Surely it was gone. Surely someone had grabbed it from Burdette Field and taken it home to the housing projects and now Bob Gibson wouldn't have a baseball glove.
He was just a kid. He was devastated.
The next Saturday, Gibson returned to Burdette hoping for a miracle. He found his glove on a bench, right where he left it.
It was so beaten up, he figured, nobody wanted it.
Sixty-five years later, Gibson's glove is bronzed. The greatest athlete Omaha has ever produced — and one of the toughest sons-of-a-gun major league baseball has ever known — stood under his new 1,000-pound statue Thursday morning and fought back tears.
“There's really no explanation for the feeling I have inside,” Gibson said. “I'm elated.”
Elated that a couple hundred dignitaries and fans turned out on a crummy April morning to praise him. Elated that 38 years after his last fastball, his hometown found a new way to honor him.
Gibson is 77. And though he looks a decade younger, he recognizes the symbolic power of an art piece that will outlive his body. Even bronze, though, can't outlast his legend.
You hear it in the words of Bill White, who played with and against Gibson. Describe him.
“Mean,” White said. “And a winner.”
You hear it in the words of Tim McCarver, who caught Game One of the 1968 World Series, when Gibson struck out 17 Detroit Tigers, a major league record. McCarver thinks about Gibson every day, he says. He'll think about him till the day he dies.
“My hand still hurts,” he said.
You hear it in the words of Joe Torre, who played six years with Gibson in St. Louis.
Pitchers today try to keep batters from swinging, Torre said. They try to attack weaknesses. Gibson didn't waste his time. He knew his strengths and challenged hitters — “Here, I dare you.”
You hear it in the words of Warren Buffett, who met Gibson more than 50 years ago and calls the Hall of Famer one of his heroes.
Ten or 15 years ago, Buffett said, he grabbed a bat and faced Gibson for fun.
“I did not crowd the plate,” Buffett said. “I saw him wind up and the next thing I heard was strike one. He wound up again, strike two. The third time, the same thing happened and the umpire said strike three.
“And I turned back to him and I said, 'I think that last pitch sounded a little high.'”
When Torre saw the cover come off the statue Thursday morning, the first thing he noticed was the bronze right hand, coiled around Gibson's body.
“The animation of it,” Torre said. “This is him letting the ball go. If you continue it, his rear end is going to be facing the plate. That's how much energy he had going toward the plate.”
Gibson didn't choose the pose — that was sculptor Littleton Alston's job. He did, however, participate in the creation. Alston invited him one day to the studio, where he instructed Gibson to lie face-up on a table. He applied clay to Gibson's face, leaving only a hole for his nose.
“He had two straws sticking through my nose so I could breathe,” Gibson said. “That wasn't very much fun.”
Gibson, with straws sticking out of his nose? Hard to imagine.
Said Alston: “I'm a pro. I also know my craft. But I do say this: For a split second, as I was mixing the alginate — the rubber — I looked down at him and he was very measured and concentrating. And I thought, how fortunate it is that this is being done now.”
Thirty-two years after his Hall of Fame induction. Forty-five years after his 17 strikeouts. Fifty-six years after he started a career in baseball. But not too late.
Just before the unveiling, Gibson climbed a makeshift stage in the frigid tent outside Werner Park. The crowd rose to applaud him. He stepped before the microphone, soaked it in and smiled.
“I feel like I should do something,” he said.
The cheers continued. He'd done enough.
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