Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Forgotten Man: Remembering Curt Flood

I’m a child of the sixties, I’m a man of the sixties. During that period of time this country was coming apart at the seams. We were in Southeast Asia. . . Good men were dying for America and for the Constitution. In the southern part of the United States we were marching for civil rights and Dr. King had been assassinated, and we lost the Kennedys. And to think that merely because I was a professional baseball player, I could ignore what was going on outside the walls of Busch Stadium. . . All of those rights that these great Americans were dying for, I didn’t have in my own profession. – Curt Flood
In the summer of 1967, when I was eight years old, baseball grabbed my soul and the St. Louis Cardinals captured my loyalty. Like any young boy with a love of the national pastime, I had my favorite players, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Curt Flood and Orlando Cepeda. These were the players I imitated in my backyard and whose box scores I checked each morning. The Cardinals were a colorful, exciting team in the late sixties, a racially mixed band of brothers who played together in America’s Heartland. Today, when people ask me how a kid from New Jersey who never lived within 1,500 miles of St. Louis became a lifelong Cardinals fan, I invariably explain that, long before anyone informed me that one was supposed to root for the home team, I fell in love with the birds on the bat, the bright red and white classic uniforms, which looked especially good on the speedy Brock, the agile Flood, the athletic Gibson, and the powerful Cepeda.

In the first week of October, at the start of the third grade, I rushed home from school each afternoon to watch the Cardinals play the Red Sox in the 1967 World Series. When Gibson recorded the final out in Game Seven and his teammates mobbed him on the field in celebration of a World Championship, I was forever hooked, permanently embedded in the soul of Cardinal Nation.

The next year, the Cardinals again dominated play in the National League and made it to the World Series for a second consecutive season. My passion for the game and my favorite team became more deeply entrenched. It was then that I took notice of Curt Flood. Although I did not yet realize it, history would mark Flood as the most interesting and complex of the men included among my favorite players.

A quiet, lesser known star, small in stature, only 5’7” and skinny, a fun player to watch, Flood combined speed and agility, a masterful glove, and a quick bat. Hitting behind Brock in the Cardinals lineup to form a speedy one-two leadoff punch that wreaked havoc on opposing teams, Flood batted .301 in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, when the league average was a mere .236. But it was Flood’s defense that set him apart. He climbed outfield walls and robbed opposing players of home runs and extra base hits. He closed outfield gaps and chased down floating bloopers that fell for singles against less skillful center fielders. His outfield play resulted in seven consecutive Gold Glove awards and, before season’s end, Sports Illustrated deemed Flood “baseball’s best centerfielder.” Flood’s stellar performance that year helped lead the Cardinals to a second consecutive National League Championship. Ironically, it was Flood’s misplay of a fly ball in Game Seven of the 1968 World Series against the Detroit Tigers that led to the Cards’ defeat.

I remember coming home from school, anxiously anticipating the game and hopeful that the Cardinals would repeat as World Champions. Gibson was on the mound, pitching another of his post-season masterpieces, having retired 20 of the first 21 batters he faced. In the bottom of the seventh inning, with two outs and two on, the score tied 0-0, Gibson fired a strike to Jim Northrup, who smacked a line drive into center field, seemingly in Flood’s direction and a ball he normally tracks down easily. But on this October afternoon, the sure footed Flood misjudged the ball, moving a few steps in before realizing the ball was sailing over his head. He quickly changed direction, then lost his footing on the slippery turf (it had rained the night before), as the ball sailed past his outstretched arms and onto the warning track. Two runs scored as Northrup hustled into third base with a triple. Bill Freehan followed with a double and, just like that, the Cards trailed 3-0. Gibson allowed another run in the eighth and, despite a Mike Shannon home run in the bottom of the ninth, the Tigers went on to win the game 4-1 to become the new World Champions. I was devastated.

Afterwards, some Cardinals’ fans and members of the press blamed Flood for the loss. If only Flood had caught Northrup’s fly ball, they said, the game’s outcome would have been different. Asked after the game if he blamed Flood for the loss, Gibson said, “If Curt Flood can’t catch that ball, nobody can. I’m certainly not going to stand here and blame the best centerfielder in the business.” But baseball, like life, can be cruel to those who fail. Flood would later admit that he never really got over his misplay.

