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Original Issue


Orchestrating his own exodus, as he might—and did—say, Lou Brock reached a crescendo by stroking his 3,000th hit at Busch Stadium in a season notable for the opuses of oldtimers

On the humid evening of Aug. 13 in St. Louis' Busch Stadium, Cardinal Leftfielder Lou Brock, age 40, led off the fourth inning of a game against Chicago by hitting a hard line drive directly back at Pitcher Dennis Lamp. The ball caromed off Lamp's bare hand, painfully bruising three fingers, and bounced crazily into foul territory. Brock made it safely to first base without drawing a throw from Third Baseman Steve Ontiveros, who had picked up the rebound. Bedlam attended this seemingly unremarkable infield single. The crowd of 44,457 rose to render the Brock locomotive yell—"Lou! Lou! Lou!"—which is heard as often in St. Louis these days as Budweiser commercials. Stan Musial, demigod from another epoch, debouched from the stands with 80-year-old Cardinal Board Chairman August A. Busch Jr. in tow. Cameras flashed and microphones were thrust in Brock's beaming face so that he could impart his impressions of the moment to the adoring multitudes—all of this, mind you, smack in the middle of a big league ball game. Brock told everyone how happy he was it had happened at home, "it" being his 3,000th major league hit.

This mad scene will most likely be repeated in a few weeks, with different dramatis personae, when Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox, also 40, gets his 3,000th hit. Yaz needed only 15 after last weekend to become the 15th player in history, the seventh in this decade, and with Brock and Pete Rose, the third in the last two years to achieve 3,000. Accumulating that many hits may be as much a tribute to staying power as to ability, but what is truly remarkable about the three gaffers is that they are all still important to the success of their teams. Brock has been among his league's batting leaders all season, and so, naturally, has Rose. Yaz, battling off one injury after another, has played in all but six of the Red Sox games. On July 24 he hit his 400th career homer, and when he joins Brock and Rose, he will become the first American Leaguer to have more than 400 home runs among his 3,000 hits (Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Musial have done it in the National League). For all of their success this year, Yaz, Brock and Rose are not the only Golden Oldies on the premises. There are 17 active major league players who are 37 or older, and most of them are enjoying seasons that players 10 or 15 years younger would happily exchange for their own.

Willie McCovey's 14 homers for the Giants this year have made him the leading lefthanded home-run hitter in National League history, and he needs only three more to pass Ted Williams for eighth place in the alltime rankings. San Diego's Gaylord Perry has moved into second place behind Walter Johnson in career strikeouts, with 3,130 to Johnson's 3,508. In addition, Perry is only 23 victories short of 300 for his career. Three hundred wins are to a pitcher what 3,000 hits are to a batter, and, interestingly, there are now 14 players in each category. Yaz will give the hitters an edge unless Perry can even the score. In the modern game 300 wins seems less attainable than 3,000 hits. If and when Perry makes it, he will become the major leagues' first 300-game winner since Early Wynn in 1963, evidence that the hitters are lasting longer these days.

Perry is not the only elderly pitcher around. Atlanta knuckleballer Phil Niekro is leading the major leagues in complete games with 17 and innings pitched with 250. He collected his 200th career victory earlier in the season. Fred Norman has a winning record for the Reds, I and Gray Panthers Jim Kaat and Luis Tiant have been effective for the Yankees. Willie Stargell is still pounding home runs for Pittsburgh, and Montreal's Tony Perez is driving in runs with youthful consistency.

Manny Mota of the Dodgers needs only one more pinch hit to set a major league career record of 145 in that esoteric category. Brock, Rose, Yaz, McCovey, Perry and Stargell must all be considered prime candidates for the Hall of Fame, and it is heartening to have them with us yet.

Few of these good old boys seem to be contemplating retirement. Yaz is signed up through the 1981 season. McCovey has at least another year remaining on his contract, and though he is ordinarily the mildest mannered of professional athletes, he bristles at even the slightest suggestion that he is getting a bit long in the tooth. Perry looks as if he can throw his reputedly unsanitary "sinker" forever, or at least as long as Niekro can loose his butterflies. Rose's contract with the Phillies will take him past his 41st birthday. Stargell is enjoying a second athletic childhood.

