SABR

Norwood Gibson

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

Notre Dame’s Norwood Gibson pitched four years in the major leagues, all four of them for the Boston Americans. He was part of back-to-back pennant-winning teams in 1903 and 1904. He didn’t pitch at all in the 1903 World Series, against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and there was no World Series in 1904 because the New York Giants refused to play Boston.

Gibson’s parents were Nathaniel and Josephine Kuhn Gibson. Nathaniel was a city surveyor in Peoria, Illinois, in 1880 and a civil engineer in the city in 1900. Josephine was 16 years younger; both were born in Illinois to parents who came from Pennsylvania. Earl, Leigh, Norwood, Herschel, and Louisa were the couple’s five children, with Norwood the middle child, born on March 11, 1877. He spent his first eight years of school at the Greeley School, then attended Notre Dame Prep School for three years, and earned a degree in chemistry at the University of Notre Dame itself.

It was while at the university majoring in pharmaceutical chemistry that Gibson began to pitch for the college team. He later served as a coach at the school.

As a player, Gibson was a right-hander and stood 5-feet-10, weighing 165 pounds.

He graduated from Notre Dame in 1900, losing only one of the nine games he pitched as he led Notre Dame to a championship, and went into pro ball, purportedly discovered by John T. Brush and signed by the Cincinnati Reds. He was released in mid-August before being given a trial.i Or much of one. Sporting Life said he pitched in a game for the Reds, but it was an exhibition game at Dayton, a “spectacle” in which manager Bob Allen “made the grievous blunder of putting a scrambled infield behind Gibson.”ii

Gibson played in one game for the Indianapolis Hoosiers, throwing three innings on June 21, and then for Jim Manning’s Kansas City Blues from August 19 through September 17. He was 2-4 in 62 innings for the Blues.

When Manning was brought to Washington as manager for the 1901 season, he planned to bring Gibson with him but instead Gibson pitched for Kansas City.iii The Washington Post said he was “touted by many as the best pitcher that was in the Western League that closed recently.”iv

In 1902 Gibson pitched in the Western League, in 37 games for the Kansas City Blue Stockings, managed by 12-year Boston Beaneaters veteran Kid Nichols. On June 18 he pitched a 12-inning one-hitter against his hometown team in Peoria, but then lost the game, 1-0, in the bottom of the 13th. On July 19 he pitched a no-hitter in Omaha and on August 25 he pitched a no-hitter against St. Joseph. He won both of those games.

On October 21 it was announced in Peoria that Gibson had signed to pitch for the Boston Americans in 1903 for a reported $3,000 contract.v Future Hall of Famer Kid Nichols, his manager at Kansas City, reportedly recommended Gibson to the Americans.vi

Pitchers Cy Young, Tom Hughes, and Gibson were already in Macon, Georgia, when Jimmy Collins and the main Boston party arrived for spring training. Gibson made his first start in the regular season – his major-league debut –on April 29 in Washington and he was wild, walking nine batters, five of whom scored. He lost the game, 9-5.

Gibson won some and lost some. On June 27 he threw a five-hit 6-0 shutout against the St. Louis Browns, and on July 17 a four-hit, 1-0, ten-inning win over Detroit at the Huntington Avenue Grounds when Buck Freeman tripled and then scored on an error.

Gibson was 13-9 with a 3.19 earned-run average. The team had three 20-game winners: Cy Young (28-9), Bill Dinneen (21-13), and Tom Hughes (20-7). The team’s ERA was 2.57; Gibson’s ERA was the highest on the pitching staff if one discounts the 9.00 ERA of Nick Altrock, who pitched one game for Boston and gave up eight runs in eight innings. (Not counting Altrock, the Americans had only a five-man pitching corps.)

Jimmy Collins used only three pitchers in the 1903 World Series against the Pirates (the first World Series), even though the Series ran for eight games. Tom Hughes pitched two innings in the Series; the other 69 innings were pitched by Cy Young (34 innings, 2-1) and Bill Dinneen (35, 3-1).

Collins released two players, Jack O’Brien and Jake Stahl, but otherwise brought back the same team in 1904. And the Boston Americans won the pennant again. Despite a bad back in early May, Gibson was 17-14 with a 2.21 ERA. He was again the fourth pitcher on the team, with Cy Young 26-16 (1.97), Bill Dinneen at 23-14 (2.20), and new man Jesse Tannehill also a 20-game winner at 21-11 (2.04).

