Trade of base burglar Brock swiped the Cubs’ future, made Cards champs

By George Castle, CBM Historian
September 8, 2020

Lou Brock in the Polo Grounds, where in 1962 he slugged a 460-foot homer to center.

Lou Brock in the Polo Grounds, where in 1962 he slugged a 460-foot homer to center.

The true measure of Louis Clark Brock goes far beyond his Hall of Fame status, 938 stolen bases — including 14 in the World Series and an NL record 118 in 1974 – along with 3,023 hits.

The complete tally is Brock’s baseball intellect. He was a true student of the game whose bottom line was striving to improve. And those “smarts,” as baseball second-sight was once called, radically affected the fortunes of the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, the two teams to which Brock will always be tethered now that he has passed into the ages at 81, less than a week after worthy foe Tom Seaver.

Ever since June 15, 1964, one of the most infamous days in Cubs history, Brock has been the biggest ghost in the franchise timeline, the all-encompassing “What if?” that took away MVP-style production along with heart and soul from sports’ most star-crossed team.

The Cubs were a slow, ponderous team, and not just on the basepaths. A substandard baseball organization starved for both financial and intellectual capital by Phil Wrigley, likely baseball’s most affluent owner in his time, and then for decades by the Tribune Company could not nearly put together a championship-caliber team for an impossibly long time. All the while when the Cubs could advance just one base at a time, they had squandered away base burglar Brock and Bill North, two-time American League stolen-base king.

Three-hundred miles down Route 66/I-55 and in a more tropical climate, the Cardinals quenched their own 18-year pennant drought by stealing Brock from the Cubs in exchange for aching right-hander Ernie Broglio. Both team and man were simultaneously freed from shackles. Brock stole 33 bases and batted .348 in two-thirds of the remaining 1964 season, as if afterburners were suddenly affixed to Gussie Busch’s franchise. Busch paid decently, for the time, and Brock well-earned his pay leading the Cards to two World Series triumphs and three pennants to round out the Sixties.

Meanwhile, almost to a man, the Cubs teammates he left behind proclaimed the base burglar the missing link to greater glory for the vanquished 1969 team Mets ace Seaver helped consign to both ignominy and all-time affection. How many Hall of Famers does one need on a single team to finally win it all? Brock as a ’69 Cub would have made five on the North Side.

The following is the sum total of the Brock narrative I gathered from Lou over the decades, complemented by conversations with Broglio and Bob Kennedy, the Cubs head coach who rode Brock for his outfield mistakes, held him back on the basepaths and, along with GM John Holland, didn’t really know the bundle of potential production he had on hand. Chiming in were conversations the day after Brock’s death was announced with fellow Hall of Famer Billy Williams and George Altman, the Cubs who flanked center fielder Brock in the outfield in his 1962 rookie season.

Brock’s modest roots in the Jim Crow South of the 1950s and his Cardinals feats have been well-documented. But his Cubs days dovetailed with the misjudgments, if not outright farce, of the College of Coaches era and the impatience and subtle racism of Holland. Chicagoans got tantalizing hints of the finished-product Brock to come, but never the full measure of a player who developed technique and drew from personal research in his sublime base-stealing skills.

The first error was by the Cardinals themselves. Brock, who had starred at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La. and played in the 1959 Pan Am Games in Chicago, thought the Cardinals were going to sign him. But he recalled the scout in question was off halfway across the country chasing right-hander Ray Washburn.

Brock made his way back to Chicago in 1960, where he participated in a tryout camp at Wrigley Field. The Phillies noticed his quick bat with power to reach the bleachers and beyond, but fortunately the legendary Buck O’Neil was in the house. Having seen Brock at Southern, O’Neil signed him. He was assigned to Class C St. Cloud, Minn., managed by Joe Macko in 1961.

Brock distinguished himself batting .361 with a .426 on-base percentage with 53 extra-base hits, 82 RBIs, 117 runs scored and 38 steals in 128 games. Normally such a gaudy pro debut would earn a 22-year-old a promotion to, say, Class A. The rise through the minors was much more deliberate six decades ago. Williams spent five mostly productive seasons, including a full campaign in Triple-A, before he stuck with the Cubs.

Brock goes straight from St. Cloud to Cubs

But Holland got big eyes and did not seem to care if youth stumbled before their time. In 1960, he signed bonus baby Danny Murphy, who played for the Cubs at 17. Brock and 19-year-old infielder Ken Hubbs, recalled from Class B Wenatchee, were called up in September 1961 and made their big-league debuts. Hubbs had the advantage of three seasons of minor-league experience, but had been demoted from Class A and AA service in 1960.

