Reggie Jackson, Bob Gibson Slug It Out

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What do you get when you combine a champion pitcher with a five-time World Series slugger? Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson duke it out in their new book Sixty Feet, Six Inches.

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.

Few confrontations in sports are as personal and dramatic as a batter standing in against a pitcher with a baseball game on the line. The batter adjusts his helmet, tightens his batting gloves, digs into the batter's box and looks toward the mound. The pitcher fingers a rosin bag and drops it, stares at the catcher for a sign, then grips the ball in his glove and begins his windup. If his pitch is a Major League fastball, it will reach the plate in less than half a second.

The strategies, emotions and sometimes explosive confrontations that arise from that duel are at the heart of a new book by two legends of Major League Baseball: Reggie Jackson and Bob Gibson. Jackson was a homerun hitter who won five World Series rings with Oakland and New York, and earned the nickname Mr. October for his post season heroics. Gibson was one of the most intimidating pitchers who ever played, an eight-time All Star who won two championships with the St. Louis Cardinals. Both were extraordinary performers in the World Series and both are in baseball's Hall of Fame. Their new book is based on a series of recorded conversations with writer Lonnie Wheeler. It takes its name from the distance between the pitcher's mound and home plate. It's called "Sixty Feet, Six Inches."

Well, Reggie Jackson, Bob Gibson, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Now Bob Gibson, you say in this book that if you were a pitcher today there are a lot more coaches and trainers and video analysis and they would get you to try and change your windup and make it more economical, fewer moving parts. You had a lot of movement in your windup. Was that conscious?

Mr. BOB GIBSON (Former Professional Baseball Player): Well, it was the way I learned to pitch. And my idea - it wasn't just my idea - is that I think back in the days, and even before I pitched, guys would windup and they'd go through all types of gyrations and the hitter pretty much had to look for the ball. Where's it going to come from? And I think the more that he has to look for the better off you are. They started pitching with no windup and as little movement as possible and more guys started hitting the ball 550 feet. I think that the hitter needs to look and try to figure out where that ball's coming from.

DAVIES: You write in the book, and this book is a collection of conversations with you guys, and at one point you say I had a violent delivery. I wanted to be a gathering storm and blow that fastball in there with all the force and fury I could muster. Was that Bob Gibson just really being an intimidating force out there with that windup?

Mr. GIBSON: Well, yeah. Kind of, except I had just more than a fastball and I think what made me such a good pitcher...

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. GIBSON: ...was that my slider was just as good as my fastball and I had just as good a control with my slider as a fastball. And what makes you really effective is that you get guys up there looking for a 95 - 97 mile an hour fastball and you throw them a slider that's 89 and 90, and I think that's why I did so well in the Series because those guys were looking for all fastballs.

DAVIES: And coming out of that all that different motion, they're worried about the speed and then suddenly the ball's curving, it's dipping, it's off-speed...

Mr. GIBSON: Oh yeah. They're looking for the ball off of me. You know, what the hitter likes to do is to see where that point of release is coming from, and I think it's more difficult if your arms are waving and flapping and not that everybody can do that. I was fortunate enough to be able to do that. But I think the more he has to look at or look for, the better off you are.

DAVIES: Reggie Jackson, would you be bothered by a pitcher's windup if there was a lot of motion there?

Mr. REGGIE JACKSON (Former Professional Baseball Player): You try not to. I know that I liked it when a guy had almost a pitching motion of a catcher, just kind of a nice easy throw, not too much movement. It made it a lot easier to follow. But following a Gibson, following a Tiant, a Juan Marichal, a Warren Spahn, a Vida Blue, Jim Palmer, guys with big high kicks like Steve Carlton, it makes it tougher. Nolan Ryan had a big kick. Burt Blyleven had a big kick. And when these guys had all that going on and then threw in the high 90's to go along with it with a 12 to 6 breaking ball, it made it an awful lot tougher I thought.

DAVIES: You guys are both in the Hall of Fame because you were great players in the regular season, but you really really stood out in championship games when it was all on the line. You both were incredible performers in the World Series. Reggie Jackson, nobody else in the game has hit four homers on four consecutive swings in the World Series like you did in 1977. You have five World Series championships. What were those big games like for you? Did it feel different? Was your focus different?

