George Gibson was a durable catcher for the Pirates from 1905 until 1916, a stellar defensive player that handled a Pirates pitching staff full of star hurlers for twelve seasons. Born on July 22,1880 in London,Ontario,Canada, Gibson made it to the majors on the strength of his defense, though he turned himself into a serviceable, bottom of the order, hitter with hard work and extra batting practice. By the time he was done in a Pirates uniform, he had caught more games than anyone in team history, a mark that stood until surpassed by Jason Kendall nearly 90 years after Gibson last put on a Pirates uniform as a player.
Gibson began his pro career in 1903 and it didn’t take him long to get to the majors. He played 149 minor league games over two partial seasons and one full year before the Pirates purchased his contract in late June of 1905 from Montreal of the Eastern League. He made his debut on July 2, 1905 and it was said at the time, he had a bad hand injury but caught anyway. He was known for fiercely blocking the plate and having a strong arm. The Pirates knew he wouldn’t hit much but they were willing to give him time to learn, figuring someday he would be a great asset.
During that rookie season, Gibson played 46 games, hitting just .178 with 14 RBI’s. He was tested often on the bases and threw out nearly half the runners who attempted to steal against him. The Pirates had a veteran catcher named Heinie Peitz, who was a better hitter than George, though he could not touch him in the throwing category at that stage of his career. By 1906, the Pirates had Gibson behind the plate more than half the time and that was despite a repeat performance of his .178 average from his rookie season. In fact, he was actually a worse hitter in 1906, posting a .434 OPS, which was 102 points below the previous year. Nevertheless, his defense was stellar and he worked well with the pitchers. George threw out 48% of would-be basestealers and he finished fourth among NL catchers in fielding percentage.
The 1907 season would be when Gibson established himself as the durable catcher the Pirates relied on for the next ten years. He led all NL catchers with 107 games caught and 499 putouts. He threw out exactly half the runners trying to steal(86 out of 172) and again finished with the fourth best fielding percentage. He also showed some improvement at the plate, batting .220, although he had just 18 walks and 18 extra base hits all year. His hitting would get better the more he played, and play he did the next three seasons, going behind the plate at least 140 times each year.
In 1908, Gibson led the league with 140 games caught, leaving very little playing time for his two backups during the 155 game season. He raised his average to .228 and drove in 45 runs, his high up to that point. His defense wore down a little as the year went on, with a 43% caught steal rate and the most stolen bases allowed by any catcher in the league. George’s best season would be just around the corner though, and it proved to be perfect timing for the Pirates.
The 1909 Pirates were a great team, with strong hitting, fielding and pitching, winning a total of 110 games and taking home the franchise’s first World Series title. They played 154 games that year and Gibson was behind the plate for 150 of them. He played so often in fact, that the two backup catchers, Paddy O’Connor and Mike Simon, got a combined total of 38 plate appearances all year. George set career highs with his .265 average and 52 RBI’s, while shining on defense. He threw out 52.9% of basestealers, catching a total of 138 runners trying to steal. He also led all catchers in fielding percentage for the first time, something he would repeat the following season and then two years later. Gibson caught every inning of the World Series, hitting .240 with two RBI’s in the seven game set.
His hitting remained solid in 1910, batting .259 in 143 games, all of them spent behind the plate. In fact, very rarely in his Pirates career was he used in a game and didn’t catch. He caught 1155 of the 1174 games he played in a Pirates uniform, only once playing a position other than catcher, when he briefly appeared at first base during a 1907 game. Gibson again threw out more runners than any other NL catcher and his streak of four straight times leading the league in games caught extended on through the 1910 season.
The 1911 season was an example of how valuable Gibson was defensively to his club. That year he missed time, playing in 100 games total and he hit just .209 with 19 RBI’s. He had the second best fielding percentage and threw out the third most runners. When they held the NL MVP voting for the first time, only Honus Wagner received more votes among Pirates players than Gibson did. That team included Hall of Fame outfielders Fred Clarke and Max Carey as well as Chief Wilson in right field, who hit .300 with 107 RBI’s. On the pitching staff, they had two twenty game winners, Howie Camnitz and Babe Adams, but there was Gibson ahead of all of them.
Injuries would take their toll on Gibson during the next two seasons. He would play just 143 games between 1912-13, with the 1913 season being the worst, when he played 48 games and had trouble throwing out runners when he did play. There was one bright spot during the 1912 season, his .990 fielding percentage was a career high. He bounced back in 1914 with his best season at the plate, batting .285 with a .713 OPS, the highest of his career. In 1915, he caught 118 games, the second highest total in the NL, but by 1916, he was a backup with the Pirates, barely playing.
The Pirates put George on waivers in August of 1916, where he was picked up by the Giants, although he refused to report. In the book The Glory of Their Times, Gibson says that when he signed his contract for 1910, he made Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss promise not to ask waivers on him, calling the $1,800 price tag to pick up a player “demeaning”. When Gibson found out that the Giants acquired him on waivers, he called up their manager John McGraw and told him he wouldn’t be reporting. During the next Winter, George got an offer too good to refuse from the Giants. They wanted him as a player/coach to help with the pitchers and to convince him to sign, he not only got a nice salary for 1917, but they offered him his pay from August/September of the previous season, plus they matched the $1,800 waiver price. Gibson played 39 games for the Giants between the 1917-18 seasons before retiring as a player for good.
After his playing days were over, he took up managing, first in 1919 for Toronto of the International League. In 1920, the Pirates came calling, hiring Gibson to lead their team for the next three seasons. The 1922 squad had a catcher named Bill Warwick, who married Gibson’s daughter. Pittsburgh finished in second place in 1921 with 90 wins, but they started off slow in 1922 and after a 32-33 record, Gibson would be replaced at the helm by Bill McKechnie, who turned the season around and would eventually lead the Pirates to a championship three years later.
During that 1925 season when the Pirates were winning the World Series, Gibson returned from a two year layoff from the sport, to coach with the Cubs. He ended up managing at the end of the season, then moved on to scouting. It was a position he held until 1932, when he returned to the Pirates for a third time, his second tour as a manager. George led Pittsburgh to two straight second place finishes before stepping aside during the 1934 season, when Pie Traynor took over as manager. In four full seasons and two partial years, Gibson had a 401-330 record for the Pirates, with three second place finishes.
George played 1174 games for Pittsburgh, which still ranks him 21st in team history. For the Pirates, he was a .238 hitter with 15 homers, 294 runs scored and 340 RBI’s. He threw out 962 runners in his career, the tenth highest total ever.