1967 'Impossible Dream' Red Sox team catcher Russ Gibson dies at 69

Greg Sullivan

He lived the dream — a double dream, actually — of a Fall River sports-loving kid.

Russ Gibson was a three-sport star at Durfee High School, a junior starting forward on the 1956 basketball team that won both the Tech Tourney and New England championships before huge crowds — many from Fall River — at the old Boston Garden. Ten years after graduating from Durfee, Gibson was the starting catcher for the 1967 “Impossible Dream” Red Sox team that captured the American League pennant.

One of the Spindle City’s all-time favorite sons, one who never ever forgot his roots, died this weekend — either late Saturday or early Sunday, according to his son Chris — at Swan Brook Assisted Living in Swansea.

John Russell Gisbon had struggled with his health for more than a decade, undergoing multiple dialysis treatments each week and battling heart problems.

“He was such a great guy,” said former Durfee High School Principal Albert Attar, the senior center on the 1956 basketball team. “He never forgot his friends. He was one of my best friends. He did a lot for the area. ... He never forgot his roots. And no matter what walk of life you were from, he respected you.

“I can’t recall how many good times we’ve had, high school and post-high school. He was always there for you.”

George Darmody, retired Herald News sports editor, was a virtual lifelong friend to the man known so well as Gibby. Darmody, a senior guard on the ‘56 Durfee basketball team, attended Sacred Heart School with Gibson. Though Gibson lived near Maplewood Park, he spent a great deal of time at his grandmother’s house on Winter Street, near Sacred Heart.

“I used to sleep over his house. He’d sleep over my house,” Darmody said. “Every Saturday morning, we were the first two in line at the First Cong (First Congregational Church) to play basketball.

“He was always an athlete. In football, he was the quarterback and free safety. Not that many people know that.”

During their run to the Tech Tourney title in 1956, the Hilltoppers rattled off several wins on last-second shots. Gisbon nailed one of those, a set shot from beyond halfcourt that vaulted the Hilltoppers into the finals. “It swished,” Attar said. “I’ll never forget that.”

Gibson was signed by the Red Sox out of high school. A catcher, Gibson toiled a decade in the minor leagues before making it to the Red Sox in 1967. He was a favorite of Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams, who had managed him at Triple A Toronto in 1966. Attar recalled how excited Gisbon was at Attar’s house one night after the 1966 season because Williams had told him he would be coming to Boston the next spring. “He was so proud to be representing Fall River, representing Durfee High School,” Attar said.

In his major league debut, Gibson caught Billy Rohr’s near no-hitter at Yankee Stadium in the first week of the 1967 season, getting a pair of hits off Whitey Ford in the process. And he was the starting catcher in Game 1 of the World Series against the Cardinals. The Sox lost that series in seven games.

Gibson’s major league career spanned five seasons, from 1967 to 1972. The Sox sold him to the San Francisco Giants before the 1970 season.

Fall River wasted no time in showing its pride in the local guy who made good. During the summer of 1967, Russ Gibson Day was held at Fenway Park, with Gibson receiving a new car before a contest against the Minnesota Twins. Darmody was a sports reporter at the Herald News then and covered the event. “Those days you could tickets easily,” he said. “There weren’t sell-outs.” Darmody estimated 6,000 people from Greater Fall River descended on Fenway that weekend afternoon.

After moving on to San Francisco, Gibson was essentially the closer catcher. He often relieved Dick Dietz, a strong hitter but a below-average defensive catcher. He had the distinction of catching star pitchers such as Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry and being the teammate of Willie Mays and Willie McCovey.

A weak hitter at the major league level, Gibson built a five-year career due to his superb defensive skills and his ability to work well with pitchers and call a smart game. His best season was 1969 with the Sox, when he batted .251 in a career-high 287 at-bats. For his career, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Gibson batted .228 with eight home runs and 78 runs batted in, in 794 at-bats.

Gibson, his late wife, Ann, and his family lived in the Bay Area before moving to Swansea in the early 1980s. Gibson worked for the Massachusetts Lottery until retiring.

Gibson never severed his local ties from the time he signed his first contract in 1957. Darmody recalled getting a phone call from his friend when Gibson — then playing minor league ball in Seattle — became engaged to Ann.

Gibson was warmly welcomed back to Greater Fall River. He coached baseball at Bristol Community College and assisted his Little League coach, Bill “Shifty” Shea, with the Kennedy team in the Bristol County League. An ordinary Joe, Gisbon got a big kick out of competing with former Durfee teammate and minor league pitcher Tommny Arruda in the Fraternal Order of Eagles bowling league.

Gibson loved that he had been blessed to be a member of the Red Sox, especially the Impossible Dream team, and he loved participating in team reunions and autograph sessions. Despite poor health, Gibson last year got to Fenway Park and pulled on his No. 35 uniform on a cold April afternoon as part of the huge celebration of the Impossible Dream’s 40th anniversary.

Most of all, he enjoyed family. Sons Greg and Chris played sports at Case High School. Greg, a former Air Force fighter pilot, is a corporate pilot for General Electric, while Chris is a Fall River police officer. “He could never say enough about his sons,” Attar said.

Much the way so many today can’t say enough about their departed buddy.

“He was a very personable guy who always wore a smile,” Darmody said.

About six weeks ago, Attar joined Gibson, Buddy Andrew, and Tony Abraham for one of their informal Durfee reunions, this one over breakfast at Almac’s Diner. Darmody was unable to attend.

Attar also said he ran into Gibson recently at a Wish Come True Foundation event where Gibson, despite his poor health, was happily representing the Red Sox.

“He could never say no,” Attar said. “He was always ready to help the community.”

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