January 15, 1981: Bob Gibson is elected to the Hall of Fame

The 1981 Hall of Fame ballot was stacked with stars who would one day receive their day in Cooperstown. Joining Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson among the candidates were future Hall of Famers Don Drysdale, Gil Hodges, Harmon Killebrew, Juan Marichal, and Hoyt Wilhelm.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch even ran a story noting that all six players were strong candidates to receive the 75% of the vote necessary for induction, noting that no more than four players had been elected in a single year since 1936, when Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Honus Wagner were inducted. The last time four players had been inducted in the Hall was in 1955.[1]

Ultimately, however, just one member of the ballot earned induction that year: Gibson. With 337 of 401 votes, Gibson received 82% of the vote and became just the 11th player in history to be recognized as a first-year candidate, joining Al Kaline, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Bob Feller, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Warren Spahn, and Mickey Mantle.[2]

“That’s pretty fast company,” Gibson said.[3]

There had been some concern that members of the media may punish Gibson for his insistence on speaking to the media only on his terms. As St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Neal Russo described it, “Gibson drew the wrath of some media personnel because of what they considered at times a somewhat surly, uncooperative attitude. And he offended some fans by often declining to sign autographs. However, the writers and broadcasters who were patient with Gibson, especially following a tough defeat, found him an excellent interview.”[4]

Drysdale came the closest of the remaining candidates with 243 votes. Hodges received 241, Killebrew had 239, Wilhelm received 238, and Marichal had 233. Like Gibson, Marichal and Killebrew each were eligible for the first time.

“When I came into the majors, (Marichal) was the best pitcher around,” Gibson said. “He had a variety of pitches and a lot of control, and in that class of pitchers – Koufax, Drysdale, that group – I thought he was the best.”[5]

Gibson grew up fatherless in Omaha, Nebraska, and quickly learned to overcome adversity. As he recounted in his biography, Stranger to the Game, as a baby he was bitten on the ear by a rat. He also suffered from rickets and asthma, and a bout of childhood pneumonia was so severe that his older brother Josh promised him a baseball glove if he survived.

Josh played a key role in his development as an athlete, coaching Gibson’s youth team and teaching him to compete to the best of his abilities. A gifted athlete, Gibson became the first black player on Creighton University’s baseball and basketball teams.

2008 Donruss Threads — College Greats

“I remember when I first started playing baseball and basketball at Creighton University,” he said. “I was 17. I went to a game and we were halfway to Tulsa on the bus and the coach told me I had to stay behind at a hotel on the other side of the city. I started crying because I was hurt. I told him that I wouldn’t have come if I had known that, and he said that he knew. That’s why he didn’t tell me.”[6]

Gibson enjoyed a season with the Harlem Globetrotters before the Cardinals convinced him to play baseball full-time. At the time, Gibson viewed himself as more of an everyday player than a pitcher.

“When I was signed in 1957, I was a good outfielder and a pretty good hitter,” Gibson said. “The Cardinals didn’t have much of a pitching staff, so no matter who you were, they asked you to be a pitcher. I figured there were only two spots in the outfield and 10 pitchers, so I said yes.”[7]

Even once he signed with the Cardinals, Gibson didn’t have an easy road. As a black player, he faced racism and abuse. In the early days of his career, black players were not allowed to stay with their white teammates at team hotels or at their spring training accommodations. The Cardinals did not integrate their spring training accommodations until 1961.

When Gibson arrived for his first Cardinals spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida, he went to the team hotel and introduced himself.

“I walked in and said, ‘I’m Bob Gibson with the St. Louis Cardinals. Do you have a place for me?’ They had a place … right through the back door, into a cab, and over to the other side of town,” Gibson said. “Things like that teach you toughness. You had to fight that as well as guys like Mays and Mantle on the field.”[8]

Knowing that nothing would be given to him, Gibson dedicated himself to his craft and famously refused to exchange pleasantries with opponents. Though his career started slowly under Cardinals manager Solly Hemus, the arrival of Johnny Keane midway through the 1961 season proved a turning point for Gibson. The following year, Gibson made his first all-star appearance and led the league with five shutouts.

In a career that included 251 wins, a 2.91 career ERA, nine all-star appearances, and two Cy Young Awards, Gibson’s best season came in 1968, when he set a major-league record with a 1.12 ERA. After losing three of his first eight decisions, he rattled off 15 straight wins, including 10 shutouts. In a stretch that ran from June 2 through July 30, he allowed just two runs over 96 2/3 innings, and he was never removed in the middle of an inning that season.

“I can’t remember having a bad start that season,” he said. “I did everything right. Everything I threw was knee-high and on the corner. It was a once-in-a-lifetime year. I cherish that season.”[9]

If possible, Gibson was even more dominant in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series against the Tigers, a game in which he struck out 17 batters.

