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Hoot and 1.12

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  • Hoot and 1.12

    Gibson's 1.12 ERA one of baseball's greatest feats, mysteries

    April 8, 2008
    By Scott Miller Senior Writer
    Tell Scott your opinion!

    So I'm sitting in the dugout talking with Joe Torre about something that happened 40 years ago when his All-Star catcher, Russell Martin, walks by.
    Dusty Baker on Gibson's '68 season: 'You almost had to pitch a shutout to beat him.' (US Presswire)
    "Hey Russell, did you know that Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA back in '68 and still lost nine games?" Torre asks.
    Martin pauses, digests the thought and then, confounded, comes back with a really revealing question.
    "They make a lot of errors behind him?" Martin asks.
    Forty years ago, Gibson produced one of the most incredible pitching performances ever, a season so dominating that the only aspect more impressive than the raw statistics is the fact that he single-handedly changed the game.
    It was a season so unique and extraordinary that, viewed from a 40-year distance and today's landscape, it's nearly as incomprehensible as physics to a roomful of Labrador Retrievers.
    No, Gibson didn't lose nine games that summer because his St. Louis Cardinals couldn't field.
    The reason he lost nine games is because he pitched 304 2/3 innings in '68, racking up 28 complete games. Start after start, he worked into the late innings, with games on the line and decisions being earned.
    It's no wonder Martin wondered about the errors. Today's pitching is utterly different, both in performance and approach. The 20-game winner is a diminishing species today because so many starters yield to bullpens by the sixth or seventh inning, and the game can be decided sometimes after that.
    Gibson? His singular achievement in 1968 stands out even as simply one line on a Hall of Fame resume, the masterpiece in a roomful of classics.
    "A 1.12 ERA ... that's not one bad start," Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker says. "That's just unbelievable. One thing you knew, when he was on the mound that day, your batting average was going to take a beating.
    "And equally as devastating, as soon as you gave up two runs as a pitcher, it was game (over). You almost had to pitch a shutout to beat him.
    "And what's so amazing were the hitters he was facing. That era probably had more Hall of Famers per capita than any other. Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Billy Williams, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose ... and guys like Joe Torre and Jimmy Wynn."
    How many men become so good that a sport changes its rules as a result? In most of our lifetimes, we've seen only two: The NCAA banned dunking for a time in reaction to Lew Alcindor's dominance while at UCLA, and baseball lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10 after Gibson's extraordinary season of 1968.
    "He ruined it for all of us," two-time NL Cy Young winner Tom Glavine complains in sort of a half-joke, half-truth.
    "They don't make many rules changes in this league," Torre says. "The NFL, the NBA, hockey ... they're changing rules all the time. Players get bigger, they widen the key or change the three-point line.
    "But when they decided to lower the mound ... it changed the game. And it drove away some sinkerball pitchers."
    And it left Glavine and his colleagues today dreaming of what it might be like to work atop a mound that must have seemed like a skyscraper, a full 50 percent higher than today's bump.
    "Those numbers are so removed from what today's game is," Glavine says of Gibson's 1.12 and 300-plus innings pitched. "It's impossible to imagine how good he really was.
    "Unfortunately, some of us didn't get to see him in his prime. And the ramifications of what he did are bad for the rest of us, with the mound lowered. How many times do you see one guy in his sport cause a change in the rules?"
    Not that Glavine, good-natured or not, is the only Cy Young winner bitter about how baseball has skewed everything toward the hitters -- lower mounds, designated hitter, smaller strike zone -- since Gibson's dominance.
    Four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux grins when told of his ex-teammate's reaction, then goes sarcastic in imagining the immediate reaction to Gibson's season: "Oh, no, we can't have this. Let's lower the mound. Somebody might do it again."
    Thing is, even in the old era of the higher mound, Gibson's season pretty much was unparalleled: His 1.12 ERA is the fourth-lowest in history and, of the 40 lowest single-season ERA's only Gibson's came after 1920.
    Forty years later, it remains a stunning number that never fails to stir the imaginations of today's generation.
    "You talk about hitters hitting .400," Maddux says. "A 1.12 ERA would be like a hitter maybe hitting .430.
    "That's just not realistic. If it happens, it would be extremely magical. It would be a combination of unbelievable pitching over six months and catching a few breaks along the way."
    Maddux knows a few things about that: His 1.56 ERA in 1994 is the second-lowest since Gibson's (the Mets' Dwight Gooden finished at 1.53 in 1985). Typically humble, though, Maddux quickly places an asterisk, so to speak, on his 1.56.
    "It was a strike-shortened season," he says modestly.
    Now beginning his 23rd season in the majors, the fact that Maddux somehow has never met Gibson probably is a testament to the fact that Maddux is remarkably ego-free despite his highly decorated career -- if you didn't know him or what he has done, you'd be hard-pressed to pick him out of a clubhouse lineup, he's so quiet and humble -- and Gibson doesn't exactly have the reputation of being a people person.
    "Nice guy," says Hall of Famer Al Kaline, who faced Gibson in the '68 World Series. "Great guy. I've gotten to know him over the years. But he was one of those kinds of guys who just didn't talk to you back then."
    You've no doubt heard the legendary stories of Gibson snarling at hitters. Here are two more:
