Remembering Lou Brock (1939-2000), Base Thief Extraordinaireon September 11, 2020 at 4:45 pm

Remembering Lou Brock (1939-2000), Base Thief Extraordinaire

Lou Brock was a catalyst, not only for the Cardinals — whom he invigorated upon being traded from the Cubs in 1964, in one of the most infamously lopsided deals in major league history — but for all of baseball. Along with the DodgersMaury Wills and the White Sox’s Luis Aparicio, Brock helped restore the stolen base to prominence as an offensive weapon, one that was particularly valuable during a low-scoring era. A cerebral, intensely competitive, and electrifying speedster who was ahead of his time in using film to study pitchers, Brock sparked the Cardinals, who hadn’t won a pennant in 18 years, to three in a five-year span and carved himself a niche in October while helping the team win two World Series. In his 19-year career (1961-79), he went on to set the single-season and career records for stolen bases, surpass the 3,000 hit milestone, have his uniform number (20) retired by the Cardinals, and earn first-ballot entry into the Hall of Fame.

Brock died on Sunday, September 6, having battled multiple health issues for several years. He had his lower left leg amputated in 2015 due to complications related to Type 2 diabetes, underwent treatment for multiple myeloma in ’17, and suffered a stroke the following year.

A six-time All-Star, Brock finished his career with a .293/.343/.410 (109 OPS+) line and 3,023 hits, a total that ranks 28th all-time; he also hit 149 homers. He hit .391/.424/.655 with four homers and a record 14 steals in 92 plate appearances spread over three World Series. He led the NL in stolen bases eight times, finished second an additional three times, and ran up impressive records. His 118 steals in 1974, when he was 35 years old, broke Wills’ modern record of 104, set in ’62. He surpassed Ty Cobb‘s modern record of 892 steals in 1977 and then 19th century star Slidin’ Billy Hamilton‘s total (believed to be 937 at the time) two years later, finishing with 938. Rickey Henderson eventually surpassed Brock’s single-season and career marks, swiping 130 bases in 1982 and blazing past Brock on May 1, 1991, en route to a whopping total of 1,438 steals.

“The numbers can hardly tell the full story of Louis Clark Brock,” wrote New York Daily News reporter Phil Pepe on August 9, 1979, as Brock closed in on 3,000 hits. “They cannot tell you of the enthusiasm he possessed, the zest for the game, the excitement he generated, the joy of watching him. If you have not seen him play, you have missed one of the great joys of sport.”

“Watching Lou Brock taking a lead off first base is the best fun in baseball,” wrote Roger Angell in The New Yorker in 1974.

“The violence he had running the bases was nonpareil,” said former teammate McCarver in the wake of Brock’s death. “I’d never seen anybody like that. Ever. (Willie) Mays was close. Lou had a straight-in slide and, if your hand or glove was anywhere near there … too bad. You were lucky that no finger was missing.”

Though stealing bases was critical during the dead ball era, the tactic fell out of vogue with the rise of the home run. In 1919, the year that Babe Ruth set a record with 29 homers while also making 15 starts as a pitcher, teams averaged 0.93 stolen bases per game. By 1926, that average was down to 0.52 per game, by the late 1930s, it fell below 0.4 per game, and in 1958, it was down to 0.3 per game. That year, Mays led the NL with 31 steals, while Aparicio led the AL with 29; both had led their respective circuits three straight times. When Aparicio stole 56 for the “Go-Go” White Sox in 1959, it marked the first time in 15 years that a player reached 50 steals in a season; when he stole 51 the following year, and Wills 50 in his first full season, it was the first time since 1922 that both league leaders had reached 50 in the same season.

The philosophical Brock saw the stolen base not as an end unto itself but as a weapon for disruption. “The most important thing about base stealing is not the stealing of the base,” he told Sports Illustrated‘s Mark Mulvoy in for a July 22, 1974 cover story, “but disturbing the pitcher’s concentration. If I can do that, then the hitter will get a better pitch to swing at and I will get a better chance to steal.”

“First base is nowhere,” he continued. “And most times it is useless to stay there. On the other hand, second base is probably the safest place on the field. When I steal second, I practically eliminate the double play, and I can score on almost any ball hit past the infield.”