Mr. JACKSON: It was a battle between me and the guy on the mound. And I knew everything about who I was facing, even in the other league, we had scouting reports. I paid attention to them. I watched. I learned. I understood. I felt prepared. And I really wanted the guy that I was facing to be at his best because then it made the thinking easy because you understood what a guy had, what was his best pitch or, say, like facing a guy like Bob Gibson in the World Series, be proud of what you got because then I know what I'm going to get. I may not be able to handle it, but the thinking gets simple.

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JACKSON: He's not going around me unless the situation calls for it, meaning pitch around me and face another hitter depending on the score or the situation. I felt I was going to have a good swing. I felt prepared, so the game got a little more simple. I didn't have any clutter in my mind. It's me and you. I'm ready and so are you. I hope you had a good night's rest. I hope you had a big breakfast.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACKSON: Kiss your wife and your baby goodbye. Get your insurance paid up.

DAVIES: Because here it comes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACKSON: Grab that can over there before you come in here.

Mr. GIBSON: Well, he's right about that because when we got into the Series, he was going to get what I had unless there was a situation where I needed to pitch him and I didn't have the problem…

DAVIES: That meaning walk him and face the next guy, right?

Mr. GIBSON: Sure. Yeah. Yeah. And you know, Reggie's up there and Reggie's not going to get a hit every time he's up there, nor is he going to hit a homerun every time he's up there. But he's probably more capable of hitting one than the guy behind him, so why do a silly thing, especially if you're in a situation where he could win - he could beat you a ballgame, you would pitch around him, that meaning pitch to the next hitter, a guy that you know you can get out or you suspect you can get out a lot better than him. If I don't make a mistake on Reggie I'm going to get him out. I don't know whether I'm going to make a mistake. If I do make a mistake, he's going to hit it. So let's try somebody else and that's the way I looked at it.

DAVIES: The fascinating thing hearing you two talk is that you never faced each other either in the postseason or in the regular season, right?

Mr. JACKSON: All Star game.

DAVIES: In the All Star game, right? And...

Mr. GIBSON: Yeah. He keeps telling me he hit a double off of me and I don't remember.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: We're speaking with Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson. They collaborated with Lonnie Wheeler on the new book "Sixty Feet, Six Inches." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guests are Hall of Fame ballplayers Reggie Jackson and Bob Gibson. They collaborated with Lonnie Wheeler on a new book called "Sixty Feet, Six Inches."

Bob Gibson, I've got to ask you about the 1964 World Series where you pitched in game seven on only two day's rest - that's very little rest - after having won game five, took the game all the way into the ninth inning with a 7-3 lead, then gave up two homers, and your Manager Johnny King left you in. You finished. You won the game. You were the most valuable player of the series. And afterward, when Johnny King asked why he left Gibson in, who seemed to be tired after pitching nine endings on only two days rest he said, I never considered taking him out. I had a commitment to his heart. Tell me about that day and that relationship.

Mr. GIBSON: Well, first you've got to - I blame Johnny King for those last two homeruns that they hit off of me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBSON: I go out and Johnny says Bob, I don't want you to get fancy out there. I want you to just throw the ball, every pitch a fastball right over the middle of the plate. He says I don't think that they're going to hit four homeruns. And so after the second one, I looked into the dugout and Johnny was getting a drink of water. I was looking to see where are you John? Are you sure they're not going to hit four?

But, you know, I have a commitment to his heart. I can't tell you exactly what he had in mind when he said that. I know that he had plenty of confidence in me and he felt that he was going to just go down the line with me win, lose, or draw. Now, that's saying something for him. I didn't want to let him down period. And I was tired. I was really tired out there. But he was going to leave me in there and so I was going to give it everything I had.

DAVIES: Yeah. I think what he meant was that this man has a will to win like no other.

Mr. GIBSON: Yeah, but you keep throwing that fastball over the middle of the plate...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBSON: ...that will might dwindle.

DAVIES: I want to talk about throwing inside and guys getting hit by pitches because you guys are both on opposite ends of this. And Bob Gibson, with your permission, I'm going to read a section from the book that you've collaborated with Reggie here, where you're talking about - you're saying basically that you liked to pitch on the outside part of the plate, that is the part - pitch away from the batter and you say that nobody's really going to square on a pitch and hit you when you pitch it outside. And then you write, unless he cheats. What I mean is unless he leans in and dives at that outside corner. Obviously, I can't let him do that because that's where I'm trying to pitch. So if he tries it, I have to stand him up a little bit. Think of the hitter as dog with an electronic collar. You just administer a slight correction, as they call it, if he tries to get out of his yard. Throw the ball inside and he can't wander into the wrong area. That's what you were doing when you pitched inside, right?

