Of a Fire on the Mound: Racism, Baseball Capitalism and the Game’s Greatest Pitcher, Bob Gibson

Gibson pitching in the decisive game of the 1864 World Series.

Bob Gibson was one of the three or four greatest pitchers in the history of baseball. He won the Cy Young Award as best pitcher twice. He was twice named MVP of the World Series, once in 1964 and again in 1967.  He was the rare pitcher to win the MVP for the National League. Gibson set the modern record for the lowest earned run average in a year. He was deemed so unhittable in the 1968 season that the league’s owners ordered radical changes to the game, including shrinking the strike zone and lowering the height of the pitcher’s mound. He was named to the All-Star game nine times and voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot. But still, Bob Gibson would have preferred to play basketball. The reason might be found in Gibson’s experiences in Columbus, Georgia.

Gibson grew up in Omaha, graduated from Creighton University, and then signed a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, who sent him to their minor league team in Columbus. Gibson had experienced racism his entire life, of course, but it hadn’t prepared him for what he encountered in the Deep South.

The Cards’ Columbus affiliate played in the Southern Atlantic (Sally) League, which had refused to admit Black players until 1953 when 19-year-old Henry Aaron, who landed in Jacksonville, blew through the Jim Crow league, blitzing everything the white pitchers threw at him. It wasn’t a smooth integration. Dead black cats were thrown at Aaron when he took the field. He and the league’s two other Black players–Feliz Mantilla and Horace Garner–got death threats, were derided with racial slurs and spit at by fans and routinely harassed by local cops and sheriff’s deputies.

It wasn’t much better four years later when Gibson showed up in Columbus. He couldn’t dine or room with his teammates. He had to stay at the local YMCA and eat on the Black side of town. Gibson said he was followed wherever he went: back and forth from the ballpark, out to dinner, even to the barbershop.

Despite these conditions, Gibson proved himself to be one of the best players on a largely white team. Soon Gibson began to hear himself introduced by the PA announcer when he took the field or came to the plate as: “Gatorbait Gibson.” He thought he’d acquired a new nickname and he eventually asked the team doctor what it meant. In his memoir, Gibson says the doctor told him: “Some of the fellas round here used to grab a Black boy, tie him up, and toss him in the swamp to lure the gators, so they could trap ’em. Don’t worry, they didn’t let the gators bite the kid. No use wastin’ good bait, I suppose.” This was in 1957, 10 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball.

Gibson’s talent took him out of Columbus after a few months. Others weren’t so lucky. In 1964, Columbus became the affiliate of the Yankees. To prove to their fans they weren’t actual Yankees, the team’s owners ordered Confederate flags sewn on the jerseys. That year, the only Black player on the Columbus team was the 20-year-old Roy White, who had grown up in Los Angeles. White was forced to play two seasons wearing a Confederate flag on his sleeve, before going on to a stellar career as a switch-hitting outfielder for New York.

Player photo of Roy White, Columbus (Ga.) Yankees, 1965.

Gibson left Georgia not for St. Louis and the Cardinals rotation, but for the Harlem Globetrotters. He’d had it with baseball. Gibson said he always considered basketball his best sport and “the one least likely to discriminate against me.”

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Bob Gibson was born in 1935, three months after his father, Pack, had died of tuberculosis. He grew up on the north side of Omaha, Nebraska in a household of seven siblings overseen by his widowed mother, Victoria, who worked 14 to 16 hours a day at two jobs, toiling in a laundry during the day and cleaning the floors and bathrooms of a local hospital at night.

Gibson was a frail kid, suffering from Rickets, a bone disease caused by Vitamin D deficiency, and asthma. The primary influence on his young life was his brother Josh, an Army veteran, who had returned from the war disillusioned with the persistence of racism back home. Josh earned a college degree (and later his Master’s)  from Creighton, the nearby university run by Jesuits. He later organized sports leagues for Black youths at the local YMCA, programs which turned out some of the best athletes in Nebraska history.

