Thursday, April 28, 2011

#22: Sixty Feet, Six Inches by Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson with Lonnie Wheeler

273pp, New York: Doubleday, 2009

OK, some info for you non-baseball types.
Bob Gibson led won 20 games 5 times, led the National League in shutouts three times; in 1968 he posted a 1.12 earned run average, the lowest since Miner Brown back in 1906. Overall, he started 9 world series games, won 7 of them. Perhaps his most impressive game was game 1 of the 1968 World Series, which he won 4-0 and struck out 17 hitters.

Reggie Jackson, AKA "Mr. October", hit 5 home runs in the 1977 World Series and 10 overall in 27 world series games. Reggie was on 4 world champs, two with the A's and two with the Yankees. Yes, he is the all time leader in strikeouts with 2597. When Reggie retired, he was 6th all time in home runs with 563.

This book is not a collection of old baseball stories, but a sharp discussion about strategy by two excellent players. Reggie is still egotistical, opinionated, but absolutely driven. Gibson, even at 75, seems to have that same nasty disposition that he carried to the mound back in the 1960s, the disposition that made him great. While Jackson and Gibson give some excellent ideas about strategy and information on how to watch a baseball game, the book really shines in the later chapters.

At one point, Gibson, who arrived in the majors in 1959, states "I wasn't on a mission to prove anything on behalf of the black player. I was on a mission for me. I had to prove that I was better." (231) Both players talk a lot about pride and race, and a revealing statement about baseball in the 1960s is this, from Gibson: "Reggie makes a good point about pride, because if you didn't have it as a black player, you wouldn't get to the major leagues in the first place." (235) I have to agree, especially after having read the excellent book Shutout: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston by Howard Bryant. While the color line was broken by Jackie Robinson in 1947, players like Gibson in the 1950s lived in segregated hotels at spring training and on road trips in both the majors and the minors. Gibson credits his owner, Gussie Busch and fellow hall of famer Stan Musial with standing up to that. However, if you are a 23 year old black pitcher, how would you react to your manager calling another black pitcher a "dirty black bastard" during a game? Gibson says "It was all I could do to restrain myself." (235) Reggie points out that when he as beaned as a rookie player in the minors in Lewiston. Idaho, the local hospital refused to admit him. (233).

Pride segues into a discussion of steroids. Jackson is adamant that he would not do steroids, Gibson less so. "Steroids wouldn't have been a temptation for me at my peak in 1968 or 1970...but if I felt like my skills were slacking and there was something I could do about it, that's a different matter." (257) Looking at the players in the Mitchell Report and otherwise, the vast majority of ball players who were named as users were fringe players who were just hanging on. If your pride and identity is based on being a professional baseball player, it is not unlikely that there would be a temptation. I am not surprised to see Gibson be honest enough to admit that.

Gibson also states that "People in baseball have been cheating for years", naming Gaylord Perry and his vaseline ball. He continues this line of thought with an excellent question: "If you can be in the Hall of Fame after throwing spitballs, how can you be punished for taking steroids when baseball didn't have rules against it?" (259) Some purists would argue that this is equating spitters with steroids, and it is. However, Gibson raises the point that one was illegal (spitball, outlawed in 1920) and one was not (steroids were not declared illegal until 2005). This is a fault with major league baseball and Bud Selig. Bonds is accused of using 'roids starting in 1998. If so, he had already won three MVP awards, led the NL in walks 5 times and won 5 gold gloves. He was also 33 years old; when he saw Mark McGwire, with no MVPs, a player who played only 74 games total in 1994-95 get all the attention for home runs, I guarantee that pride kicked in.

Look at the numbers for these three through 1997:
1. Bonds: 374 HR in 6069 At bats, 3 MVP awards, 7 all star games in 12 full seasons. He also had 445 stolen bases. By 1997, he also had led the league for six consecutive years in intentional walks.
2. McGwire: 387 HR in 4622 At bats, 9 all star games. McGwire finished in the top 10 in MVP voting twice and won the rookie of the year award in 1986. A damn good home run hitter who improved his fielding by 1990.
3. Sosa: 207 HR in 4021 At bats, 1 all star game, led league in strikeouts in 1997.

If these three had not done steroids, how would they have ended up? On home runs alone, based on aging and their career marks before 1997, here is my estimate:
1. Bonds 607
2. McGwire 518
3. Sosa 473

McGwire probably would be a hall of famer without steroids, Sosa is a borderline hall of fame player without them, Bonds is in fourth place all time in HR without them, with an outside chance to be the fourth player in baseball history to hit 600. Oh well, not quite about the book, but I could not help myself. Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson both are worried about the "spirit" of the game. I am also.

No comments:

Post a Comment