Bibby, Jim

Primary Position: Starting pitcher
Birthplace: Franklinton

First, Middle Names:  James Blair
Date of Birth:  Oct. 29, 1944   Date and Place of Death: Feb. 16, 2010, Lynchburg, VA
Burial: Briarwood Memorial Gardens, Amherst, VA

High School: B.F. Person-Albion High School, Franklinton, NC
Colleges: Fayetteville State University, Fayetteville, NC; University of Lynchburg, Lynchburg, VA

Bats: R Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-5, 235
Debut Year: 1972        Final Year: 1984          Years Played: 12
Teams and Years: St. Louis Cardinals, 1972-73; Texas Rangers, 1973-75; Cleveland Indians, 1975-77; Pittsburg Pirates, 1978-81, 1983; Rangers, 1984

Career Summary
G          W        L          Sv        ERA     IP           SO         WAR
340    111      101     8          3.76     1722.2  1079    +19.4

Awards/Honors: All-Star, 1980; Boys of Summer Top 100

Jim Bibby was a late bloomer. He was nearly 28 years old when he debuted in the major leagues and almost 36 before he became a consistent, winning pitcher. Just as he was on the cusp of stardom, though, his right arm failed him. The surgery was successful; the comeback wasn’t. He spent his later years teaching minor leaguers how to pitch and took great pleasure when one of his kids made the big time.

On the sports pages, he was “big” Jim Bibby. He stood six-foot, five inches and weighed more than 230 pounds. Only teammate Dave Parker was as physically imposing in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ clubhouse. Not even Parker, though, could hold eight baseballs in his hand. Bibby’s size contributed to the wildness that marked much of his professional career and delayed his development into an effective pitcher. “Bibby has hands twice as big as you or me,” Harvey Haddix, one of his pitching coaches, once explained. “A baseball feels to him like a golf ball would to us. It’s easy to see how it would get lost in his hand.”[I]

Even as a youngster growing up on a farm in Franklin County, North Carolina, Bibby was a commanding figure at the dinner table. “Jim’s the only guy I’ve ever known who has to have two plates in front of him – one for the meat, one for the greens,” his older brother, Fred, remembered.[II]

Born in 1944, James Blair Bibby was the second of Charley and Evelyn’s three sons. All were athletic. Fred played college basketball and coached in high school. The youngest, Henry, was an All-America point guard on consecutive NCAA championship teams at UCLA in the early 1970s and then starred in the National Basketball Association.

Along with athletic talents, the boys also shared chores on the family’s 150-acre farm outside Franklinton. The work seemed never ending, Bibby remembered. “The three boys, we all had a lot of work to do with the tobacco, corn, cotton, the animals. There was no need to lift weights,” he said. “Farm work’s terrible – I hate it – but we were never poor. We had everything we wanted. We never had to make ends meet.”[III]

His small, segregated high school, B.F. Person-Albion, didn’t have a baseball team, but Bibby was an intimidating presence on the basketball court.[1] He followed Fred to what’s now Fayetteville State University in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on a basketball scholarship in 1962.[2] There, they discovered his fastball, and baseball became his primary sport.

Nolan Ryan teamed with Jim Bibby on the New York Mets’ rookie league team in 1965. “We were both ungodly wild,” Bibby remembered. Photo: New York Times

During his junior year, Bibby attended a New York Mets’ tryout near Franklinton and threw a few pitches before it started to pour. Team scouts saw enough, however, and signed him to a minor-league contract that paid $500 a month, or the equivalent of $4,500 on 2022. That he decided to quit school to pursue a baseball career didn’t sit well with Evelyn. “My mother had the old-fashioned idea that you went to school to study, even if you were helping work your way through college,” Bibby later explained.[iv] He would fulfill his mother’s wish by finishing college more than a decade later when he received a degree in physical education from the University of Lynchburg in Lynchburg, Virginia.

