Forty years ago, baseball’s Summer of ’74 produced a series of milestone moments.
On April 8, Henry Aaron hit his 715th home run, breaking Babe Ruth’s iconic career record, an event that carried social and historic weight.
On July 17 at Busch Stadium, Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson fanned Cesar Geronimo to become only the second pitcher to reach 3,000 strikeouts, the first since Walter Johnson in 1923.
And then there was Lou Brock.
The “Base Burglar” chased down baseball’s most athletically demanding challenge. It wasn’t just one night, it was every time he reached base. It was 90 feet, 13 strides and some 3.5 seconds of thrills and chills on a nightly basis.
In the end, it was 118 stolen bases, a modern era record that took your breath away.
“It was pretty incredible stuff,” said Ted Simmons, Brock’s slugging teammate at the time. “Then, it was like a (Joe) DiMaggio thing,’” like the 56-game hitting streak.
“I mean, there had been some base-stealers, but nothing like that. And then when it became clear Lou had a shot at the record, it really was very exciting.”
Brock shattered the single-season standard on Sept. 10 in St. Louis, swiping Nos. 104 and 105, matching and surpassing the modern mark set by Maury Wills in 1962.
The modern era line in baseball is considered to be 1900. Hugh Nicol had 138 steals for the Reds in 1887. But before 1898, a stolen base was credited to a baserunner who simply advanced an extra base on a hit by another player.
Brock’s total of 118 was more stolen bases than 17 of 24 major league clubs had in 1974.
“It’s like trying to keep water from going over the dam,” Mets pitcher Harry Parker told reporters one night. “You know what’s coming, but you’re powerless.”
A RELUCTANT RECORD HOLDER
As stunning as Brock’s achievement was, it wasn’t his idea.
“I was pushed into it,” he said. “I mean in 1974, I’m 35 years old and I could care less about breaking a record. But that was the same year Hank Aaron broke the Babe’s record in April, and right after I got a call. I had a conversation with the National League office, and they said, ‘We need some more commotion in the league, therefore we’re going to promote you.’
“And I said, ‘You got the wrong guy.’ ”
Didn’t matter. In its communications with media, the league pushed the idea that Brock was pursuing Wills. When Brock stole 28 consecutive bases early in the season, it fueled the fire. Had there been cable television, computers and smart phones, Brock would have been everywhere. He would have been an app.
“Every day,” Brock said, “there would be a little something in there in the papers and it would say, ‘And Brock is now so many games behind the pace of Maury Wills’ stolen-base record.’ And I used to say, ‘Why do they have to put that in there? Why can’t they wait until I get a little closer so it doesn’t look embarrassing?’
“I recall getting to about 40 and then it clicked in. I just needed to be closer rather than have that hanging over me. I had to make it legit. ”
By 1982, Oakland’s Rickey Henderson had more steals (130), more attempts (172) and more times busted (42). But 118 remains the National League standard, 40 years running.
It also remains a most incredible achievement. Henderson was 23 when he copped 130 bases. He stole 22 when he was 35.
One can’t reminisce about the record without marveling at the player. Early in his career, there simply was no one like him.
Brock grew up on a cotton plantation in Collinston, La., and worked most of his childhood. He excelled in basketball and baseball at Union High, but he also showed promise in the classroom. He was given a work-study scholarship to Southern University but lost it when his first-semester marks dipped below a “B” average.
At semester break, he volunteered to retrieve balls for Southern’s baseball team, hoping to impress with tireless efforts. As practice ended one day, the coaching staff relented and rewarded an exhausted Brock with five batting practice swings. He hit three balls over the fence and was offered a baseball scholarship on the spot.
Brock starred at Southern, shined in the 1959 Pan-American Games and was drafted by the Chicago Cubs. In 1961, before completing his senior year, he signed for a $30,000 bonus.
That summer, he batted .361 for St. Cloud of the Class A Northern League, belting 14 home runs and stealing 38 bases. The Cubs bumped him to the big leagues by season’s end.
During his rookie season of 1962, Brock became the third player ever to hit a home run over the center field wall at New York’s Polo Grounds, which stood 475 feet away. The previous two to hit a ball so far were Babe Ruth and Negro Leagues slugger Luke Easter.
In 1967, Brock had 21 homers, 76 RBIs, 52 steals and 113 runs from the leadoff spot, becoming the first in major league history to have 20 homers and 50 steals in a season.
That split personality was part of the conundrum for Brock, who was conflicted in Chicago. But after coming to the Cardinals in an infamous 1964 trade, he was persuaded by manager Johnny Keane to make the most of his disruptive speed.
And he brought extraordinary qualities to the task, including thick skin and a track-star body.
“Most people don’t realize that a lot of guys who stole bases had abrasions or what they call strawberries, that just never seemed to heal,” said Gene Gieselmann, the Cardinals’ trainer from 1968 through 1997. “Lou did not. I can only remember four or five times in all the years I spent with him that we might have had an abrasion where we had to bandage him up.”
To Simmons, who possessed a slightly different physical profile, Brock was a freak of nature.
“Lou had zero body fat before they even had a term for body fat,” Simmons said. “He was pure muscle, not an ounce of fat on his body.”
