Obituary: Lou Brock (1939-2020)

RIP to Hall of Fame outfielder Lou Brock, who was one of the greatest stolen base threats in baseball history. Brock died on September 6 in a St. Louis hospital at the age of 81. Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted in the linked article that he had suffered from a multitude of ailments in his final years: bone marrow cancer, stroke, heart problems, and the amputation of his left leg due to diabetes. Brock started his baseball career with the Chicago Cubs (1961-64) before joining the St. Louis Cardinals (1964-79) in one of the most talked-about baseball trades ever.

“Lou Brock was one of the most revered members of the St. Louis Cardinals organization and one of the very best to ever wear the Birds on the Bat,” said Cardinals principal owner and CEO William O. DeWitt Jr. in a statement. “Lou was a Hall of Fame player, a great coach, an insightful broadcaster and a wonderful mentor to countless generations of Cardinals players, coaches and members of the front office. He was an ambassador of the game around the country and a fan favorite who connected with millions of baseball fans across multiple generations. He will be deeply missed and forever remembered.”

Louis Clark Brock was born on June 18, 1939 in El Dorado, Ark., but he grew up in Louisiana. His parents separated when he was young, and as a five-year-old boy, he had to help take care of his two younger brothers, who were 3 and 1, while his mother worked. At the age of 13 he started working in a grocery store to help support the family.

What could have been: Lou Brock as a Cub. Source: Baseball Hall of Fame

Brock hit .450 in his senior year of high school, but his mother didn’t have the money to pay for college tuition. He wrote several colleges to ask if they wanted a student willing to work his way through college. “Two weeks after I got out of high school I went to Southern [University in Baton Rouge] and got a job in the maintenance department as a janitor,” Brock said. “I saved enough money to get into school that fall, and I made the baseball team as a freshman.”

Brock also played on the U.S. Pan-American Games baseball team in 1959 and was named to the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) All-America team for two straight years. He was discovered and signed by Buck O’Neil, who at that point in his legendary career was a scout for the Chicago Cubs. He started his pro career with the Cubs in Arizona winter ball in 1960. While the statistics aren’t readily available, a perusal of the box scores shows the kind of player he was. He was an extra-base hit machine, picking up doubles regularly and adding the odd triple or inside-the-park home run as well. He stole bases and advanced on any muff by the catcher. Brock started a center fielder and would not move into his customary left field position until he reached St. Louis.

Brock was sent to the St. Cloud Rox of the Northern League in 1961, and the 22-year-old became an All-Star, Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in what would be his only season in the minor leagues. He batted .361 for the Rox and clubbed 14 home runs while driving in 82 runs. Just because he wasn’t known for his power didn’t mean he was a singles hitter. On the day he received his Rookie of the Year Award, he hit a 2-run homer off Aberdeen lefty Darold Knowles that hit a light tower in right field. He also stole 38 bases, so speed was already a big part of his game.

“I doubt if this club has ever had a man cover the acreage between home and first base as quickly as Lou Brock does it,” wrote St. Cloud Times columnist Frank Farrington. “He’s got the other infielders hurrying their throws and making bad ones. He’s driving them nuts.”

The Cubs brought Brock to the major leagues for four games at the end of the 1961 season. In four games, he had 1 hit in 11 at-bats, with that one hit coming off the Phillies’ Robin Roberts in his first MLB at-bat, on September 10, 1961.

Brock claimed the center field role in 1962 after a sensational spring training. Cubs coaches clocked his sprint from home to first base at 3.4 seconds — 3.1 if he was dragging a bunt. Then the regular season started, and Brock looked… ordinary. He had 16 stolen bases in 1962 but was thrown out 7 times. He hit just .263, but he showed a little pop in his bat with 9 homers. He became the first player ever to reach the right-center bleachers of the Polo Grounds with a 460-foot home run on June 17, 1962. Babe Ruth and Joe Adcock were the only other ballplayers to reach the bleachers.

“It was a high pitch, a ball in fact,” Brock said in a 1963 interview. “I hit it right at the apogee of my swing and it went high enough for the wind to help it a little. You know I hit that ball off Al Jackson. It’s the only home run I have ever hit in the major leagues off a lefthander.”

Brock wasn’t even the most highly regarded rookie on the Cubs that year. Second baseman Ken Hubbs won a Gold Glove and the Rookie of the Year Award after setting a record for the longest errorless streak at second base. Brock, though, had the better season. Hubbs slashed .260/.299/.346 and led the NL in strikeouts and grounding into double plays. His OPS+ was 71. Brock slashed .263/.319/.412 for an OPS of 92, but he was a below average center fielder. Hubbs received 19 out of 20 ROY votes, and Brock wasn’t even in the running.

Brock moved to right field in 1963 and again put up pedestrian numbers — a .258 batting average, 9 homers, 37 RBIs, and 24 stolen bases in 36 attempts. His 1964 season didn’t get any better, as he hit .251 in 52 games before destiny called in the way of a 6-player trade.

Lou Brock with Buck O’Neil, the man who discovered and signed him. Source: Baseball Hall of Fame.

