Bob Gibson, War, and Sportsmanship

Bob Gibson‘s stare from the mound shouted what Jules’s wallet merely whispered in Pulp Fiction. His fastball was badder still. In 1968 he set a live-ball-era MLB record with an ERA of 1.12, and a playoff record with 17 strikeouts in a single game. He was as responsible as anyone for the lowering of the pitcher’s mound — to give the hitters back a fighting chance — from 15 to 10 inches in 1969. (That rule-change was not a minor tweak: with the possible exception of the introduction of a designated hitter in the American League, that is probably the most important revision of the rules of baseball since the debut of the more lively ball in 1920.)

He was a competitor through-and-through, as we see in a quote from the February issue of the US edition of GQ (this part of the issue doesn’t appear to be readily available on-line at this moment; I’ve blogged about it over at This Sporting Life), by fellow Hall-of-Famer Joe Torre:

There were guys who wouldn’t talk to the opposition — Drysdale was like that. But Bob wouldn’t talk to anybody who wasn’t on the Cardinals. Ever. [When I was a Brave] I caught the ’65 All-Star Game, and Bob closed the game out with a one-run lead. After the game, we were the last two in the shower, and I congratulated him. He didn’t acknowledge I was even in the neighborhood. When I came to St. Louis in 1969, Bob was the first to welcome me; we became friends. But baseball was war for him.

And Gibson was a sniper.

This is, of course, how many successful competitors in deliberately adversarial institutions feel, be they on Wall Street, K Street, or Pennsylvania Avenue. But not all. Hockey players famously have a long, drawn-out line of handshakes after a brutal playoff series. Some linebackers will help a quarterback up after sacking him. Julius Peppers and Aaron Rogers could be seen smiling and embracing each other after the Packers’ conference championship victory last week — a game in which Peppers landed a crushing and illegal helmet-to-helmet hit on Rogers that nearly knocked him out of the game. That is the “no-hard-feelings, it’s-just-business” (or just hunting) attitude to competition and to one’s adversaries. It is a sign of mutual respect, and a recognition of the purpose and context of the competition. The attempt to beat the opponent is not personal. It’s not hatred. It’s part of our fairly complex concept of what it is to be a “good sport.”

Even in war there is a long, if surely inconsistent, tradition of mutual respect among officers of opposing armies who hold no animus against one another, even when one is being held as a prisoner of war by the other.

That was not, evidently, how Bob Gibson rolled. Nobody is accusing him of cheating. But this is beyond “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” This is beyond war. It’s tribal.

Tribal, in small doses, can be cute in sports. But it’s surely unfortunate in most other competitive contexts.

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One response to “Bob Gibson, War, and Sportsmanship

  1. Pingback: GQ’s 25 Coolest Athletes of All Time. Pretty cool. « This Sporting Life

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