Pitch by Pitch: My View of One Unforgettable Game gets inside the head of Bob Gibson on October 2, 1968, when he took the mound for game one of the World Series against the Detroit Tigers and struck out a record seventeen batters.
With the tension rising in the stadium, an uproarious crowd behind him, and the record for the for the most strikeouts thrown in a World Series game on the line, Gibson, known as one of the most intimidating pitchers in baseball history, relives every inning and each pitch of this iconic game. Facing down batter after batter, he breaks down his thought process and recounts in vivid and candid details his analysis of the players who stepped into the batter's box against him, his control of both the ball and the elements of the day, and his moments of synchronicity with his teammate Tim McCarver, all while capturing the fascinating relationship and unspoken dialogue that carries on between pitcher and catcher over the course of nine critical innings.
From the dugout to the locker room, Gibson offers a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of the players, the team's chemistry, and clubhouse culture. He recounts the story of Curt Flood, Gibson's best friend and the Cardinal center fielder, who would go on to become one of the pioneers of free agency; shares colorful anecdotes of his interactions with some of baseball's most unforgettable names, from Denny McLain and Roger Maris to Sandy Koufax and Harry Caray; and relives the confluence of events, both on and off the field, that led to one of hisand baseball'smost memorable games ever.
This deep, unfiltered insider look at one particular afternoon of baseball allows for a better understanding of how pros play the game and all the variables that a pitcher contends with as he navigates his way through a formidable lineup. Gibson's extraordinary and engrossing tale is retold from the unique viewpoint of an extremely perceptive pitcher who happens to be one of baseball's all-time greats.
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About the Author
BOB GIBSON is a baseball Hall of Famer who played seventeen seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals. During that time he won two Cy Young Awards and pitched for two World Series champs. Along with coauthor Lonnie Wheeler, he is also the author of Stranger to the Game: The Autobiography of Bob Gibson and Sixty Feet, Six Inches, which was written with Reggie Jackson.
LONNIE WHEELER has written numerous baseball books and collaborated with baseball greats from Bob Gibson and Hank Aaron to Reggie Jackson and Mike Piazza.
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Pitch by Pitch
My View of One Unforgettable Game
By Bob Gibson, Lonnie Wheeler
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2015 Bob Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler
All rights reserved.
IN 1968, I hated the first inning a little less than I had before. Over my career, the first, for me, was the worst of times. My earned run average for the first inning was an even 4.00, more than a run higher than the rest of the game. In the second, it plummeted to about half that much.
The problem, mainly, was control. Over my seventeen years in the big leagues, I walked 203 batters in the first inning, which was 37 more than any other. That might not sound so terrible, but consider that the leadoff and second hitters are typically Punch-and-Judy guys who have not earned the privilege of being pitched to carefully. I was loath to put a batter like that on base without giving him a chance to send Curt Flood a lovely can of corn. I'd pour it at him and let the little fellow hack away to his heart's content. At least, that was my intention. And yet, time and again, year after year, I began the game by letting one of those nuisances off the hook with four infuriating balls. Walking a singles hitter was a sin, and I was a wretched first-inning reprobate. To make it worse, the leadoff spot piled up a better batting average against me than any other place in the lineup, followed by the two hole, followed by the three. Inning one was my Valley of Doom.
For a long time, I assumed that I was warming up improperly in the bullpen. So I fooled around with different routines. I tried throwing for seven or eight minutes, sitting down for a while, then throwing another for seven or eight, simulating the flow of the game. Didn't help. Other times I'd crank up the velocity and effort level. Nothing seemed to make a difference. One night, I thought I'd stumbled upon a miracle cure. I'd washed my car that afternoon, then went out and pitched a gem with some of my best stuff of the season. Voilà! Naturally, I was out there soaping and scrubbing again five days later. Got lit up that night. There was another time when I shut somebody down after having an argument earlier in the day with my wife; but I didn't think it advisable to make a habit out of that. So I just stayed the course with what seemed sensible: loosening up, getting a feel for the breaking ball, finding the corners, and going all-out for the last few pitches.
Then, in 1968, the problem was suddenly solved. The breakthrough wasn't in my warm-up; it was in my control.