It happened on June 15, 1964 and sent Brock, Jack Spring and Paul Toth to the St. Louis Cardinals for Ernie Broglio, Doug Clemons and Bobby Shantz. I wrote about this a bit in Broglio’s obituary when he died in 2019, but the trade — considered now to be one of the worst in baseball history — didn’t look that bad at the time. If anything, it was thought that the Cubs had the better end of the deal. In parts of four MLB seasons, Brock had played in 327 games and had a slash line of .257/.306/.383. He hit 20 homers and 20 triples and stole 50 bases while being thrown out 22 times. Broglio, though, had won 70 games in 6 seasons including 21 games once and 18 games once.

The problem with the trade was that Broglio had a bad elbow, and the Cubs didn’t figure this out until it was too late to do anything about it. That’s bad luck, or perhaps a little dishonesty on the part of St. Louis. While the Cubs can’t be blamed for Broglio flaming out after joining the team, they are responsible for having a gifted talent like Brock and failing to use him the right way. The running game wasn’t a big part of the Cubs’ offense, and there were so many instructors in the College of Coaches era that Brock never received steady instruction. The Cubs even told him while he was in the minors to give up on switch-hitting and hit exclusively as a lefty.

Almost as soon as he donned Cardinal red, Brock started hitting. He batted .348 for the Redbirds for the rest of the year and swiped 33 bases, giving him 43 on the season. The Cardinals won 93 games to claim the NL pennant, and then they beat the Yankees in seven games to win the World Series. Brock hit .300 in the World Series, with 2 doubles and a home run among his 9 hits.

“Without Brock we couldn’t have won the pennant,” said St. Louis manager Johnny Keane. Brock, for his point of view, credited a change in mindset at the plate.

“I stopped bunting and started swinging, and the balls started dropping,” the outfielder said. “Until then, I made it a point to bunt once or twice in every game because baseball people said I should take advantage of my speed. That made the difference, because if you’re not doing good at the plate, everything goes bad. Hitting dominates everything.”

Brock beats Larry Bowa’s tag to steal his 105th base of the 1974 season, setting the modern-day record. Source: Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, N.Y.), September 11, 1974.

Brock moved to left field with the Cardinals and would stay there for the remainder of his career. With his new-found hitting approach, a green light to steal and a new outfield position, Brock became one of the National League’s most valuable players for the next decade and a half. From 1965 until his retirement in 1979, Brock was selected to six All-Star teams and hit over .300 seven times (and hit .297, .298 and .299 three other times). He led the majors in run scored twice, doubles once and triples once. He led the NL in stolen bases in each year between 1966 and 1974 save one season — Bobby Tolan stole 57 bases in 1970 to top Brock’s 51. The Cards would win two more NL pennants and one World Series in that time, and he was a key part of it all.

Brock set the Cardinals record for stolen bases in a season in 1965, when he swiped his 49th bag. That moved him ahead of the 48 steals by John Murray (1908) and Frankie Frisch (1927). Brock finished the season with 63 stolen bases, broke his own record in 1966 with 74 and topped it with 118 steals in 1974. Those 118 stolen bases represented a major-league record until Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases in 1982. Brock still holds the St. Louis team record, though Vince Coleman came close with 110 steals in 1985.

The National League really couldn’t solve Brock. He had the power to hit a dozen or more home runs a season, but if you were lucky to hold him to a single, he’d just steal second base. Some pitchers like Ryne Duren tried to cool his jets by hitting him, but that quickly proved counterproductive — what’s the point of hitting Brock when you’re just putting him in the position to steal more bases? Brock suffered a hairline fracture of his left shoulder after being deliberately hit by a Sandy Koufax pitch in 1964, so his baserunning daring did not come without consequences.

Brock made the NL All-Star team for the first time in 1967 and had a career-high 21 homers and 206 hits on the season — one of four times he would top the 200-hit mark in his career. He led all of baseball with 113 runs scored and stole 52 bases. As if that wasn’t enough, Brock turned in a record-setting performance in the World Series against the Red Sox, going 12-for-29 (.414) with 2 doubles, 1 triple, 1 home run and 7 stolen bases. He set records for most thefts in a World Series, a World Series game (3) and a World Series inning (2). He scored 8 runs and drove in 3 as the Cardinals won their second World Series in four years.

When a reporter asked Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst what the turning point of the World Series was, he simply said, “Brock leading off.”

Incredibly, he put together an even better performance in the 1968 World Series, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the victorious Detroit Tigers. In the seven-game series, Brock hit .464 with 3 doubles, a triple and 2 homers, and he was 7-for-9 in stolen base attempts. All total, Brock played in 21 World Series games and slashed .391/.424/.655, with 4 home runs and 14 stolen bases.

Lou Brock and Cardinals owner August Busch get a break from the heat using Brock’s “sunbrella” hats. Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 23, 1976.

By the end of the ’68 World Series, Brock was 29 years old and had established himself as the sparkplug of the fierce Cardinals offense. When he reached base, it sent a jolt of excitement to all of his teammates, because they knew what was coming. “We get excited. We know that when Lou gets on to open an inning, we’re going to score,” explained Dal Maxvill.