Despite his health issues, Bob became one of Josh’s first prodigies, excelling at nearly every sport he played: basketball, track, football, and baseball. The problem was that once Gibson entered Omaha Tech High School several of these sports, football, and baseball, were off-limits to Blacks.

Gibson became the star player on Tech’s basketball team but wasn’t permitted to play baseball until his senior year, when a new, less bigoted manager took over the squad. But he’d already made his mark in the summer leagues, where he’d traveled with Josh’s team playing in tournaments across Nebraska and Iowa, knocking the cover of the ball from Lincoln to Dubuque. Among his many talents, Bob Gibson was probably the best-hitting pitcher since Babe Ruth.

After graduation, pro scouts came calling from St. Louis, Chicago and New York. But none were offering the 18-year-old much money, despite his impressive skill set. When the prodigy demanded a signing bonus from the Los Angeles Dodgers’ scout, he was laughed at: “You’re not naïve enough to think you can play major league ball, are you?” The Dodgers would eventually eat those words.

With no immediate future in professional sports on the horizon, Josh convinced his reluctant younger brother to try college. Gibson had gotten a few scholarship offers from small schools in Nebraska and Black colleges. But Bob had set his sights higher. He wanted to play at Indiana University, which was the first Big 10 school to recruit a Black player, Bill Garrett, and had just won the national championship. The head coach at Omaha Tech wrote a letter to IU’s coach Branch McCracken recommending Gibson, highlighting his superb stat sheet and All-State credentials. A few weeks went by before the terse reply came back from Bloomington: “Your request for an athletic scholarship for Robert Gibson is denied because we have already filled our quota of Negroes.”

When I read the letter sent to Gibson’s coach, I was shocked, though I probably shouldn’t have been. Quota of Negroes? I grew up in Indiana, was a devoted fan of IU basketball, and had met Bill Garrett several times as a teenager. My father was his lawyer for a few years, before Garrett, then an associate dean at IU’s campus in Indianapolis died of a heart attack at the age of 45. It had always been my understanding that IU had shattered the color barrier, desegregating Big 10 basketball when they recruited the sharp-shooting Garrett in 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson stepped onto the grass at Ebbets Field. So what was all of this about “quotas” for Black players six years later?

I contacted the University historian and archivist to see if they had any record of the quota system. Neither could find anything in writing, except for a reference in a biography of Garrett to a “gentlemen’s agreement,” which had been in place since the 1940s. These gentlemen, the presidents and athletic directors of the Big 10 universities, were too shrewd to put their racist policy down on paper. It was an unwritten rule that IU was the first to violate, largely at the behest of the school’s new president Herman Wells, who was trying to desegregate the entire campus. Violate it, up to a point. After Garrett took the court, even IU apparently agreed that they would only recruit one Black player a year and maintain a total of no more than two Blacks on the varsity team. This was at a time when freshmen weren’t allowed to play varsity ball. This system prevailed through most of the 50s. A similar covert quota system was in place in pro basketball from 1950, when Earl “Big Cat” Lloyd became the first Black to take the court for an NBA team (Washington Capitols), until the mid-1950s when Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Elgin Baylor demolished it once and for all.

Curiously, the Big 10 “gentleman’s agreement” only applied to two sports: swimming and basketball. Why? Since the policy was unwritten, we can’t know for sure, but an informative essay published by the Historical Bureau of the Indiana State Library suggests–persuasively precisely because it sounds so absurd–that in the image of Black athletes competing against whites in swimming trunks and basketball shorts was considered simply “too intimate” for the white public to endure.

