Lou Brock in the Series (1964-68)

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Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in October 2017 and is reprinted here by permission.

 

At the 1964 baseball trading deadline (June 15 in those days), the St. Louis Cardinals made a six-player deal with the Cubs, a trade that really boiled down to swapping pitcher Ernie Broglio for outfielder Lou Brock. This deal remains famous as one of baseball’s all-time great swindles even as modern analysts have chipped away at Brock’s claim to greatness. He was not a very good defensive player, he did not walk much for a leadoff man, etc.

While he was actually playing, Brock was most famous for two things. First, he led the league in stolen bases nine times, despite not really being given a green light until he got to St. Louis at age 26. Stolen bases are not as championed as they once were (Who led the NL in steals in 2016? Wrong, it was Jonathan Villar), but in Brock’s era the stolen base crown was a valued accomplishment.

Second, Brock was a great post-season player on one of the era’s iconic teams. That remains undeniable, though perhaps less well known.

By 1964 the Cardinals had been a good team for several years, but were sitting at just 28-31 when they acquired Brock. The Cardinals desperately needed an outfielder, and GM Bing Devine and manager Johnny Keane coveted speed. The game was getting faster, especially in the National League, and the Cardinals were falling behind the times.

“None of us liked the deal,” admitted first baseman Bill White years later. “We lie and say we did, but we didn’t like that deal. In my opinion, Lou had a lot of talent, but he didn’t know anything about baseball. He might steal a base if you were up ten runs or down ten runs. But somehow, when he came to us, he turned everything around.”

Keane told Brock that he would play left field every day, that he would not be asked to bunt, and that he should steal bases anytime he thought he could make it. In pitcher Bob Gibson’s words, “Presto, we were transformed.”

Obviously there were other factors, but the Cardinals won their first four games with Brock and the team seemed to stabilize immediately. Batting second behind Curt Flood, Brock hit .348 with 42 extra-base hits and 33 steals in 103 games to finish out the season. And the Cardinals sprinted to a shocking pennant, benefitting from a September swoon by the Phillies.

In his first World Series game, the 26-year-old Brock singled and scored in the first and added a two-run double in the eighth to help lead the Cardinals to a 9-5 victory over the Yankees. After three hitless games, Brock closed out the series with seven hits in the final three contests, including a long home run off Al Downing in Game 7. For the series, Brock finished 9-for-30 (.300) with two doubles and a home run. Surprisingly, he attempted no steals against Yankee catcher Elston Howard, surely an accident of timing and circumstance. Such is the life of a base stealer.

The Cardinals won the 1964 World Series, and the acquisition of Brock quickly became accepted as the key in the club’s ascension. GM Bing Devine was fired in August, before their big surge, but still won the Executive of the Year award based in large part on his June trade for Brock.

The Cardinals dropped back to the pack in 1965 and 1966, while Brock cemented his stardom. He stole 63 bases in his first full year in St. Louis, the first Cardinal to swipe more than 50 in the 20th century. The next year he stole 74 and led the league for the first time.

Maury Willis deservedly gets most of the credit for bringing the stolen base back to baseball, and he led the league in steals for six straight years beginning in 1960. Starting in 1966, Brock took over.

After great trades for Orlando Cepeda and Roger Maris in 1966, the next year the Cardinals rolled to an easy pennant, by ten and a half games. On a team filled with stars – Cepeda, Flood, and Tim McCarver had big years – Brock was one of the biggest, hitting .299, leading the league in runs and steals, and even hitting 21 home runs.

Then he took over the World Series against the Red Sox.

In the first game Brock delivered four singles and walk, two steals, and two runs scored in a 2-1 Cardinal victory. Jose Santiago pitched an otherwise brilliant game for Boston, but he could not keep Brock off the bases and it was the difference in the game.

