Up close with Bob Gibson, a true baseball great

Bob Gibson, the baseball Hall of Famer who passed recently, was if anything greater than his public persona.

I knew Bob Gibson personally for four days in 1988 while on assignment with the Los Angeles Times.

I spent a stint at the Dodgers Fantasy Camp with 13 Hall of Famers for breakfast and dinner and games played in between by campers who paid big bucks for the opportunity.  The HOFers "managed" the teams. I was assigned to write about it. I did — with shamefully gushing terms of endearment.  I don't apologize.

I was awestruck at the ripe age of 39.  I expected Gibson to be a mean beast of a man as he appeared on the mound.  Rather, he was the nicest guy in camp — nicest by a wide margin amid a bakers' dozen of nice guys that included renown nice guys Roy Campanella and Ernie Banks.  Gibson was cordial, humble, kind, considerate.  Disarmingly so.

That's probably why when Gibson told me I seemed very familiar and wondered where we had met previously.  I was so stunned and flattered that I blew the opportunity of a lifetime.  Had Landsbaum been on his game, my reply could have been something like: "Yep.  I went 3 for 5 off of you with 2 homers."

Instead, Landsbaum just shrugged with a dopier look on my face than usual and mumbled something like, "I don't think so."

By that time in life, I had interviewed one president, governors, senators, movie stars, even a heavyweight champion of the world.  But Bob Gibson softly, kindly got me looking.  Score it with a backwards K.

Yeah, he probably didn't think I looked familiar.  Yeah, it was probably just a kindness extended to fawning fans.  I'm willing to accept the shame of being flattered by the great Bob Gibson.

By most accounts, on the mound, Gibson was fearsome, if in normal life a complete gentleman (with emphasis on "gentle").  How fearsome?  The internet tells us Gibson once hit Bill White with a pitch for crowding the plate — in an Old Timers' game.

Willie Mays tells a story that he went to Gibson's house once during the season and discovered that the great pitcher wore glasses.  The re-telling of the story has Mays reacting something like this: "You wear glasses?!"

Gibson supposedly explained that he couldn't even tell who's at the plate when he pitched because he needed his glasses to see that well.  According to the popular retelling, Mays had hit Gibson well up to that point.  From then on, Willie batted .050 off him.

Apocryphal?  Maybe.  Exaggerated?  Perhaps.  But it's part of the lore that makes baseball the warm, fuzzy thing it is to true fans.

Thanks for the memories, Mr. Gibson.  You were the best (well, second best after Sandy Koufax).  God bless Tommy Lasorda!

Image credit: John Maxmena 2 via Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA 4.0.  Image enhanced with FotoSketcher.

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