Ernie Broglio, RIP: Talk of the trade

2019-07-17 ErnieBroglioStanMusial
Ernie Broglio (right) enjoys some dugout levity with Hall of Famer Stan Musial. (Pitcher Larry Jackson is in the background.)

I wish I hadn’t waited. Now I can only say goodbye.

I’d found an address and contact information for Ernie Broglio, the one-time Cardinals pitcher who’d been dealt to the Cubs in the 1964 deal that made a Cardinal out of a talented kid named Lou Brock, with whom the Cubs didn’t seem to know what to do and learned the hard way that the Cardinals knew only too well.

My thought was to interview him not just about the trade that made it seem as though his real surname was BrockforBroglio. Even though I knew from much previous reading that Broglio rather enjoyed talking about it, laughing about it, and mixing in other stories from his baseball life and beyond. A genial man who didn’t take himself too seriously or curse God for any malfortune, he seemed.

“I congratulate all the Hall of Famers,” he once said, “Some I played with, and some I helped put there.” A greater self-valedictory for a pitching career that went from promise to breakdown you’d be hard pressed to find.

I wanted to ask Broglio other questions, too, including and especially about cortisone, shots of which he’d taken two years before the Brock deal. And, about the friendship he struck up with Hall of Famer Brock in the years that followed their very different careers. “I lost a ballgame but I gained a friend,” Ralph Branca once said about Bobby Thomson. Broglio could say plausibly, “I lost a team but I gained a friend.”

As my own cherished new Mets friend Bill Denehy can tell you, too many cortisone shots can portend disaster, as they did for Denehy, who’s now legally blind as a likely result. The smart medical thinking today is that any more than ten cortisone shots can create visual and other issues, but baseball and other sports still seem to rely a little too excessively on them for helping their athletes recover.

After a few delays thanks to other matters of work and life, I finally told myself I would reach out to Ernie Broglio this month. Now I won’t get the chance. He died Tuesday night of cancer at 83; his daughter announced it on social media.

“You live with it,” Broglio told a writer in 2016 about Brock-for-Broglio. “You go along with it. I mean, here you are fifty-some years later after the trade and we’re talking. And I’m thinking, ‘What trade is going to be remembered for 50-something years? I told Lou Brock, ‘I better go before you, because you’re in the Hall of Fame and well-remembered.’ I’m only remembered for the trade.”

Damn it, Broglio’s probably-half-kidding wish came true.

He was an El Cerrito, California product who was so well regarded as a promising pitcher that, in 1953, he went right from high school graduation to signing with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. The Reds signed him in 1954; the New York Giants bought him out of their system in 1956.

The Giants traded Broglio to the Cardinals with pitcher Marv Grissom (the winning pitcher in Game One, 1954 World Series—the game of Willie Mays’s legendary catch) for three spare parts in 1958. Broglio’s rookie 1959 wasn’t much to brag about, but in 1960 he knocked the National League over.

Armed with a curve ball Lou Brock himself once described as the best in the game at one time, perhaps until Sandy Koufax’s matured, Broglio in 1960 was credited with 21 wins to lead the entire Show; his 148 ERA+ and his 6.8 hits per nine rate were the best in Show as well.

He finished third in the Cy Young Award voting (the award was then given to one pitcher across the board) behind winner Vernon Law (Pirates) and runner-up Warren Spahn (Braves), but his ERA+ and his 7.1 wins above replacement-level (fourth of any player and tops among major league pitchers) make a case that Broglio should have won the Cy Young Award if not for Law’s team winning the pennant.

In 2016, Broglio was told of his position on 1960’s major league WAR list. Ahead of him were only Mays, Henry Aaron, and Ernie Banks. (Behind him, in descending order, were Roger Maris, Hall of Famers Eddie Mathews and Don Drysdale, his Cardinals teammate Ken Boyer, and Hall of Famers Jim Bunning and Mickey Mantle.)

“What? I’m in there? Holy cow,” he exclaimed to the San Jose Mercury News. “With all those great hitters! The Hall of Famers!”

Out of spring training in 1961 Broglio came down with shoulder tendinitis and was given eighteen cortisone shots (about one every other starting assignment) during the season. Several years later, Broglio told that to a doctor who told him, astonished, “That’s five years’ worth!”

He had a modestly successful 1962, but Broglio again came up shining again somewhat in 1963, with eighteen wins and a 2.99 ERA, but not all was well. His pitching elbow joined his shoulder in giving him trouble, perhaps from all those curve balls, which may explain the drops in his hits-per-nine rate (7.3) and his career-high 24 home runs surrendered.

The Cubs didn’t bother looking past his surfaces when they cast their lonely eyes upon him in 1964. They saw an eighteen-game winner who’d been a 21-game winner three years before that and, with an acute need for pitching, didn’t pay close attention to Broglio’s actual health.

“The Cubs didn’t know,” Broglio said a few years ago. “Nowadays, that trade never would have happened.” He was wrong. It wasn’t that the Cubs didn’t know, it was that they chose to ignore.