Only Brock will pack it in after this year. Nothing can change his mind about that, he said after his milestone hit, particularly now that he has assured himself of a grand exit. Brock is something of a phrasemaker, and when, in the hullabaloo following his 3,000th, he was reminded that he was bowing out on top, he remarked, "I always wanted to orchestrate my own exodus." No one expected such sweet music from him after his flat .221 performance in 1978. Even teammate Ted Simmons, as loyal a Brock booster as any of the fans shouting "Lou! Lou! Lou!" concedes that "it looked like the end for him last season. But by June of this year it was very clear this was not the case." Brock came out smoking and led the league in hitting for several weeks in the spring. A "mechanical defect," not advancing years, brought him to grief in '78, he stoutly maintains. He discovered too late last year that he had been hitting off his back foot. A simple adjustment in his stance corrected the deficiency, but Brock had the Lord's own time convincing the doomsayers that Judgment Day was not at hand. "A couple of people believed me," he says. "Ninety-eight per cent did not."

The accepted view around St. Louis was that he had done enough already. He was the game's single-season (118) and career (917) stolen-base record holder, and his .292 career batting average and 2,900 hits seemed sufficient credentials for the Hall of Fame. So what if he missed 3,000 hits? He should be content to play part-time this year, leaving the heavy duty to abler bodies. However, this view did not take into account Brock's fierce pride.

To prove he could still perform, he had to buck baseball's conventional wisdom about aging. Every player, says Brock, "is on a collision course between ability and desire." The "thoroughbred athlete" feels the crash first, but there are others clamoring to anticipate the accident. Owners, managers, journalists, fans, all want to be the first to forecast the athletic demise of the veteran. "The burden of mental anguish on the older player is placed there by those who can hardly wait to say, 'I told you so,' " says Brock. "There is this myth which says that at a certain age you automatically can't play. That attitude has existed for a hundred years in baseball, and no matter what you do, in spite of your determination and desire and your track record, you find yourself caught up in it." Older persons know this attitude extends well beyond the confines of professional sports. Who, indeed, is to say who is old, and when? Scott Fitzgerald considered himself decrepit at 30; Shaw complained in his 90s that youth was wasted on the young.

But many athletes stubbornly refuse to accept the infirmities of age and insist on staying that one season too long. "For some players, total ego satisfaction is dependent on being recognized as an athlete," says Dr. Bruce Ogilvie, professor emeritus of psychology at San Jose State, psychological consultant to the U.S. Olympic team and a pioneer in the field of sports psychology. "They [athletes] cannot imagine not receiving this recognition. Nothing else in life can give them their strokes. This can be a most compelling factor in extending a career beyond its normal boundaries. Finally, the love of the game and the love of the lifestyle make an athlete want to extend it as long as possible."

McCovey, protesting perhaps too much, is convinced that an athlete wears out psychologically long before he does physically. "An older player loses his interest before his body goes," he says. McCovey, like most of the current elderly stars, is in amazing physical condition. "He has lasted so long," says Dr. Fred Behling, the Giants' team physician, "because he treats the game as though it is a 12-month job. He works out hard in the off-season. He's in as good shape now as he was when I got to know him 10 years ago."

Most baseball players, surely most Americans, are in better shape now than their counterparts were 10 or 15 years ago, largely because of a revolution in training methods and a national concern for fitness that borders on obsession. "Baseball was a little slow in picking up the technology coming out of colleges," says Dr. Behling. "Since fewer baseball players spent time in college programs than athletes in other sports, they were not exposed to technological advances that could help them stay healthy. Nowadays, more baseball players are going to colleges and the technology is being used. More players have more contact with better medical care, and they have greater faith in it, because they are exposed to it in college." Mike Marshall, the Twins' 36-year-old relief pitcher, who has a doctorate in exercise physiology, must be the embodiment of this argument.

Yastrzemski has no such academic credentials, but he keeps close watch on the old body. While spending the winter at home in Florida, he observes a daily workout schedule as rigorous as the one he follows during the season. As a result, his current playing weight of 179 pounds is only a pound heavier than his weight when he broke in as a rookie 18 years ago. "I never stay away from workouts," he says. "I work hard. I've tried to take care of my body. I'll never look back and say I could have done more. I've paid the price in practice, but I know I get the most out of my ability. Pride, intense pride, that's what it comes down to—and not embarrassing yourself."

Whatever their commitment to fitness, the oldies come in a variety of shapes. Brock and Yaz are lean and hard, McCovey is massive and triangular, Rose is stocky, Kaat is muscular. But Stargell falls just shy of portliness, and San Diego Pitcher Mickey Lolich goes beyond it. Perry, whose stamina is phenomenal, is built tall and wide like a California redwood, but he works hard to keep these generous proportions constant. "One of the reasons I've lasted this long," he says, "is that I take care of myself. I don't smoke. I drink a little wine, but not much. I keep in shape during the off-season doing a lot of hard work around my farm in North Carolina."

