He starred as an All-American for Michigan State University at flanker in football and outfielder in baseball. After Gibson set several Spartan football records, including 24 touchdown catches, 112 receptions, and 2,347 yards, the NFL St. Louis Cardinals drafted him in the seventh round in 1979. In 1978, the Detroit Tigers had made him a first round draft selection and signed him for a $200,000 bonus after his only season of college baseball. Gibson had decided to play baseball at MSU to get some leverage in negotiations with NFL teams. He hit .390 in 48 games, drove in 52 runs, and set a school record with 16 homers.
After starting his professional baseball career with Lakeland in 1978, he played a final season of college football that Fall and joined Evansville in 1979. Despite suffering a knee injury, he helped Evansville to the title in the American Association with a .429 batting average. In September, the Tigers promoted him. He struggled to achieve immediate stardom, feeling the pressure when Detroit manager Sparky Anderson compared him to Mickey Mantle. On September 25, 1979 he hit his first home run, off Baltimore's Steve Stone.
Gibson's first outburst of temper occurred that 1979 season in spring training when he was sent to Evansville rather than making the ML team. "I really don't know why they brought me down here. You can't do anything playing once every five days. What do they expect a guy to do, playing like that -- go 15-for-15?" Gibson had collected just three hits in 15 at-bats, all of them home runs. He had struck out eight times. Despite embarrassing flare-ups like this, the Tigers remained high on their outfielder. "There is no limit to what he can do. God was very good to this man. He gave him smarts upstairs and great ability...there's nobody that big, that strong, that fast," said Sparky. Gibson went to Evansville and was hurt in his very first game when a fellow outfielder ran into him and injured his knee.
A natural all-around athlete, Gibson exhibited power, speed, intensity, and competitiveness. Injuries plagued him throughout his major league career, as he often attacked the diamond as if it were the gridiron. In 1980 Gibson appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, touted as "The Rip-Roaring Rookie", and began the season with Detroit, starting in center field and hitting a home run and a triple on opening day. He was leading the team with nine homers when he suffered tendon damage in his left wrist in June and missed the remainder of the season.
Gibson had a painful start to his 1981 season when a ball bounced off his head in center field on opening day after he lost it in the sun. But he went on to pace the Tigers with a career high .328 batting average and swiped 17 bases in the strike-shortened campaign, finishing 12th in AL MVP voting. Gibson played 49 of the Tigers 52 second-half games in '81, hitting safely in 41 of the contests. In August he enjoyed his first dramatic Yankee Stadium moment when he entered the game in the ninth inning as a pinch-hitter with Detroit trailing 4-2. Facing Ron Davis with two men on base, Gibson belted a 2-0 fastball into the right field stands to give the Tigers the lead and the win. Six weeks later, on October 1st, Gibson blasted an historic home run in Tiger Stadium against the Orioles. The ball would have left the stadium if it hadn't hit the edge of the third deck in right field. Anderson called the shot "awesome."
In 1982 and 1983 Gibson worked to cut down on his strikeouts and improve his pitch selection, but was continually thwarted by injuries and his own temper. Tiger great Al Kaline tutored him in the outfield, helping him to use his blazing speed to his advantage. Despite these efforts, Gibson, who had a poor throwing arm, never became a great outfielder. The acquisition of Chet Lemon prior to the 1982 season ended the Bengals experiment of making Gibson a center fielder. As late as 1987 Sparky was bemoaning the play of Gibson in the outfield: "It's always going to happen, runners just go from first to third on almost every ball hit out there."
After starting the '83 season red-hot (he was hitting .400), Gibson was sidelined with a knee injury which he had suffered when he dove for a ball in the season opener. After surgery to remove bone chips, Gibson returned to the team, having missed two weeks. During this period Gibson formed his solid friendship with teammate Dave Rozema, with whom he frequently got into off-the-field controversy. Later, the two married sisters. During the 1983 off-season, at the urging of his agent, Gibson entered the Seattle Pacific Institute for a course on personal motivation. The lessons he learned there made a huge impact on his career and life, helping him set goals and properly "visualize" positive outcomes.
Gibson had seemed out of control at times in '82 and '83, lashing out at fans and the press, breaking bats and throwing helmets after strikeouts. "I wasn't happy with myself but I didn't know how to change. The fans would yell 'Gibson you stink!' and I'd yell back at them ' Yeah, you're right' I was being controlled by other people's images." The trip to the motivational class helped turn Gibson around.
In 1984, Gibson was installed as the #3 hitter and helped guide Detroit to the AL title with 27 home runs, 91 RBI, and 29 stolen bases, becoming the first Tiger to reach 20 steals and homers in the same season. He was voted MVP of the 1984 AL Championship Series after batting .417 against the Kansas City Royals. Gibson clouted two homers with five RBI in the decisive fifth game of the World Series for the victorious Tigers against the San Diego Padres. His monstrous home run off Goose Gossage in Game Five served as the dramatic exclamation point to an amazing season. Gossage talked manager Dick Williams out of intentionally walking Gibson, whom Goose had enjoyed some success against in his Yankee days. Sparky Anderson challenged Gibson to take a crack at the imposing relief ace and Gibby delivered a towering shot into the right field porch.
