I turned 12 in the summer of 1974, and it was one of the most fun summers of my life. There wasn’t anything particularly different from a personal standpoint. It was a normal summer off from school. We played pickup baseball, probably built go carts, rode our bikes and went camping. But what made that summer special was that Lou Brock became my favorite Cardinal.
I turned six in 1968, so I didn’t really appreciate the World Series’ of the 60’s. After that run, the franchise was kind of meh during the 70’s. It wasn’t because the Cards had bad players though. That year, 1974, the Cardinals had Ted Simmons, now a Hall of Famer, behind the plate. Borderline Hall of Fame player Joe Torre (recognized in the Hall as a manager), who had won the 1971 National League MVP, was the first baseman. 29-year-old All Star Reggie Smith had been acquired from Boston and drove in 100 runs. Center fielder Bake McBride was the N.L. Rookie of the Year. Bob Gibson was still around and threw 240 innings with a 3.83 ERA. Starter Lynn McGlothen was an All Star. That team was pretty good.
But the straw that stirred the drink, the guy that made it all happen, was leadoff man Lou Brock. The Base Burglar. He had already spent ten years in St. Louis and had established himself as one of the great players in the league. In the eight years between 1966 and 1973, Brock led the National League in stolen bases seven times. But in 1974, Manager Red Schoendienst told Brock to run.
And run he did. He had thirty stolen bases by the end of May, and 48 by the end of June. At some point in June, it became apparent that Brock could break Maury Wills’ record of 104 stolen bases in one season. And on one of my bike rides, I went to Omni Sports in Creve Coeur and purchased, with my own money, a gray “Brock’s Base Burglars 105 Club” T-Shirt. One actually showed up on e-bay about seven years ago.
I wore that shirt every day that summer. EVERY day. I wore it out. It was good luck. Brock passed Wills’ record in September, and finished with 118 stolen bases, a National League record that still stands, and probably will for the rest of my life and yours. Brock was so compelling on the field and so engaging off the field, a kid couldn’t help but adopt him as his favorite player. He invented the Brock-a-brella, an umbrella that attached to your head like a hat. I was crushed when Steve Garvey of the Dodgers won N.L. MVP. He had the advantage of playing on the team with the best record in the league, a team with 102 wins. But if Brock hadn’t been on the Cardinals, they wouldn’t have been close to 86 wins. On a star-studded team, he was THE star.
Brock was fun. One time in 1976, at the age of 37, he was struggling. With the Cardinals facing a tough lefthander, Brock decided to become a switch hitter in a game. He stepped to the plate 11,240 times in his career, and had ONE at bat as a righthanded hitter. At the age of 37.
Brock continued to produce for the rest of the decade. He passed the 3,000-hit threshold in 1979 and finished his career as MLB’s all-time leader in stolen bases with 938, a record obliterated by Rickey Henderson, but not matched by anyone else. Brock was one of the great post-season players ever. His .391 playoff batting average is ninth all time, tops among players with 65 or more plate appearances. His thirteen hits in the 1968 World Series is a record that hasn’t been surpassed. His fourteen World Series stolen bases are tied for the most all-time, and his seven stolen bases in the 1967 AND 1968 World Series are still the all-time single series record.
The baseball attributes of Lou Brock were immaculate. But I was lucky enough to get into the right business, because I got to meet Lou soon after I started in radio in 1983, and he couldn’t have been better. Have you ever heard that line “you don’t want to meet your hero, because you’re bound to be disappointed?” There was NO way Lou Brock could have ever disappointed me. I remember talking baseball with him during a banquet many years ago, and he patiently answered every question I had about that season. He was the nicest, most down to earth Hall of Famer imaginable.
He always remembered people’s names, and was always quick with an autograph. And he was generous with him time. He was so gracious in being the face of Old Newsboys Day. When he moved to St. Charles, he was a huge booster of my alma-mater, Lindenwood University. He raised money for their baseball field with his golf tournament, and several years ago spoke at Lindenwood’s graduation. In his speech, Brock talked about being a good person, and caring what was going on around you. A baseball Hall of Famer never mentioned baseball, but was as compelling as ever.
My favorite story that Brock told had little to do with baseball. It was from 1964, when he came to the Cardinals in perhaps the most lopsided deal in baseball history, for righthanded pitcher Ernie Broglio on June 15. At that time, there wasn’t a players association, and teams didn’t pay relocation costs for players that got traded. Brock had a lease on his apartment in Chicago, and couldn’t afford an apartment in St. Louis. So he commuted from Chicago to St. Louis and back for every Cardinal home game. He drove his Buick 95 miles an hour each trip, back and forth. One time he got pulled over in Springfield, and explained to the state trooper why he was speeding as such a high rate. Fortunately for Lou, the officer was a Cardinal fan…and for the rest of the season would let that Buick pass, knowing Brock was either heading to Sportsman’s Park or home to Chicago.
One time I was doing an early St. Louis Rams pregame show on the MAC parking lot across the street from the Dome. It was close to game time, and everyone else had gone in. I was left with filling fifteen minutes of time until the end of the hour, and was prepared to talk about the game, team stats, the opposition, whatever it took. Near the end of the commercial break, Lou came out of the MAC and was walking across the parking lot to the game. He asked me what was going on, and I told him the situation. He said, “can I join you?” Well of course. And for fifteen minutes, Brock regaled me with stories of his friends with the football Cardinals, his football days, what he thought of the Rams and maybe a little baseball, too. He didn’t have to do that, but was a kind enough person that he wanted to help out any way he could.
Even though we know people can’t live forever…Lou was 81 when he died on Sunday…it’s still jarring when such an important part of your childhood passes away. In 1974, I thought Lou Brock would live forever. To an eleven or twelve year old, he was that impressive as a ballplayer. But the Lou Brock I got to know…the kind, gentle, distinguished soul that was so friendly, so giving, so caring…he never will die. Lou will live in the hearts of Cardinal fans forever.
Even if you never had the T-Shirt, every Cardinal fan from those days was part of Brock’s Base Burglars 105 Club. And we’ll always remember him.
AP Photo/James A. Finley