What I’m Reading: “Stranger to the Game” by Bob Gibson with Lonnie Wheeler

In Stranger to the Game: The Autobiography of Bob Gibson, the titular pitcher takes control of the story of his life, sharing with readers the inner thoughts of a pitcher who isn’t afraid to show his rough edges, but also isn’t nearly as mean as his reputation would have readers believe. 

Stranger to the Game is the first of three books that Gibson has co-written with Lonnie Wheeler to date, and represents the most traditional of the trio. In Pitch By Pitch: My View of One Unforgettable Game, Gibson walked readers through his thought process as he struck out 17 batters in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series. In Sixty Feet, Six Inches, Gibson and Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson talked about their approach to the showdown that defines every baseball game: that between the pitcher and the hitter. 

All three books make for entertaining reads, but Stranger to the Game is my favorite of the three. While Pitch by Pitch and Sixty Feet, Six Inches provide fascinating insights into Gibson’s approach to each at-bat and the thought process that defined his mound strategy, Stranger to the Game provides the most interesting insight into Gibson’s upbringing, the drive that made him such an exceptional pitcher, and – most impactfully – how deeply he feels some of his personal and professional failures. 

Gibson goes into detail about his basketball career, including his season with the Harlem Globetrotters before signing with the St. Louis Cardinals. Among the fascinating detailed explored in the book, Gibson discusses his early growing pains as a pitcher, both in learning how to control his pitches and how to approach each at-bat.  

He also details the racism he faced, and it’s easy to see how those examples helped to fuel his competitive fire. One of the reasons Gibson’s autobiography is so interesting is because he played during an era in which the Cardinals were filled with outsized personalities. Gibson shares stories and holds no bars when discussing Curt Flood, Lou Brock, Tim McCarver, Orlando Cepeda, Red Schoendienst, and all the players who made the El Birdos such a memorable era in Cardinals baseball. 

Gibson makes no apologies for refusing to fraternize with opposing players, but at the same time, as he tells stories about his teammates, his obvious affection for them shone through. While Gibson’s demeanor on the mound may not have betrayed his gentler emotions, he was obviously a great teammate and friend, and was a huge clubhouse presence for those Cardinals teams. 

I was particularly interested in Gibson’s discussion of Curt Flood and his place in baseball history, as well as his description of Lou Brock. Gibson seemed to sense a kindred competitive spirit in Brock, and suggests that part of the reason he developed a reputation as a pitcher who wasn’t afraid to hit batters was because he often had to retaliate on Brock’s behalf.  

In the book’s later pages, Gibson discusses the end of his career and the difficulty he had finding a position in baseball after he and Joe Torre were fired by the Atlanta Braves in the early ‘80s. Rather than seeming angry, Gibson expresses disappointment and confusion, and as he touches on the dissolution of his marriage and the end of his career in baseball, the book ends with a tinge of regret. 

Given all that Gibson accomplished in his career and all he overcame to do so, it’s a bittersweet ending, even with the knowledge that the Cardinals have since taken strides to build a closer relationship with Gibson, including inviting him to work with their pitchers during spring training, participate in opening day festivities, and throw ceremonial first pitches at playoff games, including the 2011 World Series. 

Ultimately, this is the definitive book about Gibson’s career. It not only provides great insights into Gibson’s competitive fire and the personalities of his teammates, but it also provides eye-opening details regarding what it was like to be a black man – even a famous and successful black man – during this era in U.S. history.

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