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HOFer Brock, former steals king, dies at 81

@anne__rogers
September 6, 2020

ST. LOUIS -- He was known for his speed and the pressure he put on his opponents when he was on base, but Lou Brock was much more than a stolen-base specialist. He was a daring leadoff man, a complete player and a clutch hitter. He was gentle, driven, universally

ST. LOUIS -- He was known for his speed and the pressure he put on his opponents when he was on base, but Lou Brock was much more than a stolen-base specialist. He was a daring leadoff man, a complete player and a clutch hitter. He was gentle, driven, universally admired and respected by his peers.

And the Hall of Famer will always be remembered as a Cardinals legend. Brock died on Sunday at the age of 81. The Cardinals and Cubs, Brock's first team, played each other in Chicago on Sunday night and held a collective moment of silence for Brock before the game.

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Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred issued the following statement after Brock's passing.

“On behalf of Major League Baseball, I send my condolences to the family and friends of Hall of Famer Lou Brock, as well as the loyal fans of the St. Louis Cardinals. Lou was among the game’s most exciting players, becoming the 14th player in history to reach 3,000 hits and holding Baseball’s all-time record for stolen bases in a season and career for many years. He was known for his dominant performances in his three career World Series. Lou was an outstanding representative of our National Pastime and he will be deeply missed."

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"Lou Brock was one of the most revered members of the St. Louis Cardinals organization and one of the very best to ever wear the Birds on the Bat," Cardinals principal owner and CEO William O. DeWitt Jr. said in a statement. "Lou was a Hall of Fame player, a great coach, an insightful broadcaster and a wonderful mentor to countless generations of Cardinals players, coaches and members of the front office. He was an ambassador of the game around the country and a fan favorite who connected with millions of baseball fans across multiple generations. He will be deeply missed and forever remembered."

Brock came to St. Louis on June 15, 1964, when the Cardinals traded one-time 20-game winner Ernie Broglio and two others to the Cubs for a package of three players that included Brock. Today, it’s viewed as one of the more lopsided deals in history. But not at the time. After two full Major League seasons, Brock was a .258 hitter and an outfielder who had struggled with Wrigley Field’s right-field sun.

But still -- Brock’s speed couldn’t be ignored. The Cardinals were familiar with Brock; in fact, they tried to sign him out of Southern University in 1960. They believed he was one of the fastest players in the Majors and one who would fit in well with St. Louis.

“Brock was a player, both [manager Johnny] Keane and [Cardinals executive Eddie] Stanky felt, who might blossom on the Cardinals, a far more aggressive team on the basepaths than the Cubs,” David Halberstam wrote in "October 1964," his book paralleling the fortunes of the Cardinals and Yankees, that year's World Series participants. “The Cardinals did not play for the big inning, they fought and scratched for one run at a time. They not only ran more often than the Cubs, they tended to use the hit-and-run and other plays that used speed on the bases to pressure the opposition.”

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The trade was risky. Broglio was 28 years old and seemingly coming into his prime as a pitcher. Brock was an unknown. When Cardinals veterans learned of the trade, there was resentment and grumbling among them. St. Louis fans were angry; Cubs fans were elated.

Brock discovered the Cardinals were very different than the Cubs. More than anything, the Cardinals knew how to play hard. Brock also came to like Keane, who was protective of Brock and told the young outfielder to trust his instincts.

In a team meeting shortly after Brock arrived, Keane described his plan to goose the lineup. He believed the best way to keep pace with the rival Dodgers and their speed demon, Maury Wills, was to run faster.

“Brock,” he announced, “you’re going to do it for us.”

“Brock came alive as a Cardinal,” Halberstam wrote. “With Johnny Keane giving him the green light to run, he stole 33 bases in what remained of the season and hit .348 as a Cardinal. It was the trade that changed the season for the Cardinals. A team that had been one key player short of making a run for the pennant had not only gotten the right player, it had gotten something more, a veritable ignition system for its offense.”

He stole bases. He hit. Moved to left field, he became a better outfielder. As Brock got better, the Cardinals got better. His new teammates quickly changed their attitude about the trade.

“This young man, his teammates decided, was driven,” Halberstam wrote. “He was quiet, he kept to himself in a world of rather gregarious teammates, but he was one of the most focused players any of them had ever seen.

“He was wired to play baseball; he existed as if for no other purpose than to play hard.”

Brock hit .300 and belted a home run in the 1964 World Series, won by the Cardinals in seven games. After that season, Brock didn’t steal fewer than 51 bases until 1977, 13 years later. He led the National League in steals for four consecutive seasons from 1966-69 and the Majors for another four straight from 1971-74. The six-time All-Star provided the foot power for three NL pennant winners and two World Series champions.

