Hi all. It doesn’t seem fair that, so soon after writing hail and farewell to Tom Seaver, another Hall of Famer should join the angels. Lou Brock did so yesterday, at age 81.
Nothing happens for the first time twice. 1971 was my year of discovery, the year I discovered baseball. Everything was new and exciting. Every team presented new names to learn-new hitters, new pitchers while I was still figuring out who the Mets were. In 1971, the first time the Mets faced the Cardinals, for the first time I heard Bob Murphy say “He can fly.” He was talking about Lou Brock. It most likely was in a spring training game since both teams then shared Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg. Even in a spring training game, Murphy would have said “he can fly.” That was his pet phrase for a fast man. While the league had its share of fast men in the early 1970’s, Lou Brock was a cut above, as 1974 would prove. In later years, I would hear other announcers say of a speed merchant “He can flat out fly.” But Murphy’s simpler sentence spoke volumes about the Arkansas-born Brock.
In the decades before computers, It would take a lot of years for me to find out Brock had begun major league baseball as a Cub. While pot wasn’t a common thing then, I’d like to know what the Cubs’ owners were smoking when they traded a 25-year-old Brock for a burnt-out Ernie Broglio with a bum elbow. They received, and ignored, warnings about the leaky nature of Ernie’s hose (arm.) Meantime, Cardinals’ manager Johnny Keane lobbied hard with his boss for Brock to be part of the deal. He thought a fast man in left would be a good replacement for the retired Stan Musial.
Up to then, if Brock was known at all outside of baseball circles, it was in New York. More than 2 years earlier, on June 17, 1962, he unloaded a 468-foot home run into the bleachers at the Polo Grounds. The Mets’ Lindsey Nelson twice called it a “tremendous wallop”, then noted how close it came to the Eddie Grant monument in center field and raised the ante to “a monumental wallop.”
But clocking gigantic home runs, especially in the new golden age of pitching would never have gotten Lou Brock to the Hall of Fame. He put up 149 home runs. His legs were his ticket to Cooperstown. A player’s legs aren’t considered an asset in 2020 baseball, the game of such absurdities as “launch angles” and “exit velocity.” A young Lou Brock wouldn’t get a second look in 2020. He was a player for the times he played in. He was an All-Star 6 times between 1967 and 1979. He was 28 before he got his first All-Star nod in 1967, the 15-inning All-Star game in Anaheim. Not fewer than 8 times, #20 led his league in steals–first from 1966-69, then after a year’s hiatus, he dominated from 1971–74. His first stealing frenzy began in 1966, the year the new Busch Stadium opened up. After the Astrodome in 1965, Busch Stadium was the second stadium to employ astroturf, hoping to make it easier maintenance so both the Cardinals’ baseball and football teams could use it. Flying on the carpet, Brock led his league in both doubles and triples in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher.
Above all else, his steals made his name. Until 1966, the gentlemanly Maury Wills had ruled all base stealers for the past 6 seasons. The Washington, DC native had stolen 104 bases in 1962, breaking Ty Cobb’s mark of 96. Brock began leading the league in stolen bases in 1966 with 74. He smashed Wills’ record with 118 thefts 8 years later. The only year between 1966 and 1974 when Brock didn’t lead the league in steals, Bobby Tolan borrowed the crown in 1970. It could have been a continuing duel if Tolan hadn’t gotten injured.
Unlike some great men who struggle in the World Series, Lou Brock did major damage in October. In 1967, he hit .414 as the Cardinals outdid the Red Sox. Brock did even better, hitting .464 a year later, the year the Tigers came from behind to nip the Cardinals in 7 games. In each of those World Series, Brock stole 7 bases-an average of a swipe a game.
He proved he could continue to hit as well as run. Starting in 1969, at age 30, he put up 190 hits or better 6 years in a row. He broke Ty Cobb’s record of 892 steals in 1977. Brock’s own record of 938 would stand until Rickey Henderson shattered it in 1991. The eccentric Rickey stole 1406 bases before he was done. Considering changes in the game in the 3 decades since, nobody will steal half the bases Brock stole, let alone Rickey.
Brock notched his 3,000th hit off his old team, the Cubs. He hit a sharp liner off Cubs’ pitcher Dennis Lamp’s hand for the milestone. That was his last season. Like Ted Williams a generation earlier, Brock went out on top. He hit .304 in 1979, where Ted had hit .316 in 1960, his swansong. Brock was an obvious first ballot Hall of Famer, joining the Hall in 1985.
For all the stats, for all the years he played, Lou Brock to me can be summed up in 3 words I used when I became a minor league broadcaster and I was told a team had a swift runner. Those 3 words were “He can fly.” While diabetes slowed him late in life, in death he is free again to fly.
R I P