This card marks Bob Gibson’s first and last appearance in the world of my Cardboard Gods. Like a lot of other 1975 cards, this one is a little off-center, a facet that seems OK, or even somehow appealing, when part of, say, Ed Brinkman’s card, but in this card it just seems wrong, like if Sidney Poitier’s last public appearance involved sitting on a small booby-trapped platform above the rusty hose-water of a county fair dunking booth. The dipping of his right shoulder creates the impression that Bob Gibson is actually teetering slightly to his right with the queasy yawing of the lopsided card. Bob Gibson’s expression, however, makes it clear that even if the whole goddamn world started flopping and flailing like a boated fish, Bob Gibson himself would not go down.
The numbers on the back of the card have a slight wobble to them, too, Gibson’s long unbroken string of winning coming to an end in the final season shown, 1974, when he posted his first losing record since becoming a member of a major league starting rotation 15 years before. All the winning years seem to feed into the confident expression of the man on the front of the card, but the fresh season of losing seems a part of the expression too, making it seem all the stronger. This is not a man whose confidence has been built by happy accident, by being a scarless darling of the gods. He’s done it all himself, the hard way, and so it can’t be undone.
Things just got harder in 1975. By mid-season he’d been bumped out of the starting rotation and demoted to long relief. His final appearance came against the Cubs on September 3, 1975. In the 7th inning, he was called into a 6-6 game. He rose to the occasion of facing that year’s eventual batting champion, Bill Madlock, getting him to fly out, but then he loaded the bases by walking Jose Cardenal, surrendering a single to Champ Summers, and walking Andre Thornton. It still looked like he might get out of the inning, however, when Manny Trillo grounded back to the mound. Gibson, winner of 9 Gold Glove awards, handled the grounder and threw out Cardenal at home. But Gibson then uncorked the 108th and final wild pitch of his career, allowing the go ahead run to score. With first base now open and the pitcher due up next, Gibson intentionally walked the batter, Jerry Morales, once again setting up a force at any base. It seemed he might still get out of the inning with minimal damage. However, a 23-year-old part-time player with the quite possibly distracting name of Peter LaCock was then sent in to pinch hit against the great Bob Gibson. The somehow unseemly moment did not end well.
“When I gave up a grand slam to Pete LaCock,” Bob Gibson said later, “I knew it was time to quit.”
The end had to come some time, of course. That it came in that particular game was due to the failure of the Cardinals’ starting pitcher that necessitated the appearance of Gibson out of the pen. And, in yet another in a growing series of signals to me from the Cardboard Gods that everything is connected, one way or another, the Cardinals’ starter was that fading echo of The Basketball Kid himself, the pride of LaPorte, Indiana, Ron Reed.
Had some bizarre ruling deemed that the 7th-inning tie be broken not by a progression of pitcher-batter matchups but by a two-on-two basketball game, Bob Gibson would have without question helped bring his team a victory. I say this without having any idea who the Cubs would have sent out to hoop it up (but just to help illustrate the preposterous scenario, I’ll say the Reuschel brothers, Paul and Rick, a couple of 6’3″ Rambis-begoggled “widebodies”), because the two men who combined to surrender 11 runs to the Cubs that day were unquestionably the best two basketball players ever to be major league baseball teammates.
I make this claim after spending an inordinate, and I mean inordinate, amount of time today thinking about guys who’ve excelled at both of my primary childhood loves, basketball and baseball. After much deliberation, I have decided that even though Ron Reed may have come the closest of any Cardboard God to walking in the mythic Converse All-Star high-tops of The Basketball Kid, he was not quite the best basketball player ever to play major league baseball. His time in the NBA does put him ahead of some other great college basketball players who went pro only in baseball (Tony Gwynn, Kenny Lofton, and Dave Winfield come to mind), and his promising numbers as a top reserve for two years for the Pistons suggest he may well have been the on-court equal of Gene Conley, a bench player on three Boston Celtic championships teams, Dick Groat, who played one season in the NBA after being a nationally renowned two-time college hoops All-American, and perhaps even Danny Ainge, who was a key player on two NBA championship teams, appeared in the 1988 NBA all-star game, and, most importantly, helped enable the existence of the fact-based headline “Tree Bites Man.”