Brock was born on June 18, 1939, in El Dorado, Arkansas into a family of sharecroppers. Father Maud Brock left when Lou was two, while mother Paralee Brock, who would bear nine children via three marriages (Lou was her seventh), moved the family to Collinston, Louisiana, where she worked as a domestic and a field laborer. Brock grew up amid poverty, segregation, and racism. “It was just a struggle to be a decent human being,” he later said, recalling tales of being spat upon and fighting with white bullies. Instead of playing organized baseball, he was limited to batting rocks with tree branches, but he connected to the game upon hearing broadcasts of Jackie Robinson‘s Dodgers playing against the Cardinals on KMOX radio.

“I was a 9-year-old in a Southern town,” Brock said at his Hall of Fame induction in 1985. “Jim Crow was king. I was searching the dial of an old Philco radio and I heard Harry Caray and Jack Buck, and I felt pride in being alive. The baseball field was my fantasy of what life offered.”

As discipline for throwing spitballs at a girl in fourth grade, Brock was assigned to research the careers of Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, and Don Newcombe. In the process, he learned not only of their accomplishments but of the money they earned, which further motivated him towards baseball as a means of escaping poverty. He joined a sandlot team the summer before high school, and while he was initially relegated to backup status on his high school team the following year, his strong left arm stood out to the point that he gave pitching a try.

Though Brock starred on the diamond in high school, he couldn’t muster a baseball scholarship, but his devotion to his studies paid off with an academic scholarship to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He studied math, but struggled academically to the point of losing his scholarship; in desperation, he tried out for the baseball team, eventually winning his scholarship when, after shagging fly balls to the point of passing out and then being revived with smelling salts, he hit four out of five batting practice pitches over the right field fence.

Brock hit just .140 as a freshman, striking out often. “I kept the air around home plate cool,” he later recounted. Nonetheless, he was a sensation as a sophomore, batting .545 with 80 hits and 13 homers while helping Southern become the first Black school to win the NAIA championship. The White Sox and Cubs both offered tryouts. Buck O’Neil, scouting for the latter, saw an athlete whose speed reminded him of Negro Leagues legend Cool Papa Bell, and signed Brock for a bonus of $30,000 in August 1960. In his lone minor league season, the 22-year-old Brock tore up the C-Level Northern League, batting .361/.426/.535 with 14 homers for the St. Cloud Rox; his batting average, 181 hits, 33 doubles, and 117 runs scored all led the circuit, while his 38 steals placed second. He received a late-season call-up from the Cubs, singling off the PhilliesRobin Roberts in his first plate appearance on September 10, 1961, but that was his lone hit in four games.

Brock’s power wowed the Cubs as much as his speed. While winning the center field job in the spring of 1962, he clubbed a 480-foot homer. On April 13 against the Cardinals, he led off the bottom of the first inning with his first major league homer, off Ray Washburn; after a leadoff single in the third, he stole his first base. The most notable of his nine homers that year came on June 17, when in the first game of a doubleheader against the Mets, he became just the third major leaguer to homer into the center field bleachers of the Polo Grounds — a shot estimated at 460 feet — after Ruth (1921) and Joe Adcock (1953); Hank Aaron would do so the next day.

On a team that lost 103 games despite the presence of three other future Hall of Famers in the lineup in first baseman Ernie Banks, third baseman Ron Santo, and left fielder Billy Williams, Brock finished his rookie season with a modest .263/.319/.412 (92 OPS+) line, with 16 steals, and some defensive struggles in center; he hadn’t even learned to flip his sunglasses in the outfield, since he’d played exclusively night games the year before. The Cubs’ manager-less “college of coaches” often gave him contradictory advice, with one coach telling him to use the opposite field more, another to tap into his pull-side power, and yet another to bunt more often. None of this helped an ambitious but relatively unrefined young player find his own way.

Though Brock stole 24 bases in 1963, he slipped to .258/.300/.382 (still a 91 OPS+), and struck out 122 times, the league’s third-highest total. His defensive woes forced a move to right field, where the going was still rough, though he did finish the year with 2.6 WAR (I use Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR throughout this piece). “If you’ve watched all the Cub home games thus far you had probably come to the conclusion that Lou Brock is the worst outfielder in baseball history,” wrote Bob Smith of the Chicago Daily News. “He really isn’t but he hasn’t done much to prove it.”