“He had a good year in St. Cloud,” Williams recalled. “He got some hits, used the whole field, but was not a good outfielder. We were finishing seventh (in the eight-team NL) and we needed players.”

Lou Brock (seated) in an early spring training in Mesa, wearing a vintage 1957 Cubs road uniform. Also pictured (from left) are Verlon (Rube) Walker and Vedie Himsl, two of the College of Coaches, a system that did not help a young player like Brock.

Lou Brock (seated) in an early spring training in Mesa, wearing a vintage 1957 Cubs road uniform. Also pictured (from left) are Verlon (Rube) Walker and Vedie Himsl, two of the College of Coaches, a system that did not help a young player like Brock.

Perhaps Holland was over-confident about his farm system. He had struck gold with Altman, an All-Star with 96 RBIs in 1961, and Santo, a 1960 callup who slugged 23 homers in 1961. Williams, of course, put together an NL Rookie of the Year season with 25 homers and a .286 average in ’61.

Holland got lucky with Hubbs, a fielding whiz at second base who still had a few holes in his swing. Hubbs won the 1962 rookie of the year award. Brock was not as fortunate. He was thrown into the lineup as the leadoff man in center field, against all pitchers. He was like bait for sharks. Brock batted first, striking out just twice in four at-bats, as Sandy Koufax fanned a Wrigley Field record 18 Cubs — the mark stood until Kerry Wood’s 20-K game in 1998 – on April 24, 1962.

Worse yet, the analytical Brock was thrown into a tizzy by the College of Coaches, who were divided on how to handle a five-tool player with power and speed. The coaches themselves didn’t believe in the program as all tried to jockey for the full-time manager’s job when Wrigley inevitably would junk the disaster, which featured the coaches rotating through a “head coach’s” gig.

The story went that one coach would advise Brock to drag bunt while another wanted him to swing through to take advantage of his power. No matter what the instruction, they only heightened the stress felt by the rookie trying to learn on the job in the majors. The interminable losing did not help, either. The ’62 Cubs began 1-9 and 4-16, on their way to a franchise-worst 103 losses, behind the expansion Houston Colt .45s (now the Astros). Only the presence of the expansion, stumblebum Mets with a baseball-record 120 losses prevented the disgrace of finishing 10th in a 10-team league.

“One of the guys told Lou we’ll put you in the lineup, but if you don’t get any hits today, you’re out of there,” said Altman, his memory still clear at 87. “That was unnecessary pressure. You could see the raw talent. The first day at the ballpark, he hit a number of balls into the left-field bleachers.”

Brock soon showed his true power, further confusing the Keystone Kops coaches about whether he was a slugger or new-fangled speedster a la Maury Wills. In the first inning on June 17, 1962 at New York’s Polo Grounds, Brock connected against Mets southpaw Al Jackson for a two-run, 460-foot homer to center field. Only two other players, Hank Aaron and Joe Adcock, would ever reach that faraway juncture, beyond which the clubhouses for both teams were located. Oddly, Aaron’s blast came the very next day after Brock’s.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Williams. “You could see, it was in the area beyond where Willie Mays caught the ball (against Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series).”

Sure enough, Brock batted sixth in the June 17 game. He often hit sixth in the Cubs lineup instead of his natural spot at leadoff. Even when first he arrived in St. Louis, he batted second behind center fielder Curt Flood.

Ernie Banks (from left), Billy Williams, George Altman and Ron Santo as the heart of the Cubs lineup Lou Brock joined in 1962. Williams in left and Altman in right flanked rookie Brock in the outfield.

Ernie Banks (from left), Billy Williams, George Altman and Ron Santo as the heart of the Cubs lineup Lou Brock joined in 1962. Williams in left and Altman in right flanked rookie Brock in the outfield.

Brock had even bigger issues in the outfield. Day games with the sun’s glare and capricious winds at Wrigley Field were never easy. By his recollection, he had played mostly night games in St. Cloud. Coming to Chicago, nobody taught him how to properly flip his sunglasses, Brock said. Now he had to play center and captain the outfield, although he insisted he was prepared to play the position.

“I think eventually he could have handled center,” Altman said. “He had that raw speed.”

But when Holland traded Altman to the Cardinals for pitcher Larry Jackson soon after the 1962 season ended, Brock was moved to right while the Cubs made room in center for 6-foot-4 power-hitting prospect Nelson Mathews, a White player from Columbia, Ill., near St. Louis. Another more sinister factor also could have been at work. When Brock and shortstop Andre Rodgers started in ’62, the Cubs had a majority five Black players in the lineup, including Williams, Altman and Ernie Banks. O’Neil recalled that Holland showed him letters from fans wondering if he was turning the Cubs into the Kansas City Monarchs.