When he retired after the 1979 season, Brock held the career stolen-base record, previously held by Ty Cobb, with 938. Most of them -- 888, to be exact -- came in 16 seasons with the Cardinals. Brock's all-time steals record would stand until May 1, 1991, when A's legend Rickey Henderson stole the 939th base of his career in a game against the Yankees. Henderson is the Majors' all-time steals leader to this day with 1,406 and remains one spot ahead of Brock, who still holds the all-time NL steals lead.

If there was one person who knew the trade was a good one from the start, it was Buck O’Neil, the famed ambassador of the Negro Leagues. O’Neil had scouted Brock in college and signed him for the Cubs after carefully watching Brock as his talent began to surface. O’Neil sensed the hunger in Brock, the same drive he saw in a young Ernie Banks.

Born June 18, 1939, in El Dorado, Ark., Brock grew up on a cotton plantation in Louisiana after his mother moved there. He went to Southern University on an academic scholarship and tried out for the baseball team when a low grade put his scholarship in jeopardy.

Although Brock struggled during his freshman year, his blinding speed was always there. O’Neil could see that Brock was strong and that he was going to become even stronger. He was built for power and speed.

Brock blossomed in his sophomore year and starred in the Pan-American Games. O’Neil became certain of Brock’s ability. The Cubs signed the 21-year-old in 1960, and he was a regular by 1962.

***

Brock’s goal was always to be well rounded and a complete player. But in 1964, if he wanted to be on the Cardinals, he was going to have to steal bases.

So he ran. Brock was exciting to watch on the basepaths. In his book "Five Seasons," Roger Angell wrote that “watching Lou Brock taking a lead off first base is the best fun in baseball.”

In no season was that truer than 1974. Brock chased down baseball’s single-season stolen-base record of 104, set by Wills in 1962. Every time Brock reached first base, fans were in for a thrill.

At 35 years old in 1974, Brock didn’t have a record-setting season on his mind, especially when Wills’ record was 30 more bases than Brock’s personal best. But when Brock stole 28 consecutive bases early in the season, it fueled the fire. He had 60 steals by the All-Star break and passed his previous best with his 75th steal on Aug. 6.

'Class act' Brock remembered across baseball

On Sept. 10 against the Phillies at Busch Stadium, Brock tied Wills’ record when he stole second in the first inning. Brock broke it when he swiped second in the seventh. In the end, Brock’s new record was 118 steals.

"I've always wanted to leave baseball in a blaze of glory," Brock told St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Rick Hummel after the game. "I've always wanted to orchestrate my own exodus, and I'm doing a pretty good job of it."

Brock was a devout student of the steal, decoding pitchers for when to run and exactly how to do it. Stealing bases was a stealthy operation -- but done in the spotlight. In 1974, Brock estimated that he was two or three feet slower when stealing a base than he was in his prime, which suggests “that the real contest on the basepaths is mostly cerebral and strategic -- the runner’s experience versus the pitcher’s nerves,” Angell wrote.

“It’s like trying to keep water from going over the dam,” Mets pitcher Harry Parker told reporters that year. “You know what’s coming, but you’re powerless.”

Brock never became the one-dimensional player he feared becoming. In 1967, he was the first player to hit at least 20 homers and steal at least 50 bases in a single season. He hit better than .300 eight times as a Cardinal, including a .304 average in his final season, when he played 120 games, stole 21 bases and reached 3,000 hits in his age-40 season. Brock led the Majors in runs scored twice, and in 1968, he led the Majors in doubles (46) and triples (14). He finished in the top 10 of NL MVP Award voting five times, including a runner-up finish in '74.

Brock was at his best in the postseason, hitting .391 -- second only to Pepper Martin (.418) in franchise history -- with 34 hits in 21 World Series games. He also stole a record 14 bases in his three World Series.

Brock's World Series résumé among the best

The Cardinals retired Brock’s uniform No. 20 in his final season. He remained in baseball and was a fixture at the Cardinals’ Spring Training complex. Days after being inducted as a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1985, Brock spoke to reporters about what he saw as his legacy. Stolen bases and hits aside, he loved being the spark for the Cardinals.

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“The ability to light the fuse to enthusiasm, to cause teams and myself to play to the limits of their ability,” Brock said. “That gives you a purpose for being there. You become a chemist which makes a team tick. I think I had that ability.”

Brock ignited the Cardinals when he was playing and for many years after. In St. Louis, there was no one quite like him.

Anne Rogers covers the Cardinals for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @anne__rogers and on Facebook.