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Original Issue

Tiptoeing up on a record

Other events kept Lou Brock's 105th stolen base off the front page, which was fine with the master thief who likes to keep a low profile

Lou Brock insists that he does not care about records, but last week he set a big one anyway. When he broke Maury Wills' 12-year-old stolen-bases mark with his 105th theft of the season, he not only got his record but he got it on his own terms. So much else was going on the day he accomplished his feat that the world gave it relatively little notice.

The presidential-pardon controversy, a bunch of state primaries, tightening pennant races and the America's Cup all conspired to keep Brock's record off the front page and well back even in the sports sections of most newspapers. And the questions Brock himself left unanswered also tended to diminish his achievement. How many bases can a man possibly steal in a season? He had another 20 games to answer that one. And how much help would his persistent, but increasingly unsuccessful, attempts to steal give the Cardinals, a team with minimal power and only one starting pitcher with a winning record, in their drive to outduel Pittsburgh and win the National League's East Division?

"I don't set goals," Brock says, unhelpfully. "Playing the game, loving the game, head-to-head competition, psychological warfare—these are the things that motivate me."

It was as if Brock wanted to set an un-record. Even as 105 came within immediate reach, Lou kept the drama as low-key as he is. The Cardinals asked him if he would mind circling the bases in a bullpen cart after breaking the record. Brock said he most certainly would mind. Someone asked if his adoring fans in the left-center-field stands should continue to be called Brock's Bleacher Bums. He said he did not like the word "bum" and suggested a thoroughly unmemorable substitute: Base Burglars 105 Club.

At least the Burglars were there to see Brock break the record in person. With his total at 103 and the Cards playing at home, only 27,000 came to rain-dampened Busch Stadium to cheer him on against Dick Ruthven, the Philadelphia righthander who has one of the best fastballs and toughest pickoff motions in the league, and Bob Boone, an excellent catcher. Brock singled sharply in the first inning and, after the organist drove the crowd to a frenzy, chose the second pitch to steal second cleanly. In addition to tying Wills at 104, that broke Max Carey's 45-year-old National League high of 738. Ty Cobb holds the major league record of 892.

In the seventh Brock singled once more. Again he waited just one pitch before making his move. Breaking from his typically short lead, he took his customary 13 strides before falling into his "pop-up" slide. It was vintage Brock bafflement. A good throw would have had him, but Boone's peg, like those of many harried catchers faced with the same problem, was off target. It took a high bounce well before it arrived at second base. As he had so often this season, Brock had succeeded more through anticipation and intimidation than speed.

How many more bases Brock can steal this year and, more important, how much those will help the Cards are open questions. His thievery has become so predictable that his success percentage has dipped. Brock even attempted No. 106 the night he stole 104 and 105, although the Cards were six runs behind. "I lost some respect for him for doing that," said Boone, who threw him out. Brock apparently couldn't care less; he said he intended to keep stealing every time he reaches first with second base free. He claims he will be helping the St. Louis offense by doing that. In fact, he may not be. When he was National League Player of the Month in August, St. Louis was 15-15. When he hit only .276 during the first two weeks of September, the team played better than .750 ball. Brock was thrown out in three of seven attempts last week, well below his usual 78% success rate.

The day after Brock's record breakers, the Cardinals beat the Mets 4-3 in an extraordinary seven-hour, 25-inning game, the second longest in baseball history. Simultaneously, the Pirates were jolted by a loss and an injury to their hottest pitcher Dock Ellis. With Pittsburgh's lead cut to just 2½ games, the Cardinal locker room had the air of a New Year's Eve celebration. Lou Brock had gone 1 for 9 and had been thrown out stealing, but he may have been the happiest Cardinal of all. For the moment, his record was all but forgotten.