There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Imagine that you are a Kremlinologist who has written a book on the Soviet Union’s role in the 21st century. Your book is published in autumn 1989, and weeks later the Berlin Wall comes tumbling down. That’s what happened to Bob Gibson.
Stranger to the Game (Viking, 286 pp., $22.95), by Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler, is in large part a lament about Gibson’s inability to find a job in baseball, despite sparkling credentials. But within a month of Stranger‘s publication, the St. Louis Cardinals hired Gibson as assistant manager and attitude coach under Joe Torre.
Fortunately, Gibson and his second autobiography have a Hall of Fame career to fall back on. Chronologically and artistically, Gibson sits atop the heap of great pitchers of the ’60s—which in baseball (as in rock music) run into the ’70s—much as Ken Griffey Jr. ranks at the apex of great sluggers of the ’90s. Gibson was the first pitcher to log 200 strikeouts in nine different seasons and the second man to pass 3,000 strikeouts for his career. The lords of baseball were so scared that Gibson and his ilk would reduce offense to World Cup soccer levels they changed the rules after his spectacular 1968 season, lowering the mound and squeezing the strike zone to reduce pitchers’ ability to dominate. Gibson is still angry about it.
As a pitcher, he was as famous for his attitude as for his fastball and slider. He denies pitching with anger, though he pleads guilty to cultivating that image and to using any ploy to unsettle batters. His two Cy Young Awards, five 20-win seasons, and 7-2 World Series mark prove he was doing something right. And his complete game victories in Game 7 of both the ’64 and ’67 World Series buried the myth that black pitchers couldn’t win the big games. The book resounds with testimony from teammates, foes, and other observers about Gibson’s unrivaled competitiveness. None speaks louder than Gibson’s staying in the game after a line drive off the bat of the equally indomitable Roberto Clemente broke his leg.
Gibson spends much of the book discussing the art and science of pitching inside. He denies throwing at batters’ heads, but says the rest of their bodies were fair game if they tried to take a part of the plate Gibson thought belonged to him. This is a lesson he feels today’s pitchers and batters need to learn—and a lesson he spared no one. For instance, as a Cardinal, former National League President Bill White was the voice of black conscience in a clubhouse and an era where racial issues were unavoidable and racial understanding became part of the fabric that made the team win. When White was traded to the Phillies, Gibson plunked him in their first encounter. Slugger Dick Allen once asked Gibson why he threw at “brothers.” “Because brothers are the ones who are going to beat me,” he answered.
But Gibson’s high art of intimidation went well beyond the bean ball and brushback. Gibson believed that, given a certain level of ability, the difference between winners and losers was 90 percent mental. He didn’t believe major-league hitters could be frightened, even by 90-plus-mph fastballs, so he employed psychology. He didn’t talk to opponents, believing the less they knew about him the better. In Stranger, Gibson’s criticisms of current players—he can barely restrain himself from calling them sissies—occasionally lapse into empty nostalgia, but he commands respect on paper as he did on the mound. He also presents the novel view that the rage for old-fashioned ballparks expresses fans’ underlying desire for a return to those tougher old days.
Stranger uses the Langston Hughes line about eating in the kitchen and growing strong as a metaphor for Gibson’s childhood. A sickly child raised in the Omaha, Neb., projects, Gibson learned various sports by playing on community teams coached by his brother Leroy, nicknamed Josh, who shared the family aversion to losing. The ’50s Midwest gave those teams a chance to prosper separate from, and more than equal to, whites, and an opportunity to occasionally meet white competition. Gibson was an all-city basketball player in high school and the first black recipient of a basketball scholarship to Creighton University. He also played baseball, where he was a better hitter than pitcher. His basketball talent, which earned him a stint with the Harlem Globetrotters, gave him leverage with the Cardinals, compelling them to make a meaningful investment and give him a real chance. Gibson wasn’t sure what position he should play, but one look at his fastball convinced the Cardinals he belonged on the mound. Even so, he retained his other skills, reigning as one of the best hitting pitchers in the game and winning nine straight Gold Gloves.