    Torre, who would become a teammate and good friend of Gibson's after going to St. Louis in a trade before the 1969 season, still talks about the time he was catching for the NL All-Star team in Minnesota in 1965. And because Torre was wearing a Milwaukee Braves uniform at the time, Gibson wouldn't talk to him.
    "I went out to the mound during the game to make a point about something, and he just looked at me," Torre says.
    And as a wide-eyed rookie in the mid-1960s -- 1964 or 1965, he thinks -- Detroit outfielder Willie Horton recalls riding the team bus to St. Petersburg, Fla., during spring training hoping to meet the Cardinals' legend. Understand, Horton had just played a Grapefruit League game in Winter Haven the day before and wasn't even scheduled to play in St. Pete.
    "I just wanted to meet Gibson and get his autograph," Horton says. "I waited for him, and introduced myself and asked him for his autograph, and he was going to do it.
    "First, though, he asked me what position I played. I told him, and, well, I won't tell you what he said. I went back to our clubhouse and told Gates Brown about it, and Gates laughed and said, 'You never should have made the bus trip.'"
    There was a method to Gibby's madness, as the autograph-less Horton would see a few years later. It was Horton's Tigers who faced the Cardinals in the '68 World Series as Gibson was finishing his legendary season. And it was in Game 1 when Gibson set a World Series record by striking out 17 Tigers. It is a record that still stands, and you can only wonder what the Tigers' scouting report was going into the Series on Gibson following that regular season.
    "We really didn't have a great scouting report on him," Hall of Famer Kaline says. "We knew exactly what he was, a fastball-slider pitcher with great control. We knew he would try to be intimidating and brush you back.
    "I'm glad I didn't have to face him much through my career, I'll tell you that."
    Kaline fanned three times in Game 1, and Horton twice.
    "He was untouchable," says Horton, whose second whiff was Gibson's record-setting 17th. "He got me for No. 17 looking. I'll never forget it. I can shut my eyes and see it now. A slider. He had me set up to put me away with his best pitch, and it came at me hard and dipped. It froze me in my tracks."
    Though Gibson won Games 1 and 4, he was the losing pitcher in Game 7 as the Tigers edged St. Louis. The final score of the final game was 4-1, another clue into how Gibson could lose nine games in '68 with that 1.12 ERA. Though the Cards did rank fourth in the NL in runs scored, sometimes Ferguson Jenkins, Juan Marichal or Tom Seaver simply would shut them down.
    Torre smiles as he recalls the times after he joined the Cards in '69 that Gibson would be involved in a taut pitcher's duel and, while the Cardinals were hitting (or trying to), Gibson would rage at them in the dugout, yelling "I'm sick of you a--holes" and storm away, into the clubhouse.
    "Then we'd score and he'd come back into the dugout and say, "That's my team," Torre says.
    For a pitcher or hitter, it usually was -- and still is -- impossible to live up to Gibson's accomplishments and expectations.
    "Gibson could have pitched from underneath the mound, he was so good," says Boston legend Johnny Pesky, who was long since retired when Gibson was dominating but closely watched him from afar, especially in the 1967 Cardinals-Red Sox World Series.
    Torre, meanwhile, tells of managing the Atlanta Braves in 1982, when Gibson was his pitching coach and the club's playoff race went to the final day of the season. Owner Ted Turner was with the Braves in San Diego that day as the team was attempting to hold off Los Angeles for the NL West title.
    "We didn't have batting practice that day, and I was sitting in the clubhouse," Torre says. "I remember telling Gibby, 'If I had one wish, it's that I could hand you the ball today.'
    "He didn't say anything, and pretty soon Ted walked in and I said, 'I was just telling Bob that if I had one wish today...' and you could see the wheels turning. Ted asked, 'Can we? Can we?'"
    You can still see the wheels turning today, in the minds of Gibson's peers like Torre, Kaline and Horton, who flash through mental images from a distant time, and on the faces of modern players such as Martin, Glavine and Maddux who play a completely different game in a completely different era.
    Forty years later, that 1.12 still hangs up there like a neon light, one of baseball's greatest feats ... and in some ways today, one of the game's greatest mysteries.

    June 9, 1973 - The day athletic perfection was defined.

  • #2
    great talent, but these stories added to the ones that are out there about him, really make him sound like an ass.
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    • #3
      That's still just a completely impossible number for me to fathom.

      1.12 over a full season, pitching over 300 innings. Just unreal.
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      • #4
        Originally posted by ElviswasaBluesFan View Post
        great talent, but these stories added to the ones that are out there about him, really make him sound like an ass.
        Gibby thrived because of the chip he carried on his shoulder.
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        • #5
          Gooden's 1.53 in 1985, and Maddux's 1.56 in 1994 seem to be pretty huge to me. Both with the lower mound and Maddux doing it in the era of big offenses seems pretty awesome.
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          • #6
            Maddux says no because it was a strike season.
            Sometimes elections have positive consequences!


            • #7
              Originally posted by madyaks View Post
              Gooden's 1.53 in 1985, and Maddux's 1.56 in 1994 seem to be pretty huge to me. Both with the lower mound and Maddux doing it in the era of big offenses seems pretty awesome.
              how many innings did Gooden pitch and did he face hitters like Aaron, Mays, Clemente, Rose, etc? Dont think so.
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