My ability to put the ball where I wanted it had been improving, if sometimes negligibly, since midway through the summer of 1961, when Johnny Keane relieved Solly Hemus as the Cardinal manager. I'd been unpolished when I arrived in St. Louis in 1959, and that might be an understatement — I led the league in walks in '61, my first year in the rotation — but my pitching skills weren't as hopeless as Hemus would have had me think. He held them in such contempt that, when he went over an opposing team's scouting report with the pitching staff, he'd pause and tell me not to worry about all that stuff, just try to throw some strikes. Maybe that's why I felt as I did about scouting reports. And Solly Hemus.
Johnny Keane, on the other hand, a milder man who had studied for the priesthood, was a cultivator and guardian of my confidence, which is something a pitcher requires when he's trying to locate a hard slider on the edge of the plate under the glare of thirty thousand people, including a couple base runners and, sixty and a half feet away, Hank Aaron. Or any other time he lets it fly. Although Keane was long gone by 1968, supplanted by Red Schoendienst, I truly believe that my success that year was mostly attributable to the trust I had that the ball was going to end up right where it was supposed to. To a degree that impressed both me and McCarver, it did so with inspiring regularity. I had become a control pitcher. Fastball, breaking ball; didn't matter. In 1968, I felt that I could close my eyes and sling the thing behind my back — I'd been a Harlem Globetrotter, after all — and it would find its way to the outside corner. The baseball had become my smart bomb.
Nevertheless, my first pitch to Dick McAuliffe was considerably high and outside. McCarver put his target in the center of the plate, at the top of McAuliffe's thigh, and I made him stand up, reaching left, to catch it.
* * *
I SUPPOSE YOU could blame that one on the World Series.
You'd think, by then, I wouldn't have let it get to me. I'd started three Series games in 1964 when we beat the Yankees and three more in 1967 when we beat the Red Sox, won the last five of them, which left me tied for the National League record, and been named the Series MVP on both occasions. So I wasn't awed and I wasn't frightened and I wasn't trying to do more than I'd done before. The only thing new to my experience was pitching game one in front of the home crowd, which happened to be the largest crowd in the history of Busch Stadium, with everybody a little louder than usual, and dressed better, in spite of so many men wearing silly white straw hats, courtesy of some giveaway or another. Like any World Series, there were cameras and umpires everywhere. None of that rattled me. But my adrenaline ran on pride, and my pride was fed by winning, and the World Series made my stomach growl. I was overeager, is all. A little too hungry. It only lasted a pitch.
The second one was another fastball, a four-seamer about 96 or 97 miles an hour on the inside corner at the waist, cutting toward McAuliffe's hands. Because of the action on it, a lot of batters mistook my four-seam fastball for a slider. I didn't change my grip to cut the ball that way — and we didn't call it a cutter in those days — but I held the four- seamer on the side a little bit and the movement happened naturally. McCarver says it was because of my deformed fingers. I wouldn't describe them that way, but my fingers are oddly symmetrical. My little finger matches my index finger in length, and the middle two stand even, as well. I have no idea what effect that might have had on the geometry of my pitches, but I do know that it had less — if there was any to start with — when I threw the four-seamer down in the strike zone, which I didn't do often. The four-seamer was the faster of my two fastballs, and I preferred to elevate it, especially to left-handers, like McAuliffe, who had to turn things up a notch to handle a pitch boring in on their fists at that speed. It was important to find out, as soon as possible, if he could do that. McAuliffe was a batter with whom I took nothing at face value.
I paid attention to a batter's stance, and generally factored it into my approach, but it can be hazardous to draw hard conclusions from such superficial information. For one thing, nearly every batter arrives at the same position to address the ball. For another, there was Dick McAuliffe. The Tigers' second baseman stood with his back foot close to the plate, his shoulders and hips pointed to first base, and his bat held up at ear level, his hands actually out in front of his nose. When a guy sets up with a dramatically open stance like that, it's tempting to assume he can't reach a pitch on the outside half of the plate. On the other hand, he has to close his stance and stride forward as he approaches the ball, which, ordinarily, made me inclined to bust him inside. But McAuliffe added a twist to that norm. After he picked up his right foot to start his swing and, ostensibly, square his body, he would put it down very close to where it had been to begin with. His shoulders never really squared. Even as the first pitch sailed outside, his motion had kept him positioned to pull it, if he could.
