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.

Ernie Broglio, RIP: Talk of the trade

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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.

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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.

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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.