Lou Brock becomes all-time stolen base leader August 29, 1977 in San Diego
Former St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lou Brock died Sunday, just days after the passing of fellow Baseball Hall of Famer Tom Seaver. As I mourned the loss of two MLB greats that I grew up following, I was also reminded just how different an era it was.
By the 1970s the stolen base had become an art form. It started when Maury Wills stole 104 bases in 117 attempts for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1962. Wills played all 165 regular season games, including a three-game tiebreaker series against the San Francisco Giants to determine the National League champion. In his 14 year career Wills stole 586 bases, along with just 20 home runs, which might be exceeded by a few players in 2020’s truncated 60-game season.
Lou Brock took base running to an even higher level, eight stolen base titles while eclipsing Wills single-season mark with 118 steals in 1974, and eventually Ty Cobb’s career record with a final total of 938. For good measure Brock recorded 3,023 hits and possessed some power with 149 home runs.
Brock retired in 1979, the same year a brash outfielder named Rickey Henderson made his debut with the Oakland Athletics. By 1983 Henderson had eclipsed the century mark in steals three times, including a ridiculous 130 thefts in 172 attempts in 1981.
On May 1, 1991 Henderson became baseball’s career stolen base leader, ripped third base from its moorings (radio call by A’s play-by-play legend Bill King), then proclaimed himself as ‘The Greatest’. By the time his career finally ended 12 years later Henderson had 1,406 stolen bases and remains MLB’s all-time leader in runs scored (2,295) and caught stealing (335), standards that will likely prove unbreakable.
Base stealing became a science, and others defined the latter-half of the 20th Century. Tim Raines stole at least 70 bases in his first six seasons with the Montreal Expos. Davey Lopes stole 38 consecutive bases successfully for the Dodgers and finished with a 83 percent career success rate. Vince Coleman stole 100-plus bases his first three years with the Cardinals (1985-1987) while teammates Willie McGee and Ozzie Smith also got their share of steals. Willie Wilson featured incredible speed and was a master of the inside-the-park home run during his 15-year stay with the Kansas City Royals.
Some base stealers went deep as well. Bobby Bonds made 30-30 (home runs and steals) a regular occurrence during the 1970s. Barry Bonds became a 30-30 player himself early in his career. Jose Canseco upped the ante and became baseball’s first 40-40 player in 1988.
In the 1970s and 1980s the American and National Leagues featured very different styles of play. With the designated hitter, older ballparks and quirky dimensions, the American League was known more for the long ball. But even in the AL the home run was not nearly as prevalent as today, New York Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles won the 1976 home run title with a mere total of 32.
The National League became a haven for ‘cookie-cutter’ ballparks with symmetrical dimensions. At one point seven of the NL’s 12 venues featured artificial turf and other venues such as San Diego and Los Angeles were known as pitchers parks where small-ball was important. Royals Stadium in Kansas City also featured lengthy dimensions and artificial turf, so the American League Royals were constructed like a National League team.
St. Louis's Busch Stadium in the 1970s
The game was played different, since most pitchers did not have the strikeout capability of today’s counterparts. As a leadoff batter, strikeouts were frowned upon, ditto for hitting fly balls. Speedsters became adept at hitting grounders with the possibility of either beating out an infield hit or scooting the ball scoot through the artificial surfaces. Walks were valued (and frowned on for pitchers), which base stealers effectively turned into doubles or even triples.
Hitting coach Charley Lau was well-known during the era. The Charley Lau theory preached contact and hitting the ball where pitched. It was a concept that helped many hitters get on base and be successful on the base paths. In today’s game of home runs, defensive shifts and obsession of advanced stats, the Charley Lau theory’s become antiquated.
The game has seen evolution in recent years. Mike Trout stole 49 bases in his first full season in 2012 but provides so much value as a hitter that the wear and tear is not worth the effort of a stolen base. Catcher Yadier Molina has become a Cardinals legend for defensing would-be base stealers just as Brock did stealing bases. Pitchers and catchers in general continue to perfect quicker releases, the end result being a much lowered success rate, and a risk-reward not worth it in the current game where almost anyone at the plate is capable of a home run.
They do not make them like Lou Brock or Tim Raines or Rickey Henderson anymore, but historians continue to fondly remember when speed on the bases ruled.