Lou Brock, RIP: “First base is useless”

With their son Lou, Jr. in the background, Hall of Fame thief Lou Brock and his wife, Jacqueline greet well wishers on his 81st birthday in June.

Lou Brock’s philosophy on the bases was simple enough. “First base,” he once said, “is useless. And most of the time, it is useless to stay there.” On 1,245 major league occasions Brock attempted grand theft next base. On 938 occasions, he succeeded.

It knocked fellow Hall of Famer Ty Cobb out of the record book, Cobb having held yet another of those records presumed unbreakable with his 892 lifetime thefts. Yet Brock himself predicted his records for career stolen bases and single-season stolen bases (118, breaking Maury Wills who’d broken Cobb’s old mark) would fall in due course—to the very felon who did break them, fellow Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson.

A long-enough battle between 81-year-old Brock and diabetes and multiple myeloma ended Sunday afternoon. Swell timing. A week earlier, the pitcher he faced most often in his major league career, Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, died at 75 after a battle with Lewy body dementia abetted by COVID-19.

Brock was blessed with a power failure-defying smile and an equally bright if not overbearing confidence in himself and his abilities. He wasn’t a particularly great defensive outfielder, though he worked hard to improve, but the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t pay his handsome for their times salaries because he was where balls hit to left went to die.

They paid Brock to get his fanny on base somehow, any how, and turn a baseball game into six parts track meet and half a dozen parts grand larceny. If he couldn’t snatch the bases, the least he could do was invite himself to live rent free in pitchers’ and catchers’ heads.

“[T]he most important thing about base stealing is not the steal of the base, but distracting the pitcher’s concentration,” the master thief once said. “If I can do that, then the hitter will have a better pitch to swing at and I will get a better chance to steal.” If the hitter swung at that better pitch and connected, that was more than all right with Brock; 53 percent of the time he reached base he took extra bases on followup hits.

Brock was as much a gentleman off the field as he was a larcenist on it. “There was a light inside of Lou Brock that brightened every place and space he entered,” remembers longtime St. Louis Post-Dispactch writer Bernie Mikllasz. “A light that warmed every person he encountered. Grace. Dignity. Class. Joy. His generosity of spirit touched so many. I’ve never known a finer man.”

That finer man became a Cardinal in the first place because the Chicago Cubs, who raised him, had no clue what to do with an outfielder who was swift afoot but not exactly the kind of power hitter normally seen on patrol in the ballpark depths. Brock himself may have hurt as much as helped his own Cubs cause by doing the unthinkable in the Polo Grounds on 17 June 1962, in the top of the first inning. One day before Brock’s 23rd birthday.

The Cubs faced the embryonic New York Mets and their stout lefthanded pitcher Al Jackson. Don Landrum’s leadoff walk turned into a stolen base thanks to Marvelous Marv Throneberry at first for the Mets. He misplayed the throw from home on the Ken Hubbs strikeout trying to catch Landrum leaning.

Hall of Famer Billy Williams grounded Landrum to third. Fellow Hall of Famer Ernie Banks worked Jackson for a walk. Fellow Hall of Famer Ron Santo tripled Landrum and Banks home. (With Richie Ashburn playing center field for the Mets that day, the game featured five Hall of Famers.)

Up stepped Brock. He swung and drove the ball to the same spot near the bleachers on the right side of center field as Santo’s triple traveled. Except that, somehow, some way, Brock’s drive flew past where Santo’s ball was rudely interrupted. Straight into the bleachers. Four hundred and sixty-eight feet from home plate. Real estate previously claimed by only two men in baseball history, Luke Easter in a 1948 Negro Leagues game, and Joe Adcock of the Milwaukee Braves in 1953.

Only Brock had no clue. He gunned it out of the batter’s box in his usual style, that of a man on the dead run from a process server. Rookie that he was, Brock actually thought the second base umpire giving the traditional home run signal was trying to tell him that at his rate of speed he had a clean shot at an inside-the-park job.

He learned otherwise when he was mobbed back in the dugout and Santo came over to holler, “Did you see where that ball went? I needed binoculars!”

Two years later, in 1964, the Cubs thought themselves in dire need of further pitching help. They also figured Brock could bring it their way in a trade. Buck O’Neil, the Negro Leagues legend who signed Brock for the Cubs in the first place, suspected the Cubs also feared being seen as “too black” by a fan base not always comfortable with their group of black players, even the popular Banks and Williams.

But another former Cardinal pitcher, Lew Burdette, obtained earlier that season, did his level best to talk the Cubs out of the trade. The Cubs’ target was righthander Ernie Broglio. Once a pitcher with formidable promise, the Cubs saw only the pitcher who’d finished third in the 1960 Cy Young Award voting (it was a major league award then, not one for each league) and won eighteen games in 1963. Burdette tried to warn them otherwise: Broglio had an elbow issue  and was taking more than one cortisone shot.

