It always takes a little explaining to my son and daughter: Back in the day, before cable television and long before the Internet, the dividing line between the National League and the American League was very clear. In the 1960s and even into the early 1970s, televised baseball was limited to regional markets; you watched your team and their opponents, and you could only catch a regular-season glimpse of teams from the other league on NBC’s Game of the Week. I grew up a Red Sox fan in East Bridgewater, a small town south of Boston, and 1967 was the greatest baseball year of my life. The Sox surprised everyone by doing the impossible and winning the American League pennant, and they played against the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, a team I had never seen.
So imagine how shocking it was to discover, for the first time, the great outfielder Lou Brock stealing bases all over the place (he stole seven in the seven-game Series and batted .414) and the magnificent pitcher Bob Gibson shutting down my team. Gibson won three games in the Series, allowing only three runs and recording 26 strikeouts in 27 innings.
As much as I loved the Red Sox, with the future Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski in left field and winning the Triple Crown, and with pitcher Jim Lonborg winning 22 games, it was hard not to be awe-struck by Brock and Gibson.
Both those men died within the last month, Gibson yesterday at 84 in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska.
His obituaries make an appropriate big deal about his greatest game — 17 strikeouts against the Detroit Tigers in the 1968 World Series.
But, from my perspective — a 13-year-old kid on the South Shore of Massachusetts, watching on my neighbor’s color television set and, one day, listening on the radio while waiting for a dentist appointment — the Brock-Gibson show was magical.
I have written in the past about “duende,” the mysterious energetic spirit that appears in the world’s greatest performers. George Frazier, a jazz critic and columnist for The Boston Globe, used to write lists of the haves and have-nots of the special charisma that is duende in his wonderful literary efforts to define it. “It was what Ted Williams had striking out but that Stan Musial lacked when hitting a homerun,” was how Frazier once put it.
I did not have a name for it at the time, but what I saw years ago, as the October shadows crossed Bob Gibson’s face on the pitcher’s mound in Fenway Park, was the duende. He had dexterous, free-wheeling power, discipline and control, an intimidating delivery and fiery energy to the nth power. He was a life force, and you could sense that even in those old (non-digital, non-cable, non-satellite) television sets. I loved the Boston Red Sox of 1967; in some ways, even as I long ago moved on to the Baltimore Orioles as my hometown team, they will always be my favorite. But Lou Brock stealing bases all over the place, Bob Gibson overpowering the Boston hitters — that memory endures, too. When you see masters at work, when the duende appears, you never forget.