Bob Gibson, the greatest pitcher the Detroit Tigers ever faced

Motor City Bengals

A look back at Hall-of-Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, who passed away yesterday evening and his series against the Detroit Tigers in 1968.

The most current memory of many Detroit Tigers fans when it comes to the World Series are the two series against the San Francisco Giants and the St Louis Cardinals in 2012 and 2006. Both memories are not exactly the greatest as Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, and Anthony Reyes (sigh…) and Jeff Weaver were some of the names who silenced the Tigers’ bats.

The Detroit Tigers faired out well in 1984 when it came to pitching matchups as the Padres best pitcher was out of their bullpen in Goose Goosage. It’s no knock on Andy Hawkins and Eric Show but Detroit took advantage of the Padres rotation. They avoided NL Cy Young award winner Rick Sutcliffe when the Padres knocked out the Cubs in the NLCS.

But one pitcher stood above them all. At just 6-1, and under 200 lbs, Bob Gibson was intimation incarnated in pitching form when Detroit faced him in the 1968 World Series.

On July 15, 1967, Gibson took a shot to his right shin off Roberto Clemente. He would pitch to three more batters before his leg would snap off just above the ankle. He would come back to the rotation to help St.Louis win the World Series against the Boston Red Sox, winning all three games he pitched in, and oh yeah, all of them were complete games in en route to having won five games in a row and picking up his second MVP in the World Series, his first being in 1964.

You read that now and just perhaps gulp a few times to yourself or shake your head, imagine what the Detroit Tigers batters were thinking about heading into Game 1.  The story was however for Game 1 was Denny McLain, the Tigers’ 31-game winner against Gibson. One of the stories that came out in the book “The Year of the Pitcher” by Sridhar Pappu, was how both of them were sick and tired of all the talk publicly about the matchup. McLain was ready and as he was then, did not hold back to the press. From the book:

“If someone tells me how great they are, I’ll be sick”. I’m sick of hearing how we don’t belong on the same field with them.  It’s one thing to go into the World Series as the underdog and another thing to be ridiculed. Listen, I don’t just want to beat those guys, I want to demolish them.”

Bob Gibson had his own motivation that stood by his locker, the book discusses. One sign that read “I” M NOT PREJUDICED, I HATE EVERYBODY and a stuffed Tiger with its own message. “A TIGER’S A 500-POUND PUSSY”.

Game 1 history

The Tigers looked lost as Bob Gibson weaved in and out his fastball and a wicked curveball on his way to setting a World Series record for most strikeouts in a game with 17. Gibson was so confident about his pitching, he didn’t even read the scouting report on the Tigers prior to the game. Detroit knew they had to be aggressive early but it did not matter. Gibson walked just one and allowed five hits. His curve dropped off exactly like the 12 to 6 motion would indicate.

One fact that stands out about the game. The Cardinals infield did not have to make a play that day. His game score that day was almost perfection. 93.

His start in game 4 was another masterpiece in the 10-0 route. Another complete game, 1 run on five hits, 10 strikeouts.  For Detroit, thanks to Denny McLain and the offensive explosion in Game 6, Detroit had another opportunity to knock off Gibson. Unlike Mickey Lolich however, who was going on just two days of rest. Gibson was fully rested for Game 7.

Game 7

Both pitchers were locked into a shutout until the 7th inning. The Jim Northrup fly ball to centerfield Curt Flood could one of the greatest “what if’s” of all time if he would have caught it, like normally did. Instead, Al Kaline and Norm Cash scored and the Tigers would go on to finally beat Bob Gibson and win their first World Series since 1945.

Bob Gibson’s stat line for the series: 27 innings 18 hits, 5 runs 35 strikeouts. Lifetime post-season ERA? 1.89.

Al Kaline was the most impact bat in the series as Sebastian would highlight his story as Kaline’s double would be the only extra-base hit he gave up in Game 1. Two future Hall-of-Famers in one year that were two of the most iconic players for their respective teams passing away in one year is a mighty tough pill to swallow. A big tip of the cap to Bob Gibson.

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