Unfortunately for the Cubs, general manager John Holland chose to ignore the word Burdette passed via then-College of Coaches head coach Bob Kennedy. The Cubs delivered the trade and learned the hard way just how badly damaged Broglio’s goods were. (For the record, the full trade involved Brock, relief pitcher Jack Spring, and spare starting pitcher Paul Toth going to the Cardinals for Broglio, veteran pitcher Bobby Shantz, and outfielder Doug Clemens.)

Not that the Cardinals were thrilled about their new toy. Broglio may have been struggling with his elbow but he was personally popular with his teammates. “Our friendship,” catcher Tim McCarver once said, “blinded us to what kind of effect Lou would have on the team — until we saw him run.” Said Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, “We thought it was the worst trade ever.”

They thought so until they proved the last team standing after that wild final weekend on which they won the pennant at the last split second, practically, following the infamous Phillie Phlop. When they noticed Brock in 103 games for his new team stole 33 bases, scored 81 of his season-long 111 runs, rolled up a .387 on-base percentage, and threw 21 doubles, nine triples, and twelve home runs into the mix for a .527 slugging percentage as a brand-new Cardinal.

Brock only looked cheerful, bright, and happy as the day was long during a game, and it caused enough people to misunderstand his commitment. “Some in the press and in the stands considered him too casual about his job,” wrote David Halberstam in October 1964, “but that was a misperception. In fact, he was driven, not merely by a desire, but by a rage to succeed.

As a Cub, Brock was seen as too intense and self-critical for his own good. “He’d break out in a big sweat,” then-Cub pitcher Larry Jackson observed, “just putting on his uniform.” As a Cardinal, he finally turned that intensity into progress without losing his natural joy in the game. He became so devoted to his craft that he started filming pitchers to study their tendencies for his on-base advantage. (Hall of Famer Don Drysdale: “I don’t want to be in your goddam movies, Brock!”)

Brock pitched in on the Cardinals’ 1964 World Series conquest but became a first class pain in the ass to the 1967 Boston Red Sox in that Series. When it wasn’t Gibson tying the Sox into knots from the mound, it was Brock hitting .414 and stealing seven bases. A year later, the Cardinals lost to the Detroit Tigers in seven games but it wasn’t Brock’s fault—that time, he hit .464, stole another seven pillows, and broke Bobby Richardson’s record for World Series hits with thirteen.

“Ernie is top of the charts,” Brock told ESPN’s William Weinbaum about Broglio in 2011. “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.” Interested enough that you’d have thought Ernie’s real surname was Brockforbroglio.

Born to Arkansas sharecroppers, Brock’s family moved to Louisiana when he was two. “Jim Crow was king,” he once said of his youth, “and I heard a game in which Jackie Robinson was playing, and I felt pride in being alive.” He also learned a few lessons about conquering fear at home—when he told his father he feared animals were running under his bed, “[Dad] solved the problem quickly—he cut the legs off the bed.”

Just the way no few enemy pitchers, catchers, and infielders probably wanted to cut the legs off Brock before he swiped their clothes for good measure with the bases. What they couldn’t do, diabetes finally did in 2015, at least to part of his left leg.

After baseball (Cardinals owner Gussie Busch forgot all the animosities of earlier players’ union actions and dropped a sumptuous yacht on Brock as a retirement present), Brock prospered as a St. Louis florist and the inventor of a unique small umbrella hat (the Brockabrella) aimed at letting fans stay by their seats instead of fleeing to the indoor concourse during rain delays.

He saw his son, Lou, Jr., play football at USC and in the National Football League as a cornerback/safety for two seasons before becoming a Sprint/Nextel executive. He and his wife, Jacqueline, also became ordained ministers of the Abundant Life Church who frequented numerous Cardinals games and special events over the years.

Two years after losing that part of his leg, Brock was also stricken with multiple myeloma, the cancer that begins in the plasma cells. He didn’t let them keep him from savouring life or welcoming socially-distancing visitors to his home with his Jacqueline on his 81st birthday this past June.

“You have a great smile,” Brock once told then-ten-year-old Jeff Kurkjian, the son of writer Tim Kurkjian, in Cooperstown. “Let everyone see it. A great smile can disarm people like nothing else. Smile as much as you can. We don’t smile enough in the world today.”

I hope that was Ernie Broglio slipping his way to the front of the line awaiting Brock at the Elysian Field’s gates and handed him a cold beer and a bear hug. Unless his longtime manager (and Hall of Famer) Red Schoendienst beat Broglio to the front with a cold one—and a mock arrest warrant signed by the Lord for grand larceny. One and all smiling.

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