The pandemic took so much away. Lives, health, jobs, savings accounts, unhindered travel, sacred rituals, and precious time spent in the company of cherished family and loved ones.
Weddings were postponed and little kids couldn’t have their normal birthday parties. Grandparents couldn’t visit the little ones. We worried about everything, masked up, debated, chose sides and divided ourselves. We measured risks, overdosed on Netflix and pizza, and hunkered down in lonely, restless isolation.
Ordering it wasn’t the same as celebrating a special occasion at your favorite restaurant. It was an act of daring to go see a movie in a theater. We were prohibited from attending sporting events. You could listen to the ocean on a sound machine on your night table, and that would have to do. You couldn’t actually fly to an ocean to see it, and soothe in it.
Hospitals were crowded, but visitors couldn’t walk softly into a room with full hearts to hold the hands of the sick, the suffering and the dying. Zoom helped, but you can’t hug an elderly parent through video conferencing.
We couldn’t say goodbye. We couldn’t be there at the end. We couldn’t whisper tenderly into an ear, or provide comfort as a life slowly flickered away. Depending on the situation, we couldn’t attend funeral services — if such services were actually held. The only thing worse than wearing a mask was hanging your head and wiping your tears with the mask.
We never had the opportunity to stand and salute and participate in a proper farewell for No. 45, and No. 20. Some would say that Bob Gibson or Lou Brock were huge stars, celebrities, and favorite athletes — but they weren’t family. They were strangers that we got to know through their performances, their deeds, and their greatness on the baseball diamond.
We felt that we knew them, but we really didn’t know them. We loved them the way you love listening to music made by a venerated artist, or the way you love a writer for the beautiful arrangement of words that ribbon through a treasured book. The love is shared at a distance.
But I am here to speak for many when I say that Bob Gibson and Lou Brock WERE family. In a passionate and traditional baseball town, a place where the sport can feel like a religion, the two iconic Cardinals and Hall of Famers were a vital presence in the lives of multiple generations of families.
How many times did you attend a game with your parents or best friend, or grandparents, or siblings, or your own children and grandchildren? How many times did you see Gibson pitch, or Brock steal a base? How many times did you see the two immortals appearing in their red jackets on opening day in St. Louis? They were there for so long … there for decades of your lives.
And you knew them. You knew them because you could always see them, whether it was live and in person or in your memories. You knew them because you could feel them, and you knew them because they made you happy in a way that actual friends and family couldn’t match at times. And one way or another, they were a part of your youth, a part of your elderly years, a part of all of the days in between, especially in the St. Louis spring and summer and autumn. They were a part of your home town, a part of your home team, part of your adopted town, a part of your adopted team — and they were still a part of you when you moved away for college or a job. Because the memories will always travel with you.
And even if you never were in a ballpark to watch Gibson glare in at the hitter or see Brock calibrate his masterful takeoff from first base, you knew them because you could revel in the stories about them, or incessantly watch their highlights, or listen to someone dear to you talk about everything that these two legends did to uplift the Cardinals and uphold and enhance the tradition of a classic franchise that means so much to so many.
You know them because you talk about the time your grandpa gave you a Brock or Gibson autograph. Or maybe it was you who got the autograph, or had someone snap a photo with you standing next to Gibson or Brock or both.
You knew them because you were saddened, perhaps heartbroken and inconsolable when you received the word of their passing. When another person’s life ends, and it leaves you crying, then this is the same as losing someone close in your family, or a friend that has been a constant in your life.
St. Louis fans and the Cardinals have a chance to pay their respects to Lou Brock and Bob Gibson this weekend at Busch Stadium. The pandemic made that impossible in the fall of 2020, when we lost two of our most beloved heroes.
Brock will be honored before Friday night’s game against vs. Pittsburgh. He passed away on Sept. 6, 2020 at age 81. Gibson will be honored before Sunday afternoon’s game. He died on Oct. 2 of 2020 — the same day the Cardinals were eliminated by the Padres in the best-of-three playoff series that ended their season.
Both ceremonies will take place during the Cardinals’ Hall of Fame weekend, featuring the inductions of Bill White, Keith Hernandez, Tom Herr, and John Tudor. And of course, the Brock and Gibson families will be there too. Family members will appear before the fans and throw out ceremonial first pitches.
It will be a powerful weekend of remembrances.
The occasion will be more sweet than sad. Having a chance to say goodbye in your own way is a meaningful moment. If you are feeling nostalgic but happy and thankful because of the many forever memories created by these men — or if you get emotional, with your eyes welling with tears — then you will have family and friends nearby to hug, to share.
And this is what families do, right? This is why Brock and Gibson are part of the family. If there’s love, it’s family. If there are shared experiences, it’s family. If there’s a common pride, it’s family. If there’s a commitment to a town or a team, it’s family. If there are fond memories, it’s family. If there is a gathering in a ballpark to experience something that brings us together, fully united — well, that’s family too. It might even be better in a way; at least this time a family won’t be bickering over politics.
Gibson and Brock require no biographical introduction.
But just for smiles:
They are Baseball Hall of Famers.
