BY RANDY COPPERSMITH
6 September 2020
MIDDLEBURG, VA - The melancholy news first came across on the car radio: Lou Brock, the Hall of Fame left fielder of the St. Louis Cardinals, had died from heart complications. He was 81 years old.
For tens of millions of baseball fans in America and around the world, it was a sad announcement. Brock, who was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY in 1985, was a truly great and special player.
For a period of time, Brock held the Major League Baseball single-season record for stolen bases, 118 in 1974. In his career he stole 938 bases, which broke the great Ty Cobb’s lifetime stolen bases record of 838. He stole seven bases in a World Series --- twice -- in 1967 against the Boston Red Sox, and again in ’68 against the Detroit Tigers.
A lifetime .293 hitter, Brock’s speed and daring, both on the base paths and in the outfield, made him a fan favorite. He was a six-time all-star, batted .300 or better six times. And man, he could play.
Brock starred, along with pitcher Bob Gibson, on two of the Cardinals’ World Championship teams, in 1964 and ’67. He holds a lifetime batting average of .391 in the World Series.
In retirement Brock had a love affair with St. Louis fans. Every time he came to the ballpark he was always warmly welcomed. He spent many years as a part-time instructor and front office executive with the Cardinals.
I met Lou Brock when I was assigned to cover his 3,000th hit for The Springfield (Missouri) Daily News, which at that time had recently had been acquired by the burgeoning Gannett News Corporation.
In that summer of 1979 The Springfield Daily News had a lively sports section, which its readers in the “heart of the Ozarks” read with great interest. And anything that had to do with the St. Louis Cardinals was sure to get an extra-close inspection.
The regular Cardinals beat writer for the newspaper was Anvil Welch. He was a bit of a grouch, and had been suffering from a cold. “Welch can’t go to St. Louis for the Cardinals-Cubs series because he’s sick,” the sports editor, Marty Edelman, told me. “So Watson wants you to go instead. Please do a good job.”
Gary Watson, the new, confident, young editor of The Daily News, had hired me in March of 1979, fresh out of college, to join the paper’s Sports staff, as a writer. So far, I’d mostly covered high school sports, and wrote the occasional tennis column for the Springfield paper.
Watson, who later became the publisher of several papers and a senior executive with Gannett, wanted to make a splash with the Brock story back at Gannett Headquarters. He considered St. Louis as a key part of the Springfield back yard, even though St. Louis is 215 miles southwest of St. Louis.
Watson called me into his office. Now, in August 1979 I was 21 years old. Though I’d written about the NFL for two seasons at The Tampa Tribune before joining Watson’s staff in Springfield, major league baseball was a new experience for me. As a life-long baseball fan, I was excited, but nervous, too.
“Coppersmith,” said Watson, “this is an important opportunity for you. Work hard, do your best. The guys at Gannett headquarters are watching us on this one. We’re counting on you.”
As I was leaving, Dennis Richardson, who was running the Sports Desk in Springfield, said “Hey, Rand, don’t screw it up.”
Brock was on hit number 2994 when I started packing for St. Louis and the national sports spectacle that was about to unfold. Watson gave me the signal to go to St. Louis to cover the scene for a few days before Brock got the magic 3,000th hit.
As a side note, only 13 players in all baseball history had 3,000 hits in 1979. And, only one other player, Stan Musial, had done it as a Cardinal. So in Springfield, MO, and around the world of baseball, this was a giant deal.
Besides, Lou Brock was about to become the 14th and newest member of the magic 3,000-hit club, and I had the good fortune of being afforded a ringside seat.
Well almost ringside.
Since I wasn’t a regular beat writer, and the Springfield paper didn’t send a reporter to all games, I was given Press Box seats in the back row. “And you’re lucky to get those,” the PR folks from the Cardinals told me when I got to the Will Call widow to pick up my credentials. “We got reporters from all over the world covering this thing.”
A few minutes later, up the elevator at Busch Stadium, and I was seated in the press box. Sitting next to me were Red Smith of The New York Times and Eric Lincoln of New York Newsday. In fact, I was the only guy in that section of the Press Box without a Pulitzer Prize.
Anyway, Brock was in his final season, his 19th, before retirement, and he had slowed down quite a bit. It took over a week for him to get to 3,000, which was on August 14, 1979. Dennis Lamp, a right-hander from the Chicago Cubs, was the pitcher of record who gave up both hits No. 2,999 (in the first inning) and No. 3,000 (in the fourth) to Brock and the ages.
The 3,000 hit was actually a line drive smashed back to the pitcher’s mound, off Lamp. The ball struck Lamp hard, who fell to his knees from pain after being nailed by the ball, which then rolled toward the third base line.