“Watching him pitch in 1968 was like watching Rembrandt paint a picture, especially in the first game of the World Series that year,” teammate Mike Shannon said. “I talked to a lot of the Tigers after the Series, and they said they had never seen a pitcher more overpowering than Gibson was that day.”[10]

Gibson won two World Series MVP trophies in his career and was 7-2 in nine World Series starts.

“Gibby was the man you could almost always turn to when your team got into a rut or a slump,” said Red Schoendienst, Gibson’s former manager. “He was always ready to be handed the ball.”[11]

In 1971, Gibson no-hit the Pirates in a contest that he called his “greatest game.” In addition to the no-hitter, he also threw two one-hitters, eight two-hitters, and 24 three-hitters. Three years later, Gibson recorded the 3,000th strikeout of his career on the same day that another Cardinals Hall of Famer, Dizzy Dean, passed away. He retired after the 1975 season with a National League record 3,117 strikeouts.

“There were two reasons that I retired,” Gibson said. “My legs were killing me. I had broken two ankles and had ligament damage in my knee, and I had personal problems. I found myself one day on the mound with the bases loaded. I don’t even know who the batter was, but I was in trouble and I was thinking about my ex-wife. I decided then that it was time to quit.”[12]

With the news of Gibson’s election to the Hall of Fame, accolades from former teammates and opponents poured in from across the baseball world.

“He’s the greatest pitcher I ever saw or caught,” said Ted Simmons. “He certainly must be one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived.”[13]

Slugger Lee May, who played 18 major-league seasons with the Reds, Astros, Orioles, and Royals, said, “When Bob Gibson pitched against us, I didn’t want to play.”[14]

Vada Pinson, also an 18-year major-league veteran, played 11 seasons with the Reds before he joined the Cardinals in 1969.

“When I first came up, he was the meanest man alive,” Pinson said. “I didn’t like him, but I really didn’t know him. When I joined the Cardinals, I really learned to appreciate the man by playing behind him. He’s a man of men – all business on the field. He’s in a class by himself. If hard work pays off, he’s the perfect example.”[15]

Rusty Staub, who was back with the Mets in 1981 as part of a 23-year major-league career, said, “In all my years in the big leagues, for consistency of performance, competitiveness and desire, and plain, old guts, Gibson was my idea of what it takes to be a true champion. I wish I could have played on the same team with him.”[16]

2021 Stadium Club

On August 2, 1981, Gibson was inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside another former Cardinal, Johnny Mize, and the late Rube Foster. In his remarks, he recognized his brother Josh, who was not in attendance, as well as Keane. He also recognized Schoendienst and drew laughs when he said that he had lost 174 games “and Red was probably responsible for more of them than I was.”[17]

Afterward, Gibson apologized for forgetting to thank Cardinals chairman August A. Busch, Jr., and former general manager Bing Devine in his remarks.

“I already sent Mr. Busch a note,” Gibson said. “Not only was it a pleasure to play for him, but he also stood strongly in my corner when I had personal problems and gave me oral encouragement and an offer of his help. I’m just sorry that in speaking without notes and in some emotion, I forgot to mention him and also Bing. I felt sick about it the minute Jack Buck mentioned it to me after the induction.”[18]


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[1] “Bob Gibson Awaits Fame Hall Vote,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 11, 1981.

[2] “Gibby In ‘Fast Company’ As First-Vote Selection,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 16, 1981.

[3] “Gibby In ‘Fast Company’ As First-Vote Selection,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 16, 1981.

[4] Neal Russo, “Gibson Solos Into Hall of Fame,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 15, 1981.

[5] Neal Russo, “Gibson Solos Into Hall of Fame,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 15, 1981.

[6] “Gibby In ‘Fast Company’ As First-Vote Selection,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 16, 1981.

[7] “Gibby In ‘Fast Company’ As First-Vote Selection,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 16, 1981.

[8] Associated Press “Bob Gibson elected to baseball Hall of Fame,” Statesman Journal, January 16, 1981.

[9] Associated Press “Bob Gibson elected to baseball Hall of Fame,” Statesman Journal, January 16, 1981.

[10] Neal Russo, “Bob Gibson,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 18, 1981.

[11] Neal Russo, “Bob Gibson,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 18, 1981.

[12] Neal Russo, “Gibson Solos Into Hall of Fame,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 15, 1981.

[13] Neal Russo, “Bob Gibson,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 18, 1981.

[14] Neal Russo, “Bob Gibson,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 18, 1981.

[15] Neal Russo, “Bob Gibson,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 18, 1981.

[16] Neal Russo, “Bob Gibson,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 18, 1981.

[17] Bob Broeg, “Fans Boo Kuhn, Cheer For Gibson,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 3, 1981.

[18] Bob Broeg, “Gibson Apologizes For Overlooking Busch,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 3, 1981.

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