Bob Gibson passed away of pancreatic cancer in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, Friday, October 2, 2020, at age 84. A starter for the 1961-62 Santurce Crabbers in Puerto Rico’s Winter League, he helped them win the four-team February 1962 Interamerican Series, held at Sixto Escobar Stadium, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Gibson pitched admirably for the champion Valencia (Venezuela) Industrialists, February 1961 Interamerican Series, hosted by Caracas. The Cooperstown Hall of Famer made his Winter League debut in 1958-59 for the Licey Tigers of the Dominican Republic, a franchise with the most Caribbean Series titles (10). Gibson’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times is at https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2020-10-02/bob-gibson-hall-of-fame-ace-for-cardinals-dies-at-84
Gibson’s major league achievements included nine straight Gold Gloves (GG) with St. Louis, 1965-to-1973, second all-time in the NL to 18 by Greg Maddux. (Gibson was one of eight pitchers to have pitched in Puerto Rico and win GG. The other seven include Harvey Haddix, Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer, Mike Boddicker, Mike Hampton and Zach Greinke. Gibson’s miniscule 1.12 ERA in 1968 was the primary reason MLB lower the pitching mound from 15 inches to 10 inches for the 1969 season. By this time, Gibson had won a record seven straight World Series starts between 1964 and 1968, defeating the New York Yankees twice in 1964; the Boston Red Sox three consecutive times in 1967; and the 1968 Detroit Tigers in Games One and Four, including a record of 17 strikeouts in Game One. Gibson, MVP of the 1964 and 1967 World Series, won the 1968 NL Cy Young and MVP Awards. Tigers second baseman Dick McAuliffe once said. “He doesn’t remind me of anybody. He’s all by himself.”
This blog focuses on Gibson’s pitching in the Caribbean, pre-1964, 1967 and 1968 stardom. It includes some anecdotes from Winter League teammates, namely, members of the 1961-62 Santurce Crabbers, along with several players who hit against him, including Roberto Clemente of the San Juan Senators, and Frank Howard, slugger with the Caguas Criollos, in Puerto Rico.
Bob Gibson: Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico Winter Leagues
Gibson pitched 1958-59 winter ball with the Licey Tigers in the Dominican Republic—2-6, 5.00 ERA, in 45 IP. https://www.diariolibre.com/deportes/beisbol/bob-gibson-con-el-licey-en-1958-59-un-fiasco-2-6-500-efectividad-FF14990342 This was before his April 15, 1959 NL pitching debut for St. Louis, versus the Los Angeles Dodgers. At the time, Gibson had issues with Solly Hemus, St. Louis player-manager. (Hemus was critical of Curt Flood and Gibson, and told both of them they “would not make it in the Majors…”) Circling back to Licey, on December 2, 1958, Gibson gave up a game-winning, three-run HR to Willie McCovey of Licey’s arch-rival Escogido Lions. (Escogido had a working agreement with the San Francisco Giants; Juan Marichal, the Alou brothers and McCovey were some top players.) It was Gibson’s last pitch in Santo Domingo. Joe Schultz, Licey’s manager, walked toward the mound from the 3B dugout with a towel in hand; alerted Gibson he was being taken out…and going to the showers. In the meantime, Cuso García, President of the Licey Baseball Club, prepared Gibson’s release papers. Gibson left Santo Domingo after pitching 11 games, 45 innings, with 35 strikeouts-to-55 walks.
He improved dramatically two years later with Rapiños de Oriente (30-25), managed by Les Moss, in Venezuela. Gibson fanned 19 Valencia Industrialists with one walk in a 13-inning start, with a no-decision. (Rapiños won the 16-inning game, 3-2.) Rodolfo Fernández, the Valencia skipper, later added Gibson to Valencia’s roster for the February 10-15, 1961 Inter-American Series, after Valencia won Venezuela’s post-season series. Valencia then won the Inter-American Series over San Juan—a team with Roberto Clemente-Orlando Cepeda in their line-up—Panamá and a second team from Venezuela. Bob Leith, first-time owner, 1960-61 San Juan Senators, had a few headaches before this series. San Juan’s imports (Stateside players) wanted more money for playing in this series, hosted by Caracas. But Roberto Clemente alerted all imports in a 10-minute, closed-door meeting, that the imports would get the same salary for playing in the Interamerican Series as they got back in Puerto Rico…if anyone refused to honor their contract, he [Clemente] would be the first to pick up the phone and call [Commissioner] Ford Frick. Leith called this ten-minute episode the “shortest strike in baseball history.” None of San Juan’s imports argued with Clemente.
Gibson just allowed two San Juan runs in his 18 innings against them, going 2-0, with a 1.00 ERA. The second (and decisive) win was a 1-0 gem. Bob Leith recalled Clemente’s reaction to seeing Bob Gibson warming up prior to his first start against San Juan. “Clemente says to me, ‘we’re in trouble.’ I (Bob Leith) say, ‘why? Clemente replied: “You see that pitcher warming up? Well, he throws aspirins!” Coincidentally, Orlando Cepeda and Juan “Terín” Pizarro were two Santurce players who reinforced San Juan. They were quite happy to find out that Gibson signed a contract, October 20, 1961, to pitch for the Santurce Crabbers.
Vern Benson, St. Louis Cardinals coach (1961-64) gets the credit for bringing Gibson (and fellow RHP Craig Anderson) to Puerto Rico, to improve their pitching. Benson, the Santurce manager, went with a four-man rotation of Juan Pizarro, Gibson, Anderson and Al Schroll. Santurce finished third in the six-team league at 42-38. Gibson was 2.12 ERA (third-best), 142 strikeouts, 135.2 IP. Only Juan Pizarro had more strikeouts (154).
