Bill Bergesch, a longtime baseball executive who worked for difficult team owners such as Charlie Finley, George Steinbrenner and Marge Schott, is the man most responsible for Bob Gibson becoming a Cardinal.
Bergesch died May 10 at 89 in Stamford, Conn. A St. Louis native, Bergesch joined the Cardinals organization in 1947 as a minor-league administrator. He was general manager or business manager of Cardinals farm clubs in Albany, Ga., Winston-Salem, N.C., Columbus, Ga., and Omaha, Neb.
As general manager at Omaha, Bergesch donated used equipment to recreation-center baseball teams organized by Josh Gibson, older brother of Bob Gibson.
“I got to know Bob’s brother Josh well,” Bergesch told Baseball Digest in 1962. “We let his kid teams come to our games. We gave his teams some of our spare equipment and sold them our old uniforms cheap.”
Josh Gibson believed his brother Bob was a professional prospect. Bob Gibson had been scouted by big-league organizations, including the Yankees and Dodgers, but the only scout who made an offer after he graduated from high school was Runt Marr of the Cardinals.
Instead, Bob Gibson accepted a scholarship to play basketball at Creighton University. He played baseball when the basketball season ended.
“Baseball was, at best, my second sport, and I really didn’t have a niche in it,” Gibson wrote in his autobiography “Stranger to the Game” (1994, Viking). “At various times in my college career, I played catcher, third base, outfield and occasionally pitcher, demonstrating a no-table wildness in the latter capacity.”
As a favor, Josh Gibson asked Bergesch to watch his brother play for Creighton in the spring of 1957.
David Halberstam, in his book “October 1964” (Villard, 1994), wrote that Bergesch attended two Creighton games but Gibson didn’t pitch in either. He played outfield in the first and was the catcher in the second. Still, Bergesch could see Gibson was a talented athlete with a powerful arm.
Bergesch told Omaha manager Johnny Keane that Gibson was a prospect and suggested arranging a tryout. Keane did. When he saw Gibson throw, Keane was impressed.
“At the tryout, Gibson was awesome,” Halberstam wrote. “First, he took batting practice and showed exceptional power … Then Bergesch had him throw to the (Omaha) Cardinals’ regular catcher. Neither Bergesch nor Keane had ever seen a kid throw like that … Years later, Bergesch estimated that he must have thrown at about 95 mph. In addition, his fastball already had movement.”
Bergesch signed Gibson to a $4,000 contract. Gibson wanted more, and agreed to the deal only when basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters offered him a $1,000-a-month contract.
“I would sign with the Cardinals for a bonus of a thousand dollars, play out the season for another $3,000, then join the Globetrotters at $1,000 a month for four months of the baseball off-season,” Gibson wrote. “The total was $8,000, but the real value of the deal was that it kept me alive in both sports. I still wasn’t ready to pick one.”
Gibson eventually chose baseball. Two years after he accepted Bergesch’s contract offer, Gibson made his big-league debut with the 1959 Cardinals. When Keane replaced Solly Hemus as St. Louis manager in 1961, Gibson blossomed under the care of his former Omaha mentor and built a Cardinals career that landed him in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
After the 1959 season, the Cardinals dumped Omaha from their farm system, leaving Bergesch out of a job. The Cardinals made him their minor-league field coordinator in 1960. A year later, Finley hired Bergesch to be assistant general manager of the Athletics.
Bergesch went on to become a Yankees executive under Steinbrenner and general manager of the Reds under Schott.
He had many achievements, but his most memorable was the signing of Bob Gibson.