Lou Brock, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Hall of Fame outfielder who became the greatest base-stealer the major leagues had ever known when he eclipsed the single-season and career records for steals in a career spanning two decades, died on Sunday. He was 81.
Dick Zitzmann, Brock’s agent, confirmed his death to The Associated Press, but did not provide any details. In 2017, Brock began receiving treatment for multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. His left leg was amputated in 2015 as a result of a diabetes-related infection.
On June 15, 1964, a floundering Cardinals team traded one of the National League’s leading pitchers for an outfielder who had failed to live up to his promise. That deal, sending the right-hander Ernie Broglio to the Chicago Cubs for Brock as the centerpiece of a six-player swap, became one of the most one-sided trades in baseball history, but hardly in the way that many envisioned.
Broglio won only seven games for the Cubs over the next two and a half seasons, then retired. Brock, sought by Cardinals Manager Johnny Keane for his largely untapped speed, helped take St. Louis to the 1964 World Series championship and went on to turn around games year after year with his feet and his bat.
Brock’s 118 stolen bases in 1974 eclipsed Maury Wills’s single-season record of 104, set in 1962, and his 938 career steals broke Ty Cobb’s mark of 892.
He led the National League in steals eight times. Although Rickey Henderson broke Brock’s stolen-base records, Brock’s luster remained undimmed. A left-handed batter, he had 3,023 hits and he hit .300 eight times. He helped propel the Cardinals to three pennants and two World Series championships and he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985.
Louis Clark Brock was born on June 18, 1939, in El Dorado, Ark., and grew up in Collinston, La., in a family of sharecroppers who picked cotton. He attended a one-room schoolhouse, but at the age of 9 he was inspired by possibilities beyond the poverty and segregation of the rural South.
He was listening one night to a feed from radio station KMOX in St. Louis. Harry Caray was broadcasting a game between the Cardinals and Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers, the summer after Robinson broke the major leagues’ color barrier, a time when, as Brock put it, “Jim Crow was king.”
“I was searching the dial of an old Philco radio,” Brock recalled. When he heard about Robinson, “I felt pride in being alive. The baseball field was my fantasy of what life offered.”
As a boy, Brock never played organized baseball. Instead of a ball and bat, he swatted rocks with tree branches. But he received an academic scholarship to Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., and played baseball there, catching the attention of Buck O’Neil, the longtime Negro leagues player and manager who was scouting for the Cubs.
The Cubs’ organization signed Brock in August 1960, and he made his major league debut late in the ’61 season. But two summers later, he was batting only .251 and struggling with the Wrigley Field sun as the Cubs’ right fielder. He was considered perhaps the fastest man in the league, but the Cubs were reluctant to turn him loose on the basepaths.
At the 1964 trade deadline, the Cardinals gambled by trading for Brock, hoping that his speed would provide the missing element in an impressive lineup featuring Ken Boyer, Bill White, Curt Flood, Dick Groat and Tim McCarver.
“I thought it was a dumb trade,” the Cardinals’ future Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson was quoted by The St. Louis Post-Dispatch as saying. “I didn’t know how good Lou would be. No one knew. I didn’t even remember facing him. I heard it and thought, ‘For who? How could you trade Broglio for that?’”
Keane told Brock he wanted him to steal bases, but Brock regarded himself as primarily a power hitter and had his doubts. Keane’s confidence in him nonetheless inspired Brock, who was put in left field, replacing the retired Stan Musial, one of baseball’s greatest hitters.
Playing in 103 games for the ’64 Cardinals, Brock hit .348, stole 33 bases and scored 81 runs. The Cardinals overtook the Philadelphia Phillies in the season’s final week to win the pennant, then defeated the Yankees in a seven-game World Series.
Brock’s Cardinals defeated the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 World Series and won another pennant in ’68, losing to the Detroit Tigers in the Series.
For Brock, base stealing required a certain bravado.
“You know before you steal a base that you’ve got nine guys out there in different uniforms,” he once said. “You’re alone in a sea of enemies. The only way you can hold your own is by arrogance, the ability to stand before the crowd. Every time you get thrown out, you’ve got to believe that somebody owes you four or five steals.”
Brock retired following the 1979 season with a career batting average of .293 to complement his base-stealing superlatives. He hit 149 home runs and scored 1,610 runs. He later pursued business ventures in St. Louis and worked as an instructor in the Cardinals’ organization. The team retired his No. 20 and a statue honoring him stands outside Busch Stadium.
Brock’s survivors include his third wife, Jacqueline, a special-education teacher whom he married in 1996; his son, Lou Jr., and his daughter, Wanda, from his first marriage, to Katie Hay; three stepchildren and two granddaughters, according to St. Louis Public Radio. His first two marriages ended in divorce.
For all his natural speed, Brock was also a student of baseball and an innovator in pursuing the art of base-stealing, using technology to “synchronize your movement with the pitcher’s movement.” Late in the ’64 season, he obtained a movie camera and began filming pitchers as they took their set position, threw to first base and threw to the plate, hoping to discover tendencies that might give him an edge.
Brock’s ingenuity wasn’t appreciated by at least one pitcher, as David Halberstam related in his book “October 1964”:
“One day he was filming Don Drysdale, as tough a pitcher as existed in the league.
‘“What the hell are you doing with that camera, Brock.’
‘“Just taking home movies,’ said Brock.
‘“I don’t want to be in your goddamn movies, Brock,’ Drysdale said, and threw at him the next time he was up.”