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The part of the Lou Brock trade we don’t talk about

Maybe there were no curses, just racism

Lou Brock as a Cub at the Polo Grounds in 1962
Getty Images

Yesterday the baseball world lost Hall of Fame outfielder Lou Brock. As ESPN Sunday Night Baseball kicked off coverage of the Cubs/Cardinals game with 20 games left for the Cubs and about half a season left for the Cardinals the Cubs did exactly what all teams are expected to do: Honor the legends we’ve lost, especially when they’ve worn both uniforms. So the game kicked off with a moment of silence for Lou Brock, who played for just two teams, the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals.

A moment of silence and respect is generally how we remember our baseball heroes. But Lou Brock’s story with the Cubs is more complicated than a moment of silence. Brock was a tremendous ballplayer and the Cubs were worse for trading him. There is evidence that trade was motivated by racism.

Brock struggled with the Cubs who were in their “College of Coaches” phase. The chaos of that era was less than ideal for developing new talent. Buck O’Neil advised against the trade and was overruled according to this stunning piece from the Chicago Reader in 2014:

Some have suggested that the Cubs’ bias against black players continued after the 1950s. The team’s longtime African-American scout, the late Buck O’Neil, signed most of the team’s black players through the early 1960s. Many of them were soon traded.

“There was an unwritten quota system” in baseball, O’Neil wrote in a 2002 essay in Baseball as America, a book published for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. “They didn’t want but so many black kids on a major league ballclub.”

O’Neil was a Cubs coach in 1964 when the team had five black players. One of them was a young outfielder named Lou Brock. When O’Neil heard that general manager John Holland was planning to trade Brock, he advised him not to. “I don’t think we’ll have our best ballclub on the field,” he told Holland. O’Neil wrote in his essay that Holland then “started pulling out letters and notes from people, season ticket holders, saying that their grandfather had season tickets here at Wrigley Field, or their grandmother . . . and their families had come here for years. And do you know what these letters went on to say? ‘What are you trying to make the Chicago Cubs into? The Kansas City Monarchs?’”

The Cubs traded Brock to Saint Louis that summer for a sore-armed white pitcher, Ernie Broglio. It’s regarded as one of the worst trades in baseball history. Brock helped the Cardinals win the World Series that year, and went on to set many base-stealing records and total more than 3,000 hits on his way to the Hall of Fame. Broglio won seven games for the Cubs before his bum arm forced him to retire in 1966.

Banks told me he recalled the club trading away many young black players. “They were with us two years, and then we’d trade them, I don’t know why. Maybe they just wanted more, uh, veteran players.”

I read this piece a couple of years ago, I’ve read it a few dozen times since, and every time I read it I can’t shake this thought: maybe there were no curses, just racism.

I’ll be clear: It wasn’t just the Cubs. There were other teams who let their racial bias impact their ability to put the best team on the field, most notably the supposedly “cursed” Boston Red Sox, as MassLive reported in 2014:

[Jackie] Robinson tried out for the Red Sox in 1945. The event was a dog-and-pony show designed to placate local politicians and media, and went nowhere.

This team’s “curse’’ was its owner’s stewardship of a whites-only roster. The team’s backward racial attitude haunted the Red Sox for years after Yawkey’s death - arguably, in fact, until the current owners took over in 2003.

That is Tom Yawkey’s legacy. Yawkey Way stands as a reminder of Yawkey’s way, a salute to a man who stood on the morally wrong side of 20th century history until being force-fed into the civil rights movement.

Along the way, he cost the Red Sox Robinson, Willie Mays, and a morally defensible stand.

I wasn’t around to watch the 1969 team, but I know for many readers here that team is a formative part of your Cubs fandom. I want you to sit back and imagine for a moment a 1969 team that has Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins and Lou Brock.

It isn’t comfortable to grapple with this part of the Cubs’ history. It certainly doesn’t make a good soundbite on Sunday Night Baseball. But as the baseball world remembers Lou Brock today, it seems important that we remember the whole story, including the role racism played in one of the worst trades in baseball history.