GREEN LIGHT DISTRICT
The Cardinals were not imposing in 1974. They hit only 83 home runs and 216 doubles, fewer in both categories than the current club.
Yet, they remained in a pennant race, on the strength of Brock’s legs. Early on, manager Red Schoendienst made it clear his left fielder would have a perpetual green light. And why not?
Among 194 hits that season, Brock had 25 doubles. But he stole second base 112 times, which computes to 137 doubles, or 137 scoring opportunities.
“Lou was so dynamic,” said Ted Sizemore, who batted behind Brock. “He could win a game almost in the first inning, or at least put the other team in a situation where they had to come from behind.”
Moreover, it soon became evident something special was going on.
“We knew this was going to be a situation where, ‘OK, let’s go for it,’ ” Sizemore said. “That’s how we played. Lou would get on base and try to get into scoring position. The normal rules didn’t apply.”
AHEAD OF HIS TIME
Brock made a study of the steal. He used an 8-millimeter camera to film pitchers. He was among the first to use a stopwatch, timing pitchers’ motions, watching pregame warm-ups to time the opposing catcher’s throw to second base.
Meanwhile, Sizemore had been coached by Junior Gilliam in Los Angeles, the man who hit behind Wills in ’62. Gilliam taught the feisty Cardinals second baseman the tricks of the trade.
Sizemore stood far back in the batter’s box, forcing catchers to back up, buying Brock additional fractions. On the jump, Sizemore often swung late or swiped a fake bunt, anything to distract a frantic receiver.
But, all that said, “It wasn’t me, it was all Lou,” Sizemore said. “I just sat back and watched the show.”
Brock is a gentle man, universally admired and respected by his peers. But he also was a pioneer in the trash-talking trade, a master of psychological warfare.
“He’d come on the field and yell at them, ‘I’m going tonight, I’m going,’ ” Sizemore said. “And they would get all tensed up and say, ‘Yeah, well I’m going to throw you out,’ among other things.
“They got so intent on throwing Lou out that they would get out of their normal habits. I saw a number of catchers throw great strikes all the way to the center fielder, because they were trying to throw it so hard.”
Brock didn’t just play baseball, he waged it. And the basepaths were the front lines. He slid at the last instant, left foot extended, all that velocity crashing into an anchored base and an anxious fielder. He then popped up to disrupt the tag or advance on a poor throw.
It was as punishing as it was poetic.
During his distinguished 12-year career, Ron Hunt adopted a method to deal with Brock’s violent slide. He stood his ground and extended his forearm.
When the Cardinals acquired the St. Louis native late in the ’74 season, one of the first players to welcome Hunt was Brock.
“Well, it’s good to have you with us, now I don’t have to worry about that damn elbow into my shoulder all the time,” Brock told Hunt.
Hunt played coy. “I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he just smiled and said, ‘Don’t think I didn’t know what you were doing, trying to keep me from bounce-sliding.’ ”
‘1O5 FOR LOU BROCK’
A light drizzle at game time produced a Tuesday night crowd of 27,285 on Sept. 10 at Busch Stadium. Brock led off the first against righthander Dick Ruthven and singled to left. Game on.
With Hunt at the plate, Brock swiped his 104th base, tying Wills and cracking Max Carey’s 45-year-old NL standard of 738 career steals.
Although Bob Boone was one of the best defensive receivers in the game, his hurried throw bounced into center field. Brock went to third and scored on Reggie Smith’s double.
When Brock led off the seventh with another single, the Cardinals trailed 6-2. Attempting a steal in that spot, trailing by four, is not historically conventional. But history was in the making.
Brock waited for the second pitch and the unforgettable Jack Buck described what happened:
“Brock takes the lead. Ruthven checks him. He is … going!
“The pitch is a strike ... the throw … he is there! He did it!
“105 for Lou Brock!”
Boone is now vice president of player personnel with the Washington Nationals. He only vaguely remembers the night. He doesn’t have a ball, bag or a Brock autograph, nothing to remind him of his role in history.
It was Boone who snapped Brock’s 28-steal streak early in the season. But Brock burned him 16 times during the season, more than any other catcher.
“Most of the time, I hated those nights professionally,” Boone said, laughing. “I had no chance, no chance.”
The record notwithstanding, the Cardinals lost 8-2. In the ninth inning, Brock attempted a third steal with his team losing by eight. Boone threw him out and said afterward, “I lost some respect for him when he did that.”
Forty years later, his perspective is different.
“Listen, Lou was a great player,” Boone said. “No, I don’t take anything away from him. Lou Brock is a great human being and he was a great player.”
Brock swiped his final base of the season, No. 118, on Sept. 29 in Chicago. He also had two hits and an RBI as the Cardinals beat the Cubs to move into a first-place tie.
Then came Mike Jorgensen’s eighth-inning homer off Gibson on Oct. 1 in Montreal, Steve Swisher’s passed ball in Pittsburgh on Oct. 2 ... and it was over.
“That was the disappointing thing,” Brock said. “We had come close the year before and then to be right there again …”
Three years later, accompanied by FBI agents, ignoring death threats and racist hate mail, Brock broke Ty Cobb’s career stolen-base record in San Diego. He told an appreciative crowd that night, “I did it my way.”
In St. Louis, no one has ever done it quite like Lou Brock.