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The End Of A Baseball Era That Passed Chicago By

We will ring the altar's chimes three times today in remembrance. The Bob Gibson Era is over.

In some philosophical ways, my era is over, too. This is awareness with no bitterness and only minor regret because this is the natural progression of life.

The Bob Gibson Era is not Gibson's alone, of course. Sandy Koufax is 85. Juan Marichal is 83. Gaylord Perry is 82. Ferguson Jenkins is 78. Sam McDowell is 78. Jim Bunning died three years ago; Don Drysdale has been gone for 27 years.

They were the men and mighty they were who forced baseball to lower the pitching mound by five inches, just to give mortals a fighting chance to hit them.

On the week when the Cubs and White Sox both made ignominious exits from the season and threw their fans into mental hip dysplasia, the news about Gibson was a small blip on the local sonar screen.

I doubt that Chicago fans - especially now - can understand who he was or the force be brought to his stage.

That's because the Cubs, White Sox and their fans seldom shared in the Gibson Era or its marvels. They had tickets to the cheap seats.

Oddly enough, the Cubs had their moments against Gibson. Billy Williams' homer in the 10th beat him, 1-0, on Opening Day in 1971. But the problem with statistical history is that it often misses the subtext. When the Cubs intermittently beat Gibson, they were seldom involved in a pennant fight.

But the Prometheus Unbound should not leave without everyone who loves baseball clearly understanding who he was. He nearly dwarfed the game in which he toiled.

To be blunt, Gibson's Era paid little attention to Chicago or its decade-long irrelevance.

Because every game he pitched was a war, longtime Cubs fans might not have understood the gestalt.

Chicago fans were not angry. They were morose and often pitiful. That's about all the attention I paid to Chicago in that decade.

Their teams were never good enough consistently to validate such anger. Gibson was playing a bigger, angrier game than the Cubs and White Sox were.

The 1960s were only loaned to the Beatles. In my youthful world, Gibson was the owner of record.

As for the Cubs and White Sox of those years? Until 1969, the Cubs never finished much closer than 13 games of the championship since 1937.

The Cubs had back-to-back rookies of the years in 1961 and '62 (Billy Williams and Ken Hubbs) but finished 29 and 42 1/2 games out of first.

The Cubs had not been really good since 1937. That makes you morose and pitiful.

The Sox? They were Casper The Friendly Sox in the 1960s because there was no division play, and the Yankees were always better. They went poof into history. There are almost no recorded videotaped White Sox games of that entire decade.

If Gibson had no reason to care about or notice Chicago fans in the 1960s - he didn't - I had even less reason.

This might come as some shock to current Cubs fans. As they languished for decades in their own incompetence, the rest of the baseball world did not suffer with them. That's a Chicago conceit.

We didn't care.

As Peter Lorre's Ugarte expressed this distilled dislike to Bogart's Rick in Casablanca:

"You despise me, don't you?" says the creepy Ugarte.

Says Rick: "If I gave you any thought, I probably would."

That's how some of us felt about the Cubs and White Sox, and still do. Drive south of I-80's boundary to the other world, and test how many people worry about either team.

I know, I know. You don't care. That's fair enough. But here's the thing to which I wish to confess: I am very sad about Gibson's passing last week, a month short of his 85th birthday.

I am only mildly indifferent about the pain of Chicago fans.

Some fans arrive at intelligent, passionate, tribal fandom based on admiring "your" teams, but even more, because you admire the players.

So if Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Curt Flood and Tim McCarver had played for the White Sox (ewwww, retch), I likely would have been a White Sox fan (ewwwwwww).

First among equals was Gibson, a man that Chicago fans likely did not understand at all. Different wavelengths.

I came to love the Cardinals because of Gibson, and the resolute, gee-whiz Stan "The Man" Musial before him.

Even as a kid, I knew Gibson was a rock upon which I had built my church.

He had been tormented in the segregated Jim Crow north by Jim Crow coaches playing Jim Crow games.

That didn't stop when he came to the Cardinals during the Solly Hemus managerial torment that lasted 2 1/2 years until 1961.

Hemus was a deliberate, bullying bigot who told Gibson to skip strategy meetings because he wouldn't be smart enough to participate. Gibson was an alumnus of Creighton University in Omaha and likely the most educated man on the Cardinals.

Gibson also likely was the best athlete to ever pitch in the majors. He had not only been a college basketball star, but played for the Harlem Globetrotters for a year while he mulled being a Cardinal.

Gibson was Creighton's all-time leading scorer in basketball, and had most wanted to play for Branch McCracken's Hurryin' Hoosiers. But McCracken dismissed him out of hand because, in McCracken's own words, "We have our quota of Negroes . . . "

At Indiana, the quota was "1."

Gibson was a man of supreme moments. Supreme angry moments.

Every time Gibson explicitly warned batters about standing too close to "his" plate, he would throw at their chin to remind them who was now in charge of their life. The world had pushed too hard at Gibson for him to be passive; he pushed back even harder.

He made his own rules and morality. And enforced them. Good, I always thought.

