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Making a pitch for Bob Gibson

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 21, 2009 - A decade ago ESPN unveiled its Top 100 Athletes of the 20th century, and each was profiled during a 30-minute program called “SportsCentury.”

A number of Major League Baseball players were among the 100 including St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Famer Bob Gibson. The tough, sometimes surly, right hander was ranked No. 67 – which I think is fitting since he helped the Cardinals win the 1967 World Series.

If you’ve seen the Gibson “SportsCentury,” you’ve seen me. I’m in it. I think I have two or three lines of praise and mention the fact that black St. Louis baseball fans truly loved Gibson and the team’s other black stars. In all honesty, I can’t remember what ESPN used of the 20-plus minutes I filmed.

But I made the final cut, unlike the Curt Flood show, and am very proud to be part of one of the few true salutes to Bob Gibson.

The series ran throughout 1999, and concluded as the year 2000 approached. In 2000, I saw Gibson at Busch Stadium before a Cards’ game. I had met him several times over the years, but introduced myself as if it were the first time.

Once during a Missouri Press Association convention in Kansas City, I stepped on a Crowne Plaza elevator and one floor later the door opened and in walked Bob Gibson. Just he and me. Silence for a couple of floors and then I told him who I was, what I was doing in Kansas City and asked what brought him to town. He was there for an autograph show. That was the extent of the conversation. He never smiled, even though I told him of my adoration for him since I was a little boy.

But back to our meeting at Busch. I told him it was “really cool” to be in the program honoring him and asked him if he enjoyed the tribute.

“I haven’t seen it,” he said, this time with a smile. “They sent me some copies. I just haven’t had time to watch it.”

This was Bob Gibson at his best. He told the truth. He didn’t make up a story to be nice to me. Of course, I guess it could have turned out that he saw the show, hated it and wondered why a pinhead like me was even commenting on one of the greatest pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball.

Trust me, if that’s what he thought, he would have told me.

That’s why I’m anxious to read his new book, “Sixty-Feet Six Inches.” Through conversations with fellow Hall of Fame member Reggie Jackson, Gibson discusses his career, his no-nonsense attitude on the mound and his years with the Cardinals. I just got the book this week, so I haven’t delved into it yet, but I’m sure it promises to be a fascinating study.

Gibson will never be mistaken for a jovial guy. I’m sure his close friends and former teammates know a side to him that most of us don’t. He might be a barrel of laughs, but we’ll never know. Gibson isn’t what I would consider “cold” or “uncaring.” He is just himself. He hasn’t changed since he left Omaha, Neb., to become a member of the Harlem Globetrotters. Nor has he lost the edge he developed as a young player that dealt with a manager many people considered racist in Solly Hemus.

He is still the same get-the-job-done guy that literally carried the Cardinals to the 1964 World Series triumph over the New York Yankees with an aching arm.

In fact, the unyielding Gibson found himself on the end of several critical commentaries during the All-Star Game break in St. Louis because he shared his honest opinion on steroid use.

“Guys have always been cheating. Period. It just takes a little different form today,” he said in a radio interview that soon was being heard from coast-to-coast.

“I’m just glad they didn’t have steroids when I was playing. I don’t know what I would have done. It’s very difficult to go out and perform when you know the guy next to you is taking steroids or some kind of drug to make you perform better and not do it yourself, to let this guy get an edge on you.”

Gibson didn’t take the hypocritical path that so many former players have – they knew steroids were all around them, said nothing while they were playing and now are highly critical.

Gibson was honest, and he could care less that some people don’t like what he said. That’s what I like about the guy. He hasn’t changed. His personality is the same as it was when I was 10, 20, 30, 40 and now 49.

To me, that’s what being a man is. And being a good, honest man is much more important than being in the Hall of Fame or being “liked” by everyone.

And that’s why I’m starting “Sixty Feet, Six Inches” as soon as I’m finished here.

Alvin A. Reid is editor of the St. Louis Argus and a weekend host on the new ESPN 101.1 FM. His weekly Major League Baseball - St. Louis Cardinals column, which is now published on The Beacon website, was honored by the Missouri Press Association as Best Sports Column in 2004 and 1999. He is co-author of the book, "Whitey's Boys: A Celebration of the 1982 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals" and was a member of the inaugural staff of USA TOD

Alvin A. Reid special to the Beacon