40 years ago, Gibson was unhittable all year

By R.B. Fallstrom
Updated: September 20, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Bob Gibson can still project an aura of menace, even 40 years after he intimidated batters en route to a ridiculously low 1.12 ERA.

For instance, Gibson says he’s still considering legal action against Major League Baseball for lowering the mound after his feat. He’s joking, of course, but for a split second you wonder.

“Why should they take away the pitcher’s livelihood because he becomes proficient at it?” Gibson asks. “That, to me, seems like what they did. The hitters weren’t doing very well against you so they say ‘Well, we’re going to fix that.’

“I still might sue baseball for that.”

Gibson’s achievement put him in elite company, close to the lowest ERA after 1900 — Dutch Leonard’s 0.96 for the 1914 Boston Red Sox.

The mound had a 15-inch elevation in 1968, and in 1969 it was only 10 inches, a huge change akin to expanding the nets in hockey or raising the hoop in basketball. Gibson’s microscopic ERA for the St. Louis Cardinals is to blame.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who had a forgettable major league playing career, recalls being quite pleased popping up against Gibson in a spring training game that year. He sums up Gibson’s season with a single word: “Incredible.”

Gibson knows he’s not the only pitcher to blame for the lowered mound, given baseball was filled with future Hall of Famers during his era. Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Tom Seaver, Ferguson Jenkins, Don Drysdale — all were contemporaries.

The same year Gibson put up his unbelievable ERA, a .301 average was enough for Carl Yastrzemski to win the AL batting title. That’s how far the balance of power had turned to the pitchers.

But nobody dominated like Gibson.

“If you’d had a few losses and it was his turn to pitch, he could stop the bleeding in a hurry,” said Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst, earlier a Gibson teammate and his manager in the magical ’68 season. “He was such a competitor, he made the other pitchers on our staff and the whole ball club a hell of a lot better.

“It was like they were following him.”

Gibson doesn’t go down memory lane often, and there’s a good reason. The second-class treatment he and other black major leaguers received in the early 1960s, being forced into a residence away from the team hotel, was tough to take.

“I don’t dwell much on the past,” he said. “Even when I’m talking to other players we don’t really sit and talk about those days because there’s too many things that weren’t good. The culture was horrible, all the crap we had to go through and still perform and be as good as anybody else, if not better.”

Even in the best of times, Gibson has rarely consented to interviews and will never be a favorite of autograph hounds. The glare that terrified hitters also can send them scattering.

Yet at a party thrown for the 40th anniversary of Gibson’s year by former teammate and current Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon, the pitcher conceded that, yes, he was nearly unhittable.

“Oh absolutely, I was kind of in a zone,” he recalled. “The best feeling out of the whole thing is they didn’t want to face me. No one wanted to face me.”

Gibson claimed the inside half of the plate for himself like no other pitcher. Any hitter caught leaning would soon see the high-and-tight treatment from Gibson’s fastball.

He remembers hanging a sign over his locker that read: “Here comes the judge.”

“That’s the way I felt,” Gibson said. “I felt I could do anything I wanted to do, and I didn’t feel like I would ever lose a ball game.”

The believe-it-or-not aspect of Gibson’s 22-win season for the ages was he did lose a game. Nine of them, in fact.

All those Hall of Famers he kept getting matched up against were responsible — that, and the punchless Cardinals’ lineup. Orlando Cepeda led the team with 16 home runs, shortstop Dal Maxvill had 24 RBIs, and only Curt Flood (.301) batted .300.

The Cardinals wound up losing the World Series to Detroit in seven games.

“A lot of times you can get beat 1-0, and I’m sure he did. No one’s perfect,” Schoendienst said with a chuckle. “There’s times we could have scored a few more runs, I’m sure.

“That ERA, it was a good one.”