Each week, The Detroit News will look back at events and people from past sports moments, enlarging on experiences that might have been forgotten with time, or revisiting behind-the-scenes drama that never made it into print or on airwaves.
This was a diagnosis in August 1980, which sounded more like a death knell for a rookie baseball player named Kirk Gibson. And just as much for the Tigers, who wondered if their diesel-powered outfielder was perhaps done with baseball at age 23.
It can be missed when Gibson’s history, filled with so much color and grandeur, is reviewed and savored 40 years later. But that 1980 verdict from the Mayo Clinic and Dr. James Dobyns, two months after Gibson had torn his wrist swinging at a Buster Keeton change-up during a June 7 game at Milwaukee, was devastating:
Eight to nine months of recovery. With no guarantee he would ever swing at another big-league pitch. Think of some future ESPN, MLB Network, and FSD documentaries that would have been zapped minus a billboard rookie’s recovery.
Triangular cartilage had been shredded that night by the ulna bone in Gibson’s left wrist. The ulna bone, by nature’s book, is supposed to be equal to, or shorter than, the radius bone. Typical of Gibson’s physical profile, which leaned toward the inhuman, his ulna was longer. And the ripping of cartilage was simply a matter of his wrist being overpowered and ravaged.
“It’s as if the wrist was torn from its moorings,” said Dr. Robert Teitge, then the Tigers’ orthopedist specialist.
In keeping with Gibson’s ways, there was now dual drama involving another sport: football.
Doctors said Gibson’s wrist, even if it couldn’t withstand the torque from swinging a baseball bat, would likely be just fine if he wanted to take to the NFL that 6-foot-3, 225-pound body, with its Olympic-level times in the 40.
There, his wrist would likely hold up: catching passes, running with the ball, crushing a cornerback or safety on downfield blocks.
What everyone knew then and too few appreciate four decades later is where Gibson would have been in the 1979 NFL draft. He was about to be the first player grabbed. At least as most of the year-before forecasts were being forged.
Speed, size, power
Gibson had hit the NFL’s draft stratosphere during winter, 1978, when he ran before scouts’ bulging eyes a 40-yard time they thought was maybe tied to over-imbibing the night before.
Multiple NFL stopwatches had mind-blowing times: anywhere from 4.2-flat to 4.28.
And yet it wasn’t alien to anything they had seen on film. Or on a field had they been following his Michigan State football days, which began in his first game as a freshman, in 1975, as a starting flanker against Ohio State.
Gibson was from another realm. The speed. The size, which made his sprints that much more astonishing. The destruction of defensive backs, before – and after – he caught a pass from MSU quarterback Eddie Smith.
Defenders might as well have been trying to tackle an Amtrak train.
One team had taken a chance on him: the St. Louis Cardinals, before they migrated west to become the Arizona Cardinals. They had spent a seventh-round pick on Gibson in 1979 all as a hedge against baseball not working out.
And there were reasons to wonder if it would.
Gibson had only been playing baseball, on a serious level, for two years. He had played American Legion games as a teen. But he hadn’t played any meaningful ball until, in an act of spontaneous combustion that still mystifies, Spartans football coach Darryl Rogers tossed at him a thought during the 1977-78 offseason, months before Gibson’s senior season of football.
Why not try baseball?
Rogers knew from MSU baseball coach Danny Litwhiler that Gibson had played summer ball for an American Legion squad known as Waterford Chief Pontiac 377. And he’d been pretty good – good enough for Litwhiler to be interested.
Rogers had this philosophy, uncanny for a major-college coach:
A player as supernatural as Gibson didn’t need spring football in 1978. The college experience was supposed to be about … everything. Why not broaden it? Plus, Rogers reasoned, baseball might – just might – help Gibson’s market value.
It didn’t begin terribly merrily. Gibson nearly quit as baseball’s realities slammed home, all before he became, well, Kirk Gibson, and suddenly NORAD was tracking flights as Gibson-bashed baseballs began soaring into and over the Red Cedar River.
The Tigers followed with a first-round draft pick in June 1978, nearly two years to the day before Gibson found himself in Milwaukee putting the brakes on a swing against Keeton’s change-up.
It happened in the sixth inning against the Brewers, his next at-bat after Gibson had hammered a Keeton fastball halfway up County Stadium’s right-field seats for his ninth home run of the year, which then led the team.
Gibson felt his left wrist pop. But he made it through the game and later that night had no issues.
The next morning, in his hotel room at The Pfister, Gibson woke, couldn’t move his left hand, and felt pain blazing like lightning down his left arm.
Doctors put the wrist in a cast. Six weeks later, when he plainly wasn’t healing, Gibson was sent to Mayo in Rochester, Minn., where a wrist found to be badly damaged threatened to destroy Gibson’s and the Tigers’ plans.
He chomped into an eight-month rehab. And life got brighter. But it wasn’t until late in spring camp, 1981, that he cut loose with a full-throttle swing. Not until then was anyone sure he could swing with necessary fury at big-league pitches and keep his wrist in one piece.
It seemed the Cardinals and the NFL weren’t getting their man, after all.
Not that it was final.
Gibson hurt the same wrist early in May by way of a baserunning spill. He was done until July. The bright side: 1981 was the season big-leaguers had a 50-day midseason strike. Gibson got better during the break, came back, had at least one hit in 41 of the Tigers’ final 48 games, and for the year batted .328.
Three years after he had last played football, after he had last snagged a pass from Smith and left bowled-over defensive backs looking like turf litter, the 1981 season ended Gibson’s football thoughts.
He had, in fact, calculated late in spring, 1978 – after the home run barrage in East Lansing, after taking a hushed-up batting practice at Tiger Stadium that nearly demolished the upper deck – that he should sign with Detroit. He knew football’s actuarial. Knew four seasons, maybe six, maybe eight, would be his NFL life expectancy.
Baseball offered a longer competitive arc.
In Gibson’s case, it would be 17 big-league years. Along the way there would be these streams of drama and even disbelief: a home run against Goose Gossage, his second from a grand Game 5, which finished off a 1984 world championship for the Tigers; a World Series homer four years later for the Dodgers that wasn’t to be believed even in the home of Hollywood.
He ranks as the most amazing athlete in Michigan history – more so than Dave DeBusschere, or Magic Johnson, or Rick Leach, or Brad Van Pelt, or any others from Detroit’s or Michigan’s sports annals.
What distinguishes him yet were physical skills from another realm. In two sports. And just as much, the mind, and soul, and pure fire he brought to one professional sport, and because of a single swing in Milwaukee, that he nearly shifted to another.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.