Nostalgia buffs have a field day at baseball's various winter "Hot Stove League" celebrations, and the annual Boston Baseball Writers' Dinner was no exception. Whether one's memories went back only a few years or half a century, there was something for everyone -- from newest Hall of Fame electee Bob Gibson to 1960s slugger Dick Stuart to old-timer Jim Turner, who launched his lengthy pitching and coaching career in the '20s.
The main attraction, of course, was Gibson -- he of the 251 victories, the 3, 117 strikeouts, and the fabulous World Series record (7-2, including three victories over Boston in 1967, two each over the New York Yankees and Detroit in '64 and '68 respectively, and a place in baseball history as the only pitcher ever to win the seventh game twice).
Usually, of course, he accomplished these feats with a blazing fastball and a sharp breaking pitch. But my own favorite memory of the great St. Louis Cardinals right-hander goes back to a day when he didn't have that high velocity stuff; when he was, in fact, getting hit pretty hard; but when he hung in there largely on grit and determination alone to beat the Yankees in the seventh game of that memorable 1964 fall classic.
"I was tired," Gibson recalled. "I'd pitched on a Friday night and on Sunday at the end of the season, then I'd pitched the second and fifth games of the Series."
Bob still managed to shut out the Yankees for five innings while his teammates build a 6-0 lead, but Mickey Mantle hit a three-run homer to narrow the gap. The Cardinals added one more run for what looked like a safe 7-3 margin, but a worm down Gibson surrendered homers to Clete Boyer and Phil Linz in the ninth before staggering to a 7-5 victory that nailed down the world championship.
Even in victory, St. Louis Manager Johnny Keane was second-guessed for sticking so long with an obviously tiring pitcher in such a crucial game, but when asked why he hadn't lifted Gibson in favor of a fresh arm out of the bullpen, Keane had a classic reply.
"I had a commitment to his heart," he said in an answer that told a lot about his own character as well as that of his ace hurler.
Gibson recalled that in addition to his own fatigue, the big Cardinal lead had something to do with the Yankee rally, since the standard practice in such situations is to make the other team hit its way on base rather than risk walking anyone by being too cute.
"In the ninth, Johnny just told me to lay it in there," Bob said. "We didn't figure they would hit four homers -- and they didn't!"
While Gibson was being honored for his recent election to the Hall of Fame, Stuart and Turner received the writers' annual awards to a former member of the Boston Red Sox and the old Boston Braves respectively, even though each spent only two years in Boston in the course of his lengthy baseball odyssey.
Turner was one of the few pitchers in history to win 20 games in his rookie season -- which is nice in one way, but does pose the problem of "What do you do for an encore?"
Jim never did match that fine effort for the fifth place Braves in 1937, but he went on to play a key role for the 1940 world champion Cincinnati Reds with a 14-7 record, and later to fill an important relief slot for a couple of Yankee pennant winners during the war years. Later still, Jim managed in the minors and put in nearly 25 years as a coach with both New York and Cincinnati.
Add the 14 years he spent pitching in the minors before arriving in Boston as a 33-year-old rookie and you have approximately half a century in the game, but he has no trouble picking out the biggest moment.
"Financially, the years coaching the Yankees were the best," he said. "And I'll never forget winning my 20th game. But no thrill could ever top the day I put on a Boston uniform and knew that after 14 years in the minors I was finally a major league pitcher."
Stuart, though he spent "only" 19 years in baseball, managed to hit an even greater variety of exotic and not-so-exotic spots ranging from Japan and Mexico City to Billings, Mont., and Modesto, Calif.
After a minor league career climaxed by one incredible 66-homer season at Lincoln, Neb., Dic spent nine years in the majors, mostly with Pittsburgh and the Red Sox. He later played for the Taiyo Whales in Japan, where among other things he won a couple of home run hitting contests with Sadaharu Oh.
"I don't think anybody else beat him until Hank Aaron did it a few years ago, " Stuart said. "Of course Hank got $50,000 from TV. All I got was a cheer from the crowd."
Although his erratic fielding earned him the nickname "Dr. Strangeglove," the onetime first baseman, now a successful business executive in New york, has no regrets that the designated hitter rule came along too late for him.
"I like to be in there -- to be part of the action," he said. "I don't think I would have enjoyed being the DH -- but I have an idea my managers would have liked it!"