Rejected by IU, Bob Gibson ended up following in his brother’s footsteps to the campus at Creighton, just a few miles from home. A couple of years later, he attended an IU basketball game when the Hoosiers played in Lincoln. Gibson wanted to see who had gotten his slot on the team and decided it must have been Hallie Bryant, a guard out of Indianapolis’ all-Black Crispus Attucks High School (the same school that produced Oscar Robertson). After watching Bryant play, Bob told Josh: “They picked the wrong Negro.” Bryant was good. He went on to play for the Globetrotters. But Bryant was no Bob Gibson. Few were.

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Team photo of the Creighton University Blue Jays, 1955.

In the 1950s, Creighton wasn’t the basketball powerhouse it is today. It was a small Catholic University in Nebraska that mostly played against other Catholic schools: Marquette, DePaul, Duquesne, Notre Dame, Xavier, and St. Louis. Its baseball team was largely an afterthought. Gibson was the first Black to be admitted to Creighton on a basketball scholarship and he dominated in both sports, even though the teams were bad.

During his sophomore season at Creighton, Gibson got his first real taste of Black life under Jim Crow. The team traveled to Oklahoma to play Tulsa. It was only his fourth game as a varsity player and his coach pulled him aside and told him he wouldn’t be staying with the rest of the team that night. The news came as a shock to Gibson, in part because for the past few years, he’d been rooming with Glenn Sullivan, both at Creighton and during overnight trips in high school. In his memoir, Gibson says if he’d been told about the situation before leaving for Tulsa, he’d have stayed in Omaha. But all he could do at the moment was cry. His pal Sullivan rode with Gibson across town to the private house where Bob was staying. Sullivan offered to spend the night with him, but Gibson sent him back to the team’s hotel, wanting to be alone. The next day the team gathered for a pre-game meal, but the restaurant would only serve Gibson if he ate in the kitchen. He refused and played that night on an empty stomach, pouring in 18 points. But it wasn’t enough to exact revenge on Tulsa, which beat Creighton by 15. A typical night for Blue Jays basketball.

Still, Gibson was named an All-American in the Jesuit league, which also included the likes of Bill Russell, KC Jones, and Tommy Heinsohn, all of whom would become future stars for the Boston Celtics. Gibson was disappointed that his performances for Creighton didn’t attract any offers from NBA teams, which were just beginning to draft Black players. So when the Cardinals came calling with an offer, he took it. But before he headed off to the minors, the Globetrotters showed up in Omaha as part of a national tour of games against college all-stars. In order to draw more fans, the Globetrotters made a point of recruiting one local player to suit up for the all-stars in each city. Bob Gibson got the call. Up to that point, the games hadn’t been very close. The college players had only won twice in 20 matchups. Gibson sat on the bench for the entire first half and the third quarter. After the hometown crowd started chanting his name, he was finally inserted into the lineup. In a mere 12 minutes of play, Gibson torched the Trotters for 10 points, five rebounds and a couple of steals, leading the college kids to an improbable win. After the game, the Globetrotter’s manager Parnell Woods asked Gibson if he was interested in joining the team. Gibson told Woods, he’d just signed with the Cardinals. Woods told him to look him up if baseball didn’t work out, which is exactly what Gibson did after his unsettling experience in Columbus.

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Bob Gibson (center) playing for the Harlem Globetrotters in 1957.

Gibson spent the winter of 1956 playing with the Globetrotters. For the first couple of months, he roomed with Meadowlark Lemon, the Clown Prince of Basketball. Gibson was the shortest player on the team, but he was a magical ball-handler and could make acrobatic, behind-the-back dunks, a style of play that was just beginning to take hold on the streets and gyms of urban America. Although Gibson enjoyed his season with the Globetrotters, the pay was too meager–about $500 a month– to raise a family on and the Trotter’s performances, mostly against the paid-to-lose Washington Generals, were becoming more clownish and theatrical. Even playing two games a day under these circumstances didn’t satisfy Gibson’s thirst for competition. He needed to prove himself. So when he was approached about returning to the Cardinals organization that spring, he accepted on two conditions: first, that he would be paid a signing bonus equal to what he was being paid per season by the Trotters, and second, that he wouldn’t have to return to Columbus. The Cards agreed and Gibson packed his bags for the team’s spring training camp in St. Petersburg, where he soon discovered that conditions for Big League Black players in Jim Crow Florida weren’t much different than they were for the minor leaguers in Columbus.