With his offense slipping even further, but his spring wound ever more tightly, Brock struggled at the start of the 1964 season. On June 14, the day before the trade deadline, he was dealt to St. Louis along with pitchers Jack Spring and Paul Toth for pitchers Ernie Broglio and Bobby Shantz and outfielder Doug Clemens. The Cardinals, who had finished second to the Dodgers at 93-69 in 1963 but had lost franchise icon Stan Musial to retirement, were in the midst of a 6-17 slide that would drop them to 28-31. Having seen the Dodgers’ success with Wills atop the lineup, general manager Bing Devine wanted a similarly speedy tablesetter. He also needed a reliable left fielder to fill Musial’s sizable shoes.

Cardinals players were initially unimpressed by the deal. “We thought it was the worst trade ever,” said ace Bob Gibson. But in Brock — whom Keane turned loose on the bases — Devine had found his man. Batting second behind center fielder Curt Flood (the two would flip-flop in mid-1965), Brock hit .348/.387/.527 (146 OPS+) with 12 homers, 33 steals, and 5.7 WAR in 103 games with his new team, and finished the year with 200 hits (fifth in the league) and 43 steals (second to Wills). The Cardinals went 65-38 the rest of the way to finish with 93 wins, edging the Reds and Phillies by a single game, aided by the latter’s 10-game losing streak in late September.

The centerpiece of the return for the Cubs was Broglio, a 28-year-old righty who had gone 18-8 with a 2.99 ERA in 250 innings the year before, and who had been the Cardinals’ Opening Day starter; he was already experiencing arm troubles, and was in manager Johnny Keane’s doghouse to boot. Amid further arm problems, he would go 7-19 with a 5.40 ERA and -1.5 WAR over the next three seasons before disappearing from the major, while Brock would deliver 41.8 WAR for the Cardinals over the remainder of his career. It was quite the heist.

Why did the Cubs trade Brock? While some within the team saw him as a future star, O’Neil, who also scouted and signed Williams, and who had become close to Brock while serving as the majors’ first Black coach, believed his race may have played a part. Via Steve Bogiria in the Chicago Reader in 2014:

“There was an unwritten quota system” in baseball, O’Neil wrote in a 2002 essay in Baseball as America, a book published for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. “They didn’t want but so many black kids on a major league ballclub.”

O’Neil was a Cubs coach in 1964 when the team had five black players. One of them was a young outfielder named Lou Brock. When O’Neil heard that general manager John Holland was planning to trade Brock, he advised him not to. “I don’t think we’ll have our best ballclub on the field,” he told Holland. O’Neil wrote in his essay that Holland then “started pulling out letters and notes from people, season ticket holders, saying that their grandfather had season tickets here at Wrigley Field, or their grandmother . . . and their families had come here for years. And do you know what these letters went on to say? ‘What are you trying to make the Chicago Cubs into? The Kansas City Monarchs?'”

The Cubs’ loss was the Cardinals’ gain. Late in the 1964 season, Brock bought an 8-mm movie camera, which he used to record pitchers and study their pickoff moves. When the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale asked what he was doing, Brock told him he was making home movies. “I don’t want to be in your goddamn movies, Brock,” said Drysdale, who thew at Brock the next time the two faced off, but never hit him in 106 career encounters.

In the 1964 World Series against the Yankees, Brock didn’t steal a base, but he had four multi-hit games. He scored the Series’ first run after singling against Whitey Ford in Game 1, drove in the go-ahead run off Mel Stottlemyre in Game 5, and hit a solo homer off Al Downing in Game 7 to extend the Cardinals’ lead. They won, but Keane left to replace opposite number Yogi Berra as the Yankees manager, with Red Schoendienst taking over.

Brock couldn’t match his stellar 1964 performance in either of the next two seasons. After bunting on Sandy Koufax and then stealing two bases and scoring in the first inning of a May 26, 1965 game, Koufax drilled him in the back, fracturing his shoulder blade. Though he missed just five games save for a pinch-running cameo, he went into a slump, though he did finish the season with 16 homers, 63 steals (second to Wills again), and 4.2 WAR. He followed that up with 15 homers, a league-high 74 steals, and 3.4 WAR in 1966, then made his first All-Star team in ’67 while batting .299/.327/.472 (128 OPS+). Not only did he lead the league with 113 runs scored, he became the first player ever to pair 20 homers and 50 steals in a season, setting a career high with 21 of the former, and leading the league with 52 of the latter. His performance, which included 5.6 WAR, helped the Cardinals to 101 wins and another pennant.

