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In remembrance of Lou Brock

The Hall of Famer passed away Sunday.

Would Lou Brock have had his Hall of Fame career as a Cub? Getty Images

If the Cubs had understood what they had in Lou Brock, rather than trying to make him something he wasn’t, I’d be writing this tribute to the Hall of Famer after his passing away Sunday at the age of 81 as one of the greatest Cubs of his time.

Brock came to the Cubs in the late 1950s along with several other Black players — Billy Williams and George Altman were probably the most notable, after Ernie Banks had paved the way for Black players to join the Cubs organization in 1953.

He made his debut September 10, 1961 and by the following spring was a regular in the Cubs lineup. He had a fine season in 1962 and a better one in 1963, but Cubs management wasn’t happy that he wasn’t hitting home runs like Banks, Williams and Altman.

Brock stole 24 bases in 1963, leading the team — no one else had more than eight. It was the most bases any Cub had stolen since 1930 (!) when Kiki Cuyler had 37.

At the time, the stolen base revolution was taking over baseball — Maury Wills had broken the season record just the year before, with 104. But the Cubs were late to the party and didn’t think Brock’s talent in stealing bases was important, a true organizational failure that wasn’t really corrected until the 1980s. They kept asking Brock to become a power hitter. He’d hit a home run into the center-field bleachers at the Polo Grounds in 1962, a tremendous blast (only four hitters ever did that), and so the Cubs tried to make the speedy Brock into a home run guy.

The 1963 Cubs finished over .500, the first time they’d done so in 17 years, and briefly inhabited first place that summer. So when the 1964 team started out poorly and Brock was in a terrible slump (.209/.253/.261 from May 4 through June 14, though, oddly enough, he homered in his final game as a Cub), the Cubs decided to trade him to the Cardinals for Ernie Broglio, who had put together several good seasons, including a 3.3 bWAR year in 1963. Pitching was perceived as the Cubs’ issue, as I wrote in this obituary of Broglio when he died last year:

The Cubs thought they had a steal when they acquired Broglio, reliever Bobby Shantz and outfielder Doug Clemens from the Cardinals for pitchers Jack Spring and Paul Toth and an outfielder who never fulfilled his promise as a Cub, some guy named Lou Brock.

The Cubs were thrilled with the deal. Ron Santo was quoted in the Tribune: “I just couldn’t believe it. I’ve been with this club four years now, and I’ve never had the feeling that we could go all the way. With our pitching staff now, we can win the pennant.” Most baseball analysts at the time thought the same.

Well, you know how this story ends. Broglio developed elbow trouble — something that could likely have been repaired by surgical techniques developed a decade or two later — and was out of baseball after 1966. Brock, immediately turned loose on the basepaths, stole 43 bases that year (only six Cubs have stolen that many or more bases in the 55 years since!) and the Cardinals won the World Series. He finished with 3,023 hits (still 28th all-time) and 938 stolen bases, second on the all-time list only to Rickey Henderson.

That’s the summation of the story, and “Brock for Broglio” is the worst trade in Cubs history and near the top of the list of worst trades in major-league history. Brock would have looked really good in the 1969 Cubs outfield; perhaps he’d have made the difference for the Cubs that year. On the other hand, here’s what Mike Bojanowski told me after Broglio’s passing:

I am convinced that Brock would not have become a HOFer had he remained with the Cubs. The Cardinals saw immediately what he could become, the Cubs never did. Another example of the sheer cluelessness that organization exhibited in those years.

That might very well be true. But if the Cubs had kept Brock, Leo Durocher surely would have set him loose on the basepaths when he took over the team in 1966.

In 1979, Brock got his 3,000th career hit off Cubs righthander Dennis Lamp. And when I say “off” him, I mean that literally:

Brock should be celebrated for his Hall of Fame career, and all of baseball mourns his passing. I only wish that career had been with the Cubs.

BCB’s Sara Sanchez will have another angle on Brock and the Cubs coming up at 10 a.m. CT.