September 10, 1974: Lou Brock breaks Maury Wills’ single-season stolen base record

It’s hard enough to break a modern-day major-league record when you’re healthy.

In 1974, injuries to both his hands may actually have helped Lou Brock break Maury Wills’ single-season stolen base record. Due to a right thumb injury, Brock had wrapped the digit in tape most of the season. On his left hand, a loose tendon would slide uncomfortably down off his middle knuckle during games.

As a result, Brock, who led the majors with 46 doubles in 1968 and seven double-digit home runs seasons to his credit, was primarily a singles hitter in 1974.

“I haven’t been able to rip the ball,” Brock said. “It’s almost like trying to learn to hit again.”[1]

All those singles led to more stolen-base opportunities for the 35-year-old outfielder. Brock ended August with 94 stolen bases, then stole four bags in a September 1 game against the Giants. He stole bases No. 100 and 101 in a September 6 contest against the Mets, then added two more in the series finale.

Heading into the Cardinals’ final game of the homestand against the Phillies on September 10, Brock was one stolen base shy of Wills’ record of 104.

Philadelphia was pitching Dick Ruthven, a 6-foot-3 right-hander they had made the first overall selection in the previous year’s January draft. The California product was 8-11 on the season with a 3.61 ERA and already had pitched against the Cardinals three times that season. In April, he allowed just one run over eight innings to earn his first win of the year, but in two later starts St. Louis had chased him from the game before the fourth inning.

The Cardinals answered with Alan Foster, a 27-year-old right-hander who was 7-9 with a 3.78 ERA entering the game. In the top of the first, Mike Schmidt greeted Foster with his major-league leading 35th home run of the season.

In the Cardinals’ half of the first, Brock led off with a single into left field. With Ruthven on the mound and 26-year-old catcher Bob Boone behind the plate, Brock waited just one pitch before taking off for second. Boone’s throw hit Brock in the shoulder and deflected into left field, allowing Brock to advance to third.

Cardinals assistant general manager Jim Toomey called commissioner Bowie Kuhn from the press box to update him.

“Tell Lou he’s the most exciting player in baseball,” Kuhn replied.[2]

Reggie Smith doubled to score Brock and Ted Simmons added an RBI single to give St. Louis a short-lived 2-1 lead. Two innings later, Schmidt hit an RBI double to left to tie the game. In the fifth, Schmidt and Willie Montanez each drove in runs to give the Phillies a 6-2 lead.

Brock hit his second single of the day to lead off the seventh inning, giving him his first crack at the stolen-base record. Infielders Dave Cash and Schmidt visited Ruthven on the mound, who held the ball a long while before finally pitching to the Cardinals’ Ron Hunt. As Ruthven delivered the first pitch, Hunt called time and the play was ruled no pitch.

Ruthven then attempted a pickoff, but Brock returned easily to first base.

Finally, Ruthven threw home again and Hunt fouled the ball off. After another pickoff attempt, Boone came to the mound to confer with Ruthven. On Ruthven’s next pitch, Brock took off. Boone’s throw arrived late and in the dirt, and the single-season stolen base record belonged to Brock.

Smith and Simmons led a rush of teammates to congratulate Brock, accompanied by photographers seeking to capture the moment. Cool Papa Bell, who led the Negro Leagues in stolen bases seven times during his 21-year career, presented Brock with second base.

“They decided to give him this base so he could take it home,” Bell said. “If not, he’d steal it anyway.”[3]

A microphone was brought onto the field and the game was halted for 11 minutes despite protests from Boone, who complained to the home-plate umpire. In his remarks, Brock recognized his “partner in crime,” Ted Sizemore, who usually batted behind Brock but was out of the lineup with an ankle injury. Brock also thanked trainer Gene Gieselmann, teammates Smith and Bake McBride, and his many fans in the left-field stands – affectionately called the “Base Burglars 105 Club.”[4]

In the end, Brock concluded the celebration. “We’d like to get back on the field and catch up with these Philadelphia Phillies, who seem to be beating our brains out tonight,” he said.[5]

There would be no comeback this evening, however, as Boone and Ruthven each hit RBI singles off Sonny Siebert in the seventh and the Phillies went on to an 8-2 win.

In the ninth inning, Brock reached first on an error by Phillies shortstop Larry Bowa and attempted his third steal of the night. This time, Boone threw Brock out, though after the game he was still angry about the ninth-inning attempt.

“I thought it was brutal,” he said. “I lost a lot of respect for him because of that. They are fighting for the pennant and you damn well better make it if you’re going to steal in that situation. Maybe he’s got something in his contract.”[6]

Neither Ruthven nor Bowa were perturbed by the attempt, which Brock said he attempted to avoid the double play and because Ruthven was no longer holding him closely at first.[7]

“He’s unbelievable,” Bowa said. “Everybody in the ballpark knows he’s gonna run and he makes it anyway. I don’t think this record will be broken for a while.”[8]

In Los Angeles, Wills admitted that he was disappointed to see his record broken.

“I’m not going to say records are made to be broken; that would be wishy-washy,” he said. “I just feel that that was my record, I was very proud of it. It is very much a part of me, a part of my identification. I don’t think anyone looks forward to seeing his own record broken. I was hoping he wouldn’t, but once he got around 80, it became very obvious. I talked to him about three weeks ago and he thinks he might get 115. My hat is off to him.”[9]

Brock may have slightly underestimated himself, as he finished the season with 118 stolen bases. Three years later, on August 29, 1977, Brock stole his 892nd and 893rd bases to break Ty Cobb’s career stolen base record (more recent research has Cobb’s career total at 897).

Brock retired following the 1979 season with 938 career stolen bases to go along with 3,023 hits and a .293 career batting average. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985.

In 1982, Rickey Henderson broke Brock’s single-season stolen bases record with 130.

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[1] Dick Kaegel, “A Real Thief: Lou! Lou! Lou!” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 11, 1974.

[2] Dick Kaegel, “A Real Thief: Lou! Lou! Lou!” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 11, 1974.

[3] Dick Kaegel, “A Real Thief: Lou! Lou! Lou!” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 11, 1974.

[4] Dick Kaegel, “A Real Thief: Lou! Lou! Lou!” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 11, 1974.

[5] Dick Kaegel, “A Real Thief: Lou! Lou! Lou!” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 11, 1974.

[6] Rick Hummel, “Brock’s Last Attempt Rankles Phils’ Catcher,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 11, 1974.

[7] Rick Hummel, “Brock’s Last Attempt Rankles Phils’ Catcher,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 11, 1974.

[8] Rick Hummel, “Brock’s Last Attempt Rankles Phils’ Catcher,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 11, 1974.

[9] “Wills Tips Hat To Lou Brock,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 11, 1974.

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