Lou Brock

August 29, 1977: Lou Brock passes Ty Cobb in career stolen bases

Lou Brock was never one to slow down, so it’s no surprise that he tied and passed Ty Cobb‘s career stolen base total on the same day.

Decades later, research found that Cobb’s career stolen base total was inaccurate, and added four stolen bases to his 1907 season and one to his 1921 campaign.[1] As a result, Cobb’s career total now stands at 897.

However, as Brock and the Cardinals prepared to face the Padres in San Diego, California, on August 29, 1977, baseball historians had credited Cobb with 892 stolen bases. Brock had pulled within one theft of the mark four days earlier in St. Louis, when he stole two bases against the Giants in a 4-2 loss (both players trailed Billy Hamilton, who stole 914 career bases while playing for the Kansas City Cowboys, Philadelphia Phillies, and Boston Beaneaters from 1888 through 1901).

As Brock and the Cardinals came to San Diego for the start of a three-game series, they sought to snap a four-game skid. The previous night, the Dodgers’ Don Sutton held Brock hitless in three at-bats while shutting out the Cardinals in an 11-0 St. Louis win.

The Padres entered the game on the heels of four consecutive losses to the Pirates. With a 56-76 record, San Diego was in fifth place in the National League West, 23 games behind the division-leading Dodgers.

The Cardinals sent John Urrea, a 6-foot-3 rookie right-hander they selected in the first round of the 1974 draft, to the mound to face San Diego right-hander Dave Freisleben, who had won 10 games with a 3.51 ERA the previous season. Heading into his August 29 match-up against the Cardinals, however, he was just 5-7 with a 4.97 ERA.

Freisleben opened the game by walking Brock, then slowed his pace and spent a long time watching Brock on first base.

“I didn’t have that big of a lead but he stepped off,” Brock said. “I don’t know why – unless he was as nervous as I was.”[2]

On Freisleben’s first pitch to Jerry Mumphrey, Brock took off.

“He had a great jump off first,” Padres shortstop Bill Almon said. “I don’t think any kind of throw would’ve got him.”[3]

Brock safely claimed his stolen base, then advanced to third on a throwing error by Padres catcher Dave Roberts, who was in his first season at the position after transitioning from third base. Mumphrey followed with an RBI single, then stole second base and scored on an RBI single by Ted Simmons. After another Padres error, Mike Phillips hit a run-scoring double into left field to give St. Louis a 3-0 lead.

After all nine Cardinals came to plate in the first, Brock led off the second inning with a double but was left stranded at third base. That seemed to mark a turning point for Freisleben, who didn’t allow another hit until the seventh inning.

After an RBI triple by Gene Richards and a run-scoring groundout by Almon had trimmed the Cardinals’ lead to 3-2, Urrea led off the Cardinals’ seventh with a single. Up to bat next, Brock hit a ground ball back to Freisleben, who threw Urrea out at first but was unable to get the double play. That set up Brock’s record-breaking stolen base. With Padres fans chanting, “Lou,” he again took off for second base with Mumphrey at the plate.

Roberts’ throw was off the bag again, and this time glanced off Almon’s glove as Brock slid into Almon and the bag.

“The throw was to the first-base side so I moved up the line,” Almon said. “As he started his slide he was starting to go by me so I knew I had to try to sweep at the ball to get him. It just went off the end of my glove. If I’d have caught it, it would’ve been a bang-bang play, but he stole it clean.”[4]

With the modern-day stolen-base record in hand, Brock’s first act was to check that Almon was OK.

“He was afraid he’d spiked me,” Almon said. “He asked me if I was okay. Here he is, he’s just set the record, and he’s turning around and showing concern. That’s just the kind of person he is.”[5]

The game was briefly halted while Brock’s teammates congratulated him and Padres pitcher Randy Jones presented Brock with the historic base. Even Freisleben admitted, “I kind of got goosebumps.”[6]

“It has not been an easy thing but the moment is here,” Brock said into a microphone that was brought onto the field before grinning at Jones. “Looking back on it, Randy, I did it my way.”[7]

When play resumed, Freisleben escaped the inning unscathed. When the Cardinals took the field for the bottom of the seventh, Rick Bosetti replaced Brock in left field. Brock left the field to a standing ovation from Padres fans.

“It just shows how much he’s appreciated in the sports world,” Padres manager Alvin Dark said. “It shows you don’t have to be at home to be appreciated. When you’re a great athlete and a great person, it doesn’t matter what town you’re in. People appreciate you.”[8]

Of course, the Cardinals and Padres still had a game to complete. Urrea led off the eighth by walking Gene Tenace. Cardinals manager Vern Rapp called on Al Hrabosky as part of a double-switch, and Hrabosky retired the first two batters he faced. With two outs, however, Padres third baseman Mike Ivie hit a two-run home run to left field to put San Diego ahead, 4-3.

In the ninth, the Padres turned to future Hall of Fame closer Rollie Fingers, who earned his 29th save of the season with a scoreless frame. Rapp, whose Cardinals had just lost their fifth consecutive game, slammed the door to his office so hard that it jammed and stadium employees had to help him get it back open.[9]

Nonetheless, the day belonged to Brock and his legacy.

“I think a lot of Lou Brock as a ballplayer and a man,” said Hank Aaron. “You know, what a lot of people don’t realize is that he’s such a great hitter. There isn’t anybody yet who’s invented a way to steal first base, and he didn’t walk very much so you know he was hitting his way on there.

“I’ve seen people who could run faster, but none who studied the pitchers better or stole bases better. I still believe that if Lou wanted to, he could still lead the league.”[10]

Meanwhile, Cobb’s only surviving son, James Cobb, admitted he was hoping Brock somehow wouldn’t pass his father.

“I was kind of wishing he would fall into a ditch or something, but there was nothing I could do about it,” James Cobb said with a chuckle. “I hated to see it happen, but records are made to be broken. Congratulate him for me. We’re just glad he plays in the National League so my father still has the American League record.”[11]

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 1991, Rickey Henderson stole his 939th career base to claim Brock’s total on his way to 1,406 career steals.

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[1] Joseph Wancho, “August 29, 1977: Lou Brock passes Ty Cobb as MLB’s stolen-base king,” Society for American Baseball Research, https://sabr.org/gamesproj/game/august-29-1977-lou-brock-passes-ty-cobb-as-mlbs-stolen-base-king.

[2] Dick Kaegel, “Brock Steals Base No. 893,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 30, 1977.

[3] Dick Kaegel, “Brock Steals Base No. 893,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 30, 1977.

[4] Dick Kaegel, “Brock Steals Base No. 893,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 30, 1977.

[5] Dick Kaegel, “Brock, Man Of The Hour, Proves To Be Quite A Man,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 30, 1977.

[6] Dick Kaegel, “Brock Steals Base No. 893,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 30, 1977.

[7] Dick Kaegel, “Brock Steals Base No. 893,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 30, 1977.

[8] Dick Kaegel, “Brock Steals Base No. 893,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 30, 1977.

[9] Dick Kaegel, “Rapp Finds Defeat Is A Door-Slammer,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 30, 1977.

[10] Rick Hummel, “And The Praises Poured In … From Aaron …” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 30, 1977.

[11] Rick Hummel, “And The Praises Poured In … From Cobb’s Children …” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 30, 1977.