Mr. GIBSON: Pretty much. Yeah. I was getting him to think about the ball inside. Now Reggie - Reggie likes to hit the ball out away from him. That's where I want to get him out. So what do I do to keep him from hitting that ball out away from him? I pitch him inside. And I don't just pitch him inside once, I come in there often. And so now, he's going to think about me pitching him inside. If he's thinking about that ball inside, then I can get him out away. If he's thinking outside and I throw outside, he's more capable of hitting the ball. But if I get inside, and do it often enough, he's not going to go leaning out there because sometimes when I'm pitching inside and he's thinking outside, you know, the ball comes inside and I'll hit him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBSON: So - and he knows it. So, he says well, maybe he's going to come in here. More often than not I'm going to be away from him. But it just might be that one time that I'm not away from him and he's going to get hurt. It'll come in and bite him.

DAVIES: Well, and a Bob Gibson fastball can hurt you, no doubt. Reggie Jackson, you know, the lore is that pitchers now throw at and throw close to hitters a lot less than they did years ago. Back when you played, how did you feel when a pitcher, you know, knocked you down, threw it were in so that you had to jump out of the way? What were the circumstances under which that was okay?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, you added something there that's very important.

DAVIES: Okay.

Mr. JACKSON: There were circumstances where it was okay. If you hit a good hitter on the other ball club and somebody on our club was going to get hit and, you know, certain pitchers would make sure they hit either the most important guy or if you hit the second most important guy over there you'd hit the second most important guy on our club. And they may just single out and say okay, we're going to knock Reggie down.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. JACKSON: We're going to hit him. And you understood it at times, especially if we started and a guy hit a couple of homeruns against us and the pitcher had to hit the guy in order to just, you know, get him to respect him a little bit.

DAVIES: Now I've got to interrupt you there because that's one thing that I never did understand. If someone hits two homeruns fair and square, is having a great day, that's a reason to throw at him?

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. Go ahead, Bob.

DAVIES: Bob Gibson, yeah.

Mr. GIBSON: Well, and let me say this: A guy hitting a homerun off of me is not a reason for me to throw at the guy. If the guy hits my best pitch in a good location and he hits a homerun that's a reason for me to throw at him. You know what I mean? I don't want him getting my best pitch. There's a lot of mistakes that I'm going to make and when I make a mistake, he's capable of hitting a homerun. Well, that's my fault. But when he goes out and get my really, really good pitch and hits a homerun off it, hmm, he might have to get hit the next time.

DAVIES: Now when you say hit, you're talking about not just coming close, you're talking about drilling him in the ribs?

Mr. GIBSON: Hit you in the back, in the butt.

Mr. JACKSON: Well, yeah, in the ribs or somewhere in there. Somewhere where it's not bad. If you through at a guy's head, then we all feel, pitcher as well as hitter that, you know, you're trying to do some damage or you're affecting -you're messing with my livelihood.

DAVIES: Yeah.

Mr. JACKSON: But there are times in baseball when I was coming along and Bobby too that you just hit guys and that was part of the game. There is no question that in the '50s and '60s black players got thrown at more. That's not a negative comment. It may come out that, way but that's the way it was. Hitting another player was part of the game, hitting a player in the head is not. When you hit a player in the head, you're more apt to get some fisticuffs or, you know, bring both teams out on the field, but it was more accepted that - in the '50, '60s and '70s. I think nowadays it's a little over-policed because I will always believe that knocking a hitter down, even hitting a hitter at, sometimes is part of baseball.

DAVIES: Right. And there was this tradition of retaliation, which still happens today, where a pitcher from one team hits a guy on another team. Then the batting team's pitcher, when they get back out on the field, will be expected to hit one of their hitters. And then, Bob Gibson that might have put you in the position then sometimes of having to plunk somebody, who, because of something that had happened while your team was at bat - how did you feel about that? Having to go out there - they call it protecting your team, right?

Mr. GIBSON: Yeah. I had no problem with it at all. Now, they used to say, well, wait for the pitcher and get him. I said, no. The pitcher might not even be in the game when, you know, it's his time to hit. So, I would usually, the next inning I'd pitch I'd hit the first guy up and then maybe I would get the best hitter on their team. But I wanted to retaliate so they wouldn't forget, you know, and I just wouldn't wait. And they knew this, the first guy that came up to the plate, he was really…

Mr. JACKSON: (unintelligible)

Mr. GIBSON: …light slippers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: And…

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. Nowadays they promote, wait till the right time, wait till you have two outs, wait till you have a lead. And so, pick your spot is what it's called.

