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Lou Brock, Baseball Hall of Famer and St. Louis Cardinals Favorite, Dies

Lou Brock stands with the bronze statue of Negro Leaguer Oscar Charleston while at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City on July 9, 2012. Brock was on hand to accept the Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award.
Bill Greenblatt | UPI
Lou Brock stands with the bronze statue of Oscar Charleston while at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City in 2012. Brock was on hand to accept the Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award.

Lou Brock, who broke Major League Baseball's career base-stealing record that had stood for almost five decades and helped lead the St. Louis Cardinals to three pennants and two World Series victories in the 1960s, died Sunday. He was 81.

Brock, who also topped 3,000 hits in his 19-year Hall of Fame career, began undergoing treatment for multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer, in April 2017. In 2015, his left leg was amputated below the knee due to a diabetes-related infection. He was fitted with a prosthetic and threw out the first pitch — a strike — before the 2016 home opener.

The trade

Brock was a thief. But many fans thought the Cardinals stole Brock in the first place, though that wasn't a common reaction at first. When he joined the team on June 15, 1964, even some of his new teammates wondered, “Lou who?”

The Cardinals had traded Ernie Broglio, who had been a winning pitcher for them, to the Chicago Cubs for the little-known, unproven left fielder with less than three years in the majors.

Cardinals Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1992 that he initially thought it was “a dumb trade.”

''I didn't know how good Lou would be,” Gibson said. “No one knew. I didn't even remember facing him. I heard it and thought, 'For who? How could you trade Broglio for that?'”

“That” would become one of the Cardinals’ finest and most popular players. Joining the Cardinals mid-season, Brock proved his worth in the race for the pennant and the team’s ultimate victory over the storied New York Yankees, who were making their 14th World Series appearance in 16 years.

When he first joined the Cardinals, Brock told the Post-Dispatch in 1992, he believed everybody on the team was wondering, “How the heck can a .250 hitter help this club?

“I looked at their faces and saw it,” he said. “And it gave me the initiative, the boost I needed.''

Forgotten — dismissed — were his early years in Chicago.

From cotton field to ballfield

Louis Clark Brock was born on June 18, 1939, in El Dorado, Arkansas, the seventh of Paralee Brock’s nine children. His father, Maud Brock, left the family when Lou was 2, and he moved with his mother and siblings to a cotton plantation in Collinston, Louisiana.

His mother later remarried, but the family remained mired in poverty. Brock worked in the fields, which left little time for baseball, but he began playing anyway when he was 13. He became inspired when he had to write a school paper – punishment for launching a spitball that missed a classmate and hit the teacher – on Jackie Robinson and Joe DiMaggio. Of course, he’d first heard of the baseball legends on radio — KMOX, which reached all the way from St. Louis to Collinston. He started to dream.

"I was a 9-year-old in a Southern town," Brock told the New York Times in 1985, the year he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. "Jim Crow was king. I was searching the dial of an old Philco radio, and I heard Harry Caray and Jack Buck, and I felt pride in being alive. The baseball field was my fantasy of what life offered."

A natural athlete, Brock played on the basketball team and became a power-hitting, left-handed pitcher at Union High School in nearby Mer Rouge, Louisiana. His grades were as good as his bat, and he graduated in 1957, third in his class of 105.

He had no intention of becoming a sharecropper and decided college was his way off the plantation. With no phone and no car, Brock hitched a ride 200 miles to historically Black Southern University in Baton Rouge. He’d heard it offered academic scholarships.

It did, but they came with a job mowing grass and the stipulation that he maintain a B average. After one semester filled more with fun than schoolwork, Brock could only muster a C+. Determined to remain in college, he worked retrieving balls for the school’s baseball team during semester break.

He wanted to play, not work on the field, and he let it be known. One day, weak from not eating properly, he collapsed on the field. The coaches felt sorry for him, and when he recovered, they let him have a few at-bats. He swung for the fences, and three of the five balls obliged. He was offered a full baseball scholarship.

Brock was eventually moved from the pitcher’s mound to the outfield. In his new position, he helped Southern win its only national championship (NAIA) in 1959. It was the first time a Black college had done so. Scouts began to take notice.

The U.S. Olympic Committee was among those watching. Brock was offered and accepted the opportunity to play in the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago. He later credited football great Deacon Jones, whom he met at the Games, with teaching him everything he knew about explosive starts.

Lou Brock running from one base to the next
Credit St. Louis Cardinals Archive
''Jim Crow was king. I was searching the dial of an old Philco radio, and I heard Harry Caray and Jack Buck, and I felt pride in being alive. The baseball field was my fantasy of what life offered," Lou Brock told the New York Times.

Scouting a legend

In 1960, during his junior year at Southern, Chicago Cubs scout and former Negro Leagues star first baseman John “Buck” O’Neil enticed him away from college with a $30,000 signing bonus. He began as an amateur free agent with a Cubs farm team, the St. Cloud Rox in the old Northern League. He lit up the league with a .361 batting average, ensuring a quick move up to the majors.