Brock’s baserunning antagonized other teams. The advice that the Tigers were given before the ’68 World Series was “Keep him off the bases.” “I never heard such a meaningless saying,” exclaimed Mickey Vernon. “What does it mean? Does it mean don’t walk him? Cripes, this man is a hitter. You don’t walk him, he goes 4-for-4. He’s a leadoff man on this club, but on any other he’d be batting fourth.”

Frequently, pitchers were so concerned about Brock on first base that they forgot that the man who batted second for the Cardinals, Curt Flood, was a dangerous hitter in his own right. From 1964 until 1969, Flood hit over .300 four times, feasting off mediocre fastballs thrown by distracted pitchers.

For his part, Brock continued to bat over .300 for the Cardinals as he entered into his early 30s. Typically, baserunners lose a step by then. Brock, improbably, became a better baserunner. He stole 64 bases in 1971 and 63 in ’72. He frequently led the league in caught stealing, but his stolen base ratio was much improved from his early years with the Cubs. His baserunning intelligence helped compensate for any speed he may have lost.

“I once depended on the element of surprise in my base running,” Brock said in a 1972 profile. “But then I found I could do better if I let the other team know I was going to steal. It was a psychological gimmick designed to get them so nervous they’d mess up the play.”

He didn’t pay attention to any unwritten rules about baserunning either. When Phillies manager Frank Lucchesi once called him a “busher” for running with the Cardinals up 6-0, Brock fired back.

“He was showing up how intelligent he was,” he responded. “If he’s got any intelligence he sure as heck didn’t exhibit it on a professional level.” When asked if he’d change his baserunning ways, Brock said, “If the score is 12-0 and we’re playing against Lucchesi, I’d still steal a base.”

One by one, the baserunning records began to fall. Brock broke Ty Cobb’s record of consecutive seasons with 50+ stolen bases in 1973 when he did it for the ninth time. His streak would reach 12 seasons. He stole 118 bases in 1974 to top Maury Wills‘ modern-day record of 104 thefts and surpassed the Pirates’ Max Carey as the NL stolen base king. The one record that remained was Cobb’s all-time record of 892 stolen bases — or Billy Hamilton’s 914 stolen bases if you take 19th Century stats into account. It didn’t matter. Cobb’s record fell in 1977, and Hamilton joined him in Brock’s rearview mirror in 1978. Lou Brock had become the undisputed stolen base king of Major League Baseball.

He still had one more accomplishment to reach: 3,000 hits. With all the fuss about Brock’s stolen bases, it was easy to overlook the fact that he was a gifted hitter as well. By 1977, Brock was no longer stealing 50 bases a year, and his batting average dipped to .272. In 1978, he appeared in just 92 games and hit .221, with 9 doubles as his only extra-base hits. He ended the ’78 season an even 100 hits shy of 3,000, and it seemed like he would crawl over the finish line if he made it at all.

Source: Major League Baseball.

Instead, Brock delivered one last strong season in 1979, making the All-Star team and topping .300 at the age of 40. The Cardinals fans cheered loudly for every hit as he marched toward the 3,000-hit milestone, finally reaching it on August 13, 1979, against the Cubs — his old team, of course. He picked up the hit off Dennis Lamp (literally — he hit a liner off Lamp and raced to first on the infield hit), making him the 13th player in major-league history to reach that mark, and only the second Cardinal after Stan Musial. He was named the NL Comeback Player of the Year in his final year.

(Lamp, incidentally, had a significant but inadvertent role in the career of the recently deceased Tom Seaver, too. Lamp’s free agent deal with the Blue Jays in 1984 gave the White Sox the opportunity to claim Seaver from the New York Mets,)

After spending 1978 as a struggling part-time player, Brock ended his career on a high note, adding 21 steals to his record totals.

“This is the way I wanted to crown my career,” Brock said. “It’s a dream situation. Well, more of a fantasy than a dream. And I’m living out that fantasy — to end my career with a trail of blazing glory.”

In his 19-year career, Brock had 3,023 hits that included 486 doubles, 141 triples and 149 home runs. He slashed .293/.343/.410 and had 938 stolen bases and 1,610 runs scored. He had four seasons of 200 hits and another four of more than 190 hits. According to Baseball Reference, Brock was worth 45.4 Wins Above Replacement, but he is penalized by a negative fielding WAR. Brock led all left fielders in errors each season between 1965 and 1974, and his 168 errors as a left fielder are third most behind Zack Wheat and Goose Goslin.

Brock was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985, in his first year of eligibility. He remained close to baseball, participating in numerous Cardinals events. He devoted much of his time, during his career and after it, to coaching children and young adults. Brock had a scholarship program to help young people get through college, and he participated in a number of charities.

“I’m seeing his most meaningful years,” said his wife, Jackie, in 2000. “He understands his baseball career was preparation to help people and share. He understands the value of life more than ever before.”

Here is Bob Costas talking about Lou Brock’s legacy:

For more information: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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