Bob Gibson was so good that his success sparked fundamental changes in the rules of baseball.
In 1968, he led the domination by pitchers at a level unseen since the early 1900s. The St. Louis Cardinals right-hander went 22-9 with 13 shutouts and the lowest ERA (1.12) since 1914.
"For that entire year," Gibson said, "I felt baseballwise that I could do whatever I wanted."
Then the commissioner's office stepped in.
In 1969, the pitching mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10. That was the first major change in baseball's playing dimensions since the 1920s. The strike zone also became more compact, virtually eliminating the "high" strike.
Neither of the so-called "Gibson Rules" slowed the man for whom they were nicknamed.
In 1969, Gibson won 20 games with a 2.18 ERA. In 1970, at age 34, he went 23-7. In 1971, he pitched a no-hitter.
By 1981, in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility, Gibson was elected with 84 percent of the vote.
If you jump from that pinnacle back to Gibson's earliest years, few would have predicted Hall of Fame athletic success.
His father died from tuberculosis a few months before Gibson was born in 1935, the seventh child of the family. At age 3, Gibson fell seriously ill with breathing problems. He also suffered from rickets, a bone disease, as a child.
Yet with his mother, Victoria, providing for him and his oldest brother, Josh, mentoring him, Gibson matured into a budding star.
"As a young kid," Gibson said, "I always thought I was a pretty good athlete because when I was 12 or 13, I played with teams run by Josh, who was 15 years older than me. And those guys were men.
"I used to do a pretty good job. I didn't know how good at the time, but they always accepted me as another player, not a little kid."
When he was 14 or 15, his North Y Comets basketball team played against the Omaha University team in an open tournament. "We kicked them," Gibson said. "We almost ran them off the floor.’"
Gibson's football career ended early, however.
"I wanted to play football so badly," he said. "When I was young, I was a lot smaller kid than most of the guys I played with. But I did a good job against them."
When he went to sign up for high school football at Omaha Tech, the coaches told him he was too small.
"I told them, 'We all play together all the time,' "?Gibson said. "They said, 'When you get bigger, come see us.' "
While Gibson eventually grew to 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, his brother Josh steered him away from football. Both discussed how injury — a close friend broke his neck playing football — could curtail his chances in baseball and basketball.
In high school, Gibson didn't play baseball until he was a senior, helping break the color line at Omaha Tech in that sport. Gibson did play summer American Legion baseball regularly, though, and was part of a state championship team.
But basketball earned Gibson most of his prep recognition.
Gibson said Neal Mosser, his basketball coach at Omaha Tech, was as influential in his personal development as his brother Josh.
Tech played in the state tournament in 1952. Gibson said he recalls Mosser, who is white, starting four blacks.
"I remember going out on the floor and nobody said a word," Gibson said. "Neal got criticized heavily for it. But from that situation, I realized that it's not white or black; it depends on who you are.
"I had as much respect for Neal Mosser as I did for Josh. Neal taught me an awful lot about living."
Although baseball became Gibson's profession, his participation in the sport in college was almost an afterthought. He said Creighton played fewer than 20 games a season, and he pitched two or three times while playing mostly in the outfield.
But basketball provided him with the chance to excel athletically. His name still appears in the Bluejays' records — he's fourth in career scoring average at 20.19 points a game, just behind Paul Silas, who played 16 years in the NBA.
"The steppingstone to the success I had as a professional was getting the opportunity to go to Creighton University," Gibson said. "I was trying to get into Indiana University at the time, and they had their quota (of black players), which was one — and after watching them play, they got the wrong one. Creighton gave me a scholarship, and that was the thing that got me going."
Gibson eventually became the first member of CU's athletic hall of fame.
After playing at Creighton, Gibson joined the Harlem Globetrotters during the 1957-58 season. His roommate was Meadowlark Lemon, a basketball hall of famer.
"I thought Bob was a better basketball player than a baseball player," Lemon said. "I think Bob could have played with any NBA team. He was that good."
Gibson, matter-of-factly, agreed.
"I don't know about being an All-Star," he said. "But I would have played in the NBA."
The Minneapolis (now Los Angeles) Lakers sent Gibson a detailed questionnaire after college, which he meticulously filled out and submitted.
He never heard back.
"If they had signed me, I would have never played baseball," Gibson said. "I'm not as sure I would have been as good a basketball player, but I enjoyed the sport. It's always been my No. 1 sport."
With that rejection, plus the realization that a Globetrotter performance "wasn’t the kind of basketball I wanted to play," he signed a baseball contract for $4,000 with the St. Louis Cardinals.
"Baseball was going to be tougher for me because I had played more basketball," he said. "And in the beginning, it was really, really rough.
"But with the numbers in baseball — 25 on a roster instead of 10 like in basketball — and me being only 6-1, I thought that gave me a better chance."
The numbers added up slowly for Gibson through his first four major league seasons. His record was 34-36. But in eight of the next 10 years, he won at least 18 games and his overall winning percentage was .645.
The 1968 season was all about the numbers, especially the 1.12 ERA and the 13 shutouts.
"He's the luckiest pitcher I ever saw," Cardinals catcher Tim McCarver wryly noted that year. "He always pitches when the other team doesn’t score any runs."
Gibson completed 28 of 34 starts and never was relieved in the middle of an inning. Opposing batters hit .171 against him.
The Cardinals offense averaged just 2.8 runs a game when Gibson pitched in 1968 — a full run less than usual. Statisticians calculated that if St. Louis had averaged four runs in Gibson’s starts, his record likely would have changed from 22-9 to 31-2.
"I could throw the ball anywhere I wanted that entire year," he said. "And it seemed like I could strike out anybody when I wanted. Whether that was true or not, that’s the way I felt.
"When you have a feeling like that, I don’t know that there is anything to top it."
Gibson won 251 games, struck out 3,117 batters and won an MVP Award (1968), two Cy Young Awards (1968 and 1970) and nine Gold Gloves. And he was perhaps the best World Series pitcher ever, going 7-2 with a 1.89 ERA, eight complete games in nine starts and a single-game record of 17 strikeouts.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1981.
During author Lonnie Wheeler’s work on Gibson's 1994 autobiography, "Stranger to the Game," Wheeler asked former Houston Astros third baseman and manager Doug Rader to name the five toughest pitchers he ever came across.
"That’s easy," Rader said. "Bob Gibson in 1968, Bob Gibson in 1969, Bob Gibson in 1970, Bob Gibson in 1971 and Bob Gibson in 1972. No one else was even close."
Played for: Omaha Tech High, Creighton Bluejays, Harlem Globetrotters and St. Louis Cardinals
Best athlete from Nebraska played with or against: Leon Chambers, Omaha Central. "He could flat out play — baseball, basketball, football, you name it,'' Gibson said. "We always expected him to do some things, but it never did happen.''
Best moment as an athlete: The 1968 baseball season. "It wasn't any one thing,'' he said. "For that entire year, I felt, baseballwise, I could do whatever I wanted.''
Early sign of greatness: When Gibson was 14 or 15, his North Y Comets basketball team played against the Omaha University team in an open tournament. "We kicked them,'' Gibson said. "We almost ran them off the floor.''
Gibson was No. 1 in the inaugural Nebraska 100 list in 2005. See more about the 2005 list »