By Dennis J. Freeman
Exiled St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood should be in the Hall of Fame. Period. But because he decided to take on Major League Baseball in a federal antitrust lawsuit that wound its way all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court, Flood’s legacy as one of the game’s best outfielders, has hovered near the abyss. Change, however, may be on the way.
Starting with the documentary, “The Curious Case of Curt Flood,” airing this month on HBO, Flood’s contributions to the sport of baseball could gain the traction it needs to finally land the seven-time Gold Glove winner into Hall of Fame enshrinement.
The only reason Flood has not entered baseball’s pinnacle of success is because the 5-foot-9, 165-pound outfielder had the gall and audacity to tell baseball it operated like a bunch of plantation owners. Of course, this didn’t sit too well with the white baseball owners association back in 1969. It still hasn’t.
At the peak of his career, Flood set the baseball establishment on its ears and put the nation abuzz with shock when he declared that “a well-paid slave is still a slave” after earning a salary of $90,000 (high for that time period). Flood’s subsequent refusal to be traded after the Cardinals dealt him away to another team, set off a chain of events that has put in the place the free agency market we see in professional sports today.
In retrospect, Flood is seen as the catalyst and pioneer of the free agency market. But he paid dearly for his sacrificial actions, which went largely unappreciated and publicly unsupported by baseball players at that time, including fellow black superstars Bob Gibson, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.
More or less, Flood became a one-man island unto himself. And it hurt. Drinking heavily and isolated, Flood went through a myriad of personal setbacks, including bouts of depression, wasteful spending and homelessness, according to the documentary.
Dr. Clark Parker, who attended the Los Angeles premiere of “The Curious Case of Curt Flood” at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, said his friend paid a steep price for his willingness to take baseball head on.
“I think when you take on the establishment it costs you a lot,” said Parker. “Sometimes, people don’t want to say exactly if they are retaliating against you for your actions but they really are. Major League Baseball certainly did not want someone to come in and upset that little apple.”
Flood just didn’t upset baseball’s little apple; he nearly carved it up with his lawsuit, which resulted in a 1972 narrow 5-3 U. S. Supreme Court decision (Flood vs. Kuhn) in favor of baseball. Though he lost his legal battle, Flood and major league baseball players eventually won the war.
Three years later, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally were able to beat down baseball’s barbaric and antiquated reserve clause and become free agents. But it was the earlier litigation efforts by Flood that paved the way for players to have access to the open market.
Flood, who passed away in 1997, at the age of 59 after a bout with throat cancer, was the perfect embodiment of grace, skill and determination of a major league ballplayer in a stellar 15-year career. He spent 12 of those 15 years playing for the Cardinals.
Flood wound up collecting two World Series rings, batting .300 or better six times and anchoring the Cardinals’ outfield with his deft defensive skills and high-light reel catches.
Former major league baseball star Jim “Mudcat” Grant, one of the few African American pitchers in the sport at that time, said players didn’t fully grasp the full scope what Flood’s legal moves would mean for them in the future.
“When Curt Flood and this whole thing happened, it was really something that we were all so happy to see happen, but not realizing what it was going to do to Curt,” Grant said. “Before then…this was just the way it was. When they said move, you had to move. When they said go, you had to go. And you had no choice. You were hoping that where you went was better than where you came from.”