RIP: Joe Gibbon, 83, one of state’s greatest two-sport athletes

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(MSHOF archives)

Joe Gibbon

In 1957, Joe Gibbon scored more points than college contemporaries Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. Three years later, Gibbon helped the Pittsburgh Pirates win baseball’s championship, defeating the New York Yankees in the World Series.

Joe Gibbon, one of the greatest multi-sport athletes in Mississippi history, died Wednesday at his home in Newton. He was 83.

Gibbon, born in the Newton County town of Hickory, was an All-American basketball player and an All-SEC baseball pitcher for Ole Miss in the mid-1950s. Later, he played 13 season in the Major Leagues and, as a rookie in 1960, was a contributor to the World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates.

Rick Cleveland

At Ole Miss, Gibbon was better known for his basketball skills. A 6-foot-4 forward, he finished second in the nation in scoring in 1957 with a 30.2 points per game average. Gibbon averaged a whopping 14 rebounds a game that same season. Grady Nelson of South Carolina led the nation at 31.2 points per game. Here’s what is more impressive: Baylor, who played college ball at Seattle, was next among the nation’s scoring leaders at 29.7, followed by Chamberlain of Kansas at 29.6. Ahead of both Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain? That’s rare company.

Gibbon also played against rare company in the Ole Miss-Mississippi State rivalry when he went against the great Bailey Howell in 1957. What does Howell, another basketball All-American who averaged 27 points and 17 rebounds for his college career, remember about Gibbon?

Bailey Howell

“Well, it’s been – what, 67 years? – but I do remember Joe could shoot the lights out of the gym,” Howell said. “He was left-handed and was a really, really good athlete. I saw him pitch against the Mississippi State baseball team, and I remember he hit one of the longest home runs I ever saw that day.

“We played against him twice my sophomore year,” Howell said. “He was either leading the nation in scoring or was second. I was in the top 10 and my teammate Jim Ashmore was in the top 10, as well. That’s was really something when you think about it: three of the top 10 scorers in the nation on the floor at the same time in Mississippi.”

Curtis Wilkie, Mississippi author and award-winning newspaper reporter, was a high school student at Corinth during Gibbon’s days at Ole Miss. He saw Gibbon play often.

“Ole Miss wasn’t really very good at that time, but Joe Gibbon was really, really good,” Wilkie said. “He was not a graceful athlete. There was nothing classical about his basketball moves, but he sure got the job done. He knew how to use his body. I mean, he averaged more points than Wilt the Stilt that year. He was doing something right.”

Gibbon was drafted by the Boston Celtics in basketball, despite his insistence beforehand that he planned to play professional baseball.

Don Kessinger

Don Kessinger, another of Mississippi’s greatest multi-sport athletes, came along to Ole Miss four years after Gibbon departed for professional baseball.

“I never saw Joe play at Ole Miss, but when I got to Oxford, people were still talking about him,” Kessinger said. “Everybody talked about what a great scorer he was as a basketball player.”

Kessinger, an All American in both baseball and basketball at Ole Miss, learned about Gibbon’s baseball skills first-hand.

“Oh yeah, I batted against him many times in the Major Leagues,” Kessinger said. “He was a big left-handed pitcher who threw a heavy ball, a sinking fast ball, that produced a lot of ground ball outs. He was a fine pitcher, and he was also a terrific guy, as friendly as could be.”

As a rookie pitching as a starter and in relief, Gibbon had a 4-2 record for the World Champion Pirates. His World Series check for $8,400 was more than his rookie salary of $7,500.

In 1961, his second season, he achieved a 13-10 record that included a career-high three shutouts.

Over 13 seasons with the Pirates, San Francisco Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Houston Astros, Gibbon won 61 games, lost 65 and saved 32 more. His lifetime earned run average was a nifty 3.52. In the Major Leagues, he was often called “Hickory Joe” Gibbon.

Gibbon was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1979, and the Ole Miss Athletic Hall of Fame in 1988. On February 21, 2009, he was honored as a member of the Ole Miss Men’s All-Century Basketball Team.

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Visitation will be held Sunday 3-6 p.m. at the Newton County Funeral Home-South in Newton. Funeral Services will be held Monday, Feb. 25, at 11 a.m. at Newton County Funeral Home-South.

He was preceded in death by his wife Donna Price Gibbon. Survivors include his children, Joe Gibbon Jr., David Gibbon (Kristi), Jennifer Gibbon Seal, Luke Gibbon (Dawn), and Dan Gibbon.

The family requests in lieu of flowers donations to be made to the Clarke College Alumni Scholarship Fund and/or the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Museum.