Facing the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox in the World Series, Brock went on a rampage, with five multi-hit games and an overall line of .414/.452/.655. He went 4-for-4 with a walk and two steals in the opener, scoring both St. Louis runs in a 2-1 win; led off the home half of Game 3 with a triple and scored twice in a 5-2 win; sparked a four-run rally in the first inning of Game 4, a 6-0 win; and drove in three runs in Game 6, two with a game-tying homer in the seventh inning, though the Sox rallied to win that one. He capped his performance by going 2-for-4 with a walk and three steals in Game 7 as the Cardinals won their second championship in a four-year span. His 12 hits for the series was one shy of the record, set by Bobby Richardson in 1964, while his seven steals (in seven attempts) set a record. While Gibson was named the Series MVP for his three complete games, KMOX awarded Brock a Cadillac for his outstanding performance.

Brock set new career highs with 46 doubles, 14 triples, 62 steals — all three good for the NL lead — and 5.8 WAR in 1968 as the Cardinals won 97 games and another pennant; while his .279/.328/.418 line didn’t look like much, it was still good for a 124 OPS+ in “The Year of the Pitcher.” Facing the Tigers in the World Series, he topped his previous year’s performance, collecting hits in all seven games while batting .464/.516/.857 with a pair of homers and another seven steals (this time with two caught). He hit a solo homer in the Cardinals’ series-opening win, and had three straight three-hit games, highlighted by his leadoff homer, double, and triple in Game 4, a 10-1 rout at the expense of 31-game winner Denny McLain and company:

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Though Brock tied Richardson’s record for hits in a World Series (since tied by Marty Barrett in 1986), and set a record with 24 total bases (since surpassed), his failure to slide on a play at the plate, during which he was tagged out by catcher Bill Freehan, loomed large in the Cardinals’ Game 5 defeat, as did a Game 7 pickoff by Series MVP Mickey Lolich, that after Brock led off the sixth inning of a scoreless game with his only hit. The Cardinals lost, 4-1, and wouldn’t make it back to the World Series for another 14 years.

While his team’s competitive fortunes took a turn for the worse, Brock continued to excel. From 1969-74, he averaged 196 hits and 70 steals a year while batting .305/.364/.409 (115 OPS+), leading the league in steals every year in that span save for 1970 and making All-Star teams in ’71, ’72, and ’74. In the last of those years, at age 35, he went on an early season hot streak, and after getting caught stealing on Opening Day, April 5, proceeded to successfully swipe 28 bases before being caught again on May 21. By the time the end of June rolled around, he had 48 steals, six more than Wills to that point, in six fewer team games. He remained well ahead of Wills’ pace, with 65 steals through July and 94 through August. On September 10 against the Phillies in St. Louis, he tied and then surpassed Wills; play was halted for 10 minutes for an on-field ceremony as players on both teams congratulated him. He finished the year batting .306/.368/.381 (110 OPS+) with 194 hits and 3.5 WAR, and placed second to Steve Garvey in the NL MVP voting. He was nonetheless disappointed. “I’m not bitter,” he said. “I just think I deserved it. I earned it.”

Despite being limited to 136 games due to injuries — his first season of fewer than 153 since 1963 — Brock had another All-Star season in 1975, and stole 56 bases both that year and the next. His performance took a decided downturn in 1977 (.272/.317/.354, for an 81 OPS+, his first below-average season since ’63, not to mention -0.9 WAR) but on August 29 against the Padres, he stole his 893rd base, breaking Cobb’s modern record.

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Brock’s final two steals of the season, in the opener of a September 30 doubleheader against the Mets, gave him an even 900 for the year, while his double in the season finale three days later left him with 2,834, putting the 3,000 milestone squarely with in his sights. Getting there proved harder than anyone imagined, however. Despite finishing April with a .320 batting average, he hit an abysmal .221/.263/.252 overall. Ken Boyer, Brock’s former teammate (and the 1964 NL MVP), took over for the fired Vern Rapp and soon had no choice but to bench Brock, who finished with just 92 games played, 17 steals, and 66 hits, leaving him 100 away. Though he had agreed to a contract extension for 1979 back in the spring, he held off on signing it until late September, after sketching out a plan with Boyer. “I’m not signing to get 3,000 hits,” he said after signing for $250,000. “I’m signing to be part of the total picture. I want to play. I want to pinch-hit. I want to pinch-run.”

