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Hall of Famer Lou Brock, who stole bases and Cardinals fans hearts, dies at 81
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Hall of Famer Lou Brock, who stole bases and Cardinals fans hearts, dies at 81

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Hall of Famer Lou Brock, who died at age 81 at a local hospital Sunday afternoon after being in ill health, will be remembered for many accomplishments. He was the National League’s all-time leader in stolen bases with 938. He had 3,023 hits. He was a first-ballot electee into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. He was the “Base Burglar,” who came to the Cardinals in 1964 via a trade in which the Cardinals ripped off the Chicago Cubs.

But he also was known as one of the toughest baseball players that his former teammates had ever seen and that was before he encountered diabetes which caused him to have his left leg amputated. Before he suffered multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer), before he suffered a stroke, before he suffered a heart ailment.

None of those medical foes were able to vanquish Brock. Death was the first and only opponent to defeat him. “Isn’t that the truth?” said former Cardinals catcher Tim McCarver.

“Toughest SOB I’ve ever seen,” said former Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst, who died two years ago at age 95.

“Never saw him in the training room,” said McCarver, a Cardinals Hall of Famer and a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame broadcast wing. This included Brock playing with a broken shoulder after being hit by a pitch from Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax when the Los Angeles Dodgers lefthander had taken exception to Brock bunting on him.

“If Bob Gibson weren’t in the National League all those years, Lou would have been the toughest guy I ever saw, met on a baseball field. He and Bob were 1-2, as far as I was concerned,” McCarver said.

Brock’s former teammates, both from the 1960s and 1970s — he played 16 seasons here before retiring in 1979 — took news of his death hard. The 85-year-old Gibson, battling his own demon in pancreatic cancer, declined comment. McCarver had to stop a couple of times during a conversation to compose himself and former first baseman Keith Hernandez broke down.

“Quote it with a heavy heart,” said McCarver.

Hernandez said, “No one was more crucial to me on the big-league level than Lou.

“I don’t think I would have made it without Lou,” said Hernandez, the 1979 co-Most Valuable Player in the National League.

“For him to be a superstar and I, as a young kid, who was struggling, to take me under his wing and offer all his advice is a testament to who he was. He was an extraordinary man.

“He never babied me. If I was pouting, he’d get on me. It was tough love.”

Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said in a statement, “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.

“He will be deeply missed and forever remembered.”

On June 15, 1964, the Cardinals acquired Brock, a raw, 24-year-outfielder from the Chicago Cubs in a trade that cost them popular righthander Ernie Broglio, who had been a 18-game winner for them the prior season although he was 3-5 in 1964 and perhaps injured.

Immediately, the trade was not well received by the Cardinals’ players. “We thought it was the worst trade ever,” said Gibson at the time.

After all, Southern University product Brock had batted only .263, .258 and .251 in his 2½ years with the Cubs, albeit hitting some prodigious home runs.

But Brock, not counted on for power but as a table setter for the Cardinals, would hit .348 the rest of the 1964 season and steal 33 bases as the Cardinals rallied to win the National League pennant on the last day of the regular season and went on to beat the New York Yankees in a seven-game World Series to bring St. Louis its first World Series title since 1946.

Brock hit .300 in that World Series and then, showing he was at his best when the lights were brightest, batted .414 with seven stolen bases in the 1967 World Series, which the Cardinals won in seven games from Boston. He also hit .464 with seven more steals and a record 13 hits in the 1968 World Series loss against Detroit.

Bill White, the first baseman on the 1964 team, took Brock under his wing, to a degree, by allowing him to live with White at the latter’s home in Des Peres after Brock had come here from Chicago. “We couldn’t have won in ’64 without him,” said White. “No way.

“He was a good teammate, one of the best anybody could have. One hundred percent all the time. Two hundred percent.”

McCarver, who was on all of those clubs, beginning with 1964, said, “We were so close to Broglio. Our friendship blinded us to what kind of effect Lou would have on the team — until we saw him run.”

Brock, who would establish himself as one of the greatest leadoff hitters ever, recalled his teammates asking him after he got hot in the second half of the 1964 season, “Are you sure you were a Cub?’

“I had gone to another dimension as a ball player,” he said. “When you go to another dimension, you may be the same guy, look the same, act the same, but you play a lot different.”

McCarver said he had encountered only three players who “infinitely changed” their teams by their play. “One was Koufax,” said McCarver. “Gibson … and Brock.”

From 1965, Brock began a stretch of 12 seasons where he averaged 65 steals and 99 runs scored a year, featuring his record-setting season in 1974 when he set the then major-league stolen-base record of 118 while finishing second in the voting for National League MVP.

In 1977, Brock passed Ty Cobb’s all-time stolen base mark of 892 and he led the league in steals every year but one from 1966-74. He once said the only sure way to stop him was to “don’t let me reach first base.”

Brock considered basestealing a philosophic, as much as a physical action.