The Mets sent Bibby to their Rookie League team in Marion, Virginia, where he joined Nolan Ryan, another raw fireballer, on the starting staff. “I just threw one fastball after another, and I was always wild,” Bibby remembered. “Neither one of us knew a damn thing about baseball. We were both ungodly wild.”[v]

He was drafted into the Army in 1966 and spent part of his hitch driving a truck in Vietnam. “We hauled everything from dead bodies to plastic forks back and forth to the front lines,” he later explained. “My unit never got hit. We stayed on the main road and were home before dark. It was scary at first, but after a while you got used to nothing happening.”[vi]

Bibby was back with the Mets after his discharge in 1968. He made stops that year in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Memphis, Tennessee, where he struck out 115 in 122 innings, before being promoted to the Mets’ top farm club, the Tidewater Tides, in Portsmouth, Virginia. The Mets called him up to New York late in that miracle season of 1969, but he didn’t get into a game. Though he wasn’t on the playoff roster, he took part in the celebration when the Mets clinched their division and was the batting practice pitcher while they beat the Atlanta Braves for the National League pennant. The Mets paid him $100 ($800).

After the euphoria of a pennant came the dread of the operating room. Doctors in 1970 diagnosed Bibby’s chronic back pain as a congenital flaw that required surgery. They took a piece of bone from his hip and attached it to his spine, fusing the first and second lumbar vertebrae. They gave him a 50-50 chance of ever pitching again. “Some days lying there in bed, I wondered if I’d ever walk again,” he recalled. “I was sure I’d never pitch again. I figured I had it in baseball.”[vii]

First, he stood up. Then, he took a few steps. Finally, he started throwing again.

Bibby was back in Portsmouth for the 1971 season, his career sidelined for two years by military service and surgery. He won 15 games but walked 109 in the process. The Mets traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals in October.

He pitched well for the Cards’ Class AAA team in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the following year, winning 13 games while walking just 76. Called up to St. Louis late in the season, Bibby was credited with the victory in his debut on Sept. 4, 1972, an 8-7 win over the Montreal Expos. The first half of the following season was uninspiring, though – an 0-2 record as a spot starter while walking a batter an inning. The Cardinals traded him to the Texas Rangers in June.

The Rangers were in their second season as the transplanted Washington Senators. The team had lost 100 games in its inaugural run and would lose 105 the second time around. Bibby knew he was joining one of the worst teams in baseball. “But then it occurred to me that this was going to be the best thing that ever could happen to me,” he said, looking back on the trade a few years later. “It was the first time anyone had given me a chance to pitch regularly in the big leagues.”[viii]

Jim Bibby, right, and Bob Short, the owner of the Texas Rangers, celebrate after Bibby’s no-hitter in 1972. Short gave Bibby a $5,000 raise on the spot. Photo; Texas Rangers

On his 10th start for his new team, Bibby showed what he could do with that fastball when he knew generally where it was going. He no-hit the world champion Oakland As in their home park. Though he walked six that night, he fanned 13, throwing exclusively fastballs to a lineup that included the likes of Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, and Gene Tenace, hitters who normally feasted on fastballs. Jackson struck out on one in the ninth. “That last one was the best pitch I ever saw,” he said after the game. “Well, really I didn’t see it, I heard it.”[ix]

Over in the A’s dugout, Jim Hunter was rooting for his fellow North Carolinian. “But only in the ninth inning when we didn’t have a chance to win,” he admitted. “I know how the kid felt. I’ve been there myself.”[x] Hunter had pitched a perfect game against the Minnesota Twins in 1968.

That Bibby was the author of the first no-hitter for the Rangers wasn’t good enough for some sports scribes, who mangled history by reporting it was only the third in the 75 years of the Senators-Rangers combined lifetime. The Senators’ great Walter Johnson, they noted, was the last to turn the trick on July 1, 1920.[3] “Man, that’s fast company,” Bibby responded. “Just to get your name mentioned in the same breath with Walter Johnson is really something. Now they want my cap and the ball for Cooperstown. Can you imagine that? I never pitched a no-hitter at any level, and I never thought I would. There’ll never be another night like this.”[XI]

Bob Short, the Ranger’s owner, gave his new star a $5,000 ($33,000) raise on the spot. “Things are looking up,” Bibby said.[XII]

Though he won 19 games in 1974, he also lost that many. Bibby noted that there was a weird symmetry to the season. “Seemed as though everything went in cycles,” he said. “I’d pitch well in three starts and then wouldn’t make through the third inning in the next three.” [XIII] The numbers tell the story: He had a 2.50 earned-run average, or ERA, in his wins and a 9.23 ERA in the losses.

