Every athlete lives for that one moment in the sun, a time of fulfillment and glory. For Floyd G. Giebell, that moment came on Sept. 27, 1940.
Welcome to Cleveland. There are three games left in the 1940 baseball season. Detroit leads the Indians by two games as the teams open a three-game series to determine the American League champion.
The Tigers have a formidable pitching staff, but it is suffering from overwork. During this overheated pennant race the pitchers performed in and out of turn as the lead changed hands 17 times in three months between the Tigers and the Indians, with the defending-champion Yankees close on their heels.
May 26, 1985
Cleveland manager Oscar Vitt has named Bob Feller to pitch the first game. The future Hall of Famer is 27-10 so far this year and has already defeated the Tigers four times. Detroit manager Del Baker refuses to name his first-game pitcher.
During batting and fielding practice, a Ladies' Day crowd of more than 45,000 bombards the Tigers with a barrage of insults, vegetables, bottles and garbage. Feller draws an ovation as he comes out and warms up. In front of the Tiger dugout, an unfamiliar player throws a ball easily to second-string catcher Billy Sullivan. Feller stares at him, having no idea who he is. Finally, the public address speakers announce the pitchers—Feller for Cleveland and Floyd Giebell for Detroit.
Thirty-year-old Floyd G. Giebell is from Pennsboro, W. Va. The ancient rookie has pitched only two games in the majors and has unquestionably never faced such a noisy crowd. Brought up several days earlier from Detroit's minor league team in Buffalo, he had an unimpressive record of 15 wins and 17 losses. The year before, he had been 1-10 with Triple A Toledo.
Everybody assumes Baker is giving his better pitchers an extra day of rest and conceding the first game to Feller. The 15,000 or so female guests of the management are sitting in the upper right and left wings of the vast grandstand. The "left-wingers" have taken a violent dislike to Detroit leftfielder Hank Greenberg, possibly because he's on his way to the league's MVP award with a .340 average for the season. The game gets under way, and a few minutes later, as he moves to catch Roy Weatherly's fly ball in the first inning, the ladies let fly with an avalanche of fruit and trash. Afterward, Feller says, "I still wonder how he caught the ball instead of an orange."
Somewhat concerned that his rookie pitcher might be unnerved by all of this, Baker signals for a couple of relief pitchers to start warming up. Detroit's bullpen is located directly beneath the "right-wingers." Suddenly, a basket of tomatoes, empty bottles and other rubbish comes plunging down into the Detroit pen. It strikes Tiger catcher Birdie Tebbetts on the head and knocks him out. The game is interrupted for 10 minutes as the unconscious Tebbetts is carried on a stretcher to the Detroit dugout and revived. During that hiatus, Giebell plays catch with Sullivan to keep his arm limber. (Later, the acting mayor of Cleveland, Henry S. Brainard, will express dismay at the incident and apologize for the fans' conduct.)
In the third inning, it seems the doomsayers who foretold an early exit for Giebell may have been right. Cleveland in-fielder Ray Mack leads off. He hits a ground ball, but Detroit shortstop Dick Bartell bobbles it. Catcher Rollie Hemsley follows with a perfect hit-and-run single to right. No outs, Indians on first and third. The Cleveland fans are on their feet, screaming for runs. But Giebell hitches up his pants and retires the Indians for the inning.
In the top of the fourth, Detroit first baseman Rudy York comes to bat with a man on first. He hits a high fly ball down the leftfield line. Suspense builds among the spectators. Is it going to be long enough? Yes, but just barely. The Tigers take a 2-0 lead.
Cleveland threatens to come back in the bottom of the inning. With two out, Roy Bell and Ken Keltner slash singles. Giebell quiets Baker's nerves by striking out Mack.
The movie-star-handsome Giebell works his way through the tough Cleveland lineup during innings five and six. Mack opens the seventh by beating out a hard-smash single off Giebell's glove. Charlie Gehringer then boots Hemsley's grounder. Two on. None out. Feller sacrifices. Men on second and third. Slugger Ben Chapman walks to the plate. Spectators wonder if Baker will leave Giebell in. Baker does. Floyd repays his manager's faith by striking out Chapman. Weatherly then hits a weak ground ball to third, and the inning ends. The score is still 2-0. Giebell looks so calm and unconcerned that one sportswriter dubs him Mr. Icicle.
Floyd coolly retires the Indians in the eighth. There are two out in the ninth. One more out and the Tigers, behind Floyd Giebell, of all people, will have won the pennant. Jeff Heath, pinch-hitting for Feller, steps up to the plate. He swings at Giebell's pitch, tops the ball and is out at first.
With that, the Tigers surround Giebell and carry him into the clubhouse on their shoulders. Afterward, York gives his bat to the winning pitcher. Multimillionaire W.O. Briggs, the ailing owner of the Tigers, leans from his wheelchair to shake Floyd's hand.
"You were great," he tells the rookie. "I predict a great future for you with the Tigers."
Luckily for Mr. Briggs, his fortunes were such that he did not have to earn his living by predicting the future. Floyd G. Giebell was sent back to the minors the following spring and never won another major league game.
Now retired and living in North Carolina, he still has the York bat and a silver tray given to him by the Detroit fans; engraved on it are the signatures of all the Tigers. And at 75 he also has cherished memories of a short stay on center stage.