On this date in 1975, Cardinals great Bob Gibson pitched the last game of his major league career.
Quite possibly THE most intimidating hurler of his era, Gibson continued to pitch well into his late 30s, leaving an impressive trail of strikeouts, wins, and PTS-suffering batters in his wake. Dusty Baker, who didn't face Gibson until 1972, when the pitcher was 36, said that Hank Aaron warned, him "'Don't dig in against Bob Gibson, he'll knock you down. He'd knock down his own grandmother if she dared to challenge him. Don't stare at him, don't smile at him, don't talk to him. He doesn't like it. If you happen to hit a home run, don't run too slow, don't run too fast. If you happen to want to celebrate, get in the tunnel first. And if he hits you, don't charge the mound, because he's a Gold Glove boxer."
Indeed, Gibson wrote in his autobiography that he threw nine pitches: "two different fastballs, two sliders, a curve, a change-up, knockdown, brushback, and hit-batsman." But it wasn't all about intimidation. In 1973, at the age of 37, Gibson posted a 12-10, 2.77 ERA, 1.108 WHIP performance in 195 innings, with 142 Ks against only 57 walks. Not bad at all for a pitcher in his twilight years — hell, this year's Cardinals staff only has one guy (Kyle Lohse) with anywhere near those kind of numbers, and the entire staff only has four complete games, as opposed to the 13 Gibson logged that season.
Even in 1974, when Gibson posted the second-worst ERA of his career (3.83), he was hardly bad — though he did give up a league-leading 24 homers, and his 129/104 strikeout-to-walk ratio wasn't encouraging, he still managed to become the first pitcher since Walter Johnson to pass the 3000 strikeout mark. But by the following year, it was clear that there was little gas left in the tank — the photo at the top of this post, taken in March '75 during spring training, pretty much said it all.
Still, Gibson — who announced at the beginning of the season that it would be his last go-'round in the bigs — attempted to gut it out; while his body and arm might not have been willing, his competitive fire refused to be dimmed. But except for a 12-strikeout performance against the Expos on Opening Day (a feat which was offset by the 5 runs he gave up in the 8-4 loss), no one could have possibly mistaken him for the high-flying Hoot who once fanned 17 Tigers in a World Series game. In July, having posted only two wins against eight losses and a 5.13 ERA, the Cards moved him (gingerly, no doubt) from the starting rotation to the bullpen.
And so it came to pass that one of the greatest starting pitchers in major league history made his final seven MLB appearances as a reliever. To be fair, it wasn't a bad move — in the first six games, Gibson posted two saves (and blew one), a 1.35 ERA and struck out 13 batters in 18 innings. But with Al "The Mad Hungarian" Hrabosky and Mike Garman holding down the Cards' bullpen, there wasn't much call for Gibson's relief services. And then, on September 3, it all fell apart.
The Cardinals, then five games behind the Pirates (and tied with the Phillies) in the NL East race, were tied 6-6 with the Cubs going into the 7th at Busch Stadium, when Gibson got the call to replace starting pitcher Ron Reed. After getting eventual NL batting champ Bill Madlock to fly to left for the first out of the inning, Gibson walked Jose Cardenal, gave up a single to Champ Summers (who was then replaced by pinch runner Gene Hiser), and then walked Andre Thornton to load the bases. Manny Trillo then tapped one off the artificial turf back to the mound, and Gibson threw home to catcher Ted Simmons for the second out of the inning. Jerry Morales, pinch-hitting for Cubs catcher Steve Swisher, stepped to the plate; but once a wild Gibson pitch skipped past Simmons and scored Hiser from third, Morales was intentionally walked to load the bases.
Gibson had already given up the go-ahead run, but the final indignity was yet to come. Pete LaCock, the immortally-named pretty boy son of "Hollywood Squares" host Peter Marshall, stepped up to pinch-hit for Redbirds reliever Buddy Schultz. LaCock, a utility player then hitting .235, deposited a Gibson fastball (or some semblance thereof) in the outfield seats, clearing the bases with a grand slam home run.
Gibson's last pitch to LaCock is often incorrectly remembered as the final pitch of his career; in fact, he faced one more batter that inning, Cubs shortstop Don Kessinger. Having often batted leadoff for the Cubs, Kess had faced Gibson more times than any other major league pitcher, and had actually done remarkably well against him — coming into the game, the slap-hitting shortstop boasted a lifetime batting average of .328 against him, knocking 44 hits (40 of them singles) in 134 at-bats. Only Kessinger's teammate Billy Williams, and Gibson's former teammate Ron Fairly, ever got more hits off of Gibson. But on this day, Kess would not get to add to that total; he grounded to Reggie Smith at first, who tossed to Gibson to record the final out of the inning, and of his career. The Cardinals lost the game 11-6.
Tagged with his 10th loss of the season (against only three wins), the writing was clearly on the wall for Gibson. "When I gave up a grand slam to Pete LaCock,” Gibby would later say, “I knew it was time to quit.” He never pitched in another major league game, but the old badass would still find a way to exact his revenge. Facing LaCock in an Old-Timer's Game a decade later, Gibson drilled him in the back with a fastball.