On the train down from Omaha, Gibson was assaulted by three rednecks. He got off the train and carried his own bags to the Bainbridge Hotel, the winter residence of the Cardinals. Well, most of the Cardinals. The hotel’s manager quickly whisked Gibson out the back door and called a cab to take him to a private house in the Black section of town, where the team’s Black players, including Curt Flood and Bill White, were compelled to stay. Gibson later noted laconically: “If nothing else, we ate better than the other players and didn’t have the coaches banging at our doors at curfew.”

The situation didn’t change until Bill White, who would later become the first Black executive in MLB, told an AP reporter about the absurd conditions some Cardinals’ best players were forced to endure during Spring Training. After the story ran, Black papers and Civil Rights leaders in St. Louis called for a boycott of Anheuser-Busch, the family-controlled beer company that owned the Cardinals. Then two of the team’s top white players–the great Stan Musial and Ken Boyer–both vowed to move in with the Black players unless the management agreed to find a hotel that would accommodate all the players, regardless of race. Under mounting pressure from outside and within his own team, August Busch finally relented, marking a small, but decisive victory for desegregation in the Deep South, six years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

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After his masterful performance against the Yankees in the 1964 World Series, where Bob Gibson stifled the likes of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, he was named MVP of the series and awarded a new Corvette as a prize. A few days after the series ended, Gibson was driving from St. Louis back to Omaha when he was pulled over by a cop in a small Missouri town. The cop demanded to see the title of the car. Gibson didn’t have one, he explained, because the car was brand new. He asked the cop why he’d been stopped and the cop said there had been a report of a stolen Corvette just like the one Gibson was driving. Gibson couldn’t restrain himself and blurted out: “Bullshit.” He told the cop he just didn’t think a Black man could come by such an expensive car honestly. He showed the cop his license and told him he was the Cardinal pitcher who’d just pitched the winning game in the World Series. The cop let him go.

Gibson got off lucky and he knew it. He sold the Corvette and started driving more inconspicuous cars, which were less likely to turn him into Cop Bait.

Forty years later, Robbie Tolan, the son of Gibson’s friend and former team-mate, Bobby Tolan, was driving home with his cousin from a late-night visit to the local Jack-in-the-Box in Bellaire, Texas, a predominately white suburb of Houston known as the “City of Homes.” Robbie was himself a minor league player for the Bay Area Toros, a minor league affiliate of the Washington Nationals based in Texas City. As Robbie and his cousin got out of the car in the Tolan family’s driveway, the two young men were surrounded by cops, pointing flashlights and guns at them. The police ordered Tolan to the ground. At this point, Bobby Tolan and his wife emerged from the house and asked what was going on. One of the cops said that Robbie and his cousin were suspected of driving a stolen car.  Then another cop car pulled up driven by Jeffrey Cotton, a 10-year veteran of the department. But instead of calming the situation, Cotton confronted Robbie’s mother Marie, who was trying to explain that Robbie had driven his own car to his family home. But Cotton wasn’t hearing it and shoved her against the wall of the house. Robbie, who was lying prone at the time, began to rise and was almost immediately shot by Cotton, the bullet piercing his lung and liver.

Officer Cotton later claimed that Tolan had been reaching for a gun. But Tolan was unarmed and an analysis of the shooting showed that Robbie had been on all fours facing the ground when he was shot in the back. Cotton was charged with aggravated assault and some lesser offenses, but was quickly acquitted of all charges by a jury of 10 whites and two Blacks. Robbie Tolan survived but never played baseball again.

