Bob Gibson first excelled at basketball

Wonder what it was like to try and take a charge on him. - Ronald Martinez

Before Bob Gibson embarked on his Hall of Fame career for the St. Louis Cardinals, he played scholarship basketball at Creighton. Fortunately for the Cardinals and fans of baseball everywhere, he eventually chose to pursue baseball.

Before Doug McDermott and Kyle Korver, Creighton basketball had another famous player who did go pro in something else. From 1954-1957, Bob Gibson roamed the hardwood in Omaha averaging more than 20 points per game over his three year career (Freshman were not yet eligible to play). Fortunately for the Cardinals and unfortunately for the strength of hitters' knees over the next few decades, Gibson eventually found his way to baseball.

Gibson excelled at basketball from an early age. When the Omaha World-Herald rated Gibson as the number one athlete from Nebraska they noted, "When Gibson was 14 or 15, his North Y Comets basketball team played against the Omaha University team in an open tournament. 'We kicked them,' Gibson said. 'We almost ran them off the floor."' Gibson continued to play baseball, but basketball was his ticket to college.

Gibson was discovered by Cardinals' scouts in Omaha, but he almost attended a different college. His first choice was Indiana, but he was unable to attend. In an interview a few years ago, he explained the reason and showed his trademark competitiveness.

I was trying to get into Indiana University at the time, and they had their quota (of black players), which was one - and after watching them play, they got the wrong one. Creighton gave me a scholarship, and that was the thing that got me going.

Although Creighton did not have great success on the court, Gibson played very well. In 63 games, he scored 1,272 points, averaging 20.2 points per game, and made 35.2% of his shots. While the shooting percentage looks low, note that the average field goal percentage in the NBA in 1958 was just 38.3%. He was the first African-American basketball player at Creighton. Gibson was inducted into Creighton's Hall of Fame in 1968 when they retired his number, 45.

Gibson played baseball as well while at Creighton, but rarely pitched. Local Cardinals' scout Bill Bergesch (interesting story here), saw Gibson play and recommended him to the Cardinals. Gibson tried to get a tryout with the Minneapolis Lakers, who were showing some interest, but was unsuccessful in his initial attempt to break into the NBA. The Cardinals offered him some money to sign with the Cardinals, but it was not enough to get him to quit basketball. In the linked piece above about Bill Bergesch, Gibson's autobiography is quoted, where Gibson said,

I would sign with the Cardinals for a bonus of a thousand dollars, play out the season for another $3,000, then join the Globetrotters at $1,000 a month for four months of the baseball off-season...The total was $8,000, but the real value of the deal was that it kept me alive in both sports. I still wasn't ready to pick one.

Gibson played for a year with Globetrotters before the Cardinals eventually offered him enough money to leave basketball behind. Apparently it took an additional $4,000 to get Gibson to commit to the Cardinals. Gibson struggled early on, suffering an ankle injury in 1962 and a rough start to 1963. He eventually began dominating later in 1963, but remembering his struggles, Sports Illustrated wrote, "There were moments this spring when Bob Gibson, pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, must have wondered whether he had picked the right sport."

The Sports Illustrated article concluded, "With a 20-victory season now within his grasp, it is clear Gibson chose the right sport." While Gibson's lore among Cardinals and baseball greats is well established, that Gibson would make it to the major leagues was not always clear. If he had gone to college in Indiana, if he had gotten that tryout with the Lakers, if the Cardinals had not ponied up a little extra cash, Gibson may well have chosen basketball over baseball. Gibson, had incredible athleticism, talent, and drive, but like in all of life's pursuits, circumstances play an important role. Fortunately for baseball, Gibson's circumstances bounced right off the basketball court and rolled their way onto the mound.

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