McAuliffe was unconventional in more ways than just that. He didn't fit the profile of a leadoff hitter. While he had the size and scrappiness associated with that spot, he didn't bat for a high average. He did, however, collect a fair number of home runs — 16 that year, after three of the previous four seasons in the low 20s. I respected power. I also respected McAuliffe's competitiveness. In August, he'd earned a five-game suspension for rushing the mound and separating Tommy John's shoulder after John had buzzed him twice. His teammates called him Mad Dog. They knew better than to try to engage him in conversation before a ball game. He was the kind of player I could appreciate.
He was also one who thrived on challenges, much like me. Challenging, in pitching parlance, involves fastballs on the inner half of the plate, a standard point of origin for long flies that reach the seats. There was significant risk in challenging a guy with McAuliffe's home run potential; but I wasn't inclined to tread lightly with the leadoff hitter. The Tigers had enough big boppers in the middle of the order for whom I'd have to reserve my discretion. McAuliffe was getting the fastball in. I don't recall what the scouting report suggested for him, because I didn't pay it a lot of attention — the reports were based on what the Detroit hitters did against the fastballs and sliders of other pitchers, not mine — but I'm pretty sure it wasn't that. I didn't care. I needed to get started with my own scouting. McAuliffe, matching no familiar stereotype, was the kind of hitter I'd have to figure out for myself, probing, mixing, and challenging.
He swung from his heels and missed.
I went next with a slider away. It was the pitch that McCarver believed, and still believes — I don't disagree with him, which is a little unusual, in spite of our fast friendship — carried me to a higher level in 1968. In spring training that year, Tim had encouraged me to throw it. I'd always had difficulty controlling my breaking pitches on the arm side of the plate, which is outside to a left-handed hitter, and was reluctant to throw a slider that I was afraid might sweep right into the sweet spot over the middle. But McCarver convinced me that my control had improved enough that I could now deliver that pitch with conviction. He was right, and it made a profound difference. Left-handers were still the hitters that most threatened me, as a rule, but in 1968 I felt that I'd finally grabbed the upper hand against them. The numbers bore that out.
This slider, however, sailed high and wide for ball two.
McAuliffe hadn't yet seen the two-seam fastball. Because of the spin that carries it downward, the two-seamer is a heavier pitch than the four-seam fastball. With the sinking action, though, I wouldn't throw it inside to a left-handed hitter. For the most part, I didn't like to deliver anything down and in to lefties, because a pitch there is too easy for them to reach and rip by turning — McAuliffe, of course, was already turned — and dropping the bat head. I wouldn't have minded putting the two-seamer in that spot if I'd been able to start it off the inside corner to a left-hander and make it curl back for a strike, the pitch that Greg Maddux later perfected. But since I couldn't pull that off, I tried to keep it on the outer edge. The two-seamer to McAuliffe didn't quite make it there. It was down and centered, but that was effectively outside to him. He popped it foul on the third-base side, behind the Tigers' dugout, out of Mike Shannon's reach.
With the two-seamer on a 2-1 count, my preference would have been a ground ball to Julian Javier at second base. But now I was in strikeout position. Of the four pitches I'd thrown to McAuliffe, only one had resulted in a swing and miss. I went with another four-seamer at the belt, and got the same result.
* * *
NOT LONG AGO I was sitting in a St. Louis restaurant, near the new Busch Stadium, with Tim McCarver, and we were talking about my curveball. Actually, I was talking about my curveball, and he was swearing I never threw one. This is the man who caught me for seven full years and parts of three others. The man with whom, on the ball field, I shared such a singleness of mind that I'd often start my motion before he was finished giving his sign. The man with whom, off the field, I treasured a connection that, from the time we met in 1959 — me a blunt, stubborn black man and Tim a rugged white teenager from Memphis, Tennessee, with all the sensibilities which that implies — had evolved both unforeseeably and wonderfully.