The Tolans filed a federal Civil Rights suit against Cotton and the city of Bellaire alleging racial bias, profiling, and discrimination. The suit was dismissed by Federal Judge Melinda Harmon on the grounds of qualified immunity. But the Tolans persisted, appealing to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where they lost again. They followed this with an appeal to the Supreme Court, where they struck a limited blow against the Qualified Immunity doctrine when the high court remanded the case back to the trial court. Before the trial started, Judge Harmon arbitrarily removed the City of Bellaire and rejected all of the Tolans’ expert witnesses. Exhausted by the seven-year ordeal, the Tolan family finally opted for a settlement.

By the way, Robbie Toland’s father, Bobby, had been a graceful centerfielder for the Cardinals until St. Louis traded him to Cincinnati in 1970. Tolan had a tremendous first two seasons with the Reds, hitting over .300 in both years. But in 1973, he had a subpar year and the Reds connived a reason to dump him from their payroll, claiming he had violated team rules by playing pickup basketball and growing an Afro and beard. The Players Association filed a grievance on Tolan’s behalf and won. But Tolan didn’t get his position back and the Reds organization never apologized for defaming him. His career never recovered, although he later became Tony Gwynn’s first and favorite hitting coach, which gives you a good idea of how much Bobby Tolan knew about the sport of baseball.

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As Gibson’s strikeouts, shutouts, complete games and wins mounted, he acquired the reputation of being the angry Black man on the mound, a pitcher whose success was largely the result of a “natural talent” to throw hard and the lack of a moral compass that allowed him to throw hard at people. Under this noxious scenario, Gibson’s success was a function of his ability to intimidate hitters, especially white hitters. Even one of Gibson’s first managers for the Cardinals, Solly Heumus, said he “didn’t think, he just threw.” Gibson was called a “head-hunter,” with all the ugly racial connotations that the term implies.  It’s a remarkable slander against one of the most cerebral athletes of the 20th century and, to use one of Gibson’s own favorite phrases, it’s bullshit.

Yes, Bob Gibson threw hard. But not as hard as Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, or Nolan Ryan. Yes, Bob Gibson threw inside-to-back batters, especially power hitters, off the plate. All good pitchers do or they don’t last long. And, yes, Bob Gibson occasionally hit batters intentionally, usually in retaliation for the other team’s pitcher hitting a Cardinal batter. Again standard baseball practice–assuming you want to keep the respect of your teammates. In his career, Bob Gibson hit a lot of batters. But he didn’t hit them more often than most of the top throwers of his era and, it turns out, he hit them quite a bit less often than some of the biggest names in the history of the game, most of them white pitchers. I looked up the numbers. In his 17-year-long career for St. Louis, Bob Gibson hit 82 batters, which ranks him 89th in that category in the history of the game. By contrast, the much-heralded Walter Johnson hit 205 batters. Randy Johnson drilled 190. The iconic Cy Young nailed twice as many as Gibson. Roger Clemens, one of the hardest throwers of his time, even when not on the juice, hit 159, one more than Nolan Ryan. One of Gibson’s great rivals, the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale hit 154. Greg Maddux plunked 137. Max Scherzer has hit 107 and Justin Verlander 104 and both are still throwing.

Gibson intimidated hitters. But not because they feared getting hit. They feared not being able to hit him. At his peak, from 1964 through 1969, few could.

His fierceness and evil intent on the mound were often attributed to what many perceived to be Gibson’s scowling demeanor. In fact, the infamous scowl was actually a squint. Gibson had poor eyesight and had a hard time focusing on the catcher’s sign. Gibson used to tell a very funny story about showing up with Bill White at Willie Mays’ house for dinner. When Mays opened the door, he looked at White quizzically and said, “Who the hell is that?” White replied, “C’mon, Willie, that’s Gibson. He’s struck you out several times.” Mays laughed. “Gibson? Gibson wears glasses? Why don’t you wear ’em when you pitch, for God’s sake? Shit, man, you’re gonna kill somebody!”

