Revisiting Brock-for-Broglio

Lou Brock was the first baseball superstar that I ever watched  in person. In 1975, he was in the prime of his career, having set the single-season stolen base record (118) the year before. He had already won two World Series titles, and was on his way to 3,023 career hits and induction into the Hall of Fame. There isn’t much that he didn’t accomplish on the baseball field.

I didn’t know it at the time, but he began his career as a Chicago Cub. The words Brock-for-Broglio don’t mean much outside the realm of Cubdom, but they’re well-known inside of it. In 1964, the Cubs traded Lou Brock for a pitcher named Ernie Broglio. There were other players involved, too, but Brock and Broglio are the only ones anyone talks about. Broglio posted a 7-19 record in the two-and a half seasons he was with the Cubs, and Brock, well, I’ve spelled out what he did already.

Most people chalk the trade up to incompetence on the part of the Cubs’ front office. “Couldn’t tell what kind of a talent Brock really was,” and that sort of thing. But a forthcoming book by Mitchell Nathanson has made me reevaluate some things about baseball. Trading away a talented prospect, who also happened to be an African American, suddenly didn’t seem so benign.

Teams like the Cubs had indeed integrated themselves, but they also operated under an unwritten quota system. And talented African American players were not given a chance to take jobs away from fan-favorite white players. So it wasn’t what a modern person like myself might want it to be.

And then I found evidence, in a book called “Baseball As America,” to prove what I had begun to suspect. An article by Buck O’Neil,  who emerged as the voice of experience in Ken Burns’ Baseball series on PBS, made the point. O’Neil indicated that in the early 1960s, he was a coach for the Chicago Cubs.  The decision was made, by the front office, to trade Brock because the Cubs “already had four black kids playing there, and the fifth was Lou Brock.” O’Neil voiced his reservations about the trade, and was told that the Cubs were getting letters from their fans, objecting to how many African American players were on the team. The standout quote for me is “What are you trying to make the Chicago Cubs into? The Kansas City Monarchs?”

So that was apparently how this historically bad trade went down. The Cubs thought they had too many African Americans on the team, since the team’s fans had told them so. I suppose when a team hadn’t won a pennant in nearly twenty years, and hadn’t won a World Series in more than a half-century–which was true of the Cubs in 1964–then you can afford to give away talent to appease the racial sensibilities of your fans. The Cubs of the 1960s needed Brock to get over the hump, and yet they essentially gave him away for racial considerations. I can only shake my head at that one.

There’s an element of karma in all this. The Cubs made a horrible decision to get rid of Brock in the first place, and an even worse decision on the basis that they did so. So Brock goes to St. Louis and the Cubs fans forever lament that they didn’t have him on their team for his Hall of Fame career. But Brock’s success was deserved, and the Cubs’ resulting struggles are also richly deserved as a result of what they did.

This was a painful lesson for the Cubs, I’m sure, but one that needed to be learned. Now Cubs fans need to understand the true reason behind this trade, and realize that great players are needed, regardless of their backgrounds, in order to get to the place that we all want to be someday.