In 1985 he logged a career high 29 homers and 97 RBI while stealing 30 bases in 34 attempts, but Detroit failed to repeat. Although injured early in the 1986 season, Gibson led Detroit with a career best 34 stolen bases and produced 86 RBI and 28 long balls. In mid-Summer he collected game-winning hits in five consecutive games, a record. In spring training 1987 Gibson suffered pulled muscles in his rib cage while taking batting practice, missing several weeks. In April an ankle injury sidelined him, but he returned in May and hit 24 home runs and 79 RBI in just 128 games, helping the Tigers capture the AL Eastern Division. Once again he proved clutch -- blasting a ninth-inning home run to beat the Blue Jays in the next-to-the-last weekend of the season, keeping Detroit three games back. The Tigers rallied that final week to win the division crown on the final day.
After an arbitrator awarded Gibson free agency status, the Los Angeles Dodgers acquired him in January 1988. That spring he set the tone for the Dodger team -- exploding when Jesse Orosco put shaving cream in his hat. Gibson ripped the Dodgers intensity and wondered if the prank-filled clubhouse was the reason the team didn't win. His message was received and he assumed leadership of the club. In one of his finest all-around campaigns, he hit .290 with 25 home runs, 76 RBI, 106 runs scored, and 31 stolen bases in 35 attempts in 1988, earning NL MVP honors and helping the Dodgers win the NL pennant. His MVP award was one of the more controversial in history, since he failed to lead the league in any of the major offensive categories. But manager Tommy Lasorda supported the vote -- claiming that Gibson was one of the hardest working players he'd ever seen.
In the NLCS against the favored Mets, Gibson batted just .154, but he provided two key home runs. His solo blast in the top of the 12th inning won Game Four, and his three-run homer in Game Five provided the winning margin. Hobbled by injuries, Gibson sat out the first game of the World Series against the Oakland A's. As a pinch hitter against relief ace Dennis Eckersley in the bottom of the ninth inning, he belted a two-out, two-run homer on a 3-2 pitch to give the Dodgers a 5-4 victory. It was one of the most dramatic events in post-season history. The Dodgers beat the A's in five games, marking the pinnacle of his long career. Injuries limited his batting average to a career low of .213 in 1989. Gibson began the 1990 season on the disabled list and joined the Albuquerque Dukes on rehabilitation assignment. He rejoined the Dodgers and batted .260 in only 89 games. He also stole 26 bases in 28 attempts for a .929 success rate, the best in the major leagues. Gibson's career steal rate (78.5%) is one of the 30 best in history. He rarely grounded into double plays and was known for his aggressive base running and hard slides.
Gibson demanded to be traded at the end of the 1990 season and signed with the Royals, batting only .236 in 1991. Kansas City traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Neal Heaton in March 1992, but he was released unconditionally after just 16 games and retired. One Pirate said at the time, "He couldn't get around on mediocre stuff, his mobility was limited, his body hurt, it was tough for him to play two days in a row."
Gibson rejoined the Tigers as a free agent in 1993 after Anderson called him and invited him to spring training. Although initially used strictly as the DH, he later started in center field and hit .261 with just one error in 116 games. His arrival sparked the aging Tigers to their best season in years, with the team in first place as late as June. Teaming again with Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, and joining Cecil Fielder, Mickey Tettleton, Travis Fryman, and Tony Phillips, Gibson was part of an explosive offensive team that hit at least one home run in nearly 50 straight games.
Gibson appeared in 98 games with the Tigers in 1994, improving his batting average to .276 with 23 home runs and 72 RBI. For his efforts he was named Tiger of the Year by Detroit sportswriters, an honor he had won in 1981. "There is a right way to play this game. My job this year is to show the younger players what that right way is." After nearly retiring, Gibson agreed to sign a one-year $1.3 million contract for 1995, but was nagged by injuries and annoyed at the trades which sent buddies David Wells and Mike Henneman away. He batted .260 as Detroit's DH, but an injured shoulder forced him to retire in August. When he made the announcement he said he had been "traded to his family," and returned from Milwaukee, leaving the team.
"Kirk Gibson is one guy who will never have to look back and be ashamed of his career. He played his career to its fullest, and he's been a pleasure to manage," Anderson said. A few months later Anderson managed his last game and longtime Gibson teammate Whitaker retired, ending an era in Detroit.
Gibson was never a huge fan favorite in Detroit despite being the hometown hero. His rude demeanor and refusal to give autographs when he was a young player didn't sit well with Tiger faithful. On the field he earned their respect with his hard play and leadership qualities, but away from the diamond he was gruff, blunt, and often nasty to the media. Manager Anderson once said "Hopefully someday he'll realize that how you treat other people is important. Right now we're just glad he's finally learned to handle himself." He admitted after his playing days that he should have handled his attitude differently, expressing regret.
In his 17-year major league career, Gibson batted .268, stole 284 bases, scored 985 runs, recorded 870 RBI, clouted 255 homers, and compiled a .976 fielding average. Despite winning the MVP in 1988 and batting third on two World Championship teams, Gibson never played in the All-Star team in his long career (though he was selected a few times, he refused to attend due to nagging injuries or hunting trips). In February 1998, he joined Fox Sports as an analyst for Detroit games.
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