Thankfully, what could have been a grim slog turned out to be a victory lap, as a slight adjustment in his batting stance helped keep more weight on his front foot. Though Brock didn’t hit much in the first two weeks of the season, by the end of May he was batting .381/.403/.500, and as of July 4, was still at .354/.382/.458, though a shortage of plate appearances prevented him from being the official league leader. On August 13 against the Cubs, on the next pitch after some unexpected chin music from Dennis Lamp, he lined a ball off the pitcher’s right hand; it deflected into foul territory as he reached first base for his 3,000th hit, becoming the 14th player to reach the milestone:

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“I’ve always wanted to leave baseball in a blaze of glory,” said Brock. “I’ve always wanted to orchestrate my own exodus and I’m doing a pretty good job of it.” Though he closed at .304/.342/.398, it was still a more-than-respectable finale.

On September 9, the Cardinals retired Brock’s jersey No. 20. On September 23 against the Mets in New York, he stole his 938th base, surpassing Hamilton, who played from 1888-1901 and was believed at the time to have stolen 937 bases. As the New York Times‘ Deane McGowen explained, “Until a rule change in 1898, however, a runner was credited with a stolen base for various advances, such as moving up on a throw to another base. Brock’s achievement yesterday removed all doubts about who has the record now.” Later accounting revised Hamilton’s total downward (912 per MLB’s official total, 914 per Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference), and since then, only Henderson has topped either man’s total. With stolen base rates back below 0.5 per team per game, it doesn’t appear likely that anyone will approach their perch.

Brock was named the NL Comeback Player of the Year in 1979, and won the Hutch Award, given to the player who “best exemplifies the fighting spirit and competitive desire” of Fred Hutchinson, as well; he had previously won awards named for Roberto Clemente (for combining good play with strong work in the community) and Lou Gehrig. He was elected to the Hall of Fame with 79.7% of the vote in 1985, his first year of eligibility.

On that note, Brock is an example of a player whose overwhelming accomplishments in the traditional sense are at odds with a sabermetric reckoning of his career. Craig Edwards has more here, using FanGraphs’ version of WAR. Via Baseball-Reference, Brock’s career total of 45.4 WAR ranks just 33rd among left fielders, lower than 18 of the other 19 Hall of Famers at the position, while his 38.7 JAWS is 18th, ahead of only Jim O’Rourke and Chick Hafey. He walked in just 6.8% of his plate appearances, and so while he topped a .300 batting average eight times, he never approached a .400 on-base percentage, maxing out at .385 and topping .360 just three other times.

Furthermore, Brock’s high caught-stealing totals — 33 in 1974, at least 18 in 10 seasons (seven as the league leader), and a total of 307 overall, second only to Henderson’s 335 — limited the impact of his baserunning. His total of 103 baserunning and double play avoidance runs ranks ninth all-time, though incomplete data on caught stealing and baserunner advancement prevents that ranking form being truly comprehensive. The bigger drawback is his defense. Via Total Zone’s admittedly rough estimates, he was consistently in the red from 1969 onward, and his -51 fielding runs limited him to just three seasons with at least 5.0 WAR, and only two in the league’s top 10. He was two full wins below replacement level over his final three seasons. Even so, I don’t think there’s really any good argument that a player who retired with the records, milestones, and October resume that he compiled could be kept out of Cooperstown. He was a tremendously exciting player whose value may have been overstated in his day, but he carved a unique niche in baseball history that deserved recognition.

After his career, Brock spent time working as a broadcaster on ABC’s Monday Night Baseball and for the White Sox, and as a spring instructor for the Cardinals, Twins, Dodgers and Expos. He also operated a flower shop and a sporting goods store, and lent his name to a distinctively whimsical rain hat called the “Brockabrella.” He was a fixture in St. Louis and at Cardinals festivities, beloved by generations of players, fans, and media members who may not have gotten to see him play. Couple those with his considerably weighty accomplishments, and that’s a Hall of Famer in any book.

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