 100 Juegos Inolvidables by Guillermo Becerra Mijares.
Gibson saved his best pitching for the post-season. On January 24, 1962, he fanned 13 Caguas hitters in a 10-0 shutout, Game One, semis. Four nights later, he struck out seven Criollos in Santurce’s 8-1 Game Five win. Santurce made it to the finals versus Mayagüez. Gibson’s Game Two shutout, February 1, 1962 was a masterpiece—two-hitter/14 strikeouts. Leo Cárdenas scored the only run on a Joel Horlen balk with Gibson at the plate. Santurce swept this series in four games to host the 1962 Inter-American Series at Sixto Escobar Stadium, their home field. Gibson bested the Marlboro Smokers (Nicaragua-Panamá) in the first contest, February 6. Orlando Peña saved Santurce’s 5-4 win. Gibson’s second series win came against the Caracas Lions on February 10. His three-run HR was the difference in the 5-2 victory, saved by Craig Anderson in the ninth. Gibson’s final appearance was a no-decision on February 14, 1962, a 5-4 Santurce win over Mayagüez, invited to this series as Puerto Rico runner-up. Thus, Bob Gibson started the final professional baseball ever played at Sixto Escobar Stadium, since Hiram Bithorn Municipal became the home for Santurce and the San Juan Senators, starting in 1962-63.
Santurce (8-1) won this round-robin event over the Mayagüez Indios (5-4), Caracas Lions (4-5) and Marlboro Smokers (1-8). Mayagüez got in the Series by being the runner-up team in Puerto Rico. The Smokers represented Panamá and Nicaragua. Eddie Napoleon, on the Smokers roster, remembered Gibson as a “dominant RHP destined for greatness.” Caguas’s Frank Howard, who faced Gibson in two semi-final series games noted in the prior paragraph, alerted the author “the Puerto Rico Winter League toughened him up…facing Gibson and Pizarro with Santurce; Joel Horlen of Mayagüez; Luis “Tite” Arroyo and Bobby Bolin of San Juan…” Santurce’s eight wins
in the February 6-14, 1962 Interamerican Series, are the most by any team in either Caribbean or Interamerican Series history. [The 1969-70 Magallanes Navigators have the second most wins—seven—after going 7-1, in the three-team February 1970 Caribbean Series.)
Bob Gibson was 5-0 in six post-season starts with Santurce, January 24-February 14, 1962. He convinced Hiram Cuevas, Santurce’s owner, to furnish first-class plane tickets for himself/wife and Craig/Judy Anderson, to return to the States after Santurce won the Inter-American Series.
Craig Anderson enjoyed playing bridge with Gibson and his wife. “Bob went home to Nebraska, but I didn’t have a winter home then,” recalled Anderson. “I visited my family in Washington, D.C. and Benton, Illinois, where my wife is from.” Anderson particularly enjoyed pitching at Sixto Escobar Stadium—an old stadium with the fans close to the field.
Thirty years later, Gibson sent a summary, to the author, via mail, and answered questions on what his winter season with Santurce meant to him: “It provided experience in a high classification without major league pressure,” summarized Gibson, who told the author: “I got along well because I tried to learn and speak Spanish.” Vern Benson remembers a thank-you note he got from Gibson after the pitcher’s retirement from baseball. “I wouldn’t want to take any credit for the success Gibson had after that [Puerto Rico], but that tells me something.” Gibson, 1968 NL MVP with a 1.12 ERA, was MVP of the 1964 and 1967 World Series. The 8x NL All-Star and 5x 20-game winner with two Cy Young awards, made it to Cooperstown in 1981. Rory Costello’s SABR bio of Benson is at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/vern-benson/
Three of Gibson’s 1961-62 Santurce Crabbers teammates—Orlando Cepeda, Rubén Gómez and Juan Pizarro—showed a deep respect and goodwill toward the Cooperstown Hall of Famer during various conversations with the author. Cepeda recalled (1991) that “Gibson loved our rice and beans (arroz con habichuelas) and was a great teammate with Santurce and the 1966-68 St. Louis Cardinals.” Pizarro, a LHP who formed the Puerto Rico Winter League’s best one-two lefty-righty starting combination with Gibson, conversed with the author numerous times at Santurce’s Parque Central, early-to-mid 1980s. Pizarro appreciated Gibson’s focus and determination. Gómez befriended Gibson—a private person—and challenged him to lift a 1953 Pontiac off the ground. (Gómez loved to race cars and drove his corvette to away games in Puerto Rico, when the other players traveled on a team bus.) Gibson showed his strength by doing this (lifting the Pontiac off the ground) and won a case of beer from Gómez. “It took Gibson three months to finish that case,” said Gómez. “He really didn’t drink much…had the best slider that I have ever seen.” Gómez noted that Gibson was a very good hitter and fielder.
Record of Bob Gibson in Puerto Rico, Big Leagues and Minor Leagues at https://beisbol101.com/bob-gibson/.
Talking about sliders, the author was 10 years old when Gibson won Game Seven of the 1964 World Series, versus the New York Yankees. Mickey Mantle hit his 18th, and final, World Series HR off Gibson, in the Cardinals 7-5 win. It was a slider that “hung a bit outside” recalled Gibson, years later, during an interview with Bob Costas. Mantle hit that three-run HR to left-center field at old Sportman’s Park. Years later, the author realized that Gibson’s seven straight World Series wins as a starting pitcher (7-2 overall) were possible, to a large degree, after the pitcher’s outstanding post-season pitching efforts in Venezuela and Puerto Rico. Rest in Peace, Bob Gibson.
With thanks to Bob Gibson, Vern Benson, Craig Anderson, Orlando Cepeda, Rubén Gómez, Frank Howard, Bob Leith, Eddie Napoleon, Juan “Terín” Pizarro and Jorge Colón Delgado.