There was an unusually large crowd at Rainbow Park this afternoon, not with children playing on the slides but local residents, politicians, and other St. Louis Cardinal fans that were on hand to celebrate Hall of Famer Bob Gibson.
They watched and cheered as the Hall of Famer pulled off a banner to unveil that Gibson Avenue, from the 4200 block on the east end to Kingshighway on the west end has been renamed “Bob Gibson Way”.
“It means an awful lot,” Gibson said. “Just to think that the people in the community think that you’ve done something worthy of this kind of honor–it’s just a wonderful feeling.”
Located south of highway 40 in the Grove neighborhood of St. Louis, the new, red and white street sign serves as more than one symbol for the community.
Current resident Phil Heagney shared how baseball, in particular the Cardinals, was a source of unification for those with so many other differences. He helped collect more than the 75% of required signatures from residents to get the name change started. Now an Alderman, Joe Roddy shared that he other boys growing up on the street used to argue who would get to play Gibson and the Cardinals back in the late ’60s. Others reflected on how this renaming of the street was a sign of more renovations to come for the area.
To enjoy this type of honor is not something Gibson would have envisioned when he first came to St. Louis.
“When I first started off, it was a struggle,” Gibson shared. “Living conditions, that was a struggle. People’s acceptance, that was a struggle. Then it got better. Then we got good enough to win. Then we got good enough to win once, twice, or three times. Then I got selected to the Hall of Fame, now to have streets named after you, it just gets better every year.”
The pennant winning teams of the ’60s, in particular his masterful performance and 1.12 ERA of 1968, usually are the first things that people think of about Bob Gibson and St. Louis. But he reminded that his career with the team actually began in 1959.
“To be truthful, it was really, really tough,” Gibson said. “Things were not good in this country–not just here in St. Louis, but in Omaha, Nebraska where I was born and all over the country. It was tough. At one point, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to withstand all the stuff we had to go through in order to play.
“First of all, if you were African-American you could not be on a team and not be one of the best players. You had to be a best player. There was no way you were going to be a bench player. If you were going to be a bench player, you couldn’t be African-American. It got better, though. And I saw it get better. At the end of it, I was one of the better players on the team. I was looked up to not just from the minority community, but from everybody in St. Louis. Then it was everybody in the country. I just think, sorry, I hear all this negative stuff about this country–I’ve been to a lot of countries, this is still the best place in the world to live.”
Playing the game and being one of the best at it is hard enough. But how does one manage that under less than ideal circumstances?
“You’re seeing the difference, but I lived it so it wasn’t something that I spent time thinking about everyday,” Gibson explained. “I just knew what I had to be, as far as a player was concerned. I knew what I had to do as far as getting along with other people, and I did it. So it wasn’t a second thought, it was just my nature.”
“They came up in a very different time than we did,” said Ozzie Smith, who served as emcee of the ceremony. “We cannot compare the hardships and things that they had to deal with compared to what we had to deal with it. But it didn’t deter him from turning out to be as great as he did. He continued to work extremely hard and be a good example for those of us that followed. I’m just thankful for the opportunity that people like him and Jackie Robinson gave me and other African-American players.”
In his career, Bob Gibson won a pair of World Series titles, two Cy Young Awards, and amassed countless other honors on the way to his rightful place in Cooperstown. Those are all appreciated, but an honor off the field–like having this street named after him, carries a different kind of weight.
“They do,” Gibson confirmed. “Baseball I pretty much got on my own abilities. But to progress in this country and this city, you have to be accepted by everybody–not just one or two people, but by everybody. And if you’re accepted by everybody, then it means maybe you’ve done something right.”
Among those the accomplishments Gibson got “right” off the field is his work with the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT) to help kids.
“I got a chance to raise a lot of money for these organizations,” Gibson said. “I don’t know that you owe that to anybody, but I enjoyed being able to do it and that’s one of the things and one of the ways that I think I’ve made a contribution.”
“I’ve always tried to carry myself in a way that people would think a lot of me,” Gibson continued. “When I was very young, I didn’t care. I was going to be me no matter what, but then when I got older, I got just a little bit smarter. And I realized that can’t just live and let live, you have to live and get along. I realized that quite some time ago and things have really gotten better.”
photo credit: Brian Stull/STLBaseballWeekly.com