Bob Gibson: ‘The reaper came the other day — and I wouldn’t answer the door'

At 84 years old, the Hall of Famer and former St. Louis Cardinals great is throwing cancer a curve, and probably a brushback pitch to boot.
In this Feb. 2, 1971, file photo, Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals delivers a pitch during batting practice at spring training camp in St. Petersburg. Gibson was coming off a 1970 season in which he went 23-7 with a 3.12 ERA to won his second NL Cy Young Award.
In this Feb. 2, 1971, file photo, Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals delivers a pitch during batting practice at spring training camp in St. Petersburg. Gibson was coming off a 1970 season in which he went 23-7 with a 3.12 ERA to won his second NL Cy Young Award. [ PRESTON STROUP | AP ]
Published April 6, 2020

For painfully obvious reasons, the Cardinals didn’t open their home schedule Thursday against the Baltimore Orioles. The good news is that Bob Gibson would have been there if there had been no coronavirus pandemic-fueled shutdown of sports.

Diagnosed last summer with pancreatic cancer, Gibson, 84, had no guarantee he would see many, if any, more Cardinals openers. But now his chemotherapy treatments have been moved from once a week to every three weeks, and he said he feels no pain.

Gibson is due for a couple of days of tests this week but for now, as he told someone recently, “The reaper came the other day — and I wouldn’t answer the door.”

When a veteran reporter called him recently, Gibson asked, “Are you still kicking? Me, too.”

With Gibson having been slated to ride in the caravan around the track on Thursday, his scheduled chemo for this week was moved back a week.

“The problem with waiting that long is that when you start with your treatment, it’s like starting all over,” the Hall of Fame pitcher said. “You have a little ‘sicky feeling.’”

Yet, he allows that, overall, he feels “pretty good.

“I don’t know where I’m going with this disease but they’ll take some tests and they’ll see where it is,” he said. “But I’m not in any pain. I haven’t been in any for two months, maybe three. I’ve been doing this (rehab) for eight months now.

“I had a lot of pain in July, August and September and then in the fall it stopped hurting. But I had backvaches and stomach aches. Right now, I don’t have anything aching at all. The only way I know I’m sick is that the doctor keeps telling me. I tell him, ‘Bull(feathers).’”

Gibson said he had had a feeding tube attached for several months.

“It was my idea to get rid of it,” he said. “I had it in for a month-and-a-half without using it.”

With the feeding tube in, Gibson lost 35 pounds, down to 170. But, his appetite restored, he now is closing in on 185.


The coronavirus pandemic is of concern to Gibson, as it is to nearly everyone.

“They tell me don’t get on airplanes, for sure,” he said. “They want me to stay in the house. They want everybody to stay in the house now, but in my particular case, I’ve got two things against me. One is that I’m … um … elderly. And two is the cancer. But staying in the house is nothing unusual for me anyway because that’s what I had been doing — watching TV.”

Gibson is a longtime aficionado of The Young and the Restless soap opera, he said. “I was watching that when I was playing.”

To further fight off boredom, Gibson is playing an electric keyboard he bought a couple of years ago.

“I’ve been teaching myself online,” he said. “You don’t have to learn how to read music. It teaches you which keys to play. But I can’t really do that well because your hands are numb and your feet are numb because of the chemo.

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“If you’re not careful, you fall over,” he joked.

A former piano player, he said, “I used to know two or three different songs, maybe four. But it’s been so long I can’t remember them.”

Well, he is 84.

“There is that,” he said.

“One of the problems I have right now — they call it a ‘chemo brain’ — is that memory gets really shaky. There’s a lot of words I can’t remember. I know that comes with age, too. But this is a little different. You start thinking and you just can’t remember.”

Gibson is looking forward to watching his Cardinals on television. St. Louis is the only team he watches. He also is looking forward to seeing his son, 35-year-old Chris Gibson, get married in September in Omaha, Neb., where the Gibsons live.