Socially and politically, 1968 was a pivotal year in American history, and it marked the start of my political consciousness. I became increasingly aware of the world around me – the raging war in Vietnam, images of American soldiers coming home in body bags, civil unrest on America’s campuses, the assassinations of King and Kennedy, riots in American cities, growing racial hostility, and a nation bitterly divided. America grew up in 1968 and would never again be the same.

As a young boy, baseball was a reprieve from the messy reality of everyday life, the pressures of school, of trying to fit in, of the anxieties of adolescence. The majestic cathedrals of diamond-shaped fields, of grass and dirt and symmetry, of hot dogs and Cracker Jack and men playing a boys game, provided an innocent escape and an oasis of solace in a fast-paced, ever changing world. Even today, a baseball game in the background or a night at the ballpark presents a reminder that not all of life’s challenges need be resolved immediately.

So, when at the end of the 1969 season, the Cardinals announced they had traded Curt Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies and he refused to go, a breach encumbered that invisible line of innocence dividing baseball and politics. My first reaction was disappointment, not that Flood refused the trade, but that the Cardinals would trade the league’s best centerfielder and one of my favorite players. I really did not understand Flood’s stand; I knew nothing of the reserve clause or the concept of free agency. All I knew was that one of my favorite players would no longer be on the Cardinals and might not even remain in baseball. It was all too much for me to absorb.

In fact, Flood rejected the trade and threatened to leave baseball for good rather than be forced against his will to play for a team that he did not want to join (at that time, Philadelphia had a reputation as a difficult city for a black player). He believed fundamentally that the inequities to the players in baseball’s reserve system, which essentially tied each player to one team for life to be released or traded at the owner’s discretion, were too great. As Flood wrote to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn when he refused to report to the Phillies, “After 12 years in the major leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. . . . Any system that produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States.”

Flood sued Major League Baseball and challenged the reserve clause, contending it was illegal and made possible only by baseball’s exemption from the antitrust laws. This exemption applied to no other business or sport and was a relic of a Supreme Court decision authored by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1922, which most legal experts believed was fundamentally illogical and flawed. But overturning a Supreme Court precedent is extremely difficult, and Flood was warned by his attorneys and by Marvin Miller, the head of the Major League Players’ Association, that he would likely lose his legal challenge and jeopardize his baseball career. As a 32 year-old ballplayer, among the best in the game and paid handsomely (he made $90,000 in 1969, well above the league average in those days and many times more than what the average American worker made), he had a lot to lose. But he felt that, even if unsuccessful, he could at least expose a system he believed morally corrupt.

Flood later acknowledged that the color of his skin made him especially sensitive to the inequalities of the reserve system, to which he had become increasingly aware during the second half of the 1960’s as rising black consciousness began to influence African Americans, including himself, across the country. But he insisted that his legal action was not motivated by race and that he was prepared to risk his career as a ballplayer on behalf of other players. “What I really want . . . is to give every ballplayer the chance to be a human being,” he told one reporter, “and to take advantage of the fact that we live in a free and democratic society.”

Flood publicly equated the reserve system to a form of slavery. “A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave,” he said. For black ballplayers, the reserve system was a subtle reminder of what had been done to their grandparents and great grandparents. But it was difficult for most fans to feel great sympathy for Flood. He was ridiculed as a $90,000 a year slave. He quickly found himself alone, without a job and no longer playing the game he loved. Worse, he was a black man challenging America’s national pastime. He received hate mail spewed with racial epithets. But most disappointing to Flood was the fact that he received virtually no support from active players. Even Bob Gibson, Flood’s best friend and former roommate, remained publicly silent about Flood’s efforts. As Gibson acknowledged years later, “I had a career to protect and a family to support, and I wasn’t willing to risk all that.”

