Book Review: George “Mooney” Gibson – Canadian Catcher for the Deadball Era Pirates
By: Richard C. Armstrong and Martin Healy Jr.
McFarland – McFarlandBooks.com
Some believe that George “Mooney” Gibson was as valuable to the 1909 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates as Honus Wagner.
This gritty Canadian catcher was considered one of the greatest backstops of his era. He was also highly respected by Connie Mack and John McGraw and taught Walter Johnson how to field a bunt.
So why is it that Gibson, as Richard C. Armstrong and Martin Healy Jr. write in their excellent new biography about the London, Ont., native, is “consistently forgotten” in baseball history circles?
That’s a good question, and fortunately this lack of appreciation is remedied by the first-time authors in their impressive book, George “Mooney” Gibson – Canadian Catcher for the Deadball Era Pirates. Their 251-page effort is so chock full of Gibson anecdotes, achievements and rare photos that even a diehard Canadian baseball history buff like myself can’t help but feel he has slighted its subject over the years.
“He is the greatest catcher in the game today and it is a wonderful help to have a man like Gibson behind the bat,” wrote Pittsburgh Pirates hurler Babe Adams in an article published in the Pittsburgh Press (and shared in part in this new book) after he started and won Game 1 of the 1909 World Series.
And after his playing career, Gibson was held in equally high esteem as a manager.
“Gibson is a great manager and a fine fellow,” said Hall of Famer Rabbit Maranville, who played for Gibson on the 1921 and 1922 Pirates squads, in a quote shared in the book. “He’s a wonder at handling men and he is endowed with as much baseball knowledge as any other manager in either of the two big leagues.”
High praise, indeed, for the principled and loyal Londoner. And Armstrong and Healy Jr. share many similar testimonials about Gibson. Thanks to their tenacity, research skills and strong editorial judgement, the authors are able to relay the story of Gibson’s rise from the ball fields of West London to being the starting catcher on a World Series-winning squad in vivid and fascinating detail.
Fittingly, the first chapter shines the spotlight on Gibson’s key role in the Pirates’ 1909 World Series triumph. In that Fall Classic, Gibson was tasked with thwarting the Detroit Tigers’ potent running game led by the legendary Ty Cobb. In the seven-game series, the Canuck catcher limited Cobb to two stolen bases and threw out six baserunners. Gibson also contributed six hits, knocked in two runs and stole two bases.
For me, as a Canadian baseball history writer who lives in London, Ont., one of the most memorable scenes that’s documented eloquently in the book is the celebration held for Gibson in his hometown after that World Series win. When he arrived in London, Gibson was paraded from the train station to Victoria Park, located in the centre of the city, where an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 fans were there to cheer him.
“I thank you all for the honor you have bestowed upon me tonight in giving me this grand reception,” Gibson told the crowd at the event. “I do not see that I deserve this, but nevertheless, I appreciate it very much, and I know that Mrs. Gibson does too. In years to come I will look back upon tonight as the happiest of my life, and I may say that I will always be a Canadian.”
And Gibson lived up to his word. Throughout his 14-year major league playing career and parts of seven seasons as a big league manager, he never forgot his roots. The stocky catcher faithfully returned to his hometown every off-season.
Born in London in 1880, Gibson honed his skills in the western part of the city and then competed for a number of strong local amateur squads before he was signed by the Eastern League’s Buffalo Bisons in 1903.
The Bisons, however, had a surplus of catchers and they shipped him to the Montreal Royals of the same circuit, where he dazzled with his rifle arm. Soon major league squads – including Mack’s Philadelphia A’s, the New York Giants and the Pittsburgh Pirates – were expressing interest in him.
As the book documents, it was Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss who stepped up and paid a reported $2,500 to secure his services and Gibson’s major league career began in the Steeltown in 1905.
Among the many strengths of this book are the colourful anecdotes that the authors uncovered about Gibson. For example, the first time that Gibson walked into the Pirates’ clubhouse, his 5-foot-11, 190-pound build inspired Wagner to quip, “Here comes Hackenschmidt.” This was a reference to the famous Russian wrestler, George Hackenschmidt, who boasted a similar physique. After that remark, Gibson was nicknamed “Hack” by his Pirates teammates.
