Wednesday, February 18, 2015

On Art, Poetry, and Lou Brock

Dreams brimming over,
childhood stretched out in legs,
this is the moment replayed on winter days
when frost covers the field,
when age steals away wishes.
Glorious sleep that seeps back there
to the glory of our baseball days.
--Marjorie Maddox

It is the middle of February and winter has once again tested my patience. A layer of snow presently covers the ground outside of our Jenkintown home, with more snow expected in the days to come. As cold air sweeps in from the upper Midwest, I glance out my window and dream of spring, when baseball and sunshine warms my senses and fills the void of winter’s darkness. Just now, a hint of blue becomes visible in the daytime sky; the sun gently forces its way through the surrounding clouds and announces its continued relevance. There is hope yet for spring.

Sheltered from the cold, I sit in my study and find myself drawn to a copy of the July 22, 1974, edition of Sports Illustrated, a picture of Lou Brock stealing second adorning the cover. “Thief at Work” is the title story, a six-page spread of text and color photos on the artistry and science of base stealing. Brock was 35 years old in 1974, the year he stole 118 bases and broke the single-season record set in 1962 by Maury Wills of the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Only fifteen years old that summer, I can still sense the rush of excitement when seeing the cover story, a rare moment when “my team” was the focus of media attention. Despite a quite limited budget in those days, I purchased a copy, and read and devoured every word.

Dom DeLillo writes, it is “the deep Eros of memory that separates baseball from other sports.” From the moment I became captivated by the game, Lou Brock was and remains among my all-time favorite baseball players. Along with Bob Gibson and Orlando Cepeda, Brock was in my youth the most exciting and interesting player to watch in all of baseball. No one looked better in a red-and-white Cardinals uniform than Brock, who was agile, athletic, and fast. Charming and good-natured, he was the consummate professional, a gentleman on and off the field. It was pure fun to watch and study his mastery of the base paths. Whenever Cardinals’ games were televised in those days, the networks used a split screen anytime Brock made it to first base. It showed the game within a game, the cat-and-mouse action between the pitcher and the base runner; the pitcher desperately trying to keep Brock close, to cause him to hesitate, to think twice about stealing, to pierce his confidence. Rarely were such antics successful, as anxious defenders became distracted and uptight. Simply by standing on first base, Brock changed the dynamics of the game.

When he reached on a single, a walk, or an error, it was not whether he would attempt a steal, but when. “I don’t steal the base as much as I take it,” Brock told Sports Illustrated. “To me, the word steal contains the element of surprise and I don’t surprise anyone when I head for second base. The other clubs would be surprised if I didn’t.”

Brock on the bases was poetry in motion, an artist at the height of his perfection; although to Brock, base stealing was a science, the result of study and timing and calculated risk. A math major in college, Brock learned that the ninety feet distance from first to second base required exactly 13 strides and 3.5 seconds at full speed. He studied the pitcher’s movements and determined at what point in the delivery the pitcher was committed to throwing home. Brock was among the first players to use a stopwatch on the sidelines to time the pitcher’s motion. He used an 8-millimeter camera to film pitchers, and he closely watched pre-game warm-ups so he could time the opposing catcher’s throws to second base. He learned that, in most cases, it was the jump on the pitcher, not the strength or quickness of the catcher’s arm, which determined if he was safe or out.

The stolen base is a lost art in the game today, but in 1974 speed was a more valued skill. That season, Brock stole second base 112 times (he stole third base six times), which effectively converted 112 singles and walks into doubles. When combined with the 25 doubles he did hit, he had the equivalent of 137 doubles as the Cardinals’ lead-off man that year. For a team that hit few home runs, Brock’s speed and base running was an essential reason the Cardinals remained in the thick of the pennant race until the final days of the season. It was the age of Small Ball, when a walk, a stolen base, a ground ball to second, and a sacrifice fly could plate a run without a single hit in the inning. Brock performed that trick countless times throughout his career. To allow Brock on base was often to concede a run.

As with many of the most talented athletes, life is seemingly easy, and baseball a simple game. When a rookie once asked the great Stan Musial for advice on hitting, Musial reportedly said, “Well, son, what I try to do is look for a good pitch to hit, and then hit it as hard as I can.” When Brock invested in a flower shop in Clayton, Missouri, an old teammate asked him, “Lou, what the heck do you know about flowers?” Brock answered, “I know a lot about flowers. Those are red, those are yellow, and the ones over there are purple and green.” What more did he need to know? I suspect baseball was like that for Brock as well.

