Baseball’s great record-breaking ‘thief’

Lou Brock was somewhere in St. Louis. I was in a hotel room in Houston, on deadline, sweating over writing a story about him for Maclean’s Magazine. At the 11th hour, he returned my call. Stop the press.

Brock was hard to catch in those days, by pitchers and catchers trying to throw out the greatest base-stealer of all time, and by reporters trying to interview him. On the final countdown he was under siege, like Roger Maris before him and Barry Bonds after him. Yet he called.

Passing Ty Cobb’s record of 892 stolen bases was inevitable. It was three years after he stole 118 bases, galloping past the one-season record of 104, set by Maury Wills in 1962. That had also been Cobb’s record, for 47 years.

“The record in 1974 called for high-quality performance,” Brock said that day. “You’re dealing with a refinement of time. A certain thing had to be accomplished in a certain time for it to be recognized. This is something we know is going to happen. It’s just a matter of when.”

Five days after we spoke, Brock stole his 893rd base. When his career ended in 1979, he stopped running at 938. Only Rickey Henderson (1,406) later passed him. Today, no active player ranks in the top 100.

A mathematics major, Brock made base-stealing a science long before it became one.

“Because of the rhetoric of scouting reports, they’d say this guy’s tough, this guy’s fast, this guy’s quick,” he said. “That became phraseology without meaning, in terms of time, and I think you can put a clock on that and find out how tough, how fast, how quick.”

It was early-day analytics. In 19 seasons, Brock averaged 58 stolen bases. The last 10 major-league stolen base champions (excluding the COVID season) averaged 54, a figure Brock surpassed nine times.

Yet he was almost as good at hitting as stealing. The first time I saw Lou Brock, an outfielder with the St. Cloud Rox, he won the Northern League batting title. I was just a fan in the stands when St. Cloud visited Winnipeg, but you never forget a batting champion. Thirteen years later, smashing the stolen-base record made him a National League MVP candidate, and I was a voter. My ballot went to Brock but he finished second to Steve Garvey. One voter I knew had Brock FIFTH.

“Brock earned it,” he said told me three years later, reverting to the third person. “But he didn’t win it.”

He had MVP votes in 10 seasons, and that was the closest he came. Teammates credited Brock with being the catalyst on two World Series champions in St. Louis. He became a Hall of Famer the first year he was eligible. Only three others (Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Luke Easter) hit home runs over the centre-field wall at New York’s Polo Grounds, and only one other (Henderson) had 3,000 hits and 900 stolen bases.

His life’s bitter irony is that, five years before he died in 2020, diabetes led to amputating one of his legs.