By the time the Cubs’ third baseman, Steve Ontiveros could get the errant ball, Brock was safely at first. Almost immediately, the Official Scorer flashed “hit” on the score board, and the crowd of 44,457 erupted in a roar I can still remember to this day.
As everyone in the press box tried to look cool, a lot of the beat writers were smiling, and trying hard not to cheer along with the screaming fans. The Times’ Red Smith barely looked up. He simply sat down at his typewriter and started writing. Newsday’s Eric Lincoln, was a more nervous type. He headed immediately to the bar in the Press Box to grab two Budweisers, and then started gathering his notebook to go to the Cardinals’ locker room.
As Lamp slumped in agony at the base of the pitcher’s mound, the Cardinals all raced out onto the field to congratulate Brock. A short ceremony took place, the 3,000-ball having been safely secured by the Cardinals training staff, and then play resumed. Lamp quietly left the game and headed to the trainer’s room.
The Cardinals went on to win the game, 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth on a sacrifice fly by Shortstop Gary Templeton. Templeton drove in Third Baseman Kenny Reitz off Cubs’ relief pitcher (and future Cardinal and Hall of Famer) Bruce Sutter, to win the contest.
But at that point most of the press box missed the end of the game. Brock slipped into the locker room shortly after getting No. 3,000. The press raced down the elevator to get to the Cardinals’ locker room, me along with them. All except Red Smith, who said he “had all that I need.”
The players had to try to get by the throng around Brock’s locker afterwards, with many stopping by as Brock sat in his uniform pants and an undershirt, drinking in the moment, still wearing his black spikes and a grin about a mile wide.
“That was really tough, the last few weeks,” Brock said. “I always knew I’d do it, but there seemed to be more and more pressure as we got closer and closer to 3,000,” he said.
As the writers from the press corps started peeling off one by one, I stayed for a few extra minutes. I wasn’t immediately on deadline, and I wanted to get as close as I could to greatness that day.
“Are you relieved? I asked him. Brock was 39 years old. He was tired. He’d done it all in baseball -- two World Series rings, six All-Star games, he was a genuine star and just a brilliant player. And with 3,000 hits, he had a sure ticket to Cooperstown. He looked up at me, his eyes almost slits at this point. The guy looked exhausted.
“Yeah, I’m glad its over, “he said. “And I’m glad we won the game.”
And then he said this to me, and I’ll never forget it.
“You’ve been here all week on this story?” he asked me.
“Yes, I said. It’s been a privilege to watch every day,” I said. “Thank you.”
“No,” said Brock, “thank you. I hope you’ll remember this moment, and tell all the folks in Springfield about it.”
And then he was off to the showers.
I looked it up. I wrote 41 stories during that week in St. Louis covering Brock and his quest for his 3,000th hit and history.
When I got back to Springfield, the next day, and to my desk in the newsroom, I found a stack of hundreds of newspaper clippings with my byline from Gannett newspapers from all over America, literally covering my desk. The Gannett newswire had been taking the stories I’d been sending to Watson and The Daily News. Watson’s bosses at Gannett made sure the company’s chain of papers picked them up and ran them across the national wire.
My Brock stories had appeared in over 100 papers from Maine to Hawaii all week long. I was, to say the least, stunned at seeing the sea of clips.
Watson eyed me as I walked into the newsroom. He came over to my desk in to check on me. “You did a great job, kid,” he said. “I’m glad it was you we sent.”
I’m glad, too, I said. It was an amazing experience. Dennis and the other guys in the Sports Department all came over to congratulate me, too. All except Anvil Welch.
“You should write about that week in St. Louis someday,” Watson said. “You’ve had a unique experience.”
Today there’s a statue of Brock outside Busch Stadium in St. Louis – which for me it is both fitting and proper, since I can’t really think about the Cardinals without thinking about Brock.
For sports writers who wrote about, or covered the baseball and football Cardinals of that era, Lou Brock was a special part of the living history of St. Louis. And for those of us who got to know him, however briefly, Brock was also a man who personified endurance, hard work, determination and a tremendous ability to focus and prepare himself for those special moments that sports has a way of creating.
Over 30 years later, I had the great fortune to take my Dad to Cooperstown. For both of us it was a dream weekend vacation. Neither of us had been to The Baseball Hall of Fame. And we were both super excited to go.
We toured the exhibits; saw the amazing Hall itself, with its exhibits, beautiful monuments, displays and plaques. We stopped in front of the plaques of Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, DiMaggio, Mays, Mantle, Musial, Berra, Koufax, Jackie Robinson, and many others.
But when we got to the plaque for Lou Brock, well, we stopped for an extra few minutes.
“Lou Brock meant a lot to you, didn’t he,” Dad whispered in the quiet of the Hall.
“Yes, he did, Dad,” I said out loud. “He still does.”
And as Watson once suggested, especially now that Brock was dead, and the memories all came rushing back, I thought it was finally time to write about it.
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