In 1963, Wrigley informally cut down the College of Coaches, although he added to the comic overtones by hiring U.S. Air Force Academy sports official Col. Robert Whitlow as “athletic director,” co-existing with Holland as the front-office major domo. Named as “head coach” without any others rotating in the job was native South Sider Kennedy, a former White Sox outfielder.

Brock later said he learned from Charlie Metro, the last of the rotating head coaches who presided over the second half of the ’62 season. Kennedy did not connect in the same manner. He was said to have little patience for Brock’s growing pains – least of all outfield misplays as he was often overcome by the mid- and late-afternoon sun.

Post-game outfield practice

After one May 1963 game in which Brock misplayed two seventh-inning fly balls, Kennedy ordered Brock back out to right field to field fungoes from the head coach. Brock did not return to center when Mathews proved a bust-out, hitting far below his weight with .155 and four homers. Instead, well-traveled switch-hitter Ellis Burton alternated with journeyman Don Landrum in center, leaving Brock to battle the sun daily.

While I was writing the e-book “Alou Makes the Catch” about alternate Cubs histories in 2012, left fielder Williams said he gladly would have moved to right – where he could handle the sun angles – to flip positions with Brock so the latter would not let his defense overwhelm him. Williams, in fact, had spent full seasons in right field in 1965-66, and moved again to right in June and July 1969 to allow good-hit, no-field Willie Smith to play left.

Meanwhile, while batting leadoff, Brock did not often have the green light to steal from Kennedy. He stole just 24 bases in 1963. Thirty-five years later, hanging around the Cubs’ spring training camp in Mesa, where he had moved, Kennedy rued the fact he did not allow Brock to run more. He said he had been afraid to take the bats out of the hands of Williams and Santo.

Apparently, Kennedy had not watched and absorbed the baseball-rocking impact Wills had with the Dodgers in 1962 when he stole a record 106 bases in front of Tommy Davis and Frank Howard. Their bats instead were energized, as Davis drove in 153 runs on 27 homers, while Howard had 31 homers and 119 RBIs.

Narratives through the passage of time suggest Brock was an offensive flop in his first two Cubs seasons. But he batted .263 in ’62, outhitting top-rookie Hubbs by three points, amid the jerking-about by coaches. And in pitching-friendly 1963, second in ranking in the Sixties to the Year of the Pitcher in 1968, Brock batted as high as .278 after a Labor Day sweep of the Giants in San Francisco. His average was third among Cubs regulars after Santo and Williams.

Power spree attracted Cards’ attention

A season-ending slump dropped Brock’s average 20 points. Yet he attracted the attention of Cardinals manager Johnny Keane with two homers and a triple in the second game of a doubleheader at Wrigley Field on July 28, 1963 before a standing-room-only 40,222. Although Cardinals ace Bob Gibson professed to not remembering Brock at this point, Keane took note for future reference. Later, in writing about Brock and Williams for 1964, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Jerome Holtzman called both “good ballplayers.”

Despite his inconsistencies, Brock had a feeling of finally belonging in the majors and Chicago. In June 1963, his sketched image appeared in a newspaper ad endorsing the Humble Oil Company. Thus Brock ranked as a rare Black athlete getting a mainstream media promotion. Banks was shown puffing up in a sports coat and tie in a cigarette ad in 1959 as the NL MVP, but companies were very circumspect in featuring athletes of color given the difficulties of showing those ads in the South and some other markets.

Brock had worked for Humble Oil in Chicago in an unusual off-season job for a ballplayer. He sold heating oil door-to-door while cleaning furnaces. Brock was amused he handled that job clad in a white uniform. But necessity was the mother of invention, as Brock noted the $6,000 to $10,000 of a baseball salary ran out quickly and needed winter supplementation.

Brock took extra steps to improve. He and Williams roomed together in spring training. “We’d go into this room and look at 8 mm films of games,” said Williams. “He was a smart player.”

Whatever momentum Brock might have carved out in 1963 did not carry over to the next season. He got off to a slow start. That made the itchy-fingered Holland nervous. He felt he had a Big Three rotation in Jackson, Dick Ellsworth and Bob Buhl to contend, with the .400-hitting Williams and Santo the core of his lineup. One more starting pitcher was perceived to round out the rotation. On May 26, 1964, the Chicago Tribune’s Richard Dozer, underrated as a scoopster compared to the more colorful Holtzman, reported Holland was peddling Brock for a starting pitcher. The trade deadline on June 15 was closing in.

