There were many people who influenced Kirk Gibson’s ascension to star status as a baseball player. Some of them were little known at the time, but would play prominent roles in Detroit sports later (like Jim Leyland and Darryl Rogers). A few were some of the biggest names in Detroit baseball, like Al Kaline, Bill Lajoie, and Sparky Anderson. But the two people who had the biggest impact on Gibson becoming a star on the diamond were the closest people to him.
His mom and his dad.
In 1977, Kirk Gibson was an All-American in football at Michigan State University, one of the best wide receivers in college. With his combination of speed and power, it was certain that he would be a high draft selection in the NFL. But a conversation with his father helped Gibson see his athletic future in a new way. Sure, he could go on to play professional football, but a career in the NFL would be short, possibly very short if he got injured in the violent game. But, as his dad pointed out, a baseball career might last for many years and deliver a lot more security.
There was one problem – Gibson had not played on inning of college baseball at MSU through his junior year of football. Spartans’ baseball coach Danny Litwhiler wanted to change that. Litwhiler recognized Gibson’s athletic ability and he knew Gibby had been a star on the diamond at Waterford Kettering High School.
As Gibson explained in his biography Bottom of the Ninth, Litwhiler came to him after his junior football season was over and said, “Gibby, why don’t you go out for baseball?” His football coach, Darryl Rogers (who would later coach the Lions for a brief and unsuccessful stretch in the 1980s), advised Gibson to give it a chance. Far from worried about losing his star wideout to injury, Rogers urged Gibson to keep his options open and to try to experience all he could as a collegiate athlete.
Even though he was almost assured of being a 1st rounder in the NFL Draft after his senior season, Gibson decided to give baseball a chance, figuring he could help his leverage with NFL teams and also open up the option to go the MLB route.
In his fist season as a member of the Spartan baseball team, Gibby was raw and he struggled in the field and at the plate. At one point when he was struggling through a 0-for-21 hitless streak, Gibson considered packing it in. But then on a road trip to play in a tournament in Iowa, Gibson blasted a home run that went farther than most people had ever seen. He was not a fine-tuned ballplayer, but his amazing talent was there and it held incredible promise.
In his senior year with the Spartans, Gibson had an incredible athletic achievement: he helped lead MSU to a share of the Big Ten title (sanctions for recruiting violations kept the Spartans from going to the Rose Bowl); he led the Big Ten in receiving yards; and on the diamond he hit .390 with 16 home runs and 21 stolen bases in 22 tries. He was a jaw-dropping combination of speed and power. Prior to his senior season on the gridiron, in the 1978 June Major League Baseball Draft, he was predicted to be one of the top selections. The Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees were very high on him, and Yank owner George Steinbrenner was poised to reward Gibson with a huge signing bonus. But Gibson’s heart was with his hometown Detroit Tigers, and he kept reminding himself what his parents had taught him – to finish what you started. For Gibby, he wanted to return for his senior year of football and he wanted to play his first season of pr baseball for his hometown team, the team of Al Kaline, his boyhood hero.
Gibson successfully scared off the Braves, Yankees and other teams who were thinking of drafting him. He assured them he was going to be a football player or that he wouldn’t sign, no matter what they offered. As a result, the Tigers nabbed him with the 12th pick of the first round. Gibson, with his mother and father standing behind him, inked his name on a contract for $250,000. The 21-year old college senior-in-waiting reported to Lakeland for his first pro baseball experience. There to greet him at the airport when he arrived was Jim Leyland, the Lakeland manager. It was Leyland who helped mold the raw, young Gibson into a baseball player.
Gibson finished his college football career, winning the NCAA Outstanding Receiver Award and earning an invite to the Heisman Trophy Awards. But that next spring, in 1979, after he graduated from MSU, Gibby was back on the baseball field in an Evansville Triplets uniform, playing for the Tigers’ Double-A affiliate. The powerful left-handed outfielder hit nine homers that season and swiped 20 bases. That September, he was called to Detroit to join the Tigers, where he met another man who would later change his life – Sparky Anderson. Gibby was on his way to becoming a baseball player, leaving football, the game he had always loved, behind.