One of my baseball heroes died the other day. Bob Gibson was a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals in an era when baseball was still America’s darling sport, and was, like America, struggling with her racist past. Gibson, a black man raised during the Jim Crow era, let his arm do the talking. He pitched with a vengeance during a time, unfortunately not unlike our own.
1968: A Year of Losing and Overcoming
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
It may be hard to imagine another year like 2020. We have experienced so much collective loss as a nation. The loss of loved ones, with the virus death toll now at over 200,000. The loss of connection, community, and interaction. The loss of a certain naivete — the idea that we had arrived as a nation on racial equality with the election of a black president.
We are reeling from our losses. If I had to pick another year (in my lifetime) like 2020, it would be 1968.
1968 was a crazy year. Here are a few of the highlights.
- Protests against the Vietnam war heated up with marches on college campuses and on Washington.
- North Vietnamese communists launched the Tet Offensive, an assault that contradicted the Johnson administration’s claims that we were winning the war.
- At the South Carolina State campus, police opened fire on students protesting segregation. Three protesters died and 27 more were wounded. Nine officers were tried and acquitted of charges related to the use of force, while a protest coordinator was convicted of inciting to riot, and served seven months in prison.
- In March, Some 15,000 Latino high school students in Los Angeles walked out of classes to press their demand for a better education.
- After a 90-minute shootout between Black Panthers and police in Oakland, California, police shot Bobby Hutton, 17, as he tried to surrender.
- President Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, banning discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin. It was the last of the landmark civil rights laws he signed. However, segments of America disagreed with some of its strategies. The streets erupted with violence.
- In Cleveland, the Glenville Shootout, between police and black militants, left three dead on each side, plus one bystander. Riots rock the city for five days.
- At the Olympic Games in Mexico City, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos receive the gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter dash, then raise gloved fists during the national anthem to protest violence toward and poverty among African-Americans. The next day, the International Olympic Committee stripped their medals and sent them home.
- Robert F. Kennedy, gaining momentum in his presidential campaign, won the California primary—and was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Gunman Sirhan Sirhan, a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian descent, was captured at the scene.
- Martin Luther King Jr., in Memphis for the sanitation workers’ strike, was fatally shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Gunman James Earl Ray, a white supremacist, fled the country. Over the next week, riots in more than 100 cities nationwide left 39 people dead, more than 2,600 injured and 21,000 arrested.
- Nixon won the presidency in a tension-filled election, beating Humphrey by just 0.7 percent of the popular vote. Segregationist candidate George Wallace carried five Southern states.
1968: Bob Gibson and Overcoming
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
1968 was also the year Bob Gibson broke baseball.
Bob Gibson was a Hall of Fame starting pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals for 17 seasons. He had 3,117 lifetime strikeouts, becoming only the second player in baseball history to go over 3,000 at the time. He won 251 games and two World Series titles with the Cardinals.
Gibson was a beast on the mound before we had invented the concept of a beast. And 1968 was his greatest year.
He won 22 games, struck out 268 batters, collected 13 shutouts that year, giving him an ERA of 1.12, a number so low it hasn’t been equaled since. He was the National League MVP and finished it off with a spectacular World Series performance.
In Game 1 of the ’68 World Series, Gibson threw a complete game shutout with seventeen strikeouts which, 52 years later, still stands as the record for strikeouts in a World Series game.
For Gibson, the events of 1968 started a fire inside of him, and he channeled its heat into every pitch he threw.
“Everyone doesn’t fight the battle the same way,” Donald Spivey, a professor at the University of Miami who specializes in African-American history and sports, commented, “For many black athletes, their civil rights platform was the field. Once you appreciate that, you can appreciate a Satchel Paige, a Joe Louis, a Jesse Owens, a Bob Gibson, who have their way of making their own statement. And I think Gibson did it brilliantly on the mound.”
Two months after Martin Luther King’s murder, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was shot and killed. An enraged Gibson began pitching with a vengeance.
The day after the shooting, he shut out the Houston Astros on three hits. Then he shut out the Atlanta Braves, the Cincinnati Reds, the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates. This was war, and each pitch Gibson threw was a missile.
Gibson’s pitching became otherworldly. So much so that it caused the baseball-powers-that-be to change the rules of the game. They lowered the pitching mound by 5 inches and reduced the strike zone. Otherwise, no one would ever have been able to hit a Gibson pitch.
2020: Losing and Overcoming
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:35,37).
Jesus promised that if we cling to him, we will always overcome … always … even in 2020.
The Apostle reminds us, “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4).
This terrible, awful, forgettable year will pass and out of the ashes God’s people will overcome.
We can choose to flop and fail … or we can choose greatness.
And here is greatness — “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
Bob Gibson was greatness. And his flaming pitches spoke light to evil.
“When you’re there on the mound, it’s the loneliest place in the world,” Spivey said. “You have the perfect opportunity to be great or to be a flop. In a World Series game, the whole world is watching you to see which way you go. You’re going to be great or you’re going to be a flop.
“And the thing about Gibson? He chose greatness.”
Thank you Mr. Gibson for choosing greatness. It did not go unnoticed.
I know one little seven-year-old boy in Pasadena, Texas who was sitting in the centerfield bleacher seats when you shutout the Houston Astros that year. He was watching and taking notes.
Rest in peace, Bob Gibson. You have earned your reward!