You feel his anger sizzling through the radio, which is the medium through which I came to admire him. Every one of his 17 years with the Cardinals - 251 victories, 3,117 strikeouts, and 56 shutouts - was a war.

I was an audio witness and heard almost all of them by radio. Even when the games were televised, I would turn off that sound and pipe up the radio signal.

Every one of the 2.91 earned runs he surrendered per game seemed a resented torture for him.

On the evening of Aug 14, 1971, I was returning home when Gibson took the mound in Pittsburgh against the Pirates. I sat transfixed in my old Toyota Corolla, parked on the street near my house, and listened to Gibby's no-hitter. He was 35 then and nearing the end.

I missed dinner that night because I could not bear to miss the sound of history.

He took 2 hours and 22 minutes, and 124 pitches to record his 48th career shutout. He whiffed Willie Stargell on a 3-2 count to end it.

As Stargell said later, "All those people who said that Gibson was washed up should have had to bat against him tonight."

The 1960s belonged to him. He was as reliable as sweat in summer. He pitched 13 shutouts in1968; four of them were 1-0.

Gibson pitched in a "different era" that was different mostly because he was in it. True, it was also the age of Koufax, Drysdale, Marichal and Perry. But mostly, Gibson was his own Era.

Example? He made nine post-season starts, all in the World Series, and completed eight, went 7-2 with a 1.89 ERA. In 81 innings, he gave up 55 hits, walked 17 and struck out 92.

But those are just statistics. Gibson lived inside stark, defining moments.

In Game 7 of the 1964 World Series, he pitched a complete game to beat Mickey Mantle and the Yankees. He won the seventh game of the 1967 Series against Boston the same way. He allowed only three runs in three games in that Series.

Even when Gibson was injured, he did it in an Olympian way. He missed a third of that 1967 season with a broken leg caused by - now get this - being struck on July 16 by a Roberto Clemente line drive.

The rocket shot fractured and snapped Gibson's fibula just above his ankle, but he pitched to three more batters. He sat out for eight weeks.

Clemente, a career .317 hitter, batted .208 (26-for-125) with 32 strikeouts against Gibson.

In his book Stranger to the Game, Gibson said of Clemente, "I always threw at him. He swung way too hard against me, flinging himself at the ball and spinning around in the batter's box like he was on the playground or something. I had to demonstrate to him that I was no playground pitcher. To that end, I made a point of throwing at least one fastball in his direction nearly every time he came to the plate."

Gibson often threw at Clemente, though never hit him.

In his book, Gibson said he liked Clemente and learned to laugh at his theatrics.

"It was virtually impossible to ignore him because he was always talking," Gibson wrote. "Usually, it was to complain about how much his back or his shoulder or some other thing was hurting him. Then he would step in the batter's box and swing so hard that the flagsticks on top of the stadium would bend."

Gibson was known to be privately generous and even affable. But he had limits to his good spirits. As Hank Aaron said: "He hated you when he pitched."

McCarver, who often caught him and eventually became a close friend, once noted that he had approached the mound during a difficult inning to offer his advice but was told by Gibson to get back behind the plate. "The only thing you know about pitching is that you can't hit," McCarver said he was told.

"If you showed him up in any way on the field," Hall of Famer Frank Robinson told reporters, "you were going down."

I liked that about Gibson.

Where and when I grew up - Evansville, Indiana - all teen pitchers threw at enemy batters regularly, with Gibson's tacit moral approval.

If Gibson did it, we tried the same things for the same reasons. Players now will not admit the glee, but hitting an opponent to punish his previous sins is amazingly uplifting and satisfying.

It's righteous. That was Gibson's way. He never apologized.

"I was told by Hank Aaron never to mess with Bob Gibson," Dusty Baker once said. "I was told never to stare at him, or talk to him, or smile at him. And if he hit you with a pitch, I was told never to charge the mound because he would beat your ass."

Gibson also never forgot unpaid bills.

A year after Gaylord Perry no-hit the Cardinals and Gibson, they met again on July 25, 1969.

As baseball sabermetrician Bill James reported, "The game was 1-1 after one inning - and 1-1 after 12 innings, both starting pitchers still on the mound. Gaylord gave way to Frank Linzy in the 13th inning. The first batter he faced was Gibson, who immediately singled and came around to score."

That described a Major League game that is unlikely ever to be repeated in its totality. In fact, many of the games in which Gibson pitched are unique artifacts and not replaceable.

They don't play the game that way anymore.

Eras are defined by who and what populate the era, and set its standards. The Tyrannosaurus Rex and glib insurance salesmen did not occupy the same geological era.

The Bob Gibson Era officially is over. We do not resent its passing, because it remains a timeless, rare gift for those who experienced the glory, even as we listened on our transistor radios.

As for Chicago? Sorry you missed him, and most of that decade. He was better than everything that will arrive after him.

-

David Rutter is the former publisher/editor of the Lake County News-Sun, and more importantly, the former author of the Beachwood's late, great "The Week In WTF" column. His most recent piece for us was Heed The Lessons Of The Wilmette Man Who Translated The Nazis To Death. You can also check him out at his Theeditor50's blog. He welcomes your comments.

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