DAVIES: Well, and umpires will throw you out. They will warn both benches, and then when you hit somebody you get tossed out, which didn't happen…

Mr. GIBSON: Oh, I don't like that. I had a situation, it was in San Diego. Lee Wire(ph) happened to be the umpire. And we got somebody hit on our ball club. And they knew my reputation as retaliating, you know, I wasn't - I'm not trying to hurt anybody. I'm only going to hit him. And after the inning - the half inning was over and I'm walking to the mound, Lee Wire was walking along with me. Now, Bobby…

DAVIES: Said the umpire…

Mr. GIBSON: Now, Bobby, if you hit somebody it's going to cost you $50. It's going to cost you $50. And I said Lee - and at that time I was making pretty good money - I said, Lee, I have a whole bunch of $50, so you start adding them up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBSON: And he didn't kick me out. First guy up, I didn't hit him. I knocked him down.

DAVIES: Okay.

Mr. GIBSON: And he didn't kick me out of a ballgame.

DAVIES: Sent the message. You know, one thing that I've always - it's always fascinated me is when ballplayers get hit, and I know it hurts, they never rub it. What's that about, Reggie Jackson?

Mr. GIBSON: Oh, that's not true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACKSON: If you get hit, and it hurts, I'm going to rub it.

Mr. GIBSON: Willie Davis…

DAVIES: I see guys just walk it off and I don't how they do it.

Mr. GIBSON: Willie Davies was hitting off of me and my slider was 89, 90 miles an hour. And he swung at a slider of mine and it hit him in the knee…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBSON: …and he didn't rub it. And I was wondering, oh, I wonder what that's all about? And he hit a ground ball and he got halfway to first and fell. I said, now, that's more I like it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBSON: Now I knew.

Mr. JACKSON: He's got to rub his finger or something.

DAVIES: You know, Reggie Jackson, I know that you were hit in the head a few times and hit once in the face by Dock Ellis. And I'm just wondering, after something like that, how do you stand in ever again 60 feet away from a guy that can throw a fastball? How- does it affect your nerves?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, I went out to the ballpark after I got hit in the head one time - in the face by Dock Ellis - and around 1 o'clock because I was - I sat out two days. And I went out to the ballpark the next day with a big swollen face and almost a closed eye because I was going to play that night. And I had the batting practice pitcher, a guy by the name of Jimmy Frey, who was manager for the Cubs, throw at me in batting practice. And I hit for about 45 minutes and got over that. There was another time in Texas, a guy had hit me in the head by the name of Mike Paul, a left-hander for Cleveland, I played against him in college. He hit me in college and then we got together in the pros. I hit a home run off him in Cleveland, and then about four or five years later he was pitching for Texas. And I came up to the plate and there were two guys on and the catcher was kid named Kenny Suarez, who was about five-foot-seven and the umpire was Bill Haller(ph). And I got in the batter's box and the first pitch that this guy threw to me was up and in. And I turned around to Ken Suarez and I said, I'm not going to be able to get to the pitcher's mound, but if he hits me I'm going to rip your face mask off and whoop you right here at home plate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACKSON: He called time and went to the pitcher's mound and he looked at the umpire and the umpire looked at me and he went to the pitcher's mound and said something to Mike Paul(ph) and the next four pitches - the next three pitches was over in the right hand - batter's box.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACKSON: I got walked.

Mr. GIBSON: I like that, I like that. I'm going to fight you. I think though if I had been catching, you and I would have been rolling in the dirt.

Mr. JACKSON: (Unintelligible).

Mr. GIBSON: Oh, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: We're speaking with Reggie Jackson and Bob Gibson, both Hall of Fame ballplayers who have collaborated on a new book called, "Sixty Feet, Six Inches." We'll talk more right after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guests are Hall of Fame ballplayers Reggie Jackson and Bob Gibson. They collaborated with Lonnie Wheeler on a new book called, "Sixty Feet, Six Inches." Reggie Jackson, I have to ask you one thing that I've always wanted to ask a great hitter. And that is, when a pitcher releases the ball, it's on top of you so quickly and you have a much better chance if you can tell whether it's a fastball or a slider or a curve. Can you actually see the rotation of the ball and tell what kind of pitch it is?