But Ron Reed was not as good a basketball player as the player he backed up on the Pistons, Dave DeBusschere, who happened to have pitched in 36 games for the Chicago White Sox before focusing his attention solely on his hall of fame-bound basketball career. He may not have been as good a basketball player as Bob Gibson, either, who followed up his brilliant college basketball career at Creighton University by playing for a few months with the Harlem Globetrotters. The Globetrotters were by then world famous for their clowning antics, but at that time they also still provided one of a very few ways for an African American basketball star to make a living playing basketball. Only a handful of black players had made their way onto NBA squads by then, so the Globetrotters were still loaded with world-class talent, suggesting that any player who could crack their roster would either have to have been a very talented clown who could also sink a hook shot now and then, such as Goose Tatum, or someone able to play some serious ball. And Bob Gibson was not a clown.
Anyway, there’s no way to accurately judge how good Bob Gibson could have been in the NBA. By the looks of it, the NBA seems to have still been employing an unofficial quota system at the time that Bob Gibson came out of college in 1957. Some teams had a couple of black guys, some had one, some had none. It seems farfetched to think that these roster configurations were built solely on merit. Also a little farfetched is the notion that merit was the sole cause of the lack of black players being featured scorers on any of the NBA teams in 1957. Early black NBA players such as Sweetwater Clifton, Earl Lloyd, and even the incomparable Bill Russell handled the dirty work: rebounding, playing tough defense, setting picks, and passing the ball to the team’s version of The Basketball Kid, the white guy with the perfect jump shot, the beautiful jump shot, the jump shot as pure as the American Dream.
In my previous post on Ron Reed, I mentioned some fictional towns that resembled my own invention of Hartland, hometown of The Basketball Kid, but I neglected to include one that seems obvious to me now, the town from the movie Hoosiers, Hickory, which, like LaPorte and French Lick and John Mellencamp’s “Small Town,” just happens to be located in Indiana. It is also located in a glowing, soft-focus version of the past. And it of course is a town that lives and breathes basketball, and at the heart of this basketball life is a boy, Jimmy Chitwood, with a perfect jump shot, a beautiful jump shot, a jump shot as pure as the American Dream.
Oh yeah, one other thing. There ain’t no blacks in Hickory. Not a one.
Hickory, Riverdale, Willoughby, the candy-colored Milwaukee of Richie Cunningham and the Fonz, the generic ’80s town in Teen Wolf, The Basketball Kid’s beloved Hartland, all these places make me wonder if imagining a small-town paradise, imagining the whole white picket fence American Dream, requires imagining people of color either into the shadows or beyond the town limits altogether?
“I think being a professional athlete is the finest thing a man can do,” Bob Gibson once said. But when Bob Gibson came out of college in 1957, the professional versions of both of the sports he excelled in were still showing signs of an institutional embrace of the deep white longing for Hartland. The few blacks in the NBA were toiling in the shadows, while in baseball many teams were still dragging their heels to fully comply with the integration of the league that had started with Jackie Robinson’s debut in 1947. Gibson’s own team, the Cardinals, had been the most demonstrably opposed of all major league teams to Jackie Robinson’s presence on a major league field, and by Gibson’s signing had still yet to have a single full-time black player.
So when you’re being told you don’t belong in Hartland, or that you should stay quietly in the shadows if you’re ever blessed to be allowed into Hartland, what do you do?
If you’re Bob Gibson, you get angry.
“In a world filled with hate, prejudice, and protest,” he once said, “I find that I too am filled with hate, prejudice, and protest.”
If you’re Bob Gibson, you get fearless.
“I guess I was never much in awe of anybody,” he once said. “I think you have to have that attitude if you’re going to go far in this game.”
And if you’re Bob Gibson, you fucking kick ass. By the time he gave up the grand slam to LaCock, he’d racked up one regular season MVP award, two World Series MVP awards, two Cy Young awards, 8 selections to the National League all-star team, and several World Series records that highlight his ability to shine brightest when the pressure was the most intense.
When baseball fans aren’t talking about Bob Gibson’s willingness to play fearsome chin music with batters leaning in too close to the plate, his plate, they are often choosing him ahead of every other hurler in history as the starting pitcher for the hypothetical one-game playoff against the aliens with the fate of the earth hanging in the balance. He’s the one you want out there if you absolutely need a win.
“I had to fight all my life to survive. They were all against me, but I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch.”
Though the above quote seems to me as if it could have come from Bob Gibson, it was actually uttered by the most famous racist in the history of baseball, the guy guarding the Hartland town line against invasion with a fifth of moonshine in one hand, a shotgun in the other, and a maniacal gleam in his eyes. If I could see a confrontation between any pitcher and batter from baseball history, I’d choose to see Bob Gibson pitch against the speaker of the above words, Ty Cobb. At the end of that at-bat someone’s down in the ditch and someone else is walking away a winner. I wouldn’t bet against Cobb in any other matchup you could name, but in this one case my money’s on Gibson.