To some he was known as the “Base Burglar”.
To others he was “The One That Got Away”.
For 8 years, he was the all-time leader in single-season stolen bases, a record that had stood for 12 years.
For 14 years, he was the all-time leader in career stolen bases, a record that had stood for 49 years.
He will always be one of the greatest base stealers and baseball players of all time: Lou Brock.
Besides the great Rickey Henderson, who eventually broke both of Brock’s amazing records, virtually no one else could swipe a bag like this all-time great Hall of Fame player.
So how did Lou Brock steal so many bases? Next we break down just how Brock was able swipe bags with such great success.
With some help from former articles published in 1974 by Sports Illustrated, (the year Brock broke the single season record) and a retrospective by the St. Louis Dispatch in 2014, we’ve pieced together HOW TO STEAL A BASE LIKE LOU BROCK.
THE INCEPTION OF A LEGEND Brock started with the Chicago Cubs in 1961, but after a few frustrating seasons, the team traded him to St. Louis in 1964. It was this change of scenery that helped Brock begin to embrace his true potential as a base stealer.
The St. Louis Dispatch article notes, “But after coming to the Cardinals in an infamous 1964 trade, he was persuaded by manager Johnny Keane to make the most of his disruptive speed.”
The nudging of Keane combined with the motivation to prove his former organization wrong about their doubts about his capabilities, Brock went all-in, using his speed to steal as many bases as possible in order to help his team win.
In 1964, after his trade from Chicago, Brock became a key component in helping the Cardinals storm back to win the Pennant and go on to win the World Series.
PREPARATION Not only did Brock have natural speed, talent and instincts, but he was an incredibly studious player. In an era before players would regularly watch film and study their opponents, Brock looked for every advantage he could gain.
On one occasion, after getting on first base, Brock broke to steal second base on the first pitch the next batter in the lineup saw. This was highly unusual at the time. Pitcher Doug Konieczny, who was on the mound pitching recalls, “I figured Brock would at least wait to see my pickoff motion and my delivery a few times.” Upon hearing this, Brock replied, “I saw them both during batting practice.”
“He was among the first to use a stopwatch, timing pitchers’ motions, watching pregame warm-ups to time the opposing catcher’s throw to second base.”
Brock even went as far as using his own, personal 8mm camera to film pitchers so that he could study their windups and pickoff moves. Watch as Brock describes pioneering using film to study pitchers, in this case, against Don Drysdale (length: 2 minutes, 8 seconds).
HOW TO STEAL A BASE LIKE LOU BROCK
THE KEY For Brock, the art of the stolen base was about more than simply being quick. As fast as the “wheels” of his feet could move him were the “wheels” turning in his mind, which were always reading situations and discerning the perfect moment to run.
Brock believed that there was something even more crucial than getting to the next base. The key to his philosophy was this:
“The most important thing about base stealing is not the stealing of the base,” Brock says, “but disturbing the pitcher’s concentration. If I can do that, then the hitter will get a better pitch to swing at and I will get a better chance to steal.”
HIS STRATEGY While the casual observer may guess that a base stealer simply tries to take a big lead, and sprint as fast as they can to the next bag, hoping to slide in safe, Brock’s strategy reveals a complex and multi-layered process.
1) He changes his approach to confuse pitchers
In the 1974 SI article, it’s noted just how many variations Brock would use when getting ready to steal.
“At times Brock stands four or five steps off the base and rests his hands against his knees. At times he takes the same lead but puts his hands on his hips. Occasionally he fakes a takeoff for second. Sometimes he stands motionless on the base path, trying to lure the pitcher into a false sense of security. And he might stand oh-so-casually on the base itself.”
To Brock this helped, “minimize detection of my plans.” He argues that since a pitcher’s motion is mechanical and therefore always the same, his more fluid approach would always give him a decided advantage.
2) He reads the situation
Being one of the most prolific base stealers of all time gave Brock the permission to run at his own discretion. Therefore, one of his distinct advantages was never having to waste time watching the coaches for signs. He always had the perpetual “green light”. Brock explains that this helped him to focus on reading the game situation: “I try to tap in on the pitcher’s thinking to be aware of how he is setting up the hitter—whether the situation calls for a strike, for example, or a curveball in the dirt.”
3) He gets in his opponents heads
Brock was also a master of the psychological side of the game. He knew exactly how to get insides the heads of his opponents and ruffle their feathers.
Former teammate Ted Sizemore saw firsthand many times how Brock’s gamesmanship would affect their opponents:
“He’d come on the field and yell at them, ‘I’m going tonight, I’m going, “And they would get all tensed up and say, ‘Yeah, well I’m going to throw you out,’ among other things.“They got so intent on throwing Lou out that they would get out of their normal habits. I saw a number of catchers throw great strikes all the way to the center fielder, because they were trying to throw it so hard.”
TAKING A LEAD OFF OF FIRST BASE Another key part of his approach was how to take a lead off of first base. So how did Brock know how far off the bag he could venture? His game preparation went as far as pre-marking his spot!
“On artificial infields Brock sets the base-path edge of the rug as the point of his maximum lead. On natural infields he kicks an indentation with his spikes before the game and uses that as a marker.”
13 STEPS With the appropriate lead from the bag, Brock would begin a highly calculated process, one that he perfected over dozens of years and hundreds of stolen base attempts.
When he leaves first Brock moves his left foot over his right—”that’s automatic”—and 13 steps later he is sliding into second.
With those first steps taken, Brock is now moving at an all out sprint. Opposed to other base stealers who would try to get as big a lead off first base as possible, Brock helped to establish the “rolling start”. This extra bit of momentum helped to carry him forward into his sprint.
Now running, Brock stays tall.
“I stay up as long as possible and make my slide as short as possible,” he says.
A short slide helped him to stay as fast as possible for as long as possible. Even after sliding, he finished his movement with an intentional final action to agitate the fielder.
“He slid at the last instant, left foot extended, all that velocity crashing into an anchored base and an anxious fielder. He then popped up to disrupt the tag or advance on a poor throw.”
WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM HIS FRIENDS Base stealing is virtually a one-man show. But Brock was smart enough to involve his teammates in his base stealing attempts to gain even milliseconds that could help him gain a sliver of an advantage. If pitchers and catchers didn’t have enough to worry about with Brock on first base, they would then receive additional diversion from one of Brock’s teammates in the batter’s box.
“Sizemore stood far back in the batter’s box, forcing catchers to back up, buying Brock additional fractions. On the jump, Sizemore often swung late or swiped a fake bunt, anything to distract a frantic receiver.”
SUMMARY It’s fair to say that Brock’s incredibly smart baseball acumen was just as important as his physical tools in helping him to become one of the greatest base stealers of all time. Of course, Brock himself never technically considered himself a player who steals a base. “I don’t steal the base as much as I take it. To me the word steal contains the element of surprise and I don’t surprise anyone when I head for second base. The other clubs would be surprised if I didn’t.”
Brock’s quip was all too true!
Mets pitcher Harry Parker summed it up best when he said, “It’s like trying to keep water from going over the dam. You know what’s coming, but you’re powerless.”
Leifer, Neil. “Their at Work: Base Stealer Lou Brock.” Sports Illustrated Jul. 22 1974. www.si.com Web. 16 Oct. 2018. St. Louis Dispatch article: O’Neil, Dan. “40 years ago Lou Brock committed grand larceny.” St. Louis Dispatch Sep. 2014. www.stltoday.com Web. 16 Oct. 2018. [VIDEO] Brock breaking the stolen base record