The light, inexplicably, began to dim for No. 24. He played two inauspicious years with the Cubs in center field and right field. He struggled with the elements in Chicago: high winds and bright sunlight. Wrigley Field had no electric lighting, and all games were played during the day. His coaches did not notice that he played better on the road and at night.

In 1964, Brock had gone just 3 for 42 at the plate. The Cubs were desperate for pitching and losing patience waiting for Brock to blossom. They decided it was time for a trade. The Cubs received Broglio, who had won 18 games for the Cardinals the year before; another pitcher, Bobby Shantz; and outfielder Doug Clemens. The Cardinals got pitchers Paul Toth and Jack Spring – and Lou Brock.

At the time, the consensus was that the Cardinals had made the worst trade in baseball history. In short order, the opposite became apparent. Brock, now No. 20, joined a team that was in fourth place, 6 1/2 games out of first. But the Redbirds got hot in the second half of the season, and no one was hotter than Brock. He hit .348, scored 81 runs and stole 33 bases in 103 games, helping the club to its first National League pennant in 18 years.

The Cardinals beat the Yankees in the World Series in seven games, with Brock batting .300. He would go on to have a .391 average in three World Series appearances with the Cardinals.

The makings of a thief

While rooming with “Mr. Cub,” the affable Ernie Banks, in Chicago, Brock became frustrated with his hitting slump. He dissected every pitch and pitcher, every catch – or miss – and his every response. Banks suggested that he just relax and let his natural talents flow. He couldn’t.

David Halberstam wrote in his book, "October 1964," that Brock repeatedly told teammates: "I've got to make it here. I just can't go back to Louisiana and Arkansas. I've been there, and I know what's there.”

His obsessive replaying of each game seemed to stymie his performance rather than enhance it. But in St. Louis, his analytical nature gave him the base-running edge a true thief needed.

As soon as he was traded to St. Louis, Cardinals manager Johnny Keane told Brock that he needed his left fielder to steal bases.

Secretly, Brock balked. Back in Louisiana, he told an audience in a 2002 speech for a charitable organization, the “base-stealer” was usually the worst player on the team, the goat, a sacrificial lamb.

Aloud, he simply responded, “Yes, sir!” He recounted the story during a 2016 Cardinals booth visit with announcers Dan McLaughlin and his former teammate, catcher Tim McCarver.

“He gave me the green light,” Brock said. He was on his way.

His Hall of Fame introduction said that he was “baseball’s most dangerous for more than a decade, pressuring opponents with speed and daring on the basepaths,” adding that “nobody covered the 90 feet between bases more productively than Lou Brock.”

In his 1976 book written with Franz Schulze, "Stealing Is My Game," Brock compared himself to a panther: “slow and easy at the same time — except for those moments where it is very necessary to be very fast,” noting that “the only thing the pitcher doesn’t know about me is the precise moment when I will go.”

His first rule was to get on base — he said you can’t steal from the dugout — then prepare to move because “first base is nowhere.”

"Stealing is the most dramatic moment of the game,” he told Time magazine in 1974. “The pitcher knows you're going, the crowd knows you're going, you know you're going. When you succeed, it's a great feeling. Nothing upsets the other team as much as a stolen base."

He preferred to run on curveballs — because they take a fraction longer to reach the plate — and once on base, he eschewed a long lead in favor of a burst of speed, just as Deacon Jones taught him. And, like a panther, he hung back until it was just the right time to pounce. Brock would complete a steal with his signature “pop-up” slide: a straight, full-speed slide into the bag that allowed him to pop up quickly and take advantage of a bad throw – and take the next base.

The Cardinals’ new left fielder had decided to become the world’s best base stealer. And he did. For more than a decade, pitchers and catchers were powerless to stop him.

The Hall of Fame

From the moment he stepped off a plane in Houston for his first game in a Cardinals uniform, Brock had begun his inexorable march to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

During the next 12 seasons, he averaged 65 steals and 99 runs scored a year. He helped the Cardinals to World Series wins in 1964 and 1967 and to another pennant in 1968, the year he led the National League in doubles, triples and stolen bases. He batted .439 in the 1967 and 1968 postseasons, which included 12 hits in the 1967 World Series and a record 13 hits in the 1968 series.

He led the National League in steals every year but one between 1966 and 1974, the year he shattered Maury Wills’ single-season record of 104. During the celebratory timeout during the game when he tied and broke the record, former Negro League speedster James "Cool Papa" Bell presented Brock with the base he had just stolen. "We decided to give him his 105th base, because if we didn't, he was going to steal it, anyway," Bell said.

A .306 average in 1974 put Brock in position to end the season with 118 stolen bases and 105 runs scored. At age 35, he was runner-up to Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey in the National League’s Most Valuable Player voting.

At age 38, during the 1977 season, he laid claim to Ty Cobb’s career stolen-base record, which had stood for nearly a half-century. Cobb stole 892 bases; Brock locked down the record at 938 for the next 14 years, until it was broken by Oakland A's outfielder Rickey Henderson.