The Rangers traded Bibby and two other players in June 1975 to the Cleveland Indians for fellow North Carolinian Gaylord Perry. The Indians needed the money, and Perry didn’t get along with Cleveland Manager Frank Robinson. Used as a spot starter and reliever, Bibby was 30-29 during his three seasons as an Indian, but he distinguished himself as a loyal teammate. Duane Kulper, Cleveland’s second baseman, was furious with Rod Carew of the Twins for spiking him while breaking up a double play at second. Bibby said he’d take care of it, but the opportunity didn’t arise until years later during an exhibition game in Japan. Bibby drilled Carew in the ribs. “That’s for Duane Kulper,” he yelled from the mound.[XIV]

He became a free agent in March 1978 after the Indians failed to pay him an incentive bonus and signed a six-year contract with the Pittsburg Pirates nine days later for $700,000 ($3 million). The Pirates used him mostly out of the bullpen and saw him as a replacement for Goose Gossage, their All-Star closer who had departed as a free agent. “I don’t want you to classify me as a Gossage,” Bibby told reporters. “I’m Jim Bibby, a whole different person. Maybe for one day I played the role that Gossage played last year, but I’m not trying to fill anybody’s shoes.”[XV]

Harvey Haddix, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitching coach, constantly preached the importance of mechanics. Photo: Pittsburgh Pirates

Under the watchful eye of Haddix, who constantly preached the importance of mechanics, Bibby matured as a pitcher. He pulled a muscle in his rib cage that sidelined him for a couple of weeks at the start of the 1979 season, but he went 12-4 the rest of the way with a 2.81 ERA for a pennant winner. He pitched six splendid innings in a 5-3 win over Montreal on July 28 that put the Pirates in first place. “He’s more of a pitcher now,” said Manager Chuck Tanner. “In the American League, he was just a guy who threw a lot of heat.”[XVI]

Bibby pitched well down the stretch, winning big games in the final weeks’ drive to the pennant. He shut out the Cubs in Chicago, striking out 11, and then beat them a week later 6-1 in Pittsburgh. Sports writers started referring to him as a “money pitcher,” a guy the team could rely onto to win big games. “I’ve never been in a pennant race before, so I don’t know,” he responded. “I was with Texas and Cleveland, and we were always 30 games out. I just hope to keep pitching well through the playoffs and the World Series.”[XVII]

He did. He had two starts in the playoffs and two more in the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles, including Game 7 won by the Pirates. He had no decisions but pitched effectively, allowing four runs in about 17 innings of work.

Bibby finally came into his own in 1980. He had proven to himself that he could be a consistent winner. “When I came to the Pirates, I didn’t know if I could win a big game,” he said soon after the season began. “I had never been in one.”[XVIII] He had his best season, going 19-6 with a 3.32 ERA — and was an All-Star for the first time. Though the Pirates finished third in their division, Bibby angled for a raise. Pete Peterson, the club’s executive vice president, refused, noting that he didn’t try to cut Bibby’s salary after his 6-7 season in 1978. Bibby got the message and dropped the demand.

He seemed to be on the way to another dominant season the following year when, in May, he allowed a leadoff single and then retired 27 in a row in a 5-0 win against the Atlanta Braves. He threw just 93 pitches. “I was more consistent tonight than in my no-hitter,” he said.[XIX]

A players’ strike interrupted the season on June 12. Bibby made four starts when play resumed in early August before going down with what was originally diagnosed as a sore pitching shoulder. He didn’t pitch again that year. Surgeons the following April removed bone fragments from the shoulder, and Bibby sat out the season,

Though he was optimistic about a comeback, Bibby was awful in 1983 – 5-12 with a 6.99 ERA. He became a free agent in November.