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Bob Gibson and Curt Flood receiving their Golden Glove awards at Busch Stadium, 1965. Photo: National Pastime Museum.

Gibson’s politics were fairly radical, but he mostly expressed his activism from the mound, a Black pitcher striking out some of the great white power hitters of the era: Mantle, Yastrzemski, Kaline, Bench, Matthews, Cash, Santo, Harrelson, and Pepitone. Still, it was the sixties and baseball’s calcified economic structure–which Gibson’s longtime roommate Curt Flood compared to a plantation house–was being cracked open from within. After decades of unsuccessful attempts to unionize, in 1966 the Major League Players’ Association was finally formed. It would be led by the brilliant Marvin Miller, a former economist and contract negotiator for the United Steelworkers Union. Gibson was named the player’s rep for the Cardinals and within three years there was talk of baseball’s first strike.

In the winter of 1969, Miller urged the players to walk out during spring training. MLB had just secured a new television deal that would increase the League’s annual revenues from $500,000 to $17 million. But the owners were trying to slash the player’s cut of the new income stream from TV. By coincidence, Johnny Carson had invited Gibson to appear on The Tonight Show and Gibson used the opportunity of a national audience to explain why the players were thinking of walking out on strike. Gibson explained that while many people griped about how much some players were making, they rarely mentioned how much more the owners were pocketing. Gibson said the players just wanted their fair share, the same percentage of the TV deal they had enjoyed in the past.

Gibson’s comments didn’t go down well with the owners of the Cardinals. Augustus Busch, the patriarch of the family brewing empire, convened a meeting of the team and told them their salaries were already “inflated.” Then he disparaged Gibson for speaking out publicly. Busch left the meeting without taking questions from the players and promptly distributed a copy of his inflammatory remarks to the press.

In the end, the players didn’t strike. But the Busch family responded by dismantling a team that had played in three World Series in five years, winning two of them. Within a few weeks of Gibson’s appearance on the Tonight Show, the Cardinals’ front office traded away the hard-hitting first baseman Orlando Cepeda, who, along with Gibson, was one of the team’s leaders both in the clubhouse and on the field. By the end of the summer, they also had traded away (or tried to in Flood’s case) Gibson’s favorite catcher, Tim McCarver, and his longtime roommate, Curt Flood, one of the league’s best centerfielders. Flood, one of the unsung heroes of the American labor and Civil Rights movements, challenged the trade in a federal lawsuit claiming that the deal over which he had no say treated him as property and violated his constitutional rights.

“I always likened it to a plantation owner, allowing his players to play for him in the same way that the plantation owner allowed the sharecropper to work his land while at the same time keeping him deep in debt and constantly beholden,” Flood later wrote. “I couldn’t stand to be treated that way. When I was traded, it drove me up a wall.” Flood’s suit against the so-called Reserve Clause went all the way to the Supreme Court, which, in a split decision, ruled in favor of the owners, saying that MLB was protected from such challenges by players by its Anti-Trust Exemption. Still, the first blow had been struck and in 1976 a federal arbitrator finally upheld the players’ rights to bargain for their own contracts and have a say in where they played and who they played for. The age of free agency had begun, largely thanks to the courage of Flood, even though he didn’t realize the benefits. Neither did Gibson.

In that tumultuous summer of 1969, Gibson met Jackie Robinson for the first time. The scene was the Nixon White House at a reception and dinner in celebration of the All-Star game, which was held in DC. Robinson and Gibson decided to bail on the long reception line, which led to a handshake with the unappetizing duo of Dick and Spiro. Robinson, a lifelong Republican, had denounced Nixon during the campaign for “prostituting himself to the bigots in the South” and had no interest in observing the niceties of the occasion. As the pair wandered around the Rose Garden getting acquainted with each other, they were button-holed by Attorney General John Mitchell. Jackie began to interrogate Mitchell on the administration’s Civil Rights agenda and Mitchell, missing Jackie’s point about as badly as he would have missed a Gibson slider, began to babble about a secret policy his Justice Department was developing to quell “urban unrest.”  Gibson said: “That sounds like a lot of bullshit.” And Jackie followed up by telling Mitchell that it appeared his plan for the cities had “more to do with protecting the interests of whites than helping people in Black neighborhoods.” Thus was the friendship between the two iconoclasts forged.