The personal toll on Flood was substantial. He ran out of money and lost his businesses. Embroiled in financial and legal troubles at home, he fled to Denmark. There, Flood found temporary solace and resumed painting (Flood was a talented artist), but for the first time in his life, he was a man without a country. He drank heavily and suffered from bouts of depression. He lost contact with his five children, and though he would try to re-connect with them later in life, the damage was done.

Back in the states, a federal judge rejected Flood’s legal challenge to baseball’s reserve clause and, while the case was pending appeal, Flood found himself in more legal trouble, as several lawsuits were filed against his failing businesses. The financial pressures proved too much. The next year, Flood relented and signed a contract with the Washington Senators. But the time away from baseball – he missed the entire 1970 season – and drinking, smoking, and womanizing had taken their toll. His skills had diminished substantially, and the damage was palpable. On April 27, 1971, just three weeks into the regular season, Flood retired from baseball for good. He wrote a note of apology to his teammates and, without any notice, boarded a plane for Spain.

Although the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Flood’s case, on June 19, 1972, the Court ruled in baseball’s favor, refusing to overturn Justice Holmes decision of 50 years earlier. Flood had lost his fight with baseball.

Flood was a virtually forgotten man, living anonymously in Spain. He ran a pub called The Rustic Inn. Behind the bar were displayed one of his old bats and his baseball glove. In Spain, people did not know much about him and no one asked any questions. But he continued to drink and eventually ran into trouble with the Spanish authorities, abandoned his bar and moved to Andorra, where he worked as a carpet layer. He later moved to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic before returning home to Oakland in 1976.

When Flood returned home, he found that baseball had changed dramatically. Through the efforts of Marvin Miller and the players’ union, the owners agreed to allow free agency for players with six or more years of playing time. By the time Flood returned to the United States, some players had been awarded million dollar contracts with multi-year deals and no-trade clauses. For the next two decades of Flood’s life, he observed other players benefit from the fruits of his sacrifice. The only person who had lost, it seemed, was Flood himself.

As a ten year-old boy, I did not fully appreciate or understand the significance or even the motivations of Flood’s refusal to be traded to the Phillies. I recall hearing talk that players should not be “owned” and forced to play for a team that they did not wish to play for, but I failed to understand that Flood’s stand was one of principle, influenced in part by the increased black consciousness of the Sixties and the civil rights era, the Black Power movement, and the principles of American democracy. A soulful, sensitive and intelligent man, he got along easily with most everyone and, like Martin Luther King Jr., whom Flood idolized, he judged every man and woman by the content of their character. But like most of the black players that made their way up the ranks of major league baseball in his era, Flood had experienced severe racism, especially in the mid-1950’s when he played for minor league teams throughout the south, where the black players were not allowed to stay in the same hotels, or eat at the same restaurants, as the white players. It was an unending list of humiliations and degradations that only a black man living in America under those circumstances could fully appreciate.

Had I been in Flood’s shoes in 1969, I would have taken the easy, non-confrontational route, like every other major league player. As a fan, I wish I could have seen Flood play baseball for a few more years in his early thirties. But I finally understand better why he felt it necessary to take this unpopular stand. As Marvin Miller told author Alex Belth in Stepping Up: The Story of Curt Flood and his fight for Baseball Player’s Rights (Persea Books, 2006), Flood was not only a superb ballplayer and great teammate, he was “someone who thought about social problems and about injustice and who was willing to sacrifice a great deal to try and change things.” He was “a genuine role model” and a man of “integrity.”

Like most men and women of history, Flood was personally flawed. He was a neglectful father, a poor husband, a failed businessman; he drank too much and found it easier to run to Europe to paint portraits at sidewalk cafes than face his problems at home. I can no longer view Curt Flood through the eyes of a ten year old boy, who thrilled at seeing Flood climb the outfield wall and rob an opposing player of a home run. With the benefit of history and five decades of life, I can now remember Flood as a great player who sacrificed some of his best years to correct a perceived injustice and as a man willing to give up everything, rightly or wrongly, to accomplish what he thought was fair and proper. In this respect, he was a rare man indeed.

No comments:

Post a Comment