When players can resume training together again, Gibson said it would take pitchers “two weeks of throwing. You’re not going to get into shape until you pitch in a game anyway. You’d be able to pitch, but it’s going to take a couple of starts when you’re pitching to win to get into shape.

“You can stay in spring training for two months but you still won’t be in shape (until) you pitch your first game.”


Gibson’s landmark year was in 1968, when he had a one-for-the-books earned-run average of 1.12, with 13 shutouts.

In 1970 he had his most victories, 23, and his most strikeouts, 274. That was the first year in a decade that he hadn’t pitched to catcher Tim McCarver, who had been dealt to Philadelphia.

“He was the biggest reason guys hit me,” cracked Gibson, who had Hall of Famers Joe Torre and Ted Simmons as his receivers 50 years ago.

The difference in those two seasons was that Gibson rarely received any run support in 1968, losing two 1-0 games and another 2-0. The Cardinals scored a total of 12 runs in his nine losses.

“They said that I pitched angry,” Gibson said. “Well, yeah, you give up one run and get beat. Two runs … you might as well go home and take a shower.”

Has it really been 50 years since he had his most wins and strikeouts?

“To me, it does,” Gibson said. “It seems like forever that I pitched.”

Current Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty, posting one of many “bests” and “Top 10s,” that have appeared on Twitter lately, said he would choose Gibson to start one game he absolutely had to win. Flaherty, incidentally, was wearing a Gibson jersey at the beach the first day he got back to California after spring camps officially were shut down.

“I would have started me, too,” Gibson said.

Presuming Flaherty meant on opening day, Gibson said, “For some reason, I was always up a little bit more for that game. I don’t know why.”

One opener that didn’t go Gibson’s way was in 1965. The Cardinals were defending their 1964 World Series championship and kicked off the season in Chicago, with Red Schoendienst managing his first game. The Cardinals scored five in the first inning. Gibson, though still leading 6-5, was yanked in the fourth. The game wound up in an 11-inning tie, 10-10, because Wrigley Field had no lights.

“Ticked me off when Red took me out,” Gibson recalled. “I’ve still got a lead. I want to win the game. I didn’t know they were going to keep hitting like they did. I was a little aggravated coming out of the game. I said ‘We can’t win the pennant (today).”

Hall of Famer Ernie Banks sent the game into extra innings for the Cubs with a two-run homer in the ninth, off Barney Schultz.

“See? If I had pitched, he wouldn’t have hit that home run off me,” Gibson said. “If he had hit it, he would have had to hit it to rightfield. And he didn’t hit the ball to rightfield very often.”

In 1970, Gibson had a 14-inning complete game against San Diego and another of 12 innings when he lost to the New York Mets. The year before, he pitched 10, 10, 11, nine and 12 innings in five successive games.

“As long as you had good stuff, they didn’t take you out,” Gibson said. “That’s the way they looked at it before. Red would say between innings. ‘How you feel? I said, ‘Who you got down there (in the bullpen)?’ So I went back out there.”


The only time Gibson didn’t go “back out there” was in September 1975, when Gibson, then nearly 40, was coming out of the bullpen as a long man.

He allowed a grand slam, game-losing homer to Cubs reserve first baseman Pete LaCock on Sept. 3. It would be his last pitch.

“I told Red, ‘I’m not pitching any more,’” Gibson related. “I said, ‘My arm hurts, I’ve got a headache and my feet hurt.’”

He hadn’t actually announced his retirement. But when the Cardinals had a day for him, that Sept. 14, they gave him a motor home. Gibson drove it to Omaha the next day, and he never came back as a player.

“Somebody had to get the family home,” he said.

But it almost wasn’t a clean break. A club vice president had told Gibson he owed the sales tax on the motor home.

“I’m going to talk to (owner) Gussie Busch about that,” Gibson pledged.

The vice president backed down. Much like the reaper did when he knocked on Gibson’s door.

“He thought I had moved,” Gibson said. “He couldn’t find me.”