Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Bob Gibson passed away Friday night, after battling pancreatic cancer. He was 84. As fate would have it, the book I’ve been reading over the past week is a collection of essays by the great sportswriter Roger Kahn.
And I was smack dab in the middle of the Bob Gibson essay when I heard that he passed away. The best years of Gibson’s playing career were mostly before my time (hard to believe when I’m so old), but I remember my dad telling stories about his baseball prowess. What I didn’t know until I read the Roger Kahn profile was his backstory. He grew up in a four-room shack in Omaha, Nebraska, the youngest of seven kids. His dad died three months before he was born. His mom worked at a laundry. One night during his childhood, a rat bit him on the ear while he was sleeping.
He loved basketball, and his dream was to play college hoops for Indiana University, but they rejected him because they had already met their “quota” of Black players. Instead he starred in basketball and baseball for Creighton University in his hometown. And when he graduated, he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals AND the Harlem Globetrotters, playing sports year-round to earn the princely sum of $8,000.
Most of the obits mention Bob Gibson’s competitive nature, and how it manifested itself on the mound – how he’d hit batters to keep them from digging in against him. You’d probably have a bit of an edge too, if you grew up poor and fatherless, and were denied opportunities due to the color of your skin.
We think we’ve come so far in race relations since the 1960s, but when you read the excerpt below from Bob Gibson’s 1968 book, it’s easy to see similarities in the way he was perceived back then, and the backlash that Colin Kaepernick received in 2016, or the “shut up and dribble” comments directed toward LeBron James earlier this year:
“In a world filled with hate, prejudice and protest, I find that I too am filled with hate, prejudice and protest. I hate phonies. I am prejudiced against all those who have contempt for me because my face is black and all those who accept me only because of my ability to throw a baseball.”From Gibson’s book From Ghetto to Glory
In another essay from The Roger Kahn Reader, written during the Watergate era, Roger Kahn sums up “sports is life” nicely… and his words still ring true half a century later:
“Sports tells anyone who watches intelligently about the times in which we live: about managed news and corporate politics, about race and terror and what the process of aging does to strong men. If that sounds grim, there is courage and high humor, too… I find sport to be a better area than most to look for truth.”
The truth is Bob Gibson is a Hall of Famer. The other truth is that his path there was a lot rockier due to his circumstances. And the saddest truth of all is that a fatherless child from the ghetto is probably no better off today than Bob Gibson was when he was born in 1935.