St. Louis Cardinals legend and Hall of Famer Lou Brock died on Sunday at age 81. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that he had been dealing with several medical issues, but did not give a cause of death. His passing comes in the same week as another iconic star of the 1960s and 1970s, Tom Seaver.
Brock was a 3,000-hit man, a stolen base king, World Series hero, and the centerpiece of one of the most lopsided trades in history. In 1964, Brock was a 24-year-old outfielder for the Cubs who had not yet put it all together when he was traded to the Cardinals for sore-armed pitcher Ernie Broglio, a former 21-game winner. Brock hit .348 with 33 steals the rest of the year for St. Louis, who completed a remarkable comeback to win the pennant against the Philadelphia Phillies, who famously blew a 61/2 game lead with 12 games to go. Cardinals legend Stan Musial had retired after 1963, and Brock filled the void for the next 16 years. Broglio went 7-19 with a 5.40 ERA for the Cubs.
“We were so close to Broglio,” catcher Tim McCarver said. “Our friendship blinded us to what kind of effect Lou would have on the team — until we saw him run.”
The Cards went on to beat the Yankees in the World Series, ending the Mickey Mantle-Whitey Ford dynasty that had won 12 pennants and 7 world titles in 14 years. The Cardinals, led by Brock and dominating pitcher Bob Gibson, also won the Series in 1967 against the Red Sox, and lost to the Detroit Tigers in 1968. In the three World Series appearances, Brock hit .391 with 14 stolen bases and had a record-tying 13 hits in the ’68 Fall Classic.
But Brock is best known as being the greatest base stealer the majors leagues had seen before the arrival of Rickey Henderson. Brock led the National League in steals eight times and shattered Maury Wills’ single-season record of 104 stolen bases by swiping 118 in 1974, at age 35. In 1977, he broke Ty Cobb’s career record of 897 stolen bases, an all-time mark that had stood for five decades, he finished his career with 938 SBs. Henderson broke his single-season mark in 1982 and his career record in 1991.
There was a moment of silence at Wrigley Field before Brock’s two former teams played on Sunday.
Cubs’ fans love to roll their eyes about the Brock for Broglio deal as another example of the Cubs being the Cubs. But according to Cubs scout Buck O’Neil, there was a reason the North Siders moved Brock out of town.
Some have suggested that the Cubs’ bias against black players continued after the 1950s. The team’s longtime African-American scout, the late Buck O’Neil, signed most of the team’s black players through the early 1960s. Many of them were soon traded.
“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?’”
Brock was born to a poor family in El Dorado, Arkansas, on June 18, 1939. He did not receive any athletic scholarships despite hitting .535 as a senior in high school but earned an academic scholarship to Southern University, a historically black college. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, Brock lost his scholarship due to poor grades, but was able to stay on at the school by impressing the baseball team by hitting five straight balls for home runs in a tryout.
Although he had obvious raw talent, Brock struggled with the Cubs. When he was traded to St. Louis, manager Johnny Keane gave him the green light to steal bases when he could. Brock used an 8 mm camera to study pitchers’ moves to help him get a better jump. According to SABR:
Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale asked Brock one day what he was doing with the camera and he replied that he was taking home movies. “I don’t want to be in your goddamn movies, Brock,” Drysdale replied and, true to his nature, he threw at him the next time up.
The results were immediate. Brock began to pick up pitchers’ habits and twitches from watching his movies and improved his technique, becoming the premier base stealer in the league.
Brock retired in 1979 after hitting .304 and collecting his 3,000th hit at age 40. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1985.