Mr. JACKSON: Dave, if you can't see the rotation and tell if it's a sink - a fastball, then you have to be able to tell whether that fastball is a two seamer or a four seamer. You have to be able to recognize if it's a slider or a curveball. You have to be able to recognize if it's a changeup or a split-finger. And if you can't, you're not going to be a Major League player. You're not going to be a good player. Any other player that's playing everyday, that's hitting above .275 or .260, he can see what's coming when it leaves the pitcher's hand.

DAVIES: So that - in that spilt second you can pick up the rotation?

Mr. JACKSON: Yes, you better.

DAVIES: That's amazing.

Mr. JACKSON: You better.

DAVIES: That's amazing.

Mr. JACKSON: A guy with a slider like Bob, you'd see a dot, you'd see a dot in the ball and you would - yeah, you'd see that dot. If that dot got big and you saw it too clear, it was a bad slider and it was going to leave the ballpark when you swung at it.

DAVIES: You saw a dot. What do you mean by the dot?

Mr. JACKSON: Just the spin of the baseball with a slider…

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JACKSON: …the rotations in the seams form a dot, a red dot, you know, on the ball as it comes at you…

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. JACKSON: …when it's a real good slider. The guys will say, boy it's tight, it's electric. If it got sloppy, the dot got big and then it became a hanger. It became a bad fastball.

DAVIES: And Bob Gibson, I have to ask you about one more moment. I don't remember the year but you always talked about how Roberto Clemente was the kind of player that would just leap at and lunge at pitches away from him wherever. And he once hit a line drive at you that hit you so hard it broke your leg, right?

Mr. GIBSON: Yes, that happened.

DAVIES: And you pitched for three more batters before you left the game?

Mr. GIBSON: Well, I pitched to two more, anyway. And I used to get Clemente out fairly easily and it was because of him jumping and leaping out at that ball away. And I used to throw the first pitch inside, knock him down. I mean, knock him down on purpose. Didn't hit him, I don't think I ever hit him. But it would make him so mad that he would swing at everything. And then the next pitches, I wouldn't even throw a strike. I would track him out. I'd get him out. He'd hit ground balls.

And this one time in particular was in 1967, it was right before the All Star break. And I got a ball up and away. You could get Clemente out if it was down and away, down and away. And they'd tell you to pitch guys low and away, and high and tight. And that means pitching them up and in, and low and away. And if you get it up and away to Clemente, he'd hit the ball to right field like a left-handed pull hitter. I mean, he just really smashed it.

And so, I got the ball up a little bit but it wasn't letter high, it was about belt high. And he hit a line drive and about the time my right leg hit the ground, I wasn't able to get my glove down quick enough and the line drive hit me right on the ankle, broke my fibula. I didn't know it was broken. I just knew it hurt a lot and so, our trainer came out. And back in those days, they would spray this ethyl chloride on your leg and it would freeze it. And you wouldn't feel anything.

And our trainer freezed it. He put that stuff on it and I said - he says, how you feel? Well, I felt fine. I couldn't feel it. And so they - I threw a couple of pitches and I said, yeah, it's okay. They went back away and I started pitching. And I ended up getting three and two on Donn Clendenon. And I knew that he was going to look for a fastball, so I was going to put a little bit extra on it. And I put a lot of weight on that bone and it popped and it snapped in half. And it was really kind of scary. I looked behind me because I thought somebody walked up and hit me with a stick. But I fell over and I passed out. Next thing I know, everybody was looking at my face. But I didn't know it was broken. I just thought I'd gotten a little bruise on it. Today, that would never happen. You get hit like that and they take you out. They take a little better of care of you.

DAVIES: So, that's how you get Bob Gibson out of a game?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIBSON: Well, it certainly got me out of our game that day.

DAVIES: Well, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson thanks so much. It's been fun.

Mr. JACKSON: Okay, my friend, thanks for having us.

DAVIES: Bob, thanks a lot.

Mr. GIBSON: Well, you're very welcome.

DAVIES: Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson are both Hall of Famers who have seven World Series titles between them. Their new book with writer Lonnie Wheeler is called, "Sixty Feet Six Inches."

(Soundbite of song, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame")

Unidentified Man (Musician): (singing) Take me out to the ballgame. Take me out to the crowd.

DAVIES: You can download podcast of our show at freshair.npr.org. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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Sixty Feet, Six Inches

A Hall of Fame Pitcher & a Hall of Fame Hitter Talk About How the Game Is Played

by Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson and Lonnie Wheeler

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