September 10, 2014

Lou Brock stole the record book 40 years ago today

St. Louis Cardinals' Lou Brock slides under the tag of Philadelphia Phillies'
Larry Bowa to set a new stolen base record of 105 stolen bases in a season
in the seventh inning of game, Sept. 10, 1974. Phillies' Dave Cash
backs up Bowa on the throw from catcher Bob Boone. (Dick Ruthven
was the pitcher, and on the 104th, too.) UPI photo/Post-Dispatch
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a nice story on what happened on, and leading up to, Sept. 10, 1974.

If you're not a baseball fan, let alone a Cardinals fan, that was the day that Lou Brock passed Maury Wills for the single-season stolen base record.

And, although it would be three more years before he passed Ty Cobb for the modern career stolen base record, and not until a year later that he would pass Sliding Billy Hamilton and wipe out his old-rules (going from first to third on a single gave you a stolen base) record, nonetheless, by the end of his 1974 season, with 753 total swipes, and the 118 on the year, Brock showed he had a shot at Cobb, and even the asterisked record of Hamilton.

That said, according to Brock, 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.

There you go. 

While it's fashionable today to disparage Brock for having one of the lowest career WARs of a modern, writer-admitted Hall of Famer, that's not all the story.

Beyond that, Brock deserves entry as a "pioneer" of sorts. While Wills first really brought the stolen base back to prominence in 1962, Brock almost stole the Cards into the playoffs on a team whose overall player skill level didn't match up to the 1962 Dodgers. And, as some of the lower scoring of the 1960s carried over into the 1970s and even the 1980s, in larger, low-power stadiums, he opened the world to a new concept, which reached its apex in the "Whiteball" of the 1980s Whitey Herzog-managed Cardinals.

Vince Coleman, Ozzie Smith, Willie Wilson, somewhat Willie McGee and others owe part of their prominence to that.

At the same time, Whiteyball was about more than just stolen bases, or about raw speed. Had Whitey been managing in the 1970s, he might have done a bet/payout with Brock like he did with the Wiz — paying out money for grounders and charging it for fly balls. Brock didn't have quite Rickey Henderson's power, and certainly not his patience and walk rate. Whiteyball was, pre-sabermetrics, also about on-base percentage, total running skills, and team defense.

Brock and his Brockabrella. St. Louis Post-Dispatch
So, it's somewhat fair to criticize Brock for not having all of that, but, at the same time, he's a legit HOFer. And, per the photo at left, an inventor, too, with the Brockabrella!

And, as people bitch about low offense today, maybe Whiteyball, not just young Billy Hamilton stealing, needs to make a comeback.


There's another historic tie. Just as Hank Aaron faced racists when he passed Babe Ruth in 1974, the story reminds us that Brock faced the same when he passed Cobb.

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