As we continue to remember the legacy of Tim McCarver who passed away last Friday, we should not overlook his contribution to that elusive thread of racial healing that drifted precariously throughout the turbulent 1960’s. Growing up in Memphis Tennessee the son of a policeman, McCarver could never be expected to be at the vanguard of the roiling civil rights movement of the sixties. He was a product of white America and possessed what he would describe as latent prejudices against African Americans. When he arrived in the major leagues his team, the St. Louis Cardinals, had already made a strong thrust toward integration by acquiring some of the best black ball players in the country such as Curt Flood, Bill White, Lou Brock, and Bob Gibson. It was his relationship with these players and especially Bob Gibson (who passed away in 2020) which would test McCarver’s ability to overcome his prejudices. All indications are that he did so successfully and during an era of civil unrest the McCarver-Gibson relationship became a model of racial harmony.
McCarver became the starting catch for the Cardinals in 1963 and he and Gibson would be battery mates for the next six years before McCarver was traded to the Phillies. Gibson played his entire 17-year career with the Cardinals, winning 251 games, earning the Cy Young Award twice and MVP once while eventually being inducted in the Hall of Fame. His 1968 season was one for the record books. That year he had an incredible 1.12 ERA. The lowest ERA by any pitcher in the modern era (since 1920). During their six years together, Tim caught 197 of Gibby’s starts and they had tremendous success winning the National League Pennant three times and the World Series in 1964 and 1967.
Through this time Gibson was considered an extremely talented pitcher and an intimidating figure on the mound. Some would consider him mean and menacing with racial undertones. But McCarver always considered his battery mate a gentleman and friend who was just a fierce competitor on the mound in much the same way as LA Dodger pitcher and contemporary, Don Drysdale.
Over the years the pair became good friends despite their different backgrounds and were goodwill ambassadors for the game of baseball during an unsettled time. One such example was their appearance together on The Ed Sullivan Show just after defeating New York in the 1964 Series. Their relationship though was not without some give and take. McCarver often spoke of the education he received as a newcomer in St Louis. His teammates Gibson and outfielder Curt Flood were Black players who did not hesitate to confront or tease McCarver. As reported by The Guardian “when McCarver used racist language against a Black child trying to jump a fence during spring training, Gibson would remember getting right up in McCarver’s face. McCarver liked to tell another story about drinking an orange soda during a hot day in spring training and Gibson asking him for some, then laughing when McCarver flinched.”
“It was probably Gibby more than any other Black man who helped me to overcome whatever latent prejudices I may have had,” McCarver wrote in his 1987 memoir “Oh, Baby, I Love It!”
There were also lighter moments between the two. According to Tim Kirkjian of ESPN, “when McCarver went to the mound to talk to Gibson, he wasn’t always given a kindly welcome. McCarver famously said that Gibson was particularly ornery during one trip to the mound, and said to McCarver, the only thing you know about pitching is you can’t hit it.”
Probably the most significant incident between the two occurred in the morning after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The country was reeling with hatred and on the verge of an explosion, but McCarver tried to discuss the tragic news with Gibson. According to reporter Tim Wendell, “Gibson told McCarver that it was impossible for whites, no matter how well intentioned, to understand how he was feeling that morning. It didn’t help that McCarver was from Memphis, where King was murdered. Yet McCarver stood his ground, telling Gibson that it was possible for people to change. If anything, he was a prime example. McCarver reminded Gibson that when the catcher was new to the team, Gibson and Curt Flood teased him about his reluctance to share a sip of soda offered by a black man. Bob and I reached a meeting of the minds that morning, McCarver later said. That was the kind of talk we often had on the Cardinals.”
What is most important about the Tim and Gibby relationship is they learned from each other. They learned how to listen, respect each other and to get along together on the biggest stage in a complicated world. One can only assume that our country was made just a little bit better by the actions of these two very talented and gracious gentlemen.
On a personal note: If you have had the chance to read my novel Mickey Mantle’s Last Home Run you will remember that one of the protagonists, an African American teenager named Jonathan, was a huge fan of the St. Louis Cardinals and especially Bob Gibson. Jonathan was looking for role models and, as a struggling JV pitcher, who could be a better role model than Bob Gibson? Jonathan, who had a rebellious spirit, especially liked Gibson because Gibson was “mean”. And if you were black in the white dominated society you had to be mean according to the teenager’s reasoning.
The main theme of the novel is played out as Jonathan reacts to the murder of his other hero Martin Luther King and refuses to accept the condolences from his white friend TJ the book’s narrator. The emotions expressed by Jonathan and TJ are nearly exactly those described by Wendel’s reporting. I was unaware of the Tim and Gibby incident in April 1968, but surely similar confrontations were common back then and remain so today.