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Jim Bibby (1944-2010)

Former major league pitcher Jim Bibby passed away on Tuesday at age 65. I remember Bibby fondly from the baseball cards of my youth, and particularly the fact that he shared the sporting spotlight with his younger brother Henry, an NBA point guard.

Bibby’s best years came with the Pirates, particularly the “We Are Family” World Champions of 1979 with the Stargell Stars on their goofy train conductor hats. How could a nine-year-old kid not fall for that team?

Bibby’s shining moment on the diamond came during Game Seven of the 1979 World Series. Pitching for the Pirates on three days’ rest, he yielded just one run in four innings before nervous nellie manager Chuck Tanner pulled him for a pinch-hitter, trailing 1-0. Willie Stargell connected for a two-run homer in the sixth, and the Pirates’ bullpen — Don Robinson, Grant Jackson and Kent Tekulve — shut out the Orioles for the final five innings, in marked contrast to their self-immolation during Bibby’s previous start, a 6.1-inning, 3-run, 7-strikeout effort whose squandering put the Bucs in a 3-1 hole. Bibby earned his World Series ring.

Bibby had a hard road to the majors. A free agent signing by the Mets in 1965, he served a two-year stint in Vietnam and missed a year due to spinal fusion surgery before being traded to the Cardinals in an eight-player deal in 1971. He was nearly 28 years old by the time he reached the majors, but stuck around for 12 seasons with the Cards, Rangers, Indians and Pirates. Best known for his heater, of which his control was only sporadic, he threw the first no-hitter in Rangers history on July 30, 1973. His 19-19 record in 41 starts the following year certainly stands out, but it was in 1980 when he really put it all together, going 19-6 with a 3.32 ERA, earning All-Star honors and placing third in the Cy Young voting.

Bibby was the object of an unforgettable passage in Mike Shropshire’s Seasons in Hell, a gonzo account of the 1973-1975 Rangers under Whitey Herzog and Billy Martin which I declared to be “the funniest baseball book of all time” a few years back. Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk puts it all together. Suffice it to say that Jim Bibby will be remembered.

Update: Great stuff from Joe Posnanski on Bibby here, including his remembrance of Bibby’s time with the Indians, and this bit on Bibby’s 1974 season:

That year, Bibby won 19 games with a horrifically bad 75 ERA+. Nobody in baseball history has ever won that many games with a sub-80 ERA+. How did he do it? Well, for one thing, he lost 19 games, too. But, more to the point, he simply was great some days, awful on others.

In his 19 victories, he had a 2.50 ERA and the league hit .194 against him.

In his 19 losses, he had a 9.23 ERA* and the league hit .359/.443/.589 against him. To give you an idea of just how awful this, the league leading core numbers were .364/.433/.563 (Carew/Carew/Allen)…

• In his first six starts, Bibby was 4-2 with a 3.05 ERA and four complete games, including a shutout.

• In his next six starts, Bibby was 1-5 with an 8.07 ERA, and in the game he won he allowed nine runs in eight innings.

• In his next six starts (you getting the pattern?), Bibby was 5-1 with a 2.44 ERA and had two shutouts.

• In his next six starts (it’s amazing how this is working), Bibby was 1-4 with a 5.91 ERA — he actually pitched well in a couple of those games, but he did not make it out of the second inning in either of his first two starts of the stretch.

• Then he threw a shutout at Yankee Stadium.

• Then he went 3-2 with a 7.86 ERA in his next five outings.

• Then he threw a shutout against Detroit.

And so on.

It’s a remarkable season. The rest of his career was not quite so up and down, not quite the same blend of brilliant and disastrous. But Jim Bibby always seemed to carry a part of 1974 with him… it seemed like most days when he went out there to pitch, a team would say “Oh man, we don’t stand a chance tonight.” Trouble is, you never knew which team.

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