To hear these neo-Bernarr Macfaddens extol the Spartan life, one would think the day of the hell raiser and the lay-about in baseball has passed. It is stimulating then to hear Phil Niekro describe his own training regimen: "Staying in shape to me is cutting the grass or shoveling dirt in my yard. I know that wouldn't work for some of our pitchers, but it works for me. I don't say anything about all their running and they don't say anything about the way I do it. The main thing is treating my arm like I would want to be treated. I've never burdened my arm. I think that's why it's let me pitch so long. As for the mental part, I don't think about a game until the first batter steps up to the plate. I could worry myself sick if I spent all day trying to figure how I was going to get him out. But you don't have to do it until he steps up there anyway, so why worry yourself about it? The only thing really different about the days I pitch is that I have to remember to leave passes for some friends. Otherwise, it's just another day."

Oldtimers have starred in past seasons, of course, but seldom have so many done so well at the same time. Ted Williams won batting championships in 1957 and '58 when he was 39 and 40, hitting a rousing .388 with 38 homers in '57. Satchel Paige, whose counsel about never looking back ("something may be gaining on you") is now gospel, did not even start playing major league ball until he was well past 40, and Hoyt Wilhelm was still pitching at 48. The sybaritic Babe Ruth, who supposedly trained on spirits and flappers, hit 34 homers in 1933, when he was 38, and Ty Cobb hit .357 in 1927, when he was 40. Many years later, Lefty O'Doul, himself an extraordinary hitter, was asked what he thought Cobb would hit "if he were playing today." "Oh, about .330," replied O'Doul after some thought. "Is that all?" inquired his companion. "Well," said Lefty, "you have to remember the man is 71 years old."

By ordinary standards, baseball's codgers are not old at all. In most activities a man is approaching his prime, not passing it, when he reaches his late 30s and early 40s, so time is unnaturally compressed in sports. Brock may be a Methuselah in the Cardinals clubhouse, but in the boardrooms, where he spends many more hours pursuing myriad business enterprises, he is a mere pup. What a melancholy fate awaits the veteran athlete: he must endure the indignities of old age when he is a young man.

The premature aging process is all part of the game. The senior baseball player, like the senior citizen, must find his place, and in the modern game this is becoming increasingly difficult. As Brock says, the game is structured so that the old fellows are continually involved in an almost Spencerian struggle for survival. "When the most recent basic agreement between the players and management was reached," says Brock, "paternalism went out the window. Suddenly, there was no room for the older players. We were under fire. In the old days, the young players were on the field and the older ones were on the bench, in reserve. Now the whole composition of a team has changed. The young players are everywhere—on the field and on the bench. The older players you see today are the cream of the crop. They are there only because they still have something to offer—something beyond mere promotional value. They are the survivors. It is now survival of the fittest."

The threat of enforced retirement should be incentive enough, but Brock thinks the old guys need something more to drive them on. "You have to decide what your purpose is in this game," he says. "You have to have that quest for the final moment of glory. You have to have something left you want to achieve. Jim Bouton may be the epitome here. He made his comeback just to have that moment on a mound again. Once it happened, it was all over for him. The quest was over. I suppose I'm fresh out of dreams now, but I still want to leave with a fine performance to crown my career. And really, I'm not fulfilled yet. I still keep dreaming about a man named Billy Hamilton."

Hamilton, who played most of his career before the turn of the century, is credited with 937 stolen bases, although some of these were awarded, according to the rules of the time, for going from first to third on a single. Brock has the accepted modern stolen-base record of 929—12 of them coming this year—but he wants nine more to erase the stigma of Hamilton. He is 40 now, and not the greyhound he once was, so his quest may seem a trifle quixotic, but Lou Brock and his grizzled contemporaries have proved time and again this season that there is no such thing as the impossible dream.




In 1962 Brock was a Cub rookie unaware that fame lay ahead in St. Louis.


After Brock struck his 3,000th hit, he was totally engulfed by his jubilant Cardinal teammates.


Boston's Yastrzemski made it to the majors in 1961. And now he is making history.


Mota was a Giant rookie in 1962. in Los Angeles he has become a pinch-hitting giant.


Niekro was a minor leaguer with major ideas in 1961. Then he knuckled down.


Perry's outstanding season with the Giants in 1966 wet his appetite for many more.