By Glen Sparks
Albert Einstein published three papers in 1905, “each of which revolutionized its field,” columnist Charles Krauthammer has written.
One paper focused on the special theory of relativity, another on Brownian motion and a third on the photoelectric effect. (No, I don’t understand any of this stuff. Not at all.) Krauthammer called Einstein’s work “probably the single most concentrated display of genius since the invention of the axle.” (The invention of the wheel was easy, Krauthammer wrote. It was the axle that was hard.) Einstein had a good year.
But, did the great physicist enjoy as good a year as Bob Gibson did in 1968? I jest, but …
The St. Louis Cardinals ace, elected to the Hall of Fame on this date in 1981, whipped through the ’68 season with a teeny-tiny 1.12 ERA (258 ERA+), still the lowest mark in the live-ball era. Gibby tossed 13 shutouts, the most since Grover “Pete” Alexander threw 16 in 1916. Ready for some more numbers? Gibson only gave up 198 hits in 304 innings and completed 28 of his 34 starts. He finished 22-9 … He lost nine times?
In the year of the pitcher, “Hoot,” as many called him, was The Pitcher. Hitters couldn’t catch up to his sizzling fastball. They whimpered at his devastating slider. They put up a white flag at his knee-buckling curveball. And, of course, they didn’t dare dig into the batter’s box. No, they would never do that. As Gibson explains in the book 100 Things Cardinals Fans Should Know and Do before They Die by Derrick Goold, he not only commanded two types of fastballs, two sliders, a curve and change-up, he also kept “knockdown, brushback and hits-batsman” pitches in his arsenal. Yes, the famous Gibson mean streak was for real.
The right-hander, from Creighton, Neb., put together his incredible season following an injury-marred 1967 campaign. He went just 13-7 with a 2.98 ERA that year. The great Roberto Clemente broke up Gibson’s season and his right fibula July 15 when he hit a line drive back to the pitcher’s box. Gibson being Gibson, the St. Louis ace faced three more hitters before he left the game, out until Sept. 7.
Then, Gibby took the mound in the World Series against the Boston Red Sox, and what did he do? He started three games, completed all three and won all three. He struck out 26 uneasy batters in 27 innings, gave up only 14 hits and posted a 1.00 ERA. Whew. The Cardinals beat the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox in seven games to win the World Series, in the year that Boston slugger Carl Yastrzemski won the American League Triple Crown.
That postseason set up the 1968 campaign. On April 20, Gibson surrendered three earned runs in nine innings against the Chicago Cubs, in his third start of the season. Then, the league surrendered. Gibson’s ERA was 2.35 after that game, the highest it would ever be after any start that year.
Amazingly, Gibson’s won-loss record stood at just 4-5 on June 2 despite his 1.66 ERA. He simply didn’t get any run support. So, Gibson just got better. He went 18-4 the reason of the way with a 0.87 ERA, including a 0.27 run from June 6 through July 30. (That was 11 starts, 11 complete games, 99 innings pitched, three earned runs.) As late as Sept. 2, following a 10-inning shutout against the Cincinnati Reds, Gibson’s ERA rested nicely just below 1.00 (0.99).
Gibson’s ERA in his 22 victories was 0.57
Dan Moore in his 2012 book The Ultimate Cardinals Record Book breaks it down this way: In Gibson’s 22 victories, his ERA was 0.57, just incredible. In his nine losses, His ERA rose to a still fantastic 2.14 (That mark would have been good for sixth best in the National League in ’68). He threw five games on three days’ rest; he tossed four shutouts. The numbers seem both phenomenal and a bit silly. Against losing teams, he had an ERA of 1.03, against winning teams, 1.25. He stood in command against everyone.
Gibson gave up more than three earned runs in a game just twice (four in 11 innings against the Cubs on Aug. 4 and four against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sept. 11.) He surrendered two or fewer runs in 26 starts and recorded 11 double-digit strikeout games in an era when hitters choked up on the bat and didn’t swing for the fences on two-strike counts.
Just like in 1967, the Cardinals went to the World Series in 1968, this time against the Detroit Tigers. Once again, Gibson was superb. Once again, he made three starts and completed all of them. His Game 1 start–nine innings, five hits, one walk 17 strikeouts—may be the best game ever pitched in the World Series. Gibby struck out 10 and yielded a lone run in a Game 4 win. Unfortunately, he came up a bit short in Game 7 this time.
Not surprisingly, Bob Gibson took home the N.L. MVP and the Cy Young award in 1968. Oddly, no small country decided to crown him king. Here is something else interesting, though. Over in the A.L., Denny McLain compiled a nifty 31-6 won-loss record and an impressive 1.96 ERA (154 ERA+). He was the A.L.’s MVP and Cy Young Award winner. But, was he truly Gibson’s counterpart? No, not really. McLain had a 7.4 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in 1968. Gibson had an 11.2. He was above 7.4 by the end of July.
Of course, Gibson did more in his career than just make 1968 his masterpiece. He compiled a 251-174 career record with a 2.91 ERA (127 ERA+). He won at least 20 games five times and earned a second Cy Young in 1970 when he went 23-7.
Hoot led the Cardinals to three pennants and to championships in 1964 and ‘67. He struck out 3,117 batters in his career. In nine World Series starts, Gibson went 7-2 with a 1.89 ERA. He threw eight complete games and two shutouts, giving up just 55 hits in 81 innings. And even though he threw with an off-balanced violent motion that swept him toward first base as he released the pitch, he still won nine Gold Glove awards.
You can’t hit this
The 6-foot-1-inch right-hander didn’t talk to opponents, and he didn’t like visits to the mound from managers, catchers or anyone else. His typical response to any attempt at helpful advice: “The only thing you know about pitching is that you couldn’t (or can’t) hit it.”
Gibson said his surly demeanor help keep him sharp for the game. The writers respected him enough to make him the 11th first-ballot Hall of Famer in baseball history. Reflecting on his 1968 campaign, Gibson said in 100 Things that “You only have a year like that once in a lifetime where everything is just right.”
Everything went just right for Gibson in 1968. Even so, the Gibson/Einstein debate remains interesting. Gibson majored in sociology at Creighton University. So, he probably didn’t study much about physics. Of course, Einstein probably couldn’t throw a slider.