This day in baseball history: Gibson finally gets his 20th

October 2, 1969 was the last day of baseball’s regular season. On that day, the St. Louis Cardinals played the Philadelphia Phillies at Busch Stadium before a crowd of less than 12,000.

The game was basically meaningless. St. Louis, after winning back-to-back pennants, had long since been eliminated from contention. They began the day in fourth place in the six-team NL East, 14 games behind the New York Mets.

The Phillies, in the middle of the wilderness decade that followed their 1964 fold, were in fifth place. They trailed the Mets by a whopping 37 games.

But the game had meaning for St. Louis ace Bob Gibson. It was his last chance to win 20 games in 1969. Gibson had won 20 or more in three of the previous four seasons, missing out only in 1967 when an injury limited him to just 24 starts.

And if a game had meaning for Gibson, it had meaning for the Cardinals for whom he was the heart and soul. Indeed, their manager, Red Schoendienst, had been pushing for most of September to enable Gibson to get 20.

This would be Gibson’s fifth start in the Cardinals’ last 17 games. The previous four had been complete games (including two extra inning contests), as had Gibson’s two starts before that. Schoendienst wouldn’t pinch hit for Gibson when St. Louis was tied or behind (to be fair, Gibson was a pretty good hitter) and wouldn’t remove him when he was clearly tired.

Moreover, Schoendienst fielded two different teams during this stretch of games. When Gibson wasn’t pitching, he made liberal use of September call-ups, such as Ted Simmons, Leron Lee, Jerry DaVannon, and Chip Coulter. When Gibson pitched, Schoendienst went with the core players from the two pennant winning teams.

Gibson had been pitching well enough to get to 20 wins with room to spare. However, despite Schoendient’s use of his veteran position players, runs had been hard to come by in Gibson’s starts. On September 19, the Cards lost 2-1 to Ken Holtzman and the Chicago Cubs in 10 inning. Gibson’s next time out, September 23, they lost 3-2 to the Mets in 11 innings.

With only two starts left, and needing two wins, Gibson had to pitch brilliantly to beat last-place Montreal, 2-0, on September 28. Now, Gibson had one last crack at 20 wins.

Philadelphia declined to use a September call-up to oppose Gibson. Instead, manager George Myatt went with Grant Jackson, a southpaw who was shooting for his 15th win. For reasons not clear to me, Myatt would prove to be as determined to enable Jackson to get to 15 wins as Schoendienst was to enable Gibson to reach 20.

The Cardinals grabbed a run off of Jackson in the second inning on a home run by Joe Torre. But it soon became apparent that Gibson, once again, had little margin for error.

St. Louis didn’t score again until the sixth. Lou Brock singled, stole second base, advanced to third on a throwing error by the Philadelphia catcher Dave Watkins, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Torre.

Gibson shut down the Phillies again in the seventh inning. With two innings to go and a two run lead, he could see the finish line.

But in the eighth, the two lightest hitting Philadelphia position players got on base to start the inning. Watkins singled and Terry Harmon walked.

Myatt left Jackson in the game to bunt the runners over. Gibson, a fine fielder in addition to everything else, was all over the bunt and threw to Mike Shannon at third for the force. But Shannon mishandled the throw for an error. The bases were loaded with no one out.

Bearing down in that special way of his, Gibson struck out Tony Taylor and got Johnny Briggs on a pop-up. However, Johnny Callison singled home Watkins and Harmon to tie the game. Both runs were unearned.

Next up was the dangerous Richie Allen. Gibson walked him.

Up stepped Deron Johnson. A hit would almost certainly give Philadelphia the go-ahead run. However, Johnson popped out to end the threat.

After the Cardinals failed to score in the bottom of the eighth, Gibson again found himself in trouble in the ninth. Watkins singled with one out, and Jackson, the pitcher, singled with two out. However, Gibson got Taylor on a grounder to end the inning.

Jackson was a weak hitter, so his hit, along with the others by light hitters in the eighth and ninth, suggested that Gibson was faltering. Jackson, by contrast, had been breezing along since the sixth inning.

Both pitchers had easy ninth innings, so the game went to extra innings.

Gibson encountered no trouble in the top of the tenth. Jackson gave up a single to Joe Hague and, with out one, Gibson bunted pinch runner Vic Davalillo to second. But Jackson escaped by getting Brock on a come-backer.

Johnson doubled to lead off the eleventh. However, Gibson retired the next three batters to strand Johnson on second.

In the bottom of the eleventh, the Cards could muster only a walk to Torre. Thus, the game was still tied at 2-2 going into the twelfth inning.

Jackson was due to lead off the twelfth for Philadelphia and, surprisingly, Myatt let his pitcher bat. Gibson, having gained a second (if not a third) wind, set down Jackson, Taylor, and Briggs.

The wheels finally came off for Jackson in the bottom of the inning. He walked Shannon, the first batter he faced. Shannon took second on a ground out by Davalillo.

The Phils then elected to walk DaVannon intentionally. This put the double-play in order, but meant that, unless Gibson (or a pinch hitter) hit into one, Philadelphia would have to face Brock with the winning run in scoring position. Myatt must have liked the lefty-lefty matchup between Jackson and Brock.

Schoendienst let Gibson bat. He was determined to allow his ace go the distance in quest of that 20th win. Moreover, Gibson hit left-handers about as well as anyone on the St. Louis bench.

Gibson obliged the Phillies with a ground ball, but they could not turn two. Shannon was out at third, but DaVannon took second and Gibson first.

Jackson then walked Brock to load the bases with two out. That brought Curt Flood to the plate.

Flood had played only sparingly in late September, but was still a dangerous batter. He hadn’t missed out on third consecutive .300 batting average by much in 1969.

The situation called for a right-handed reliever to replace an exhausted Jackson who was struggling to find the plate. But Myatt stayed with his lefty.

If Flood had a weakness, it was that he drew a low number of walks compared to his number of at-bats. In 1968-69, he had drawn only 80 in 1,224.

Against Jackson, on this day in baseball history, he drew the walk that ended the game and gave Bob Gibson another 20 win season. Pitching seven games and 69 innings from September 6 to October 2, and giving up just 10 earned runs during that stretch, Gibson more than earned his 20.

This would prove to be Flood’s last plate appearance for the Cardinals. Less than a week after this game, they traded him to the Phillies along with Tim McCarver and others in exchange for Richie Allen and others.

Flood refused to report. This led to his challenge of baseball’s reserve clause. Though unsuccessful, his challenge paved the way for free agency.

As for Gibson, he won 23 games in 1970, but that would be the last time he reached 20.

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