Lou Brock played his final game for the St. Louis Cardinals over forty years ago. Most of the people who will read this post do not remember seeing Lou Brock play live. On Sunday, Lou Brock died at the age of 81, following several years of failing health, but his legacy in the hearts and minds of those who loved him, a list which seemingly has no end, will live forever.
The temptation for most baseball fans when it comes to evaluating those whose careers predated their fandom is to rely on the numbers. Numbers don’t lie. But they don’t tell the entire story.
Brock, the son of sharecroppers who was born in 1939 and raised along the Arkansas/Louisiana border, is the 11th greatest player in St. Louis Cardinals history by Wins Above Replacement, which is itself an accomplishment, but an incomplete one. Lou Brock retired with 938 career steals, at the time an MLB record since eclipsed by Rickey Henderson and, based on current trends, likely nobody else ever. 888 of those steals came as a Cardinal, still the record for most steals by one player with one franchise. In 1979, Brock became the fourteenth member of Major League Baseball’s elusive 3,000-hit club. The numbers are great. But they don’t tell the entire story.
Lou Brock’s legacy isn’t statistical. Statistical legacies are for those who are forgotten, stumbled upon occasionally by somebody crawling down a Baseball Reference or FanGraphs wormhole. Lou Brock’s legacy is what those who saw him remember of him. Lou Brock’s legacy is the joy he brought.
Lou Brock came around at just the right time. Had he been born more than a generation earlier, the archaic and vile unwritten rules of Major League Baseball would have prevented him from playing. Had he been born a decade earlier, he could have and would have played, but the paper trail of highlights would be limited to share with future generations. Had he been born a generation later, his accomplishments would have been overshadowed by those of Rickey Henderson. But instead, we got to enjoy Lou Brock, the sport’s most feared base stealer and among the sport’s most feared hitters, practicing his craft on his own terms.
Lou Brock’s greatest individual seasons came during the team’s championship contention of the mid to late 1960s–almost immediately after the Cardinals sent Ernie Broglio, Doug Clemens, and Bobby Shantz to the Chicago Cubs for a package which included him, he went from a toolsy but definitely incomplete player to a legitimate star. In some ways, his definitive seasons came in the 1970s, when he was the prime attraction for some otherwise, frankly, forgettable teams. Not every decade is going to give every team moments of championship glory, but thanks to Lou Brock, the 1970s were not a barren wasteland for St. Louis baseball.
When Brock tallied his 3,000th hit, he was 40 years old. If you listen to the above clip, you will notice the voice of Mike Shannon, his former teammate and a man one month his junior, providing commentary. Occasionally, we will refer to long-tenured players as compilers, a semi-derisive term that completely misses the point. Lou Brock debuted in the broader culture before The Beatles and retired after disco had died out. He was a familiar face and an exhilerating force for more St. Louisans and general baseball fans than we could ever calculate.
In 2015, Cardinals fans voted on the team’s “Franchise Four”, a Mount Rushmore of the greatest players in Cardinals history. The fans selected Lou Brock alongside Bob Gibson, Rogers Hornsby, and Stan Musial. Was Lou Brock actually a better player than Albert Pujols or Ozzie Smith? The numbers say no. But the numbers don’t tell the entire story; I would argue the numbers tell the less significant part of the story. That Lou Brock could stand alongside these other greats and above these other franchise greats is a testament to what he meant to St. Louis.
I never met Lou Brock, but by all accounts, he was almost a caricature of a nice baseball man, a gentle sporting giant. He deserved every bit of praise he received and whether we deserved to have him in our lives, I’m glad we got the chance.