Of all the legends in Cardinal history I’ve been lucky enough to see over the years, Lou Brock was the easiest to overlook. Not because he wasn’t great, but because he was the quiet, unassuming one.
The clubs of my youth had Ozzie Smith, himself very soft spoken, but his glove was undeniable. Willie McGee was my childhood favourite, speeding up as he rounded second base on his way to triple, pulling faces that no human being should be able to make. Later on we had Chris Carpenter, cursing and glaring, playing the villain to the rest of the league and thrilling the home crowd. Albert Pujols was absolutely incomparable, a metronome of excellence like no other player in my lifetime. Jim Edmonds was all drama and flash, laid out catches and that crazy uppercut hack. Scott Rolen was maybe the closest to Brock in terms of his workmanlike approach, though Rolen was always a bit more irascible than Lou.
Brock was the quiet man of the previous legendary period to the 80s, the last great era before Whiteyball came to town. Bob Gibson was the legendary intimidator, taking ownership of half the plate and daring his catcher to come out and try to talk to him. Stan Musial was, of course, The Man, and there will never be another like him. He was the face of the franchise from World War II to the mid 60s, and continued to be the player people most identified with the Cardinals pretty much until the day he died.
Lou, though, was different. When I was a kid, I had a hard time keeping Brock and Lou Rawls separate in my head. Partly it was because they were both named Lou, and partly because they really did look similar to one another as older men. I knew that Rawls was the guy with the telethon, and who sang all the songs for the Garfield holiday specials (the Garfield Halloween special has a couple all-time great songs in it), and Brock was the baseball legend, but if you showed me a picture of one of them, it was probably no better than 50/50 that I would guess the right one. I figured it out by the time I was probably nine or ten, but the two remained linked in my head pretty much my whole life.
I don’t know how to talk about the death of Lou Brock. He was the quiet legend, the guy who didn’t show up in the booth nearly so often as Gibby, who didn’t play the harmonica like Stan, who wasn’t on the national broadcasts like McCarver. I never saw him play live, but I saw the highlights of his 3000th hit and the stolen base that broke the single season record. And yet, he was the red jacket I had the least of a feel for, the guy who never seemed to make an impression as he glided through ceremonies and interviews. He always got a huge round of applause on Opening Day, but when he would be asked in to the booth he didn’t tell the best stories, or make a lot of noise, or seem all that interested in reliving the glory days the way some other legends do. Lou Brock seemed like a very nice man who just happened to be an all-time great baseball player, and those two facts seemed almost completely divorced from one another. Lou never let you know how great he was, even in small ways. Gibson is plenty humble, but you still get a feel for just what kind of competitor he was listening to him. Brock never gave any indication he was the greatest basestealer in National League history, nor that he was in the 3000 hit club, nor any other thing that was remarkable about him. You could find out pretty easily how great a player he was, but you were never going to hear it from him.
It seems fitting that on the day Brock passed away, the Cardinals and Cubs are currently bashing away at each other on the North Side of Chicago. Those are the franchises, of course, for which Brock played, one notably more successfully than the other. Brock for Broglio is a part of the baseball lexicon, an instant shorthand for a lopsided trade. Ernie Broglio was a fine pitcher when the Cardinals dealt him; Brock was a bundle of potential struggling to find his way with the Cubs. Broglio lasted only a few more seasons, Brock became the sort of player who confounds with how little he wants to talk about his greatness.
Lou never disappeared, but he was hard to get a handle on. Sometimes greatness doesn’t come in quite the package we expect. Instead, sometimes it’s a quiet man who swiped bases like almost no player before or since, who never felt the need to tell you who he was. The people around him would tell you, but he never did.
I have a piece of memorabilia in my spare room, one of the few real pieces of sports stuff I keep around. I’m not a big collector, don’t do autographs or a ton of jerseys. Every piece of memorabilia I own, I think, was a gift at one point or another. As much as I love the game, I don’t really collect a whole lot of stuff. I do have a print of the Dan Zettwoch game six artwork above my desk, which I suppose counts as memorabilia I myself purchased, so maybe I’m just a liar.
For my twelfth birthday, my mom’s boyfriend Lance bought me a piece of Lou Brock memorabilia. It’s a framed picture of Brock with his career stats all printed up and framed in oak. In 1992, I thought this was the coolest thing I had ever seen, partially because it really was super cool and partially because it was one of only two times Lance had money to buy me a gift. He was probably trying to stay sober at the time, so the cashflow was a little more generous than usual. I still have that picture on my wall, nearly 30 years after I got it. Lance died of a rare type of stomach cancer a few years ago; the last time I spoke to him he was in Cape Girardeau at a clinic there, trying to get treatment. It was too late. He talked about the murals on the seawalls in Cape; he was staying close to the river, and would go out for walks in the evenings, just looking at the murals. He wouldn’t let any of us come down to see him. I guess he didn’t want us to remember him like that, sick and sinking.
Lou Brock was the Cardinal legend I could never get a grasp on. Maybe it was because of that picture I’ve kept with me for my whole adult life. Brock was tied up with someone else in my own life, and anytime I thought of Brock I would think of that picture and what life was like in 1992. None of that has anything to do with Brock himself, but isn’t that the way our lives are built? A man plays for a team, and later on a boy who loves that team gets a poster from a man he sometimes wishes was his real dad, and the baseball player gets all twisted up with the guy who bought it for the kid. And years later, the kid grows up to write a bunch of words about that team, and when the player dies, the kid who is now a middle aged man himself has to tell a bunch of strangers about his childhood and a gift to try and make sense of how he feels about it all. Nothing is ever simple, nothing is ever just one thing.
Lou Brock was a great player, and a man who didn’t seem to need anyone to know it. But we all still knew it. And I have a picture on my wall to prove it.