Brock’s baseball career ended in 1979 with his appearance at his sixth All-Star Game. In his 19 years in Major League Baseball, he had a .293 batting average, 3,023 hits, 1,610 runs, 900 runs batted in, 149 home runs, 486 doubles, 141 triples — and 938 steals. He was the 14th player in baseball history to pass the coveted 3,000-hit mark.

He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985, on the first ballot. He was only the 20th player elected in his first year of eligibility.

He’s also in the sports halls of fame in Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri, and his statue is in the Plaza of Champions at Busch Stadium.

Brock for Broglio

Among sports aficionados, “Brock for Broglio” became shorthand for a lopsided trade. It was the trade that many considered Cardinals general manager Bing Divine’s best — and the Cubs’ worst.

Brock claimed that Bill White, then the Cardinals first baseman, said, “I guess our next trade will be Curt Flood for a bag of peanuts.” Flood was the Cardinals’ all-star center fielder.

But Brock’s star was rising, while Broglio spent three injury-plagued years with the Cubs. With Brock in the starting lineup, the Cardinals quickly won a World Series and never looked back. The Cubs, who hadn’t won a World Series since 1908 — and would not win another one until 2016 — were left wondering what might have been.

Nevertheless, somewhere along the line, the two retired stars became friends. Their relationship typified the Cardinals’ atmosphere of camaraderie and was unhampered by serendipity or race, even as the nation was mired in civil unrest.

Lou Brock following through on a swing after hitting the ball
Credit St. Louis Cardinals Archive
In his 19 years in Major League Baseball, Lou Brock had a .293 batting average, 3,023 hits, 1,610 runs, 900 runs batted in, 149 home runs, 486 doubles, 141 triples – and 938 steals.

Unlike the Cardinals, some teams, including the Yankees, still did not welcome African Americans, though they were by that time integrated. In a 1985 New York Times article, Brock said that the people making such decisions “were merely acting upon borrowed attitudes.”

Broglio’s and Brock’s attitude was simply one of mutual admiration.

“He’s a great guy,” Broglio said of Brock in a 2016 interview with the San Jose Mercury News. “He’s tremendous.”

In a room chocked full of memorabilia, Broglio has a Lou Brock bobblehead and a signed photo from Brock. It’s inscribed: “To Ernie … History and time have tied us together. You are and were a hellava player.”

“I told Lou Brock, ‘I better go before you, because you’re in the Hall of Fame and well-remembered,” Broglio told the Mercury News. “I’m only remembered for the trade.”

Broglio died in July 2019.

The offseason

Brock’s number retired with him, and for his career finale he earned the Hutch Award, named for former Cincinnati Reds manager Fred Hutchinson. Over the years, he amassed a string of honors as testament to his formidable career.

The Sporting News named him Player of the Year in 1974 and 1979, and ranked him 58th on its list of baseball's 100 greatest players of the 20th century. In 1975, he received Ebony’s Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award and the Roberto Clemente Award. He had honorary degrees from Washington University, Missouri Valley College and his alma mater, Southern.

In 2002, Brock received the prestigious Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans Award. He also received the B’nai B’rith Brotherhood Award and was named Man of the Year by the St. Louis Jaycees.

Brock established an Endowment Scholarship Fund at Southern University to provide scholarships to give low-income high school students the same opportunity he had.

Each season since 1978, the National League leader in stolen bases presents the Lou Brock Award, and in 2005, Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, named its newly built baseball and softball stadiums the Lou Brock Sports Complex.

Upon retirement, Brock remained in the St. Louis area and became an entrepreneur. Among his ventures was the Brockabrella, a colorful, miniature umbrella hat fashioned after the 1880 rain hat invented by Robert W. Patten.

He did a turn as a florist and briefly worked as a color commentator for ABC’s Monday Night Baseball in 1980 and for the Chicago White Sox in 1981.

Brock was an elder and ordained minister at Abundant Life Fellowship Church near Black Jack, Missouri, along with his wife, Jacqueline.

Forever a Cardinal

In 1994, he got his star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. That same year, he began suiting up for the Cardinals again, after becoming the organization’s spring training base-running and outfield instructor.

Ties with the Cardinals organization remained strong.

His first hospital visitor following his leg amputation was his former Cardinals manager, Red Schoendienst. He was soon visited by Bob Gibson. During a later conversation in the Cardinals broadcast booth, he recalled that it was one of the few times he ever saw tears in Gibson’s eyes.

A man of indomitable spirit, Brock joked that he could still outrun Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina — who is not known for lightning speed.

He continued to appear regularly at Cardinals games, always welcomed with roaring ovations and loving chants of "Lou, Louuuuu!" He had to cancel an April 25, 2017, appearance after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

"Your bat is your life,” Brock once wrote. “It's your weapon. You don't want to go into battle with anything that feels less than perfect." He never did.

Brock married Katie Hay, with whom he had two children, Wanda and Lou Brock Jr., who played cornerback for the San Diego Chargers. He later married Virginia Daniels. Both marriages ended in divorce. He married Jacqueline Layne Gaitor, a special education teacher, in 1996.

Among Brock’s survivors are his wife and children, three stepchildren and two granddaughters.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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