Two of the Cardinals’ savviest competitors, a pair of future Hall of Famers, got picked off base on successive plays.
The pitcher who nabbed them was a 22-year-old Padres right-hander, facing the Cardinals for the first time.
Fifty years ago, on June 9, 1972, Bill Greif picked off Bob Gibson at second base. Then he picked off Lou Brock at first base.
A standout in multiple sports in high school at Austin, Texas, Greif passed up a scholarship offer to the University of Texas to sign with the Astros when he was 18. He made his big-league debut with the Astros in July 1971 and was traded to the Padres with two other prospects for pitcher Dave Roberts after the season.
“We hated to give up Greif,” Astros general manager Spec Richardson told The Sporting News. “He throws hard and has a fine sinker. He could be an outstanding pitcher.”
The Padres had finished in last place each year since joining the National League in 1969 and were headed there again in 1972. Greif looked to be one of their top talents and earned a starting rotation spot.
Padres pitching coach Roger Craig, the former Cardinal, said Greif was one of the most mature and intelligent young pitchers he had coached, the Associated Press reported. “All Greif needs is 200 innings under his belt and he’ll be quite a pitcher,” Craig predicted.
Greif told the Society for American Baseball Research, “Roger was an excellent tactician. We talked a lot about setting pitches up and which pitch to throw in each situation. It was situational pitching and that was very helpful to me.”
Greif entered his start against the Cardinals with a 3-8 record. The Padres totaled nine runs in his eight losses.
Craig, who with the Mets had 24 losses in 1962 and 22 in 1963, understood what it was like to pitch for a bad team and used that experience to try to guide Greif.
“I’ve learned more from Roger in three months than I learned all the rest of my career,” Greif told The Sporting News. “He helps a pitcher in so many ways, especially in keeping up his confidence.”
Greif was matched against Gibson for the Friday night series opener at San Diego. Greif was 9 when Gibson got his first win in the majors in 1959.
In the third inning, the game was scoreless and the Cardinals had one out and none on when Gibson doubled. Before pitching to Brock, Greif, a rangy 6 feet 4, whirled around and fired the ball to shortstop Enzo Hernandez, who was covering the bag at second. Hernandez tagged out Gibson, who had strayed too far.
Brock followed with a single. In 1972, Brock would lead the National League in stolen bases for the sixth time, but Greif wasn’t intimidated. As Brock took his lead, Greif whipped a throw to first baseman Nate Colbert, who applied a tag before Brock could reach the bag.
“Many pitchers have been improving on their moves,” Brock told The Sporting News. “The pitchers are much more responsible for base steals than catchers.”
The Padres scored twice in the fourth, snapping Gibson’s scoreless inning streak at 25, but the Cardinals came back against Greif in the sixth. Brock led off with a triple and scored on a wild pitch. After Bernie Carbo popped out, Matty Alou crushed a home run, merely his second of the season, to tie the score at 2-2.
In the ninth, Joe Torre led off with a home run against Greif. “He has great stuff,” Torre told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He just got a curve in too much. I’m sure he didn’t want to put the ball there. He’s so big that it looks as if he’s reaching out to touch you when he lets go. He’s big enough to scare you.”
“I was studying Gibson and marveling at the stuff this man has and the way he challenges the hitters,” Greif told the Associated Press.
By dueling with Gibson into the ninth, “At least I know now that I can pitch in the majors,” Greif said, “and that’s something I didn’t know this spring.”
Mind over matter
The remainder of the 1972 season had more lows than highs for Greif. He finished with a 5-16 record and 5.60 ERA.
In five seasons with Padres, he was 29-61.
In May 1976, Greif, 26, was traded to the Cardinals for outfielder Luis Melendez. In 47 relief appearances for the Cardinals that season, his last in the majors, Greif was 1-5 with six saves.
Expressing an interest in experimental psychology, Greif attended college during the baseball off-seasons. He earned a degree in psychology from the University of Texas and a master’s from Texas State University.
He told the Austin American-Statesman, “Pitchers, in particular, might be an interesting study _ how a pitcher can program his brain to release a certain pitch the same way time after time.”