Sunday, June 15, 2014

50 years ago today: LOU BROCK, a trade, and clippings on my wall

Sports idols of our youth - somehow, they're always a part of us.

I didn't really become a baseball fan until I was 11. In July 1962, my parents and I moved to Kansas City, Missouri. A week later, Daddy took me to my first major league baseball game - our KC A's were playing the Yankees of Mantle, Ford, Maris, Richardson, et al. That's all it took, and I was hooked for life.

But the A's were perennially a pretty sorry team in those days. Their cartoonish owner, Charley Finley, was forever trying to move them out of Kansas City; in the offseason between the '63 & '64 seasons, he threatened - in a ploy to get a more favorable lease agreement for KC Municipal Stadium - to move the A's to a cow pasture in Louisville, Kentucky. Ultimately, after four more seasons, he moved them to Oakland, California.

But I discovered, early on, that I could pull in - on the transistor radio my parents bought me in the summer of '63 - a station from St. Joe, KFEQ, that carried the St. Louis Cardinals' games. That year, the Cardinals were battling the LA Dodgers in a tight race for the National League pennant, and I found that it was a lot more fun rooting for a contender than for the sad-sack A's.

Yes, I rooted for the A's, but I decided pretty quickly that the Cardinals were my great love. Late that season, they put on a dramatic surge, winning 19 of 20 to pull to within a game of the Dodgers, but never quite caught them. The Dodgers of Koufax and Drysdale went on to a four-game sweep of the mighty Yankees in the World Series that year.

But that didn't dampen my enthusiasm for the Cardinals. They were my team!

Then, in June 1964, something happened to put a face on those Cardinals for me - a player who would become, for me, even larger than the team.

Nowadays the trade deadline is July 31, but back then it was June 15. On June 15, 1964, I was away at a science & nature camp for which my parents had signed me up. (From my perspective today, as a seasoned parent and grandparent, I totally understand - they wanted a couple of weeks of peace and quiet!) To be truthful, I hated that camp. Nature hikes, learning how to identify different flora and fauna? I even wrote a song while I was there, which I had the whole camp singing by the time it was over; I titled it, "I wanna get out of camp," which was also the lyrics - one line, repeated over and over ad nauseam, "I wanna get out of camp." No, originality and creativity weren't exactly my thing back then.

One thing that made the camp bearable, however, was turning on my transistor radio and listening to the Cardinals' games. One night, the Cardinals' legendary broadcasters Harry Caray and Jack Buck were telling about a new leftfielder who had just come to the Cardinals at the trade deadline, in a trade with the Chicago Cubs.

Yes, June 15, 1964 - fifty years ago today.

That leftfielder's name? LOU BROCK

I had barely heard of Lou before that time, didn't know a thing about him, except that the Cardinals had traded a pretty good pitcher, Ernie Broglio, to get him. But it didn't take me long to embrace the trade - and the player. You see, Johnny Keane, the Cardinals' manager, DID know a few things about Lou Brock. Most of all, he knew that this kid - who would turn 25 three days after the trade - had two of the quickest feet in major league baseball; not only that, he knew how to use them on base to get in a pitcher's head, throw off the pitcher's rhythm and timing. And he knew how to run! Oh, did he know how to run . . . and run . . . and run!

So when Lou came to the Cardinals, the first thing Johnny Keane did was to turn him loose. Most players didn't steal a base without a sign from the base coach or the dugout. But Johnny told Lou he didn't need a sign. He trusted Lou's own instincts, and he wanted Lou to take advantage of those instincts.

It didn't take but just a few days - I was still at camp - for me to fall in love with the way this kid played baseball. It brought to mind Pepper Martin of the Cardinals' old Gas House Gang back in the '30s, which I had read about. (I knew - and know - my baseball history, folks; I devoured it when I was growing up.) I loved that style of baseball - and still do!

Untethered and turned loose, Lou started running. Immediately! Within just a few days after that trade, I decided Lou Brock was my favorite player.

Before long, I was clipping pictures from the newspaper of Lou stealing bases. Those pictures wound up plastered all over the walls of my bedroom as I was growing up.

I had a couple of other sports heroes in those years, too, and they rank today as my second and third favorite athletes of all time. As I said in beginning this post, the sports heroes of our youth tend to stick with us. No matter how many others come along to divert our attention as the years go by, those sports heroes we grew up idolizing can never be replaced.

For me, those other two athletes were Muhammad Ali and Len Dawson. Daddy and I listened (and watched, if possible, though few of his fights were shown live) together to all of Ali's fights, beginning with the 1964 bout in which Ali took the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston. Then we would watch the analysis on ABC's Wide World of Sports, where Ali would sit down and banter with Howard Cosell. Ali was larger than life. It wasn't that I was a boxing fan. Truth be told, I haven't watched a fight in over 30 years. I felt like, after Ali retired, what's the point?

Len Dawson was the quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs. The Dallas Texans of the American Football League had moved from Dallas to KC after the 1962 season, and I fell in love with the Chiefs just as quickly as I had with the baseball Cardinals. "Lenny the Cool," as some had nicknamed him, was an exceptionally gifted quarterback, and was truly a cool customer. He wound up leading the Chiefs to the first Super Bowl against the Packers and winning the fourth one over the Vikings.

But neither Ali nor Dawson could match Lou Brock in my esteem. Maybe it was because I love baseball more than football or boxing. All I know is that I'll always be thankful to Bing Devine, the Cardinals' general manager at the time, for pulling off that trade, because Lou sure gave me a lot of enjoyment over the years.