Gibson’s first memoir, From Ghetto to Glory, was published after he won his second World Series clincher in ’67, so this book offers his first written comments on the ’68 season. During that “Year of the Pitcher,” Detroit Tigers right-hander (and future Washington Senator and jailbird) Denny McLain got most of the ink for becoming the first 30-game winner since 1934, but history has judged Gibson’s summer to have been more spectacular, perhaps the greatest season for a pitcher since the dead-ball era. From early June to early August, Gibson pitched 95 innings and gave up two earned runs. He’s still sore about one of them, a run that scored on a wild pitch that could have been called a passed ball, in which case he would have pitched a record 70 consecutive scoreless innings. Gibson calls that time “the most amazing eight weeks of my life,” and claims he felt like a spectator (as did the Cardinal bullpen), watching his slider dart and his fastball crackle. That Gibson’s record for the season was a mere 22-9 is a testament to the ineptitude of Cardinal batters, a fact Gibson recalls in detail. Gibson finished the season with a 1.12 ERA, the record for a pitcher with more than 300 innings, and is at his most human when discussing his superhuman feats.
Gibson also touches on his coaching career, where he’s been largely successful, and wonders why he’s been shut out of the trade for nearly a decade. Now he can stop wondering and start teaching. Stranger would make a good first reading assignment for his charges. Baseball will be better off now that he’ll be back to impart his wisdom and his spirit.
But if Gibson’s just a Stranger to the Game, ballplayers don’t come much stranger than John Kruk. His autobiography, “I Ain’t an Athlete, Lady…” (Simon & Schuster, 255 pp., $22) is inspired by the Philadelphia Phillies’ 1993 National League Championship, and, like the NL’s decision to call the 54-61 Phillies the 1994 National League champions, it’s a joke. Unlike the laughable NL verdict, the lore of the 1993 team of dustiny is rather funny. If you loved the merry prankster Phillies in newsprint two years ago, you’ll enjoy this romp between the (hard) covers. Only the paper is acid-free.
Bring your own rimshots as Kruk recalls the cast of what he calls “throwbacks—we were all thrown back by other organizations.” As the chunkiest, sloppiest, and furriest of the Broad Street Beards and Bellies, Kruk reveals the particulars of tormenting straight arrow Dale Murphy, pointing out that the last two NL champions won immediately after Murphy left the teams. Kruk tells how Philadelphia’s clubhouse collection of gypsies, tramps, and thieves nicknamed teammate Jim Eisenreich after flesh-eating killer Jeffrey Dahmer; they weren’t sure how well Eisenreich was taking it until he nicknamed beefy Pete Incaviglia “Lunch” (da-dup).
The Merry Krukster also shares his clubhouse views on Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton, and the rest of his partners in grime, noting that his team’s playoffs against the Braves pitted America’s Team against America’s Most Wanted (da-dup). Some of Kruk’s sharpest barbs are aimed at fellow Padres farm system product Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams, who served up the Joe Carter home run that lost the most recent World Series, got banished from Philadelphia shortly thereafter, and found himself head wrangler at his 3-2 Ranch (da-dup) last summer.
Aside from the Phillie phoolery, Kruk’s recap of his own transformation from marginal prospect to career .300 hitter is pretty standard stuff. He relishes his backwoods reputation, though he spent as many of his formative years in New Jersey as in his native West Virginia. The only things separating this book from the typical title-season hokum, apart from a few more jokes, are the final pages, in which Kruk discusses his bout last spring with testicular cancer. Kruk’s willingness to discuss his medical details publicly, at the time, and again in the book, shows some of the courage and grit that’s the real story of the NL champion Phils. Kruk and his workmanlike ghostwriter Paul Hagen present a final Mitch Williams joke, but miss the best one: The Williams trade and Kruk’s surgery meant that the Phillies began 1994 missing two nuts.