In 1968, known as the Year of the Pitcher, Gibson was the gold standard, going 22-9 and fashioning an astounding 1.12 ERA. He won the National League Cy Young Award and also was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. Gibson then opened Game 1 of the ’68 World Series with a record-setting, 17-strikeout performance as the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Detroit Tigers 4-0. The complete game victory at Busch Stadium took a mere 2 hours, 29 minutes to complete.
Gibson and author Lonnie Wheeler team up again to present a cerebral, entertaining look inside the head of one of baseball’s greatest clutch pitchers.
“Pitch By Pitch: My View of One Unforgettable Game” (Flatiron Books; hardback; $26.99; 243 pages) is the third collaboration between Gibson and Wheeler. The pair teamed up for Gibson’s second autobiography, “Stranger to the Game” in 1994, and added Reggie Jackson in 2009 for the exceptional pitcher/hitter dialogue, “Sixty Feet, Six Inches.”
Wheeler also has written biographies of Hank Aaron (“I Had A Hammer”) and Mike Piazza (“Long Shot”) and last month published “Intangiball,” a study of the little things that make baseball teams and players successful.
Gibson turns 80 on November 9, but he still has that fire and passion about pitching. Put him on the mound today and try to dig in at the plate — there’s a good chance a batter would be bailing on the very first pitch.
Gibson was a focused, intimidating competitor who used both sides of the plate and was not afraid to back hitters away from it. He concedes that he had the reputation of “a headhunter, a knockdown artist, a mean son of a bitch, you name it,” but adds that none of those labels were true.
“I was simply a competitor who understood the need to keep a dangerous batter in his place and wasn’t timid about satisfying that requirement,” he writes. “I knew you had to come inside to pitch outside and occasionally, as part of the game, there was collateral damage.
“Every pitcher knew that much. Every hitter, too, if he had any sense.”
But in Game 1, he was at his dominating best, breaking the single-game strikeout record set five years earlier by Dodgers’ left-hander Sandy Koufax.
Gibson takes the reader pitch by pitch through Game 1, discussing his thought processes and how he decided to go after each hitter. In between, he weaves stories and facts about his Cardinals teammates, saving his best ones for batterymate Tim McCarver and his one-time roommate, center fielder Curt Flood.
Gibson confesses to having difficulty pitching to left-handed hitters (“it was an ongoing negotiation”) because his pitching philosophy was predicated on controlling the outside corner of the plate.
“With a right-handed hitter at the plate, the outside corner was my glove side. With a left-handed hitter, it was my ball side,” Gibson writes. “I simply had better control to the glove side. Much better.”
Another theory Gibson discusses is “pitching with conviction.” It’s trusting the pitch call because “you trust yourself, your catcher and most of all of your stuff.”
“It’s believing in your pitch,” Gibson writes.
Gibson believed all day during that muggy afternoon in St. Louis, staying so focused that he didn’t realize he had tied Koufax’s mark when he struck out Al Kaline in the top of the ninth inning until McCarver showed him the scoreboard.
“Tim was pointing to left-center field. What, did Flood run to the bathroom or something? Did Morganna, the Kissing Bandit, bounce out there to lay one on (Lou) Brock?” Gibson writes. “The scoreboard. Fifteen strikeouts, it said. I’d tied the World Series record by Koufax.
Gibson got to cheer two batters later after striking out Norm Cash and Willie Horton to end the game.
Gibson got the win against Tigers star Denny McLain, who had won 31 games in 1968, and won Game 4 to give the Cardinals a 3-1 series lead. But Detroit stormed back to win the next three games, defeating Gibson in Game 7 for an unlikely World Series championship.
But Game 1 still stands alone as Gibson’s top performance. In “Pitch By Pitch,” Gibson gives primers on the craft of pitching, where something as subtle as shaking off a catcher’s sign can be crucial. He writes about mechanics, discussing his slider, a curveball he didn’t always have confidence in, and that fastball on the outside corner of the plate.
He also gives the reader vivid mini-biographies of his teammates, like Roger Maris, Dal Maxvill, Mike Shannon and Julian Javier. He writes about the strong influence Orlando Cepeda had on the team, even though the Cardinals’ first baseman struggled a year after winning National League MVP honors in 1967.
Gibson also throws in a “what might have been” dream matchup against Ty Cobb, noting that “it would have been in invigorating challenge.”
“I would have liked to pitch against him,” Gibson writes. “… Cobb was considered as mean and menacing a player as I was a pitcher … and I’d be curious to find out if his reputation was more credible than mine.”
That would have been quite a matchup.
Because of the dominance of Gibson and other pitchers in 1968, Major League Baseball lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10 in 1969 and squeezed the strike zone. That didn’t affect Gibson, who won 20 games in ’69 and 23 in 1970. He finished his 17-year career in 1975 with 251 wins, 3,117 strikeouts and 56 shutouts. Gibson won his second Cy Young Award in 1970, and pitched a no-hitter against the Pirates in 1971. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1981.
Once again, Gibson and Wheeler have given baseball fans a thorough education and plenty of insight in “Pitch By Pitch.” It’s fascinating reading.