I received Sixty Feet, Six Inches for Christmas. In fact, the book is so directly in my wheelhouse, I received it twice. If you haven’t heard about it, it’s a book length conversation between Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson, guided off-page by co-author Lonnie Wheeler, about the duel the between pitcher and batter. They delve deeply into the mechanics and psychology, the preparation and the consequences, but mostly, they tell detailed anecdotes about the wily bastids that they couldn’t quite master and the poor stooges they could.
Upon first glance, they did not strike me as a natural pair. Reggie’s hunger for attention and approval seemed an odd match for Gibson’s stoic surliness. But at least some of each player’s professional personality was an act. And some of what remained has eroded in the years following their retirements and enshrinements.
So what we get in this conversation are two ballplayers who no longer occupy the exact personalities they made famous, but who can (and do) slip into those familiar characters when necessary – like putting on a vintage uniform for old-timer’s day.
In particular, Gibson displays an unexpected wit, proving that just because someone chooses not to speak doesn’t always mean he has nothing funny to say. One exchange made me laugh out loud, as Reggie ruminated on Dick Howser’s desire to keep his hot bat in the Yanks’ lineup in 1980:
Reggie: I ran into the wall one day and he said, “Look, I want that shillelagh of yours to get to the plate.” A shillelagh is like a wooden club, an Irish thing.
Gibson: You’ve got to wear a kilt to swing one of those, don’t you?
If you can forgive two big guns of the ’60s and ’70s a few era-adjusted “back-in-my-dayisms,” there is a lot of really good stuff in here. They’re very candid about their opponents who gave them fits and frustrations. Though he handled Clemente and Mays without a sweat, Gibson had a devil of a time with Ron Fairly.
My goodness that man must have 6000 hits off me…One day he had already poked a ball or two over the shortstop’s head and I got a base hit, and when I was standing at first he said to me, “Goddamn Gibby, you’ve got such good stuff, I don’t know how anybody could ever hit you.” I didn’t say a word. … Joe Torre was catching for us and when Fairly came up to the plate next time he turned to Joe and said, “I’m not going to like this at-bat am I?” Smoked him right in the back. Get your damn hits and leave me alone. I couldn’t get him out and he says he doesn’t know how anybody ever hits me. Hit this.
And when their conversation drifted into October, I stopped thinking that this was a mismatched pair and kicked myself for not seeing their obvious double-MVP connection. Gibson’s World Series reputation isn’t as highly touted (at least not now) as Reggie’s, but it’s equally deserved. These are two guys who were so good in October that it overshadows how good they were the rest of the time.
Was there a secret to their World Series heroics? Reggie talks about the hyper-attenuated atmosphere of the World Series feeding into a sharpened focus that allowed him to perform at his peak ability on the grandest stage. I think a lot of people would wonder why he couldn’t also focus in the ALCS.
As much as Reggie is prone to, and probably prefers, the dramatic explanation, Gibson and Jackson do add common wrinkles to their well-worn pages in World Series history: mediocre scouting reports. Or rather, their exploitation and manipulation of the opposition’s over-reliance on limited scouting reports.
Reggie’s first observation in the book – and the one that drives much of his analysis throughout – is that he could not handle the ball on the inside part of the plate. He was thick in the chest and arms and hated to get bunched up on an inside pitch. He constructed every at bat as a hunt for something out over the plate so he could extend his arms and square the ball on the barrel. The American League teams knew this and did whatever they could to pound the inside corner.
What do you think the Dodgers’ scouting report was for one Jackson #44? Just like you’d think, it was “pound the inside corner.” But can you guess what vital piece of information that scouting report might not have contained? Where exactly in the batter’s box Reggie liked to stand. For the 1977 and 1978 World Series, Reggie anticipated the Dodgers would work him inside, and backed up off the plate a few inches rendering a tough inside fastball right down the freaking pipe. AL pitchers with a long history with Reggie probably would have noticed him moving away from the plate and reclaim that outside corner in a heartbeat. But the Dodgers lacked that historical point of reference and kept spoon-feeding him homer pudding.
A decade earlier, Gibson was doing the same thing. He begins this book by explaining the importance of his fastball which he pegs at 95-97mph at full throttle. He used it early and often and in just about every location, but he especially liked the old high hard one on the outside corner and he threw it about 80-85% of the time by his own estimation. But he also possessed a hard, biting slider that flew a little under the radar.
So what were the Yankees, Red Sox, and Tigers looking for in those World Series in the 60s? Blazing fastballs away, almost all the time. What did Bob give them instead? A steady diet of nasty sliders. By increasing the slider rate, he completely baffled three AL teams and racked up a satchel of strikeout records.
(One thing I wondered while reading this book – did they have laptops open to their baseball-reference.com pages? Because they know their shit – very crisp recall of seemingly minor details and statistics. And when the stats don’t match their memories, they tend to trust themselves. At one point Gibson notes, “The records show that I hit (Frank Robinson) once. That can’t be right. I hit him a lot.”)
For some fans, Reggie Jackson is Game 6, 563, strikeouts and “the Straw.” Bob Gibson is World Series whiffs, 1.12, chin music and churl. Their conversation in this book at the very least reminds us they were a whole lot more than that. They don’t have the most fashionable opinions on pitch counts and devolve into some clunky clichés at times. And if you’re an aspiring pitcher or hitter or a coach, you probably don’t want to start here for mechanical models – unless you’ve got a 95 mph fastball or can hit the ball clear across Detroit.
But if you’re a fan of either of these players, I think you can’t go wrong. There’s enough entertaining anecdote and unexpected revelation to send you shredding through the pages.