The Cardinals were short at least one outfielder after Stan Musial’s retirement and Altman’s flameout trying to pull balls into the right-field pavilion at the original Busch Stadium at the behest of old Branch Rickey, by then a St. Louis advisor. Nothing more developed about Dozer’s report as Brock finally got his bat unlimbered and stole a handful of bases in early June 1964. He hit his second homer of the season on June 14 against the Pirates in Wrigley Field.

That night, Cardinals GM Devine finally decided to pull the trigger on Holland’s offer. The Cubs thought they had a steal when Devine, knowing he had Gibson and lefties Curt Simmons and Ray Sadecki as rotation mainstays, decided to spare Ernie Broglio, a 21-game winner in 1960 and 18-game winner in 1963. Holland thought he had a curveball-specialist ace-level starter. What’s still unclear 56 years later was why Broglio’s iffy elbow condition was not known to Holland.

Multiple injections, Playboy Club for Broglio

By the 1980s and 1990s, Brock and Broglio made light of their infamous trade, appearing at Old Timers events where Broglio good-naturedly fielded a chorus of boos from Cubs fans. On the nostalgia circuit, Broglio admitted he had undergone a number of cortisone injections into his right arm in 1963. Sports-talk show host Mike Murphy looked back over Broglio’s 1964 starts and found his appearances were spaced out much further than a regular-rotation starter would merit at the time. And an early June 1964 report stated a Broglio groin injury was not sitting too well with the Cardinals. Broglio himself said he was somewhat on the outs with the conservative Keane after the pitcher was discovered patronizing the St. Louis Playboy Club.

Kenny Hubbs in spring training. Hubbs and Brock were brought up at the same time in Sept. 1961. But although Hubbs was just 19, he had three years' minor-league experience to Brock's one.

Kenny Hubbs in spring training. Hubbs and Brock were brought up at the same time in Sept. 1961. But although Hubbs was just 19, he had three years’ minor-league experience to Brock’s one.

Other oddities surrounded the trade, in which bit-part players were exchanged and a former diminutive lefty ace in Bobby Shantz came to the Cubs. Lindy McDaniel, the 1964 Cubs closer and a former Broglio teammate in St. Louis, said three decades later word was out among players that Broglio had a bad arm. Williams said Broglio had lost some steam off his fastball and had to rely more on his sharp curve. Such a strategy can put extra stress on an arm.

Meanwhile, obviously desiring to divorce himself from Holland’s decision 35 years later, Kennedy said he told wife Claire to tell any callers on the off-day of June 15, 1964 that he had gone out golfing by himself. He obviously knew the trade was coming. In reality, Kennedy was in a foursome with Williams and Santo at a north suburban tournament. Williams said Kennedy was called away about the 12th hole to take a call from Holland. Kennedy later claimed he and his coaches did not want “Louie” traded.

After a so-so series of initial Cubs starts in mid-summer 1964, Broglio woke up one Sunday in New York with his ballooned right elbow “locked up,” to the initial amusement of roommate Joey Amalfitano. Missing several starts, Broglio returned to the rotation, finishing the season with a 4-7 Cubs record and his strikeouts considerably down.

In Nov. 1964, he underwent invasive surgery on his right ulnar collateral ligament, 10 years before the less-damaging Tommy John ligament transplant surgery was first performed by Dr. Frank Jobe. The Tommy John procedure now requires a year-plus rehab before a return to the mound is permitted.  More primitive surgeries such as Broglio experienced could have ended a pitcher’s career. But Broglio still tried to come back by spring training 1965. He was, of course, unsuccessful. By mid-summer 1966, Broglio was released by the Cubs. The Sun-Times headline on the release story included “Remember Brock?”

Chicago talk-show stalwart Les Grobstein, who at 12 thought the Brock deal stunk, later claimed the Cardinals knew Broglio was hurt. Hearing this and other similar charges being made over the decades, Devine angrily denied he knowingly traded an injured pitcher on the 40th anniversary of the deal in 2004. Nevertheless, the disaster that befell the Cubs was so egregious that Major League Baseball almost immediately instituted a rule mandating that medical information on the players involved be included in any deals.

“That kind of trade would not be made today,” said Williams. “We got damaged goods.”

