|Fans in1961 watch the Rox. (WJON image)|
Lou Brock won the batting title with a .361 average in his season at St. Cloud. The Rox were the Chicago Cubs' Northern League affiliate. Brock led the league in runs scored with 117, doubles with 33, hits with 181 and putouts with 277. He also gave signs of what was to become his prime trademark in the bigs: speed on the basepaths. He stole 38 bases.
This kind of quality was not going to keep him in St. Cloud for a long time. That's the heartbreak of being a minor league fan. Ted Williams was not going to be remembered as a member of the Minneapolis Millers, nor Willie Mays. Their minor league time ends up as an asterisk.
On to the Chicago Cubs
The conclusion of Brock's exciting summer with St. Cloud saw him get called up by the Cubs in September. Brock played in four games but managed just one hit. Everyone saw Brock's innate ability. He was fast but he had power.
In the next spring he hit a 480-foot home run. His speed on a drag bunt was overwhelming. He had rough edges which is why he was assigned his stint with St. Cloud. Night games dominated his time with the St. Cloud Rox. So when he made his next big step to the bigs, he lacked proficiency with sunglasses!
He was still in development as a member of the Cubs. That's why he isn't remembered today as a Cub. Oh, but I still remember his baseball card for 1964 when he was photographed as a Cub, even though he was destined to be a key player with St. Louis that season.
David Halberstam wrote a book about the 1964 baseball season. I bought it and read it. As I recall, Halberstam saw symbolism in the season: the decline of the Yankees of that era, and the rise of St. Louis with its many players of color and stress on speed. I really don't know about the symbolism.
Weren't the Yankees bought by CBS at that time? I recall a syndicated cartoon that had a Yankee being interviewed post-game and giving a plug for the "Munsters" comedy sitcom (a satire on monster movies).
All dynasties come to an end. The fact the Yankees lost the World Series to Brock's Cardinals in 1964 did not mean the Bronx crew was suddenly mediocre. Journalists can simplify things. Oh wait, that's me! The Yankees probably fell from their pedestal midway in '65 when Harmon Killebrew hit a game-winning home run at Met Stadium that really seemed like a knockout punch, it really did.
Lou Brock had inconsistency on defense early in his big league career. He had an intense attitude which normally would be seen as a plus, but in Brock's case it seemed to be a hindrance. He could "press." In the long run that intensity was probably a nugget for his greatness. Different coaches were influencing him in different directions. Hit to the opposite field? There was uncertainty. His power meant he probably should pull the ball.
A mammoth home run in NYC
Let's focus on June 17, 1962, when the Cubs played the new and mediocre New York Mets at the old Polo Grounds in New York City. It was a doubleheader. There were two outs in the first inning. Brock stepped up to bat against Al Jackson. Jackson (BTW an African-American) delivered a slider that Brock had all figured out. There's a deep drive to center. Richie Ashburn of the Mets raced back. Ashburn was a 1950s baseball icon who played his last year with those forlorn Mets (but he batted over .300). Brock initially thought he'd get a triple from this blast. Around second base, he saw an umpire make a sign that seemed to indicate "home run." Or, was umpire Stan Landes just indicating that this was a potential inside-the-park home run? Brock kept accelerating. He crossed home plate still thinking this was an inside-the-park job.
The Polo Grounds were a cavernous place with fences way out there. A teammate informed Brock that the ball had cleared the fence. Why was this significant? Brock was now only the third player to hit a ball out of the Polo Grounds to center in a major league game. Babe Ruth did it in 1921. Joe Adcock performed the feat in 1953, and Luke Easter did it in a Negro League game in 1948.
Fast-forward to 1964: Brock wasn't setting the world on fire as a Cub. He became trade bait. It ended up as a rather famous trade for its one-sidedness. Brock for Ernie Broglio? Broglio had been impressive but he was a pitcher - pitchers are susceptible to sore arms, and this was an especially big problem in the age before the pitch count. Broglio had a sore arm at the time of the trade. The Cubs were desperate for pitching. Broglio did not recover. Meanwhile, "the rest was history," as they say, with Brock and his talents with the Cardinals.
Becoming a star with St. Louis
In his first World Series at-bat, Brock lined a single to right off Whitey Ford. Dick Groat singled to right. (I love typing some of these old names.) Brock took advantage of an aging Mickey Mantle in right field and took third on Groat's hit. Brock scored on Ken Boyer's sacrifice fly. The second inning saw Brock throw out Ford at the plate. The Cardinals won the game 9-5. Yes, the complexion of this game showed the Cards as a quicker and more aggressive team, which was not lost on author Halberstam.
Game 5 saw Brock get two hits. Brock's bat produced three hits in Game 6 but the Yankees won, evening the Series. In Game 7, with St. Louis up 3-0, Brock ignited a three-run fifth with a tremendous home run off Al Downing. The blast cleared the right field pavilion and landed on Grand Boulevard! The Cardinals won 7-5 and took the Series. Brock hit .300 for the Series with two doubles, a home run and five RBIs. He was now a guaranteed-not-to-tarnish star. His year of development in St. Cloud produced dividends.
St. Cloud! It's almost hard to believe today, that St. Cloud had such an important baseball team once. The decline of that institution may have come about because of the creation of the Minnesota Twins. The Twins captured the attention of everyone in Minny. The Rox and any other team below major league probably seemed passe, and that's too bad.
Brock ended up with a spectacular major league career, and he most certainly became proficient with sunglasses! I had a fondness for the Cardinals in the 1960s. Former Rox player Orlando Cepeda played for St. Louis in 1967 and '68. Ah, the days before player strikes! If we could only erase the Viet Nam war from that era.