Richard Piersol is a retired journalist. He was born in Tecumseh, Nebraska, and now lives in Lincoln. He has been an avid reader since childhood of books published by the University of Nebraska Press. Bob Gibson, MLB player from Omaha, Nebraska, passed away last Friday at the age of 84.
One summer in the late 1980s I attended a business editor’s convention in downtown St. Louis, a gathering most memorable for my discovering the pedal steel guitar hall of fame in the basement of a downtown hotel, and for my opportunity to talk to the greatest righthanded Major League pitcher of my lifetime, Bob Gibson.
Bob McCoy, a Tecumseh native, was an editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and had great connections with the Cardinals, so he got me a press box pass for one day game at Busch Stadium.
That was delightful enough, to see a late summer game from the catbird seat. But I took a chance and asked the press box aide who greeted me if I might have a few minutes after the game to talk to Gibson, who did the pre-game and post-game shows on Cardinal radio broadcasts. I called him an uncommentater. Gibson knew more about the subtleties of the game than anybody I ever heard on TV or radio.
Luck was with me. Gibson agreed and after his post-game show he greeted me cordially and we sat in the press box overlooking the diamond. Impeccably dressed in sport jacket and necktie, he was an impressive presence, as I knew he would be, and looked like he could still mow them down from the mound, as he did major league batters from the late 50s to the mid-70s. It would be presumptuous to call them hitters when Gibson was on the mound.
After the 1968 season, when Gibson had a 1.12 earned run average, the lowest since 1914, MLB cut six inches off the mound to reduce the power of pitches coming from above at hapless batters. Most fans believe Gibson was the reason, perhaps the only time baseball changed a rule to take away the advantage demonstrated by one player. But not unlike when college basketball outlawed the dunk as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came on the court at UCLA.
I swallowed my awe and let him know we had a connection, my uncle John DeBoer had been his basketball coach when Gibson, a native Omahan, was a freshman at Omaha Tech High School. John and he appeared in a picture of the freshman team in Gibson’s first book, From Ghetto to Glory.
Gibson responded politely, as if he indeed remembered my uncle, and I turned the conversation to baseball. I remember now absolutely nothing of the next 15 or 20 minutes, until I felt obliged to let him go and closed with the only question I had on my mind when I requested the opportunity to talk to him.
This was a time when baseballs were leaping out of stadiums like popcorn from an uncovered frying pan, and there was a lot of complaining by people who believed the baseballs used by MLB were “juiced,” manufactured in some way that made them more responsive to the bat than they had been earlier.
Twenty-eight players hit 30-plus home runs in 1987, compared with 13 in 1986. Baseball denied any tampering with the ball.
I asked him if the ball was juiced.
Gibson put on the face that had terrified professional baseball players for 20 years. At close quarters, I recognized the basilisk, the ancient, mythical serpent-king capable of killing with a glare. Even Tim McCarver, Gibson’s own Cardinals catcher of many years, feared it.
Gibson leaned toward me, eyes blazing malevolently for those who dared shake a mere piece of wood at his superior will and skill, at those who would manipulate the game to try to even the odds in their favor, more than a decade after his retirement from pitching.
“I’ll kiss your ass if it isn’t,” he hissed.
Stunned at his candor, I burst out laughing as his glare turned to a grin, a recollection I cherish to this day. I bid him good-bye with gratitude for his time and he strode away.
He had to know that in 1987 any newspaper writer would be impossibly challenged to make the written word equal to the captured truth of that moment. Gibson had thrown one past me, to my great joy.
The column I wrote for the sports section when I returned to Lincoln was probably OK to read. I can’t find it, whatever copy I kept has disappeared. But I remember distinctly how I handled his answer, a pale but technically accurate account, as published in what people always called “a family paper.”
“Gibson insisted the baseball is, in fact, more lively.”