Back to 1964. Lou was hitting .251 for the Cubs at the time of the trade, with 10 stolen bases. After coming to the Cardinals, he hit .348 the rest of the season (raising his overall batting average for the season to .315), with 33 stolen bases. In the last 10 days of the season, the Cardinals made a mad dash to the National League pennant.

This was the year of the infamous collapse of the Phillies, led by Manager Gene Mauch, who led the National League by 6-1/2 games with only two weeks left. In a classic case of overmanaging, especially with a comfortable lead, Mauch tried to squeeze an extra start out of each of his top starting pitchers, Jim Bunning and Chris Short, by starting them on short rest. It backfired! The Phillies ended up tied for second place with the Reds, and the Cardinals won the pennant on the last day of the season.

So it was the Cardinals who would meet those mighty Yankees. In fact, 1964 would turn out to be the last hurrah for the Yankees of that era. From 1949-1964, they appeared in 14 of 16 World Series, missing only in 1954 & 1959, winning nine of those 14. But several of their key players had grown old together. Now Yogi Berra was a player-manager, with the emphasis on manager; Mickey Mantle's knees, a problem ever since he tripped on a drainpipe during a game in 1951, were becoming increasingly painful (I saw him in a game on Memorial Day 1964 in KC, and he was taken out early in the game, which had become typical when the Yankees got a big lead early); and age was starting to take its toll on Whitey Ford, too.

The Cardinals beat the Yankees in seven games. Lou Brock was one of the main forces in their win, hitting .300 with a homer, two doubles, five RBIs, but no stolen bases.

Those Cardinals of Lou Brock and Bob Gibson wound up going to three World Series in five years, winning another seven-game series in 1967 against the Red Sox and losing in seven games to the Tigers in 1968. In that 1967 series, Lou set a World Series record with seven stolen bases. He tied his own record against the Tigers in 1968. Almost 50 years later, no player has ever matched that record. In three World Series, Lou compiled a batting average of .391 in 87 at-bats, a record that still stands in 2014 for all players who have more than 75 at-bats in World Series play.

By the time Lou retired at the end of the 1979 season, he had amassed 938 stolen bases, a major league record that has since been eclipsed by only Rickey Henderson, though Lou is still the National League record-holder. In 1974, he set the record for stolen bases in a season, 118, another record that has been broken only once, by Rickey Henderson. Lou is still the only player in baseball history to collect 50 or more stolen bases in 12 consecutive seasons. Henderson never came close to even tying that record. In 1967, he became the first player in history to steal 50 bases and hit 20 home runs in the same season. Finally, on August 13, 1979, he became only the 14th player in history to get 3,000 base hits in a career. That, along with the stolen base records, puts him in an elite class of baseball players.

In 1985, his first year eligible, Lou was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

On Good Friday 2001, I was driving in Dallas, listening to Mike Rhyner and Greg Williams' "Hardline" show on "The Ticket" sports talk radio station. They mentioned that "the great Lou Brock" would be with them after a station break. So I kept it tuned there. When they returned from break, they explained that Lou would be appearing later that afternoon, from 4-5:30, at the Blockbuster at Skillman & Abrams. He would be signing autographs as a promotion for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, tied into MasterCard. MasterCard had created a special card featuring Lou Brock's picture; MasterCard would be donating a specified amount to Boys & Girls Clubs of America for every Lou Brock MasterCard "purchased."

Well, that's all I had to hear! I hurried home to Plano and went through my old Cardinals memorabilia. I found a 1967 Sports Illustrated featuring Lou and his teammates on the cover - the first starting nine (including their ace pitcher, Bob Gibson) to total over $1 million in salary; keep in mind that I said "total." It was a different day and age. Then I found a Cardinals Yearbook from 1965.

I gathered up those two items and hurried back to Dallas, searching for that Blockbuster. I pulled up at 5:25 p.m., with only 5 minutes to spare. I went in, and there he was - big as life - Lou Brock. There was one person talking to him, and no one else in line. When it was my turn, I took the opportunity to tell him how much enjoyment he had given me over the years - especially in the '60s, when I was growing up - and ask for his autograph on my memorabilia. His wife, Jackie, was helping him with the MasterCard sign-up. So I agreed to sign up for a MasterCard; after all, it gave me more time to stand there and chat with him. He thumbed through the Cardinals Yearbook, commenting, "Boy, this really takes me back!"

When I finished signing up for the MasterCard, Jackie tore off the part of the application that she didn't need and handed it to Lou, saying, "Here, sign this one for him, too." (Jackie was very friendly and helpful; thanks for getting me the extra autograph, Jackie!) So I got three autographs!

Then three teenaged boys walked up and just kind of looked at Lou, trying to figure out what was going on. Jackie asked them, "Do you guys know who Lou Brock is?" They shook their heads - they had no clue. That was the opening I was waiting for. I turned to them and said, "He's the greatest ballplayer who ever played the game!" I know I totally embarrassed Lou, but I loved it! A moment later, Lou said, "Well, I guess it's time for us to close up shop here." So I shook his hand one more time, leaned over, and said, "One more thing, Lou. Rickey Henderson couldn't carry your cleats!" He just grinned, and I left. As soon as I got to my car, I called Daddy, because Daddy and I enjoyed sharing our love for baseball through the years, and he knew just how much Lou Brock had meant to me.
A few months later, Joanna and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. Aided by our son, Travis, she bought me a present - a framed photo of Lou Brock on his way to pilfering another base. It hangs in my study to this day.

To this day, most baseball experts consider the Ernie Broglio-for-Lou Brock trade the most lopsided trade in baseball history. Thank you, Bing Devine!

Three days from now, Lou - who today, with his wife Jackie, leads a Christian ministry - will turn 75. Happy birthday, Lou . . . and thanks for the memories.

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