Gibson was born in Pontiac, Michigan, grew up in Waterford, Michigan, and attended Michigan State University where he was an All-American wide receiver in football. He played only one year of college baseball. He was drafted by both the Detroit Tigers baseball team and the St. Louis Cardinals football team, but chose baseball.
Gibson played as the right fielder for the Detroit Tigers from 1983 to 1985. He helped the Tigers to the 1984 World Series championship. He became a free agent after the 1985 season, but received no significant offers. Neither did any other free agent that year. He re-signed with the Tigers.
In 1988, an arbitrator, Thomas Roberts, ruled that the owners colluded against the players. He ruled that 25 players, including Gibson, were to be immediate free agents. They were free to sign with any team. The Los Angeles Dodgers signed him.
Gibson was known for hitting clutch home runs. In the eighth inning of Game 5 of the 1984 World Series, he faced Goose Gossage, one of the game's premier relievers, in a moment that seemingly called for an intentional or at least semi-intentional walk, with first base open and the game close and Gibson having already homered earlier in the game. If the Padres could hold the Tigers and score a couple in the ninth, they would have a chance to force the Series back to San Diego, and maybe turn the tide of the Series. In a video called "Sounds of the Game", Detroit manager Sparky Anderson was seen in the dugout, yelling at Gibson, "He don't want to walk you!" and making a bat-swinging motion with his hands. Gibson got the message, and launched Gossage's next pitch deep into Tiger Stadium's right field upper deck for a 3-run homer, icing the game and the Series for the Tigers.
In the 1988 National League Championship Series against the New York Mets, Gibson hit a solo home run in the top of the 11th of Game 4 that ended up winning the game for the Dodgers. In Game 5, he hit a two-out three-run homer in the fifth; the Dodgers ended up winning the game 7-4. His LCS heroics proved to be a prelude to his single most visible career moment.
1988 World Series Home Run
In the 1988 World Series against the Oakland Athletics, Gibson saw only a single plate appearance, but it was one of the most memorable and oft-replayed in baseball history. Gibson had severely injured his leg during the League Championship Series. He was not expected to play at all. In Game 1 (at Dodger Stadium), with the Dodgers trailing by a score of 4-3, Mike Davis on first, and two out in the ninth inning, manager Tommy Lasorda inserted Gibson as a pinch hitter. Earlier, the TV camera had scanned the dugout and Vin Scully observed that Gibson was nowhere to be found. According to legend, he was in the clubhouse undergoing physical therapy and saw this on the television, spurring him to get back in the dugout and tell Lasorda he was ready if needed.
Surprising everyone, Gibson hobbled up to the plate, as Scully commented, "Look who's coming up!" He was facing future Hall-of-Famer Dennis Eckersley, the best relief pitcher in baseball at the time. Gibson quickly got behind in the count, 0-2, but received a few outside pitches from Eckersley to work to a 3-2 count. On the seventh pitch of his at bat, a ball, Davis stole second. The A's could have walked him to face Steve Sax, but chose to pitch to him, just as Gossage had done four years earlier. With an awkward, almost casual swing, Gibson used pure upper-body strength to smack a 3-2 "backdoor slider" just over the right-field fence. He hobbled around the bases and pumped his fist as his jubilant teammates stormed the field. The Dodgers won the game, 5-4.
Network radio announcer Jack Buck made his famous call, "Unbelievable! I don't believe what I just saw!" Network TV announcer Vin Scully, who rarely raises his trademark dulcet voice, was nearly yelling, "High fly ball into right field, she i-i-i-is... gone!!!" followed by a stretch of silence as the pictures and the sounds of the frenzied Los Angeles crowd told the story. 67 seconds later, Scully announced, "In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!"
The home run was so memorable that it was included as a finalist in a Major League Baseball contest to determine the sport's "Greatest Moment of All Time". For years after the fact, it was regularly used in This Week in Baseball's closing montage sequence. An edited audio of Scully's 1988 call has been used in 2005 post-season action, in a TV ad featuring a recreational softball game, with a portly player essentially re-enacting that entire moment as he hits the softball over the right field fence to win the game.
He was named the National League MVP in 1988. He is the only MVP winner never to appear on an All-Star roster. He was named to the team twice, in 1985 and 1988, but declined the invitation both times.
He retired in August, 1995. After a stint as a broadcaster, he was the hitting coach for the Detroit Tigers until the end of the 2005 season.
He married JoAnn Sklarski on December 22, 1985 in a double ceremony where Tiger pitcher Dave Rozema married JoAnn's sister Sandy. They were married at Grosse Pointe Memorial Church in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan.
- "The Man Who Gave All the Dreamers in Baseball Land Bigger Dreams to Dream", a narrative poem by Michael J. Farrand, in the style of Earnest Thayer's classic "Casey at the Bat", recounting Kirk Gibson's heroics in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.