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An Excerpt From ‘Pitch by Pitch: My View of One Unforgettable Game’

This article is more than 3 years old.

This excerpt of Pitch By Pitch: My View of One Unforgettable Game by Bob Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler is printed with the permission of Flatiron Books. For more information, please visit www.us.macmillan.com/author/bobgibson.

Check out Gibson's conversation with Only A Game’s Bill Littlefield.


First Inning

IN 1968, I hated the first inning a little less than I had before. Over my career, the first, for me, was the worst of times. My earned run average for the first inning was an even 4.00, more than a run higher than the rest of the game. In the second, it plummeted to about half that much.

The problem, mainly, was control. Over my seventeen years in the big leagues, I walked 203 batters in the first inning, which was 37 more than any other. That might not sound so terrible, but consider that the leadoff and second hitters are typically Punch-and-Judy guys who have not earned the privilege of being pitched to carefully. I was loath to put a batter like that on base without giving him a chance to send Curt Flood a lovely can of corn. I'd pour it at him and let the little fellow hack away to his heart's content. At least, that was my intention. And yet, time and again, year after year, I began the game by letting one of those nuisances off the hook with four infuriating balls. Walking a singles hitter was a sin, and I was a wretched first-inning reprobate. To make it worse, the leadoff spot piled up a better batting average against me than any other place in the lineup, followed by the two hole, followed by the three. Inning one was my Valley of Doom.

For a long time, I assumed that I was warming up improperly in the bullpen. So I fooled around with different routines. I tried throwing for seven or eight minutes, sitting down for a while, then throwing another for seven or eight, simulating the flow of the game. Didn't help. Other times I'd crank up the velocity and effort level. Nothing seemed to make a difference. One night, I thought I'd stumbled upon a miracle cure. I'd washed my car that afternoon, then went out and pitched a gem with some of my best stuff of the season. Voilà! Naturally, I was out there soaping and scrubbing again five days later. Got lit up that night. There was another time when I shut somebody down after having an argument earlier in the day with my wife; but I didn't think it advisable to make a habit out of that. So I just stayed the course with what seemed sensible: loosening up, getting a feel for the breaking ball, finding the corners, and going all-out for the last few pitches.

Then, in 1968, the problem was suddenly solved. The breakthrough wasn't in my warm-up; it was in my control.

My ability to put the ball where I wanted it had been improving, if sometimes negligibly, since midway through the summer of 1961, when Johnny Keane relieved Solly Hemus as the Cardinal manager. I'd been unpolished when I arrived in St. Louis in 1959, and that might be an understatement-I led the league in walks in '61, my first year in the rotation-but my pitching skills weren't as hopeless as Hemus would have had me think. He held them in such contempt that, when he went over an opposing team's scouting report with the pitching staff, he'd pause and tell me not to worry about all that stuff, just try to throw some strikes. Maybe that's why I felt as I did about scouting reports. And Solly Hemus.

Johnny Keane, on the other hand, a milder man who had studied for the priesthood, was a cultivator and guardian of my confidence, which is something a pitcher requires when he's trying to locate a hard slider on the edge of the plate under the glare of thirty thousand people, including a couple base runners and, sixty and a half feet away, Hank Aaron. Or any other time he lets it fly. Although Keane was long gone by 1968, supplanted by Red Schoendienst, I truly believe that my success that year was mostly attributable to the trust I had that the ball was going to end up right where it was supposed to. To a degree that impressed both me and McCarver, it did so with inspiring regularity. I had become a control pitcher. Fastball, breaking ball; didn't matter. In 1968, I felt that I could close my eyes and sling the thing behind my back-I'd been a Harlem Globetrotter, after all-and it would find its way to the outside corner. The baseball had become my smart bomb.

Nevertheless, my first pitch to Dick McAuliffe was considerably high and outside. McCarver put his target in the center of the plate, at the top of McAuliffe's thigh, and I made him stand up, reaching left, to catch it.

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