“First base is useless,” he said in 1974. “And most of the time it is useless to stay there.

“On the other hand, second base is really the safest place on the field. When I steal second, I practically eliminate the double play. And I can score on any ball hit past the infield.”

To Brock, “the most important thing about base stealing is not the steal of the base, but distracting the pitcher’s concentration. If I can do that, then the hitter will have a better pitch to swing at and I will get a better chance to steal.”

Mike Shannon, the Cardinals’ radio voice who played with Brock on three World Series clubs, said that Brock’s mathematics training in college paid off in how he approached base stealing. “But he kept all those secrets to himself. He never divulged a lot of those things, that I was aware of,” Shannon said.

“He might have to guys who were capable of comprehending what he was talking about. The great thing about Lou Brock was that three or four days we came into town, the starting pitcher for the other team was already worried about him.”

And Brock never took a night off, said McCarver. “He ran every ball out, even balls right back at the pitcher. It was exemplary. It was phenomenal.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player like that on any team, in my experience, treat a routine ball like Lou Brock did in running balls out. Lou would be on second before most guys would get to first today.”

For 16 seasons here, Brock galvanized fans here. When he would steal a base or leg out a triple, or really do almost anything positive, the Busch Stadium crowds would chant, “Lou! Lou! Lou!”

His enormous popularity even spread to other sports. In 1980, the year after Brock retired, young pro bowler Alvin Lou was trying for his first tour victory at Dick Weber Lanes in Florissant when those in attendance broke into shouts of “Lou! Lou! Lou!” At first, taken aback by the attention, Alvin Lou, once it was explained to him that people had been yelling that for years, went on to win the championship.

In 1978, Brock hit a .career 221 low for the Cardinals and often was benched in the second half of the season by manager Ken Boyer, his former teammate. Brock took that personally and also articles that had speculated that he was finished. Brock proudly announced the next spring that he was “orchestrating his own exodus.” This meant that 1979 would be his last season but that he would go out with a bang.

Brock was spot on. He hit .304 at age 40 and stole 21 bases. One of his 123 hits that year was No. 3,000 for his career, a single off the hand of Cubs righthander Dennis Lamp, at Busch Stadium II. He stole his final base with a week to go in the season.

“The violence he had running the bases was nonpareil,” McCarver said. “I’d never seen anybody like that. Ever. (Willie) Mays was close. Lou had a straight-in slide and, if your hand or glove was anywhere near there … too bad. You were lucky that no finger was missing.

“But for anybody as violent a base runner as he was, he was as gentlemanly a man and one of the nicest people ever.”

Brock’s No. 20 was retired by the Cardinals in 1979. He later became a businessman, a broadcaster, a special base running instructor, a minister and, finally a survivor.

“He’ll be missed by anyone who knew him,” said catcher Ted Simmons, a Hall of Fame electee in 2020 who played with Brock for more than a decade. “Everyone who knew him loved Lou.”

Simmons said the importance of Brock to a team was “that he had this presence. When Lou was around he had such a happy and vibrant face. You couldn’t miss him. And, on the field he had the capacity to ignite and actually carry a team offensively, which he did time and time again. He impacted everybody. He was a remarkable man and a remarkable player.

“I never knew him to be hurt the whole time I was around him when he played.”

Dick Zitzmann, Brock’s representative for more than 25 years, said, “Lou was the happiest Hall of Famer ever. He never took for granted what God had given him.”

Former Cardinals great Albert Pujols, now with the Anaheim Angels, tweeted, “Lou Brock was one of the finest men I have ever known.

“He was always willing to help and to share his unlimited knowledge of hitting and the game of baseball with me as a young player. Most importantly, he showed us all how to live our lives on and off the field with character and integrity.

“He was a dear friend to me. I loved him very much. My prayers are with Jackie and the Brock family tonight.

“Lou now enters into the glory of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Well done, thy good and faithful servant.

“You will be missed, my brother. Until we meet again.”

Commissoner Rob Manfred said, in part, “Lou was an outstanding representative of our National Pastime and he will be deeply missed.”

The Hall of Fame also passed along its condolences, reprising something Brock had once said. “Baseball and have a mutual respect for each other,” said Brock. “I have given a lot. It has given me a lot.”

Brock, who lived in St. Charles, is survived by his wife, Jackie, daughter Wanda, sons Lou Jr. and Emory, and stepchildren Marvin Hay and Jacqueline Means, in addition to five grandchildren. Brock's youngest son, Daniel Brock, died at age 39 in 2018.

Services for Lou Brock are pending.

In 2015, Brock had his left leg amputated below the knee due to a diabetes-related infection. His life in some jeopardy at one point, Brock rebounded less than six months later to stand, unaided, as he threw out the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day 2016.

Not surprisingly, a full house at Busch Stadium III — he had played in the other two — screamed, “Lou! Lou! Lou!”

 

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