BA Book Reviews: “Sixty Feet, Six Inches”

Sixty Feet, Six Inches, by Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson, and Lonnie Wheeler

Doubleday, 2009

Imagine sitting in on a conversation between two of baseball’s all-time greats. A Hall of Fame pitcher and a Hall of Fame hitter discussing the intricacies of the game then and now. That’s the concept of “Sixty Feet, Six Inches,” a running dialogue between Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson. It’s a unique look inside the game for any fan and a gold mine of information for a young player. In fact, it ought to be required reading for any aspiring player.

The discussion goes way beyond anecdotes, though there are plenty of those to rekindle memories for fans of Gibson’s Cardinals and Reggie’s Athletics and Yankees. The two talk about strategy, mechanics, talent, game scenarios and a lot more. Both are still involved in the game, decades after their playing careers concluded.

Gibson was one of the most intimidating pitchers in the history of the game. Well known for a propensity to brush hitters back—or flat-out drill them—the 251-game winner claims his preference was actually to work the outside corner. Of course, in order to effectively do that, he had to prevent batters from diving across the plate or even digging in close and getting comfortable.

His style is contrasted, in multiple ways, by Jackson, who preferred the outside pitch, as he was generally looking to hit to the opposite field. Mr. October confesses a vulnerability to strikes on the inner part of the plate. Fortunately for him that wasn’t exploited by most pitchers, who had been conditioned over time to not feed inside pitches to home run hitters.

Though the two never played together or against each other, their assessments of their contemporaries generally mesh. Frank Robinson was one of the few hitters that Gibson was never able to intimidate. “As a rule,” he says, “I’m reluctant to express admiration for hitters; but I make an exception for Frank Robinson.” Jackson goes even further, crediting a stint under Robinson in Puerto Rico after the 1970 season for helping him channel his ability. Willie McCovey was another player both admired, and according to Gibson “the scariest hitter in baseball” during their era. He says Willie Mays never frightened him the way McCovey did.

It’s not just the who that makes their stories interesting, though. It’s the why. What made Dick Allen such a great hitter? Why was Tom Seaver so difficult to face? Why didn’t Gibson worry so much about facing Hank Aaron? (Once he found the hole in Eddie Mathews’ swing, he worked around Aaron.)

Gibson and Jackson both grew up poor and black as baseball’s color barrier fell. They knew the opportunity to play in the major leagues existed, despite the prejudice they faced as youngsters. Their roads to stardom were not smooth, however. Jackson recalls being benched for a five-game series in Little League because he was the only black player on either team and his coach was fearful of trouble should there have been a close play on the bases. Gibson was discouraged by Solly Hemus, his first manager in St. Louis, who recommended the pitcher quit and focus on basketball (Gibson played for the Harlem Globetrotters during the offseason).

Jackson, who became one of the first big-money free agents in baseball when he signed a five-year, $2.9 million deal with the Yankees after the 1976 season, talks about how money has changed the entire dynamic of baseball. The teams have so much invested in the players now that in his view it has distorted the sport. Adds Gibson, “We’ve lost a lot of what we’ve been talking about this whole time—that one-on-one battle from 60 feet and a half. The preoccupation with money has taken the edge off the competition.”

That’s not his only beef with the evolution of the game. It will surprise no one to learn he’s no fan of pitch counts. Gibson can’t imagine what he’d say if he were cruising into the eighth inning and his manager wanted to replace him with a middle reliever to face Mays, McCovey and Jim Ray Hart. But pitchers today didn’t grow up throwing as much as Gibson and his contemporaries did, and he recognizes the days of the 300-inning pitcher will never return.

Veteran sportswriter Lonnie Wheeler, who collaborated with Gibson on the pitcher’s autobiography, introduces the book, then gets out of the way. He guides the conversation from behind the scenes without oversteering, allowing the two Hall of Famers to play off each other. This give-and-take provides some of the book’s lighter moments, such as when they are bemoaning the difficulty of pitching inside today. “The batter’s standing in there wearing armor up and down his body,” Jackson says. Counters Gibson: “That doesn’t bother me. I think I could break some of it.”

He may have been one of the scariest guys to ever take the mound, but Gibson oozes knowledge about every aspect of baseball. Jackson may be best known for his home runs and love of the spotlight, but he was always a student of the game. They have so much to share here that this book will warrant many repeated readings. Highly recommended for both fans and players.

James Bailey is the editor of Hardball Cooperative.