Tim McCarver, now of the Philadelphia Phillies but a man who for seven full seasons and parts of three others enjoyed the luxuries, humor and competitiveness that come with catching Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals, stood last week in New York's Shea Stadium and recalled some of his stimulating moments spent with baseball's best pitcher. "Hoot showed me things as an athlete that I will probably never see again," McCarver said. "He works hard at everything and has a competitive fire that is unbelievable. Sometimes when I would go out to the mound to talk to him he would be concentrating so much that he would just keep turning his head and I would have to circle around him and say things like, 'I'm McCarver, the catcher. Remember me, we've met several times before? Uh, Bob, Bob?' One time I went out to the mound and he asked me what I was doing there. I told him what I wanted to tell him and he said, 'O.K. Timmy, you go right back there and catch now and, by the way, Timmy, the only thing you really know about good pitching is that you can't hit it.' "
Last Friday night Gibson moved gracefully to his 21st victory of the season by outpitching Tom Seaver of the Mets and completing his 21st game of the year. Only two weeks ago, attended by sparse national publicity, the 34-year-old Gibson became a 20-game winner for the fifth time and moved into a class normally linked with baseball immortality. The New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates, Brooklyn-Los Angeles Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox, historically good baseball teams, have never had a man produce five 20-game seasons for them, and when the names of the 15 men who have done it before for one club in modern times are mentioned the lights automatically dim in Cooperstown: Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Warren Spahn, Carl Hubbell, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Robin Roberts, Bob Feller, Lefty Grove—names like that. The only other active pitcher on the list is Juan Marichal.
This season Gibson's winning percentage of .777, based on his record of 21-6, is his best in the majors. Had the rest of the Cardinal pitching staff pitched only .500 ball this year, St. Louis would be in first place, three games in front in the National League East, instead of in fourth place, a desultory nine games behind. In May, when his record was 2-3, some thought that Gibson might be backing up. "I've heard that story before," he says. "I've had bad starts but, luckily, they haven't lasted long."
With Gibson few things are a matter of luck. This year he is hitting over .300 and fielding like—well—like Bob Gibson. Friday night Manager Red Schoendienst summed up not only Gibson but the Cardinals' odd 1970 situation: "It's been a whole season of ifs for us," he said, "If we had caught this ball or if we hadn't thrown to the wrong base or if the bullpen had held or if we had turned over the double play. We have gone with too many ifs as excuses. But let me give you one more. Two weeks ago in St. Louis Bob pitched 12 innings against the Mets and lost. They used six pitchers and Gibson outpitched them all. If we hadn't made two bad mistakes in the infield in the 12th Bob would have had another win, which he deserved, instead of his sixth loss, which he didn't deserve. I certainly don't want to take anything away from some of the pitchers I played with or against over the years, but Bob Gibson is the best pitcher I have ever seen."
September 20, 1970
Opposing hitters are even more impressed than Schoendienst. Over the last six seasons Henry Aaron has hit .210 against Gibson, Billy Williams .203, Tony Perez .090. Richie Allen, in the five years before he joined the Cards, hit .097. Since 1965, five of the National League's top long-ball hitters, Ernie Banks, Willie McCovey, Ron Santo, Jim Wynn and Perez, have struck a total of three home runs off Gibson.
All this excellence has brought the big Cardinal exactly one national endorsement (he threw a ball at a sheet of Plexiglas), and this year a salary that is estimated to be around $125,000. The figure should rise next season to the area of $150,000, making Gibson not only the highest-paid pitcher ever, but close to the highest-paid player. Some of his salary has been invested in an AM-FM radio venture in his home-town black community in Omaha, Neb. It and his charitable work with black children are his chief interests outside of baseball.
"People ask me why I pitch so fast," he said last week. "It's just the way I prefer to do my job. I think that if you don't fool around out there your defense will not lean back on its heels. And I'll be honest, I don't like to turn a game over to the bullpen. I would rather handle things myself because I've seen a lot of games go.
"Sure, this has been a disappointing season. Once you get used to winning there is no other feeling like it. We lost a game this week in Pittsburgh, a tough loss, and I hung my head in the dressing room. I noticed that Lou Brock was doing the same thing. Our eyes caught one another's but we didn't say anything. It seemed to bother us quite a bit more than it was bothering some other people. If you're a Cardinal you're supposed to win."
The man who is supposed to help Gibson win, now that McCarver has left, is 21-year-old Ted Simmons, who has caught 12 of Gibson's wins and two of his losses, including the 12-inning affair with the Mets. Simmons is properly contrite. "I really don't know much about the hitters yet," he said, "but he's teaching me every time I catch him."
Although the Cardinals do not seem to have a chance, Gibson continues to be a force in the National League East race. He will not express a personal choice as to which team will eventually win. "New York's strength is pitching," he says, "Pittsburgh's is hitting and Chicago is supposed to have overall balance."
This year the Cardinals seem almost to perform under a hex when Gibson is not pitching. On one occasion a two-run lead, nursed into the eighth inning, was turned over to the bullpen and handled thereafter with the tender care of a grizzly bear walking on a buttercup. One problem, not of Gibson's making, was that the Cardinals, seeking to change their image, went for a club that would score runs. Players came and players left and at times knowing baseball people wonder if General Manager Bing De-vine was not also moonlighting as a purser for the Bolivian Navy, but in 1970 the team was considered to have the potential to contend and possibly even win That was before July—when St. Louis won only eight games.
By the end of last week the Cards still had nine games left with Chicago and Pittsburgh—and Gibson continued to pitch with hope. Almost everybody else waited for yet another large truck to back up to the Cardinal clubhouse and change the cast of players once more—to the kind who can win like Gibson.