Three future Hall of Famers converged on center stage for a climactic scene in a Cardinals classic. On the mound, Bob Gibson. Behind the plate, Ted Simmons. In the batter’s box, Willie Stargell.
Fifty years ago, on Aug. 14, 1971, Gibson completed his lone no-hitter when he struck out Stargell for the last out of the game.
Finishing a no-hitter is a formidable task under any circumstance, but for Gibson the degree of difficulty was heightened. Stargell was leading the majors in home runs and RBI. He hit right-handers particularly well and Gibson was no exception.
Simmons, in his first full season as Cardinals catcher, had an intriguing role in the drama. He was trying to strengthen his rapport with Gibson. Simmons earned respect with his bat, but took pride in his catching, too. Being the catcher in a Gibson no-hitter would help secure Simmons’ status.
Pride still matters
Gibson earned his second National League Cy Young Award in 1970. At 35, he looked as dominant as ever at the start of the 1971 season, winning three of his first four decisions. The only loss in that stretch was in extra innings to the Cubs’ Ferguson Jenkins.
Trouble soon followed. In his last April start, Gibson got shelled in a loss to the Mets’ Tom Seaver. In May, Gibson was 1-3 with a 5.21 ERA. He tore a thigh muscle late in the month and didn’t pitch from May 30 through June 20. When he returned, he lost two June starts, dropping his record to 4-7 with a 4.31 ERA.
Losing none of his intensity and focus, Gibson told The Sporting News, “I get paid for winning,” and he set his sights on earning the money.
Gibson was 5-2, including consecutive shutouts of the Phillies and Mets, with a 1.95 ERA in seven starts in July.
“Pride keeps him going,” teammate Joe Torre told The Sporting News. “He’s the greatest competitor I ever saw.”
On Aug. 4, with Simmons catching, Gibson struck out nine, including Willie Mays twice, and beat Gaylord Perry and the Giants for his 200th career victory. Boxscore
Ten days later, Gibson was the starter against the Pirates on a Saturday night at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.
The Cardinals knocked out Pirates starter Bob Johnson in the first inning and also pounded relievers Bob Moose and Bob Veale. Gibson contributed three RBI. Simmons had four hits, a RBI and scored three times. Torre also had four hits and a RBI, and scored twice.
On the mound, Gibson was in command.
“This was the first time in my life I ever was overpowered by anyone,” Pirates center fielder Al Oliver said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I never was able to get my bat around in time.”
Pirates second baseman and future Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski told the Associated Press, “Gibson was throwing them right where he wanted. He hit the outside corner every time. I broke two of my bats.”
When the Cardinals scored three runs in the eighth to take an 11-0 lead, the outcome wasn’t in doubt. The focus was on whether the Pirates would get a hit. Gibson never had pitched a no-hitter at any level, amateur or professional.
“In the last two innings, I was bearing down extra hard,” Gibson told The Sporting News. “I was trying not to make any bad pitches. Even when I was falling behind in the count, I was being careful not to groove any pitches. I was throwing sliders and curves on 3-and-2 counts.”
Despite his best efforts, Gibson made a mistake to Dave Cash. With two outs in the eighth, Gibson said he hung a slider. Cash hit a high bouncer to third. For a moment, Joe Torre couldn’t see it in the lights. Stretching on tiptoes, he snared the ball and fired a throw to first to nip Cash.
Friend or foe?
“By the ninth inning, I was so nervous my knees were actually knocking,” Gibson said in his book “Stranger to the Game.”
Al Oliver followed and grounded out to second baseman Ted Kubiak.
Willie Stargell was all that stood between Gibson and a no-hitter _ and he stood like a giant from the left side of the plate.
“His weight shifting rhythmically from one foot to the other, his bat moving in circles like an airplane propeller, Stargell creates a feeling of menace as he waits for the pitch,” Newspaper Enterprise Association reported.
At that point in the season, Stargell had 39 home runs and 101 RBI. No one else in the majors had more.
Stargell also had hit four home runs in his career versus Gibson then.
(The final career numbers for Stargell against Gibson: .290 batting average, .388 on-base percentage, five home runs, 20 walks and 41 strikeouts. According to baseball-reference.com, Stargell struck out more times versus Gibson than he did against any other pitcher. Gibson and Phil Niekro were the only pitchers to issue as many as 20 walks to Stargell.)
In “Stranger to the Game,” Gibson said, “Aside from former teammates, the only opposing player I ever really made friends with was Willie Stargell. I don’t have a good excuse for this, except that Stargell’s personality left me no choice. I was just fortunate he didn’t spread around the league that I was a nice guy or something. I couldn’t have that.”
Increasing the tension with every pitch, Gibson got ahead in the count, 1-and-2, on Stargell. On the next one, “I was looking for a fastball,” Stargell told The Sporting News.
Instead, with his 124th pitch of the game, Gibson threw a slider.
Stargell watched it go into Simmons’ mitt and heard umpire Harry Wendelstedt call, “Strike three!”
“That last pitch to Stargell really exploded,” Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst said to The Sporting News.
“You can tell all those people who have been saying that Gibson was washed up that they should have been at the plate with a bat in their hands,” Stargell said.
Jack Buck, calling the ninth inning on the KMOX radio broadcast, said after the completion of the no-hitter, “If you were here, it would have made you cry.” Audio broadcast of Jack Buck and Jim Woods
Gibson’s no-hitter was the first in a big-league game in Pittsburgh since 1907 when rookie Nick Maddox of the Pirates did it against the Dodgers at Exposition Park. No big-leaguer pitched a no-hitter at Forbes Field, the Pirates’ home from 1909-69.
Gibson finished the season with a 16-13 record, 3.04 ERA, 20 complete games and five shutouts, his most since his most dominant season in 1968.