How deeply does baseball pulse through the veins of The Sporting News? It was the reason TSN was established in 1886 (more to come on that soon).
Before there was an American League, which, by the way, TSN played a outsized role in founding, The Sporting News covered the National League and the American Association.
TSN was “the Bible of baseball,” it kept U.S. servicemen overseas apprised of their dear teams as they fought World Wars, it covered countless minor leagues, coast to coast, including the Southern League and the Little Rock Travelers (my dad was a batboy in the 1930s).
SN 50: The 50 greatest individual seasons of all time
Your dad or granddad or great-granddad before him probably at some point kept up with baseball by subscribing to The Sporting News.
So when our now all-digital team cooked up the idea of the 50 greatest individual seasons in the history of sports, I knew baseball would be a key part of it, not least because it’s been around longer than most other North American sports.
So, yeah, you’ll see seasons as far back as Walter Johnson’s 1913 campaign (No. 50 on the list), Sandy Koufax in 1965 (26) and Ted Williams in ’41 (17). There’s Bonds’ 2001 (12), the Babe’s 1921 (11) and Bo’s 1989 (7), among others. Let the arguing begin.
In all, 10 baseball seasons landed in the SN50, and The Sporting News has chronicled each of those seasons in great detail, except for Josh Gibson’s 1943 with the Homestead Grays, No. 29 on the list.
See, that’s the thing about honest history. You can’t cherry-pick only the good stuff. The Sporting News, as Ryan Fagan points out, essentially ignored Black baseball players at the time, and yet in TSN’s first-ever mention of Gibson, he was called “the Babe Ruth of the Negro loop.” Times change, thankfully.
Not to go all James Earl Jones on you, but, indeed, the one constant through all the years, dear reader, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.
And The Sporting News has marked baseball.
I have worked for or with The Sporting News almost uninterrupted since 1991. I have written and edited, planned and executed a lot of MLB coverage in that time, a good portion of it spent in St. Louis, where TSN was founded and called its home until 2008.
Pedro Martinez’s 2000 season? Amazing.
Bonds’ 2001 season? Amazing.*
And now Shohei Ohtani’s 2021? Unrivaled, as Ryan and senior editor Jason Foster so eloquently argue in placing it atop the SN50.
Put the list aside for a moment, though, and let me tell you about not a singular season, but the person who accomplished it: Bob Gibson, who in 1968 put up numbers that landed his year at No. 14 on the SN50.
I am old enough to vaguely remember Gibson’s 1968 season. I’m also lucky enough to have chatted with him at Cardinals spring training in Florida and during the regular season in St. Louis and at the Cardinals’ Midwinter Banquet, put on each January by the local chapter of the BBWAA and starring the likes of Gibson and fellow Hall of Famers Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst and Lou Brock.
Gibson and I typically made smalltalk about baseball in general, maybe pitching specifically, but rarely, if ever, did we discuss 1968. I’ll be honest on two counts: First, I never got over being starstruck by this Rushmore of STL baseball, Gibby, Stan, Red and Lou, and, second, it was hard to reconcile these gentle, old men who were quick with a joke or a story as the fierce competitors they were, that they had to be, on the field.
SN 50: Remembering Joe Burrow’s record-setting season at LSU
It’s been a year now, but over the span of mere weeks in 2020, we lost both Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. It was a tough 1-2 punch for St. Louis, a city that reveres its baseball heroes like no other, multiple former players have told me. Those players learned from these greats in the spring, rode in convertibles in parades with them on Opening Day and occasionally after winning the World Series. “St. Louis is different, believe me,” said one former Cardinal who played in multiple cities.
“The Cardinals players coming up now are going to miss some of what we had,” David Eckstein, the MVP of the 2006 World Series, told me earlier this year. “The Hall of Famers always being around, sharing their knowledge, wanting you to do so well.”
My friend and former TSN colleague Stan McNeal wrote a wonderful piece about Gibson for Cardinals Magazine in which friend after friend after friend made the point that, yes, the terrifying Gibson you saw on the mound during his career was legit, it was who he was when pitching. But after his career? “We should all aspire to be as kind,” one friend said.
If there’s anything you take from this it’s that every athlete on the SN50 is more than that singular season and every one of them is more than merely an athlete, and if we’re fortunate we’re occasionally afforded the chance to witness that, especially once they’ve enjoyed the luxury of a long life lived.
The years roll by.
Bob Gibson, for all he accomplished on the diamond, was a gem of a human being.
That’s a baseball story The Sporting News should tell.
Senior editorial consultant Bob Hille has worked for or with The Sporting News for more than 25 years.
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