He re-signed with the Rangers in February and made the club in the spring, but Texas released him in June. The Cardinals took a another chance on him and sent him to their Class AA club in Louisville, Kentucky. They cut him loose in July. Bibby finished the season as a coach for the Bulls in Durham, North Carolina.

By then, Bibby had lived for more than 15 years in Lynchburg, Virginia. He had married a local girl, Jacqueline “Jackie” Jordan,  in 1968. The couple settled in Lynchburg, where they raised two daughters.

In 1985, he signed on as the pitching coach for the Mets’ local team in the Class A Carolina League. “I miss the big-league atmosphere and the money,” he noted at the time, “but I came to accept that one day my time in the big leagues was going to end and that I would have to resort to something else. I’m just glad to get the opportunity to stay in baseball.”[XX]

He remained with the Lynchburg Mets for 14 years, becoming a mentor to many young pitchers, including Dwight Gooden and Aaron Sele who went on to star in the majors. “When I see guys make it to the bigs and have success there, that’s more gratifying to me than anything else,” he said.[XXI]

Bibby was the pitching coach for the Pirates’ top farm club in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2000 when he underwent surgery to replace both knees. He retired.

He died 10 years later of bone cancer in Lynchburg.

Footnotes
[1] Clergyman Moses A. Hopkins started Albion Academy, a co-educational African American school, in Franklinton in 1879. It became a public normal and industrial school, or trade school, before eventually becoming a graded school. It merged with the B.F. Person School in 1957 to become B.F. Person-Albion High School. When schools were fully integrated, the upper grades consolidated with Franklinton High School in 1969. B.F. Person-Albion High School was renamed Franklinton Elementary School.
[2] Founded by the Freedman’s Bureau in 1867, the school is one of 10 historically Black public universities in North Carolina. It was one of the first public colleges in the South to train Black teachers. It was a college during Bibby’s time and became a university in 1969.
[3] Good copy, maybe, but bad history. The team that Johnson pitched for was in Minnesota. The original Senators were one of the eight charter members of the American League in 1901. They moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1960 and became the Minnesota Twins. A new Senators’ team started play in Washington in 1971. That was the team that moved to Texas.

References
[I] “Jim Bibby.”  Pittsburg (PA) Press, March 21, 1980.
[II] Costello, Rory. “Jim Bibby.” Society for American Baseball Research, 2016, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/jim-bibby/.
[III] Ibid.
[IV] Broeg, Bob. “Control Is Big Problem for Birds’ Sweet Bibby.” St. Louis (MO) Post-Dispatch, March, 7, 1972.
[V] Costello.
[VI] Donovan, Dan. “The Road Up Has Been Long Grinds for Bibby.” Pittsburg (PA) Press, March 2, 1980.
[VII] Heryford, Merle. “Ranger Bibby Rides No-Hit Rings Around A’s.” Sporting News (St. Louis, MO), Aug. 18, 1973.
[VIII] Thompson, John. “Bibby Big Man in Ranger Plan.” Fort Worth (TX) Star-Telegram, Feb. 27, 1975
[IX] Heryford.
[X] Lowitt, Bruce. Associated Press. “No-Hitter Worth $5,000.” Abilene (TX) Reporter-News, July 31, 1973.
[XI] Heryford.
[XII] Lowitt.
[XIII] Thompson.
[XIV] Costello.
[XV] Donovan, Dan. “Bibby: I’m No Goose.” Pittsburg (PA) Press, May 2, 1978.
[XVI] Smizik, Bob. “Jim Bibby Finds His Place – First.” Pittsburg (PA) July 29, 1979.
[XVII]Donovan, Dan. “You Bet Your Bibby It Was a Big Buc Win.” Pittsburg (PA) Press, Sept. 29 1979.
[XVIII] “Jim Bibby.”
[XIX] Costello.
[XX] Bullla, David. “Bibby’s Back in Carolina League; This Time as Met Pitching Coach.” Winston-Salem (NC) Chronicle, May 9, 1985.
[XXI] Costello.