the game has ever seen. He had no problem throwing inside so hitters would know that home plate was his. Gibson’s stats speak for themselves: 2.91 ERA in 3,884.1 IP; 3,117 strikeouts; 255 complete games in his 482 career starts, including 56 shutouts; 2 Cy Young Awards; 1968 NL MVP; 9 Gold Gloves; 2 World Series Championships; 9 complete games in 9 postseason starts; and he’s one of only 44 first-ballot Hall of Famers enshrined in Cooperstown. Beyond that, after his MLB-record ERA of 1.12 in 1968, the league decided to reduce the size of the strike zone and lower the pitching mound to try and help level the playing field a little bit; a decision Gibson says he is “still pissed off about.”
Gibson’s career was truly incredible, but his will to win and determination were what really set him apart from his peers. Granted, when an athlete is so focused on winning games, he certainly can come across as rude, or abrasive. According to most, Gibson fit that profile perfectly. White, when asked to describe his good friend, said Gibson “was mean…and a winner.” Torre told a story about the 1965 All Star Game, in which he was a representative for Milwaukee, playing catcher at the time when Gibson came in to close the game out. After getting the leadoff man down 0-2, Torre walked out to the mound to tell Gibson where to throw the next pitch. Gibson acted as though Torre wasn’t even there, and Torre went back to the plate, dejected. Gibson ignored Torre’s suggestion and gave up a leadoff double, followed by 3 consecutive strikeouts. After the game, Torre told Gibson “nice pitching, Bob.” Gibson didn’t even acknowledge Torre’s existence. Said Torre, “I hated this man.” Torre was eventually traded to the Cardinals a few years later, and Gibson was one of the first to welcome him to the club.
That’s just who Bob Gibson was as a player. If you were on his team, and were helping him win, he had no problem with you. But if you were on a different team, you might as well have kicked his dog.
Off the diamond, Gibson wasn’t quite as intense. Torre said that Gibson enjoyed having fun when he wasn’t playing ball, and that he absolutely had to watch his soap operas every day. But when he was competing in something, you can be sure Gibson wanted to win. Even if it was just playing cards, Gibson’s competitive spirit shone through.
Gibson’s brash personality is still quite evident. He makes no qualms about discussing how he thinks the idea of pitch counts “sucks,” or that the way the game is called today doesn’t allow pitchers to throw inside for fear of being punished. I get the impression he would throw at a guy in a slow-pitch softball league right now if he gave up a hit. Despite his rough attitude however, it’s hard not to like the guy. He’s just an entertaining person, full of great anecdotes from his past and quotes about the present. I really wish I could have gotten a chance to see him pitch live, although if I saw him pitch against my favorite team all the time, I may have formed a different opinion of him.
Gibson now has a life-size bronze statue of his likeness throwing a pitch right outside the front gate of Werner Park. Even though the park is home to the Royals’ Triple A affiliate, Gibson doesn’t mind and just points out that the statue is in his hometown of Omaha, where he’s lived for most of his life. This honor isn’t about baseball teams. It’s solely about Gibson and his connection to a city he grew up in, a city he went to college in, and a city he returned to after his playing career was over. When asked what it’s like to be honored by Omaha, he said that when you have a chance to be honored by your hometown, “that speaks for itself.” Underneath all that tough, hard-nosed, fiery exterior, I could tell that Gibson was truly touched to be appreciated by a city he loves. White said that he saw Gibson cry for the first time Wednesday night because of all the adulation he’s received.
The Storm Chasers hope that the statue serves as a meeting point for fans coming to games at the park. Instead of fans saying “I’ll meet you at the gate,” they want people to start saying “I’ll meet you at Gibby,” or “I’ll meet you at Hoot.” When people think about Omaha baseball, the city wants them to think about Bob Gibson. They also hope the statue serves as a reminder of Gibson’s greatness, and what he means to the community. And honoring a hometown hero, especially one of Gibson’s stature, transcends sports rivalries.
So if you plan on attending a Storm Chasers game this season, whether you’re a Royals fan, a Cardinals fan, or just a baseball fan, be sure to stop by Gibby and appreciate one of Major League Baseball’s legends.
Just don’t stand too close to his plate.