When Tim called for a slider, I was liable to throw him either of two breaking pitches. The main one, released with a stiff wrist, was a hard slider with good velocity — I'd estimate that, at least early in my career, it would reach as high as about 92 miles an hour — and a tight, darting downturn. But less often, I'd roll my wrist and the ball would come in slower and loopier, with a much bigger break. Tim always thought the off- speed, bigger-breaking ball was just a variation on the slider. To me, it was a curveball. That night over dinner, I finally got around to explaining this. McCarver was incredulous.
"How was I supposed to figure out what's coming?"
"I never realized you didn't know," I told him.
He paused for a moment, then held up the meaty palm that he had crammed inside his catcher's mitt for twenty big-league seasons. "I've been having trouble with my left hand," he said. "And I know for a fact that the reason I'm having this problem is the same reason the hitters did when they faced you. They couldn't predict where the ball was going, and neither could I. Nothing wore me out like you did. After the sixth or seventh inning, my third or fourth at-bat, I'd be hitting with eight fingers. The burning of the bone. The result is, I think of you every day of my life."
"You knew it was a breaking ball. I figured, you're a catcher — catch it. That was the mentality. I didn't realize how difficult it was. You always caught it."
"It's okay," he said quietly. "It's all made up for by what you accomplished."
"If I had to do it over again, Tim, I'd tell you what was coming."
It was a curveball that I threw on the first pitch to the Tigers' second batter, Mickey Stanley, who fouled it back to the right side, his body pulling out as he reached across the plate with his bat. If it had been a slider, he wouldn't have been so far out in front of it.
Stanley, a right-handed hitter, had been Detroit's starting center fielder all season, and some considered him the best in the American League at that position. Willie Horton, the Tigers' most dangerous power threat, manned left field, and when Al Kaline, their future Hall of Famer, broke his arm in May, Jim Northrup took over in right, eventually leading the club in RBIs. Kaline played a part-time role after he returned, but he'd gotten stronger late in the season and the Tigers' manager, Mayo Smith, was determined to find a starting spot for him in Kaline's first World Series, at the age of thirty-three. The solution — reportedly at the urging of Norm Cash — was to restore Kaline to right field, shuffle Northrup to center, and bring Stanley in to play shortstop. He'd never played short before, and it's probably the most demanding position outside of catcher (and pitcher, of course), but Stanley was considered the Tigers' best all-around athlete and was gifted with the glove. As a trial run, Smith started him at shortstop late in the season, taking over for Ray Oyler, a slick fielder who batted only .135 for the year. People remained skeptical that the Tigers would make such a drastic move in the World Series, but Smith was bold enough, and impressed enough by Stanley — and maybe badgered enough by Cash — to pull the trigger.
The new look was described by Curt Gowdy, the NBC announcer, as "the Gibson lineup." To me, though, it was the Kaline lineup. Or the Oyler-less lineup, which was just as meaningful. I'd made a nice living against eight-hole hitters. In a normal game, I'd get about eight strikeouts, and maybe five of them would be divided up between the opposing pitcher and the guy batting eighth. Without Oyler in the order, the Tigers didn't really have a traditional number-eight hitter. For me, that stunk.
Though not an exceptional hitter, Stanley was a capable one, and I watched with interest as my curveball navigated toward the outside corner and the Tigers' new shortstop read it wrong. I'd thrown the curve uncharacteristically well in my last start, the 1–0 shutout of Houston, and the feel for it seemed to be sticking around, suggesting that more of those might be in order for a while. There weren't many games in which I gave the batters a lot of looks at my curve — as a rule, it was a pretty shabby pitch, to tell the truth — but when I did, the majority came early. In the late innings, when my energy was sapped, the curveball was harder to command and reprimanded me by hanging in the wrong places. That was especially true on hot days like this one. I'd only thrown seven pitches, and sweat was already rolling down my face. My long sleeves might have had something to do with that, but I never took the mound without them, regardless of the weather. I preferred to keep the heat in; didn't want my arm to cool off. Besides, I liked sweat. It had its advantages. But I knew that, on this particular afternoon, because of the heat and the pressures of the World Series, the late innings were going to be a challenge, which meant my curveball would have a short shelf life. I committed to it early, while it still had some snap.
Excerpted from Pitch by Pitch by Bob Gibson, Lonnie Wheeler. Copyright © 2015 Bob Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
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