Remembered as one of the fiercest competitors to ever take the mound, Bob Gibson’s trademark tenacity and grit was likely forged long before he ever dreamt of becoming a major leaguer. Months before his birth, Gibson’s father passed away from tuberculosis, leaving his mother Victoria to raise seven children without a dad in a post-depression Omaha, Nebraska.
Born Pack Robert Gibson in honor of his father, his four brothers and two sisters acted as parental figures while his mother worked multiple jobs to provide for the family. Gibson’s difficult childhood saw him experience ailments that included asthma, rickets and pneumonia as a young boy, while a heart murmur in high school required him to bring a doctor’s note to participate in athletics.
Yet what once was deemed defective—his heart—proved to be one of the strongest attributes of his Hall of Fame career. In his induction speech, Gibson said “I want to be remembered as a person, a competitor, that gave 100 percent every time I went out on the field.”
He didn’t know any other way—a competitiveness that some categorized as a ploy to intimidate—but was simply his method of doing business. Even the Harlem Globetrotters signed Gibson to a contract, but he chose baseball because he “hated the clowning around. I wanted to play all the time—I mean, I wanted to play to win.”
Gibson would get this opportunity with a St. Louis Cardinals organization who hadn’t done a lot of winning before his arrival. With only one winning season during a five-year span from 1954-1958, Gibson’s arrival in 1959 sparked a turnaround that resulted in the Cardinals posting nine winning seasons from 1959-1969, including two World Series titles in 1964 and 1967, and another appearance in 1968. Gibson’s first championship in 1964 ended a 22-year drought for the Cardinals organization, who hadn’t hoisted the trophy since 1946.
His second championship came in 1967. In three World Series starts that year, Gibson posted a 1.00 ERA, striking out 35 in 27 innings pitched—all complete games. The Cardinals would have a chance to repeat in 1968, but ultimately lost to the Tigers in seven games. In three starts, Gibson posted a 1.67 ERA—once again all complete games.
With the modern game trending away from leaving starters in to finish what they started, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if Gibson’s record of 17 strikeouts in a World Series game will ever be surpassed. In fact, no pitcher in the modern era has had more than Orlando Hernandez in 2000, who recorded 12 against the Mets. Through 5 1/3 innings pitched in the 2020 World Series, Blake Snell’s nine strikeouts was threatening that mark, but once again fell short when manager Kevin Cash elected to call to the bullpen after 73 pitches.
With Gibson passing a few weeks prior to the 2020 World Series, we were all reminded of an era of baseball that is harshly juxtaposed to today’s game. Gibson had seven seasons with more than 20 starts, twice reaching 28. In 2019, the MLB leader had three complete games. In 2020, only six complete games were thrown throughout all of baseball.
The nine-time All-Star and nine-time Gold Glove award winner had a knack for going nine innings. It’s only fitting then that we look back on nine career-chronicling cards that capture some of his historic starts, seasons and accolades that the Hall of Famer graced us with.
1. 1959 Topps Rookie Card
With Cardinals manager Solly Hemus shuffling Gibson back and forth from the rotation to bullpen in 1959, the future Hall of Famer only pitched 75 2/3 innings his rookie season, despite a respectable 3.33 ERA in 13 games—nine of them starts. He was also sent to the minors early in the season, which is printed in red on the back of his rookie card and reads “Optioned to Omaha in April.”
1960 proved even tougher for Gibson, as he appeared in 27 games but only made 12 starts. His ERA ballooned to 5.61, prompting Gibson to travel to Venezuela for the winter to work on his craft. Hemus reportedly told both Gibson and Curt Flood that they wouldn’t make it as major leaguers and should pursue other avenues. Johnny Keane was hired in 1961 by the Cardinals and proved to be exactly what Gibson needed, as Keane had managed Gibson in Omaha and had seen his potential first-hand.
Gibson’s first two seasons saw him post losing records in both—a trend that would abruptly end with the arrival of Keane as Gibson would go on to record winning seasons for the next 13 years (1961-1973). While a high-grade version of Gibson’s RC can cost more than a used car, there are some mid-grade examples available in the $400-$800 range, at least for now.
2. 1961 Topps
1961 was Gibson’s first full-season as a starter and he rewarded Keane’s loyalty with a 13-12 record and 3.24 ERA in more than 200 innings pitched. His 1961 Topps card sometimes suffers from centering problems but for $30-$40 you can own a very respectable example of an important card from his career.
3. 1963 Topps
While his win-loss record didn’t reflect it at 15-13, Gibson had the best ERA on the Cardinal staff in 1962, something that is noted on the back of his 1963 Topps card. It was also good for fifth in all of the National League. 1963 brought the run-support Gibson had lacked the year prior, helping him go 18-9 for the season, despite owning only one win by May 19.
’63 Topps Gibson cards are a little tough to find in high grade because of the red border at the bottom but you can usually find pretty nice, crease-free examples for $30-$40.
If the photo looks familiar, it’s because it is–Topps used the same portrait of Gibson in 1961.
4. 1963 FleerThe back of the card calls him the “hard-throwing whiz kid who once performed tricks for the Harlem Globetrotters” and also notes that “only the Dodgers’ pitching twins of Drysdale and Koufax struck out more batters than did Bob last season,” referring to his 1962 campaign when he recorded 208.
The first and only Fleer Gibson card is readily available–and pretty inexpensive–even in higher grades.
5. 1964 Topps Giants
Another affordable Gibson card from his early years can be found in the 1964 Topps Giants set, which dates to Gibson’s first World Series championship and first Series MVP award. He went 2-0 with 31 strikeouts, pitching in relief at the end of Game 7.
Ungraded copies can be owned for the price of a modest meal out while a beautiful high-grade PSA 9 is currently listed on eBay at $399.
6. 1965 Topps
With Gibson now appearing to enter in his prime, 1965 marked the first time Gibson reached the 20-win mark, something he would do in five of six seasons from 1965-1970. He also recorded 270 strikeouts that season, which proved to be his career-best for any season.
His 1965 Topps card is a nice posed action shot with nicer ungraded examples usually available for $50 or so.
7. 1968 Topps
After two-straight 20-win campaigns in 1965 and 1966, the following year of 1967 witnessed Gibson only win 13 games due to a leg injury that is noted on the back of his 1968 Topps card.
He would respond to the adversity in typical Gibson fashion, recording one of the greatest seasons by any starter in MLB history in 1968, when he went 22-9 with a 1.12 ERA en route to winning the National League MVP and Cy Young Award. His historic season is ranked by Bleacher Report as the greatest single season by a pitcher in MLB history. No pitcher since has posted a lower ERA for a full MLB season.
Despite that pedigree, it’s readily available and affordable.
8. 1969 Topps Sporting News World Series Game 1
For around $15-$25, you can own a reasonably nice ungraded copy of Gibson’s 1969 Topps card that celebrates his historic 17-strikeout performance in the ’68 World Series. The front of the card features a Sporting News-branded clip while the back displays a box score from the game.
Higher grade examples will run higher, but this card is a must-have for those who recall Gibby’s greatness.
9. 1971 Topps
At age 35, Gibson threw his first no-hitter in 1971, notching an accolade that had narrowly escaped him for years. He also picked up the 200th win of his career as he pitched into his third decade.
His 1971 Topps card showcases Topps’ new move into game action photography. It’s fairly hard to find in high-grade form due to the black borders that are famously prone to showing wear, so you’ll often have to pay $40 and up for a nice, ungraded copy (make sure those borders haven’t been re-colored).