Lou’s Cards pull off last-ditch rally

Healthy as a horse and not concerned about others’ arm woes, the eager and willing Brock seemed liberated by his arrival in St. Louis. Keane basically anointed him with the Maury Wills role as lineup sparkplug. He gave free rein to base burglary. Amid the firing of Devine as GM and Busch’s attempted hiring of Leo Durocher as manager to replace Keane, the Brock-led Cardinals hung in there, getting hot in September 1964 and taking advantage of the Phillies’ infamous last-week collapse. The Cardinals went on to defeat the last of the dynastic Yankees teams in seven games in the World Series.

Lou Brock as a Cardinal in Wrigley Field, where he never ceased to try to prove to the Cubs they traded the wrong man.

Brock as a Cardinal in Wrigley Field, where he never ceased to try to prove to the Cubs they traded the wrong man.

Covering the Fall Classic games in St. Louis was 22-year-old Springfield State Journal-Register sportswriter Larry Harnly. Now retired 23 years as the newspaper’s sports editor, Harnly posted this remembrance upon Brock’s death.

Asking Brock by the batting cage what it felt like to clinch the pennant on the season’s final day, the newbie Cardinal replied: “I’ll never get that feeling again. It was just like walking on the clouds.”

Brock needled right fielder Mike Shannon during batting practice after he swung at more than the allotted pitches. “Didn’t they teach you how to count at CBC (high school)?” Brock joked.

Brock struck out 127 times in 1964. “What’s the difference” he asked Harnly, “whether I strike out or pop up 127 times?”

They talked about Al Barlick, an umpire from Springfield.

“He’ll help you out,” Brock said. “For instance, he’d say, ‘Lou, it looks like you’re tight.’ When something is said by an umpire, you know it’s probably right.” Brock said he could talk to Barlick. “I’d tell him, ‘Al, I beat that throw by 25 feet. ‘ He’d say, ‘Lou, you’re never out.’”

The empty ring box

Brock happily collected his World Series ring. Knowing his former Cubs teammates had finished in eighth place with 76 victories, Brock sent a ring box to Williams. It was empty.

“He knew how much a World Series meant to me,” said Williams.

Reminding the Cubs how they erred in trading him was an obvious Brock motivation through the years. He always seemed to have an extra step, bounce or vertical leap against the Cubs. Brock stuck yet another dagger into the heart of the Cubs’ fading 1969 hopes with a 10th-inning walkoff homer against Ken Holtzman on September 14th in St. Louis. And Brock of course collected his 3,000th hit against the Cubs, a liner off Dennis Lamp, on August 13th, 1979, also at home. Jack Brickhouse never had a chance to broadcast that milestone as the game was on a Monday night with a network telecast of another game blacking out WGN’s coverage.

No matter if the opponent was the Cubs, Brock developed a virtuoso style as a base burglar. He’d carefully time his sprint against the pitcher. Williams recalled how Brock keenly watched the pitcher’s back heel for movement. “His key was getting off to a fast start and most of the time he was successful,” said Altman, who stole a few bases in his time. At his destination at second base, Williams said Brock slid as hard feet-first as he could, coming to a sudden stop, for the extra edge in beating the tag.

Brock dabbled in businesses while in his Cardinals prime. He was noted for running a St. Louis florist shop. By 1978, he began marketing the “Brockabrella,” a hat with an umbrella mushrooming over the band attaching it to the head. After a September 16th, 1978 Cards victory at Wrigley Field, I recall going to a Walgreen’s drug store on Chicago’s Northwest Side to see Brock as he sold the headgear.

He also loved autograph shows. And he came back to the Cubs Convention in 2009. Williams recalled re-uniting with Brock at a memorabilia show in Rosemont a few years back.

Brock was great in person, holding court with a treasure trove of stories, but seemingly “phonaphobic.” He was even more elusive on the phone than in beating a catcher’s throw to second. Both Williams and Altman said they had difficulty reaching him. Altman was regretful he could not get together with Brock living just 15 minutes away in the St. Louis suburbs. I remember a Cardinals official reporting Brock was just 20 feet away from picking up the phone for an interview, but he just could not traverse that short distance.

One call that was completed was when Williams, then a Cubs coach, arranged for Brock to discuss base stealing with Doug Glanville when he came up to the Cubs in 1996.

Health problems, including a leg amputation, made Brock even more unreachable lately. Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins said Brock has not appeared at the Cooperstown inductions the past “three, four years.” That means a player really has to be under the weather to miss the conviviality of the annual reunion.

Life changes for all. But many would have loved to see how Cubs life would have changed had an impatient general manager realized what he had in his speedy right fielder and had one letter informing about pain-killers for a Cardinals curveballer.

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