The authors also illustrate just how tough Gibson was. For instance, Gibson gutted it through his first game with the Bucs with a broken hand. The Canadian catcher also refused to wear shin pads, feeling that they limited his mobility. And after his playing career, the old-school backstop told a reporter that he felt shin pads had made a “sissy” out of catchers.
Gibson was known as a defence-first catcher, but the authors also share some of the Canadian’s offensive highlights. For example, in his rookie season, Gibson hit his first home run off Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson. It is also revealed that Gibson had the last hit in Pittsburgh’s Exposition Park in 1909 and the first at Forbes Field that same year.
But Gibson was predominantly known for his grit, durability and leadership behind the plate. On July 27, 1908, Gibson threw out five baserunners in a game, and in 1912, he threw out 54% of baserunners attempting to steal against him. And despite not wearing shin pads and enduring a litany of injuries, Gibson set a then-record for most consecutive games started by a catcher (133) in 1909.
Through their diligent research, the authors are also able to paint an interesting picture of who Gibson was as a person. Yes, he was tough-as-nails on the field, but he was also a devoted family man, who loved his wife, Margaret, and was tremendously proud of his children – two of which became doctors. Curling, hunting, fishing and working on his 100-acre farm near Mount Brydges, Ont., that he purchased in 1912 were among his favourite things to do away from the diamond.
After 12 seasons with the Pirates, Gibson played his final two campaigns with the New York Giants. McGraw convinced him to come to his club to serve as his pitching coach and in a backup catcher’s role. Gibson played his final big league game in 1918 and then managed the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs for a season before he was hired as the dugout boss of the Pirates in 1920.
“Gibson not only knows baseball, but he knows the ballplayers, as well, and what is more to the point, he knows human nature, and has the knack for getting along amicably with his fellow man,” wrote Ralph Davis of the Pittsburgh Press (which the authors share in the book) after it was announced that Gibson had been hired as manager. “Probably no more popular player than Gibson ever wore a Pittsburgh uniform. He was well-liked not only by the players on his own team, but by all the rival athletes, and by managers of other teams, too.”
After the Pirates had finished below .500 in five of the previous six seasons, Gibson led the club to a 79-75 record in 1920 and a 90-63 record in 1921, but with the Pirates at a mediocre 32-33 in 1922, Gibson clashed with Dreyfuss and resigned.
The authors share that Gibson then served as a pitching coach for the Washington Senators in 1923, where he taught the immortal Walter Johnson to field a bunt. Then after a year out of baseball, he was hired to be an assistant coach with the Chicago Cubs in 1925. He would work as a scout for the club the following year before a five-year hiatus from baseball in which he returned home to build houses in London.
Following the 1931 season, Gibson was contacted by Dreyfuss again. The legendary Pirates owner wanted him to return as manager and the Canadian agreed to come back and he guided the club to second-place finishes in 1932 and 1933. But when he was fired 51 games into the 1934 campaign, Gibson retired from pro baseball for good. He remains the last Canadian to be a full-time big league manager.
Back in Canada, Gibson lived on his farm near Mount Brydges. The highly respected Canadian also acted as a bird dog scout for the Pirates and his connection to London was a key reason that the Pirates relocated their class-D farm team to his hometown in 1940.
After his wife died in 1953, Gibson spent his time on his farm, visiting with his children and friends and in an honorary role with a local minor ball organization until he became ill with cancer. He passed away in 1967.
Unfortunately, most of the accolades for Gibson came after his death, including his induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987.
For far too long, as the authors contend, Gibson has been “consistently forgotten” in baseball history circles. But thanks to Armstrong and Healy’s determination, excellent research skills and the comprehensive details they are able to share about Gibson’s life, this Canadian baseball legend is now more likely to be remembered. And for their efforts, Canadian baseball history buffs, like myself, should be very grateful.