In December 1904 Gibson signed a two-year contract with Boston.vii The week before, he had said that he didn’t intend to play baseball for too many more years. Among his pitches, Gibson threw a spitball – said to rival Jack Chesbro’s – that was difficult for hitters and catchers alike, but there was some discussion in baseball about banning the spitball and that may have entered into his thinking.viii With his degree from Notre Dame and a solid professional career as an option, Gibson needn’t be pitching longer than he wished.

Once again in 1905, Gibson arrived at spring training in Macon before the rest of the team. He didn’t pitch nearly as well that season as in the two prior years; though he’d thrown 29 complete games in 1904, he threw only nine in 1905 and pitched only half as many innings. He started 17 games, compared with 32 in 1904, and his ERA climbed to 3.69. Though Boston team physician Erb warned Gibson in July that he needed a long rest for his arm, that it was “nearly half out of the socket, a ligament and muscle also being strained,” he still tried to pitch.ix On July 22 his shoulder gave out on him and he had to leave the game in the first inning. He still refused to quit, but a note in the August 28 Boston Globe explained, “Gibson’s arm is now in such bad shape that it is practically certain that Boston cannot rely on him again this year.” He later suggested that overuse of the spitball may have helped contribute to his arm problems.x Gibson nonetheless started eight more games, and none of them were real blowouts. And he closed his season with a 3-1 six-hitter over New York on October 6.

Boston ended in fourth place, 16 games behind the Philadelphia Athletics. There was some understanding that they may have ridden Cy Young too hard for too long. Though Young had a 1.82 ERA, he lost one more game than he’d won, 18-19. Perhaps no one knew how sharp a cliff the team was about to fall off.

Looking back on 1905, Gibson said, “Last year was a bad one for us, and all clubs will have them after two or three years of a continual drive as we were subject to. If our old players start off in good shape the coming season I can’t see any club with anything on us. It will be a case of hustle, though.” He added that he’d always been treated well by management in Boston.xi

After the 1905 season Gibson had stayed in Boston learning more about chemistry, though he left at the end of January for a quick visit in Peoria and then for three weeks of boiling out at Hot Springs, Arkansas, before joining the team for spring training at Macon. He intended to be careful with his arm during the exhibition season. It didn’t help that he developed tonsillitis at Hot Springs.

Gibson’s only two starts in 1906 were an 8-0 loss in New York on May 1 and a 9-1 defeat by the St. Louis Browns in Boston on May 12. He was 0-2 with a 5.30 ERA. On May 21, Boston placed him on waivers, and he was given his unconditional release on May 26. It may have been just as well; Gibson was spared seeing his team plunge to last place with a horrendous 49-105 record and finish 45 ½ games behind the first-place Chicago White Sox. Cy Young became a 20-game loser (13-21), outdone only by teammate Joe Harris who suffered through a 2-21 season.

After his release, Gibson and pitcher Ed Hughes both signed on with Billy Hamilton’s Harrisburg ballclub, a team outside the purview of Organized Baseball, but there is no indication he pitched for the team. He was released a very few weeks later.

Gibson became a professor of general and analytic chemistry at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana.xii

About ten years after retiring from baseball, Gibson joined the Curtiss Candy Co. in Chicago as a chemist. This was the company that developed the Baby Ruth candy in 1921. Later in life, he worked as a desk clerk at the New National Hotel in Peoria.xiii

Gibson married in July 1940, when he was 63 years old, to Mildred Platt. She died in 1947. Gibson himself died in Peoria of a malignancy on July 7, 1959, survived by two brothers and two sisters. Brother Leigh Gibson had preceded him in death.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Gibson’s player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.

 

Notes

i Washington Post, August 15, 1900.

ii Sporting Life, August 18, 1900.

iii Manning mentioned planning to bring Gibson to Washington in the December 9, 1900, Washington Post. Some databases have confused Norwood Gibson with 1901’s Cedar Rapids pitcher Ralph Gibson.

iv Washington Post, September 30, 1901. The August 19 Post also situated him in the Western League.

v Boston Globe, October 22, 1902.

vi Sporting Life, October 18, 1902.

vii Sporting Life, December 31, 1904.

viii A lengthy description of the spitball, focused on Chesbro, can be found in the January 22, 1905, Chicago Tribune.

ix Boston Globe, July 15, 1905.

x See Sporting Life, June 17, 1905, and Boston Globe, January 31, 1906.

xi Boston Globe, January 31, 1906.

xii Boston Globe, March 11, 1924.

xiii Peoria Journal-Star, July 8, 1959.

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