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The Gibson-McCarver Bond

It was fitting that Bob Gibson lent a hand with Tim McCarver’s recent send-off at Fox Sports with a key salute as the catcher-turned-broadcaster left the booth after his 24th World Series. For the Gibson-McCarver friendship remains one of the enduring and one of the most improbable ever in the game.

Forty-five years ago, after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, McCarver tried to discuss the tragic news with the staff ace during spring training in Florida. Gibson didn’t want anything to do with McCarver on that morning after. No matter that the two had broken in the same season, 1959, and had become one of the most successful batteries with the St. Louis Cardinals. 

Gibson told his catcher there was no way McCarver could understand what he was feeling. That it was impossible for whites, no matter how well intentioned, to ever totally overcome prejudice. It probably didn’t help that McCarver was from Memphis, of all places, and the son of a police officer.

But McCarver refused to let the situation go. He stood his ground, telling Gibson that it was possible for people to change. If anything he was a prime example.

McCarver reminded Gibson that when the catcher was new to the team, Gibson and Curt Flood used to tease him about his reluctance to share a sip of soda offered by a black man. McCarver later explained that the morning after King’s assassination he found himself in “the unfamiliar position of arguing that that the races were equal and that we were all the same.” Gibson listened and the bond between the future Hall of Famers (McCarver is in Cooperstown as a broadcaster) only deepened.

“Bob and I reached a meeting of the minds that morning,” McCarver later wrote. “That was the kind of talk we often had on the Cardinals.”

1968 St. Louis Cardinals teammates Mike Shannon, Bob Gibson, Tim McCarver, and Orlando Cepeda.

The ‘68 season culminated with St. Louis returning to the World Series, ready to defend its title against the Detroit Tigers. In Game 1, Gibson pitched a game for the ages with McCarver behind the plate.

Even though the Cardinals right-hander went against Detroit’s Denny McLain, the last major league pitcher to reach the 30-victory plateau, Gibson was in control from the outset. “I’ve never seen anybody pitch like that before,” said the Tigers’ Al Kaline.

Detroit pitching coach Johnny Sain added that it “was impossible to detect” what Gibson was throwing that afternoon at the old Busch Stadium. Gibson held the Tigers to five hits in the 4-0 shutout. By the final innings, he had fanned every Tiger at least once.

In the ninth inning, Dick McAuliffe singled, giving the Tigers a bit of hope. But Gibson proceeded to strike out Kaline to tie Sandy Koufax’s single-game World Series record of 15 K’s set in 1963.

“I would say with the possible exception of Luis Tiant, this man throws harder than anyone we have in our league,” Detroit’s Jim Northrup said afterward, “and he is certainly the best we have seen in some time.”

When McCarver stepped toward the mound, trying to tell Gibson that he had tied Koufax, the Cardinals’ ace waved him back behind home plate. But again McCarver was determined to stand his ground. The catcher pointed at the scoreboard, which heralded the accomplishment.     

Finally, the pitcher realized what the ruckus was all about. 

“All right, now give me the ball,” Gibson told McCarver. Then he broke the record by striking out Tigers first baseman Norm Cash.

“Who follows Cash?” Gibson yelled into McCarver.

Replied the catcher: “What difference does it make?”

Only Willie Horton, who admired Gibson perhaps more than anybody else on the Tigers, stood in the way of a Cardinals victory. A few years earlier during spring training, Horton had ridden the bus from Lakeland, Florida, to St. Petersburg to get Gibson’s autograph. Gibson refused to sign once he discovered Horton was now an outfielder with Detroit. He didn’t sign for guys who could later do him damage.

Perhaps this final showdown in Game 1 proved once again that sports usually has little time for sentimentality. For Gibson struck out the Tigers’ outfielder on a wicked slider, making Horton his 17th victim. That particular pitch broke so sharply and Horton swung so hard at it that McCarver said the slugger grunted in resignation.

“That day Bob Gibson was the toughest pitcher I ever faced in any particular game,” Horton said decades later. “That last pitch, the one he struck me out with to end the game, tied me up but good.”

The 1968 season was known as “The Year of the Pitcher” with Bob Gibson of the Cardinals at the forefront of pitching dominance.  

After such a performance, the Cardinals appeared poised to repeat as world champions, especially with Gibson scheduled to pitch again in Games 4 and, if need be, Game 7. Gibson did win his next outing, a 10-1 laugher. That gave St. Louis a three-games-to-one Series lead. 

Yet the Tigers, as they had done throughout that remarkable ‘68 season, battled back. They won Game 5, throwing Cardinals speedster Lou Brock out at the plate and then took a laugher of their own, a 13-1 victory as McLain earned a measure of redemption.

That set up a Game 7 matchup between Gibson and Mickey Lolich, who had struggled so much during the regular season that he had been demoted to the bullpen for a stretch. Northrup’s triple in the seventh inning drove in the only runs Lolich needed as the Tigers won the deciding game 4-1.

Afterward, Gibson, McCarver and the rest of the Cardinals refused to blame Flood, who briefly misjudged Northrup’s line drive. If anything, they tried to take solace in reaching the World Series three times and winning twice in the last five seasons.

Unfortunately, the front office in St. Louis wasn’t as forgiving. At the time, the Cardinals were proclaimed as the best team money could buy. So when another championship wasn’t forthcoming, changes were deemed necessary, especially after the Cardinals were upstaged by the New York Mets the following season.

McCarver was one of many Cardinals eventually traded away. He was sent along with Flood, Joe Hoerner and Byron Browne to Philadelphia for Dick Allen, Cookie Rojas and Jerry Johnson. Of course, Flood refused to report and took his case to court, which opened the door to free agency.

Gibson later wrote in his autobiography that “the front office apparently had very little regard” for the players and “the special character of the ball club.” 

Several years ago, in an interview with Bob Costas for the MLB Network, Gibson and McCarver appeared together. If Gibson appeared uncertain about how to respond, his friend McCarver stepped in. 

“Bob is one of my best friends,” McCarver told the Lincoln Journal Star earlier this season. “We met in 1959 when I was a 17-year-old kid from Memphis and he was 21 from Omaha. Neither of us had any idea we’d become close friends.”

 

Tim Wendel is the author of 11 books, including Summer of ‘68: The Season That Changed Baseball, and America, Forever.

 

 

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