They are Cardinals Hall of Famers.
Legends. Icons. All-time greats.
They were teammates and driving forces on two World Series champions, 1964 and ‘67. And it was the same with the 1968 team that won the NL pennant.
Gibson is the all-time franchise leader in wins (251), strikeouts (3,117), complete games (255), shutouts (56), innings pitched, games started and a whole lot more. Two Cy Young awards. A nine-time All-Star. The record-setter, and record holder, for the lowest ERA by a qualifying MLB pitcher in a single season: 1.12 in 1968.
Brock had 3,023 career hits, and batted above .300 for eight seasons. He made six All-Star teams. He famously led the league in steals eight times, and held the MLB records for the most stolen bases in a season with 118 (1974) and for a career (938.) Both marks were later broken by Rickey Henderson.
Brock ranks first in Cardinals history in stolen bases, and is second to Stan Musial in hits, runs and most times on base. He’s third all-time among Cardinals in doubles and total bases and fourth in extra-base hits.
Both players were intimidating. Gibson inspired fear with his menacing countenance, zeal for pitching inside, and a mound presence that made him look like a frightening force of nature.
Opponents knew that Brock was out to steal a base, and they obsessed over ways to stop him. Brock leading off first created high anxiety among opponent pitchers and catchers. And he got the best of them, time after time. Brock had underrated power. He lashed 486 career doubles. From 1964 through 1971 Brock slugged .443 and had double-digit home run seasons six times.
“Without Lou we couldn’t have done any of this stuff,” Gibson once said of Brock’s importance to those World Series teams of the 1960s. “He got us going. He got the team going. He raised so much havoc on the bases, he destroyed the other team’s pitching staff. They were more concerned about him than the hitters. Without Lou we couldn’t have won it. Period.”
And both men were intimidating because of their indefatigable competitiveness, their sharp intelligence, and the ability to be at their absolute best in the most pressure-loaded situations, on the postseason stage.
Gibson started nine times in the World Series and went 7-2 with a 1.89 ERA. He threw 81 out of a possible 82 World Series innings. He won two Game Sevens that gave St. Louis the World Series flag.
“When Bob Gibson pitched, we believed we would win every time,” Brock once told me. “I doubt there has ever been a starting pitcher that inspired as much confidence in his teammates as Bob did for us. He had amazing talent, and was fearless. But he put fear in our opponents. He had the heart of a lion, and he was a champion. Bob in the clubhouse was just one of the guys. When he walked out of the clubhouse to pitch, watch out. He was a totally different man.”
When Doug Rader — Astros third baseman, and later manager of the Rangers — was asked to name the five best pitchers he ever faced, he had a quick answer.
“That’s easy,” Rader said. “Bob Gibson in 1968, Bob Gibson in 1969, Bob Gibson in 1970, Bob Gibson in 1971 and Bob Gibson in 1972.”
Brock batted .391 with four home runs and 13 RBI in the 21 Series games. He set a World Series record in 1967 by dashing for seven stolen bases against the Red Sox in seven games. Three of the steals came in the decisive Game 7.
“I’ve never seen anybody like Brock,” Boston shortstop Rico Petrocelli said at the time. “He gets the best jump I’ve ever seen on a guy. I look over, the pitcher’s ready to throw, and boom, he’s gone.”
Gibson was the tough guy with the soft side and a love of humor. His laughter was as powerful as his fastball. Gibson wasn’t as mean as many believe. On the mound, yes. Away from the mound, his candor and straight-shooting style was often misread. I didn’t know him well personally, but on two occasions he stunned me with small acts of kindness.
Brock was a kind, loving man — and a man of God — that had a tough interior. Though Brock (especially deeper in his retirement) was soft and gentle on the outside, but his interior was tougher than many realize. Mr. Brock was responsibly but bravely outspoken on matters of racial injustice at another tense time in America, the 1960s, when it was much easier to maintain silence. And my God, how this man fought to stay alive as he endured more life-threatening, punishing health crises than any human should have to encounter.
The Cardinals, St. Louis and the fans were blessed to have such two luminous stars — champions — that had abundant talent, charisma, character, a conscience and the desire to be great.
“One thing I’ve always been proud of,” Gibson once said. “Is the fact that I’ve never intentionally cheated anybody out of what they came to the ballpark to see. But most of all, I’m proud of the fact that whatever I did, I did it my way.”
In an interview with Bally Sports Midwest as he battled serious health issues, a weakened Brock expressed pride in the way he (and Gibson) honored their commitment to the fans.
“They asked for our A game and we probably produced it for them on a daily basis,” Brock said. “When you do that the fans are in your corner. We’re in their corner. We always want to do well for them as much as they want us to do well. That’s about what it boils down to.”
And that’s why Gibson and Brock were loved as players, and loved in retirement. And this is why they will always be loved. They stood for something special. They stood tall for the Cardinals, stood tall for St. Louis.
This weekend, please stand tall to honor Gibson and Brock.
Besides, they’re family.
Thank you kindly for reading.
Check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store. The weekly “Seeing Red” podcast with Bernie and Will Leitch is available at 590thefan.com. Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.