Brock was raised on a cotton plantation in southern Louisiana, a poor black boy in the deep South long before civil rights and integration became the law of the land. Despite the odds against him, he earned an academic scholarship to Southern University, his baseball skills as yet unearthed. But he lost his scholarship after the first semester because his grades dipped below a “B” average. During the break, he volunteered to retrieve balls for Southern’s baseball team. Only after he pestered the coaches to give him a tryout was he finally given a chance. At the end of practice one day, the coaching staff allowed him five swings in batting practice. Brock hit three of the pitches over the fence. He was awarded a baseball scholarship on the spot.

He quickly became a star college player and in 1961, before completing his senior year, the Chicago Cubs signed Brock to a major league contract. After an impressive year in the minor leagues, the Cubs, who considered Brock a young talent of great promise, promoted him to the big leagues at the end of the 1962 season. But he never caught on in Chicago. The Cubs thought he was a power hitter and assigned him to right field without teaching him how to handle the deadly sun-drenched day games at Wrigley Field; Brock was a disappointment. After one Chicago sportswriter declared him the worst outfielder in baseball, Brock was traded in the middle of the 1964 season to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for pitcher Ernie Broglio. To this day, “Brock for Broglio” is remembered as the most lopsided trade in baseball history, from which Chicagoans have never recovered.

The Cardinals were an under-achieving team, playing below .500 when Brock arrived in June of 1964. He immediately felt at home in St. Louis. The Cardinals manager, Johnny Keane, liked Brock’s speed and asked him to get on base, not swing for the fences. Brock batted .348 the remainder of the year and quickly established himself as one of the best leadoff hitters and base stealers in all of baseball. The Cardinals won the pennant following a late-season Phillies collapse and beat the dreaded New York Yankees in a seven-game series in October.

I first discovered Brock in 1967, when I was eight years old and fell in love with the Birds on the Bat. Lou Brock was a major reason why I became a life-long Cardinals fan. When the Cardinals won the World Series that year against the Boston Red Sox, Brock batted .414 and stole seven bases, a World Series record. I rushed home from school every day during the Series and watched the games on our black-and-white television in the family room, a ritual I repeated in 1968 when the Cardinals again won the pennant and faced off in the Series against the Detroit Tigers. Although the Cards broke my heart that year, it was through no fault of Brock, who again stole seven bases in seven games and batted .391.

It is impossible to imagine the St. Louis Cardinals of the 1960’s and 1970’s without Lou Brock. He was their leadoff batter in virtually every game he played for a sixteen-year stretch. He retired in the fall of 1979, when I was a junior in college. Until that point, for most of my childhood and years afterward, Lou Brock was the St. Louis Cardinals. I wrote Brock’s name into my daily lineup card every day for eight years when I played Strat-O-Matic baseball as a kid. I kept his batting statistics and meticulously recorded his every stolen base. I went to see him play when the Cardinals came to Philadelphia, the thrill of childhood rushing through me when he trotted out to left field from the Cardinals dugout. I was mesmerized every time he stepped to the plate. 

An athlete of poetry and grace, Brock was my DiMaggio, my Williams, my Clemente. As David Halberstam wrote of DiMaggio in Summer of ’49 (William Morrow and Company, 1989), Brock’s “grace came to represent more than athletic skill in those years. To the men who wrote about the game, it was a talisman, a touchstone, a symbol of the limitless potential of the human individual.” He was a sharecropper’s son who could run the bases “the way Keats wrote poetry or Beethoven wrote sonatas."

There are times, notes Thomas Boswell, when baseball “is to our everyday experience what poetry often is to common speech — a slightly elevated and concentrated form.” Lou Brock was that kind of player. He was not simply a fast runner and artful base stealer who compiled 938 career stolen bases; not merely one of the best leadoff hitters to ever play the game, accumulating 3,023 hits in 19 big league seasons. He was what brought us to the ballpark, and why the first thing we did every morning was check the morning box scores. He kept me glued to the television set on humid summer evenings in New Jersey when the Cardinals played uneventful games against the Mets and the Phillies.

Lou Brock, his poetic grace in the batter’s box, his artistry on the base paths, his smooth athleticism in left field, were why a young boy from New Jersey was captured by the game of baseball and, years later, remains enchanted with the game through the memories of days long gone. It is how I came to understand, in the words of Boswell, that in baseball, “as in many things, the ending, the final score, is only part of what matters. The process, the pleasure, the grain of the game count too.” 

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