The Red Sox – specifically Jim Lonborg – managed to keep Brock off the bases twice in the series, in Games 2 and 5, and Boston prevailed both times. In the other five games, Brock accumulated 12 hits, and – with considerable help from Bob Gibson’s three complete game victories – the Cardinals won in seven games.

Brock hit .414 in the series, with four extra base hits, a Series record seven steals (in seven attempts), and a reputation in New England as a royal pain.

In 1968 the Cardinals rolled again, winning the NL pennant easily, with Brock having another big year. In the Year of the Pitcher, Brock led the league in doubles, triples, and steals, and finished sixth in the league in total bases.

In the World Series, the Cardinals third in five years, they would face the Detroit Tigers. All of the pre-series hype focused on the matchup between the two ace pitchers: the Tigers’ Denny McLain, baseball’s first 30-game winner in 34 years, and still the most recent; and the Cardinals’ Gibson, whose 1.12 ERA and 13 shutouts were the best totals in more than 50 years. They were scheduled to face off at least twice, and theoretically three times.

If there was a secondary story, it was Lou Brock, who had hit and run at will against the Red Sox the previous year. The Tigers catcher, Bill Freehan, was the game’s best, but the Tigers knew that their best hope was to keep Brock off the bases.

The first game was the Bob Gibson show (5-hit shutout with 17 strikeouts), and Brock contributed a home run and a stolen base to the cause. He managed a hit, a walk and two steals in a losing cause in Game 2.

In the third game, another Cardinal victory, Brock was on base four times on three singles and walk and stole three bases in four attempts. Brock led off Game 4 with a home run to right-center off McLain, and later tripled and doubled (immediately stealing third) in an easy 10-1 victory. Brock’s seventh steal tied the Series record that he had set the previous year, and it only took four games. The Cardinals were one win away.

Game 5 proved to be the turning point, and Brock played a pivotal role – though not one he wanted to play.

He led off the game with a double of Mickey Lolich, igniting a three-run rally and putting the championship in sight. So far, so good.

With the score still 3-0, Brock singled to start the third but when he tried to steal his eighth base, Freehan gunned him down. Coincidence of not, Brock never stole again in the rest of the series. In the fifth, he doubled, his 11th hit of the Series in just the fifth game. But when Julian Javier followed with a single, Tiger left fielder Willie Horton threw Brock out at home.

Although the Tigers had not stopped Brock from getting on base, they had managed to stop him on the bases twice. And when they put together rallies in the fifth and seventh innings, it was enough to secure a 5-3 victory to push the Series to Game 6.

Brock played little role in the final two games, both Tiger victories. His lone hit in the sixth game came when the Tigers had built a 13-0 lead, a lead that proved sufficient.

In the Game 7, Brock singled to lead off the sixth in a game that was still scoreless. Surely, this was the biggest moment in the series, as all observers waited to see what he was going to do. What he actually did was … get picked off by Mickey Lolich. In fact, with two outs Curt Flood singled, and Lolich picked him off too.

In the following half inning, the Tigers got the three runs that proved to be decisive, and they ultimately won the clincher, 4-1. Lolich was the big star of the series, with three victories, and he was particularly praised for controlling Brock on the basepaths in Games 5 and 7.

For the 1968 World Series, Brock hit .464, tying a record with 13 base hits (still the record), tying a record with 24 total bases, and tying his own record with 7 stolen bases.

Although Brock played another 11 seasons, he never made it to the post-season. He won several more stolen base titles, eventually setting both the single season and career records, and surpassed 3000 hits in his final season. Considering that he never really got the chance to play his game until he was 26, it was a remarkable career.

But when Brock’s career his accessed, it seems right and proper that his excellent World Series record, including a .391 batting average, with 13 extra base hits in 21 games, be part of his resume and his legacy.

 

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Author: Mark Armour

Long-time SABR member, co-chair of the Baseball Cards Committee, founder and past chairman (2002-2016) of the Biography Project, author of several books and dozens of articles on baseball. See mark-armour.net.

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