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By the 1970s, as the cartilage in Gibson’s knees wore down and he approached the end of his playing career, he began negotiations with Busch about acquiring a beer distributorship, which the Busch family had provided for two other recently retired Cardinal stars, Stan Musial and Roger Maris. Maris was handed one, even though he only played with St. Louis for two seasons. Then in 1972, the Players Association went on strike over the owner’s miserly contributions to the players’ pension fund. The strike lasted 13 days and the Players’ Association prevailed, the first of many victories for what soon became the most powerful union in the country. Gibson was still the Cards’ player rep and the Busch family apparently blamed him for the labor stoppage and ended all discussions about the distributorship that Gibson had been led to believe would secure his family’s financial future after baseball.

Gibson pitched his last game against the Chicago Cubs in 1975. He knew his body was shot after giving up a grand slam home run to a weak-hitting part-time player named Pete LaCock, the son of gameshow host Peter Marshall and the actress Joanna Dru. It was the last week of the season and the Cards were supposed to finish up by facing the Mets in New York. Gibson chose not to make the trip, in part because the last time the team had played in New York he’d gotten a death threat, a serious one apparently. After 17 years in the big leagues, Bob Gibson still managed to get under people’s skin like no other player in baseball.

When he told Cardinals General Manager Bing DeVine, who’d been with the team Gibson’s entire career, that he was hanging up his cleats, DeVine picked Gibson’s brain about the status of the team and what kind of changes the club needed to make another run at the pennant. DeVine told Gibson there might be a future for him in the organization. But Gibson writes in his memoir that after he left DeVine’s office, he never heard from the Cardinals again.

The closest Gibson came to hearing back from St. Louis was in 1982 when he was offered the managerial position for the Louisville Redbirds by club owner A. Ray Smith. Gibson wanted the job. But the Redbirds were the AAA affiliate of the Cardinals and the Busch family vetoed the hiring, still aggrieved with Gibson seven years after he’d thrown his last pitch.

Gibson knew that there were consequences for Black players who spoke out and he paid them his entire career. So he picked his moments. Gibson’s wife Charline was a Civil Rights activist and regularly attended protests in Omaha and St. Louis, often with the two Gibson daughters, Renee and Annette. Gibson would drive them to the demonstrations but didn’t trust himself to get out of the car and join them on the streets. He said that if he saw a bigot or a cop throw something or spit at a member of his family, he feared he would become violent.

“There are two distinct branches of the Gibson clan,” Gibson said. “One that practices civil disobedience and one that doesn’t. Like my mother, I was of the latter branch.”

Sources

Bob Gibson with Phil Pepe, From Ghetto to Glory: the Story of Bob Gibson, Popular Library, 1968.

Bob Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler, Stranger to the Game: The Autobiography of Bob Gibson, Viking, 1994.

David Halberstam, October 1964, Villard, 1994.

John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro, One Nation Under Baseball: How the Sixties Collided With the National Pastime, University of Nebraska, 2017.

Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody, Getting Open: the Unknown Story of the Integration of College Basketball, Atria Books, 2006.

Casey Pfeiffer, “Bill Garrett and the Integration of Big Ten Basketball,” Indiana Historical Bureau, Indiana State Library, March 15, 2016.

Jeff English, “Jackie Robinson: Republican,” Jackie: Perspectives on 42, Society of American Baseball Research, 2021.

A version of this essay originally ran in CounterPunch +.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3