2019-07-17 ErnieBroglioCubs
Broglio relaxing in Wrigley Field after becoming a Cub . . .

Because about a month or so before Brock-for-Broglio, the Cubs acquired another pitcher from the Cardinals, Lew Burdette, the former longtime second banana (as a pitcher) to Spahn on the Braves. (As pranksters, Burdette and Spahn were equals.) And Burdette heard the whispers soon enough that the Cubs were itching to bring Broglio aboard and that they might have in mind sending Brock to get him.

Burdette told Bob Kennedy—then the top banana among the Cubs’ insane College of Coaches experiment—and anyone else who’d listen that Broglio had elbow trouble and was taking shots. Kennedy himself apparently tried to tell the Cubs front office to look before they leaped because the pool might prove empty.

Apparently, the Cubs thought of Brock as expendable because they simply didn’t know how to work with a center fielder who wasn’t really a power hitter but had speed to burn. (Brock’s signature power moment, unlikely as it was, was in 1962, when he became only the second major leaguer to hit a home run into the Polo Grounds bleachers 460something feet from home, against the Mets—the night before Aaron hit one to about the same spot.)

If the Cubs were willing to part with Brock, the Cardinals were only too happy to send them Broglio without saying a word about Broglio’s medical issues. They also sent the Cubs outfielder Doug Clemens and veteran pitcher Bobby Shantz and got Brock plus pitchers Jack Spring and Paul Toth.

Broglio believed the Cardinals knew exactly what they were doing in both coveting the expendable Brock and in deciding to move Broglio onward. He believed to the day he died, never mind in 2011 when he spoke to ESPN’s William Weinbaum, that the Cardinals knew they were sending the Cubs damaged goods.

“If I remember right, at one time I threw about four or five wild pitches in one ballgame,” Broglio told Weinbaum, “and Bob Uecker was catching and I kind of jokingly said, ‘How come you didn’t protect me?’ He couldn’t. He couldn’t have caught the ball or stopped the ball. They were so far in front of home plate that there was an indication that I had problems with my elbow.”

Broglio laughed while he recalled it, but the Cardinals ended up having the last laugh. They turned up the last men standing after the Phillies collapsed into a potential three-way pennant tie in 1964, and went on to win the World Series. They’ve won ten pennants and five World Series since Brock-for-Broglio. Brock went on to a Hall of Fame career breaking Ty Cobb’s lifetime stolen base record. The Cubs, with egg on their face over the deal, needed a mere five decades plus two years to return to, never mind win a World Series.

Hall of Famer Billy Williams learned of Broglio’s insistence that the Cardinals knew they were sending the Cubs a patient and not a pitcher. “That’s how the game was played then,” he told Weinbaum. “Any time a general manager felt he could put stuff on another organization, that’s what they did.”

Broglio pitched eighteen games for the 1964 Cubs looking nothing like the fellow whose ERA in 1960 was 2.74 or whose 1963 ERA was 2.98. After the season, he underwent ulnar nerve surgery and had bone chips removed from his pitching elbow. It didn’t help.

“I was back for spring training in February, which gave me a total of three months rest,” Broglio remembered. “Nowadays, for the same operation, they give you a year or more. That made my career shorter than I wanted it to be.” Indeed. His ERA for 1965 and 1966: 6.64.

2019-07-17 ErnieBroglioHome
Broglio at home, in more ways than one.

He took his wife, Barbara, and their four children home to San Jose, to the same home they’d bought in 1959, and went to work full-time and permanently in the liquor warehouse where he’d been working in the off-seasons. He also coached voluntarily at various area high schools, trying to teach young pitchers about avoiding arm trouble such as put paid to his career.

And he rooted with just about two thirds if not more of the country when the Cubs finally returned to the Promised Land in 2016.

Except for his son, Stephen’s, death at 52 in 2007, Broglio remained cheerful and friendly throughout, with a smile bright enough to walk half a city home when stricken with a power failure. He withstood the onset of type 2 diabetes. (Brock, who has enjoyed post-baseball success as a florist and the creator of a unique umbrella-shaped rain hat, has lost a leg to diabetes and survived (so far) multiple myeloma.)

And his friendship with Brock became one of the sweeter spots in his life. “Ernie is top of the charts,” the Hall of Famer told Weinbaum. “He is a good man, a man with integrity. We have a good relationship because we laugh, we talk, and people, for whatever reason, are still interested.”

Broglio cherished a 1990s Old-Timer’s Day appearance he made with Brock at Wrigley Field. “They introduced me next-to-last, and Lou was last. The Cub fans sure didn’t forget Brock-for-Broglio,” he said. “As I came out, everybody stood up and gave me a great ovation of boos. I started laughing, removed my cap, and took a bow. Then they introduced Lou, and my God, I thought Wrigley Field was going to collapse the way they cheered him.”

Broglio needed only his own good cheer to overcome and even appreciate the trade that made him infamous. That’s just one reason why I wish I hadn’t hesitated to call him. I might have made another new friend, who leaves a legacy of laughter, love, and acceptance, now gone to the Elysian Fields where I can only pray the Lord welcomed him home just as cheerfully.

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