Bob Gibson had a Hall of Fame career, holds a revered status among the pantheon of St. Louis Cardinals greats, and even contributed mightily to changing the way baseball is played.
But he's never had a statue of himself put up in his hometown.
“I've never seen Bob as moved as he has been leading up to these moments, and Bob's not a guy who shows movement easily,” said Tim McCarver, Gibson's longtime Cardinals catcher. “When he's moved, it's like a mountain being moved.”
A near-perfect cross-section of Gibson's baseball career gathered Wednesday in the Omaha area, paying tribute to the hometown hall of famer at a banquet at the La Vista Embassy Suites, on the eve of the unveiling of the Gibson statue outside Werner Park.
Gibson, along with former teammates McCarver, Joe Torre and Bill White, renewed acquaintances and swapped stories, beginning with a press conference.
The statue will be revealed at the ballpark of the Class AAA Omaha Storm Chasers just west of Papillion in an 11 a.m. ceremony Thursday. Besides the ex-Cardinals who gathered Wednesday, people expected to be on hand include Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, St. Louis Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., and Gibson statue sculptor Littleton Alston.
Investor Warren Buffett and Werner Enterprises founder Clarence “C.L.” Werner were among the initial local figures to fund the project.
Gibson said the hometown recognition is humbling.
“That speaks for itself,” he said. “There's a statue of several players in St. Louis (including Gibson), and that was wonderful. But for them to honor you like that here, I don't know that you can beat that. Period.”
Gibson, 78, chuckled when asked about whether he ever thought while growing up in Omaha that one day there'd be a statue of him.
“I thought about being the best I can possibly be at whatever it was I tried to do,” he said. “I got into college (at Creighton), and I wanted to be the best basketball player on the team. I wanted to be the best baseball player on the team.
“I got into pro ball and I wanted to be the best pitcher on the team. I never thought about maybe one day there'll be a statue, or maybe I'll get in the Hall of Fame. You just don't think about those things. At least you didn't back then. Now, the way the press is, if you have two or three good years they put you in the Hall of Fame anyway, so you do think about it.”
Gibson's exploits are still legendary. In 17 major-league seasons he won 251 games, struck out 3,117 batters, won two Cy Young Awards and a Most Valuable Player trophy, and set a modern record with his 1.12 ERA in 1968.
The “Gibson Rules,” which lowered the pitching mound from 15 inches to 10 inches and adjusted the strike zone, went into effect the following season.
Before attending Creighton, Gibson was a star at Omaha Tech High School. Later he pitched professionally for the Omaha Cardinals in parts of the 1957, 1958 and 1959 seasons. He also spent some time with the Harlem Globetrotters.
He reached the major leagues in 1959, where White and McCarver were his teammates.
White recalled the Cardinals' fight to finally integrate spring training in the early 1960s.
“I always appreciated that I was part of that group,” said White, citing Gibson, Curt Flood and George Crowe. “We were tough. We could play baseball. We could do a lot of things. We had some exposure to college. Not too much has been said about what we, the Cardinals, did.”
Said Gibson: “After that, we just started kicking everybody's (tails).”
Joe Torre, who joined the Cardinals in 1969, took awhile to come around to Gibson, of course. He told the story of catching for Gibson in the 1965 All-Star Game, when they were National League teammates. Gibson didn't speak to him — Torre wasn't a teammate.
“It's been something special once I got to shake his hand,” Torre said. “You have to understand that when you played for an opposing team, even though you're on the same All-Star team, he doesn't acknowledge you.
“I hated this man. But I was traded in 1969, and he was the first guy to welcome me. We gradually became friends, and I'm proud to say it's lasted a long time.”
Early in his legendary managerial career, Torre hired Gibson as the New York Mets' “attitude coach.”
Gibson, a right-hander who had a devastating slider, also had legendary competitiveness.
McCarver said he was trying to find the perfect way to demonstrate it, and remembered talking about Steve Carlton at a banquet the night before Carlton's induction into the Hall of Fame.
McCarver said then that if Carl Hubbell is known for having the best screwball ever, and Sandy Koufax the best curveball, and Nolan Ryan the best fastball, then the left-handed Carlton would go down as having the best slider.
While hugging Carlton after the speech, McCarver saw Gibson “swimming” through a crowd of people to talk.
“He gets about six inches from my face, and he says (of Carlton), 'The best left-handed slider,'” McCarver said. “That's Bob Gibson. And that's what we're celebrating.”
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