Tonight premieres The Curious Case of Curt Flood (HBO, 9pm EDT/PDT), a documentary about the elegant St. Louis Cardinals center fielder whose challenge to baseball’s reserve clause ignited events that led, in short enough order, to the invalidation of the clause as the owners interpreted it for generations, and the advent of free agency for baseball players. It stands to be something of an eye-opener for people whose memory of the Flood case has receded sufficiently enough, and for people who barely knew this talented man whose private furies waged war with his public image.
Flood was a deeply troubled man off the field and out of the game, dealing with marital collapse and business failures, dealing with alcoholism and a kind of wanderlust in which he tended to travel as much for relief from his crises as from a geniune love for travel. In time, however, he found a semblance of peace with his second wife (the actress Judy Pace), returning to the Oakland where he’d been raised, and making a few tentative but profound steps back to baseball.
The documentary’s warts-and-all treatment of his life in and astride baseball seems to come off with a calm sympathy for its subject, neither holding him unaccountable nor condemning him unreasonably. Even allowing the handicap of having only archival commentary from the man himself (he died in 1997, after a battle with throat cancer), The Curious Case of Curt Flood asks above all to understand him without hagiographing him.
And, without perpetuating a confusion that persists at times to this day. Read this very carefully: Curt Flood did not break the misuse/abuse of the reserve clause, try though he certainly did. He lost all the way up to the Supreme Court. Which makes him no less a pioneer, by any means.
Flood’s battle began when the Cardinals traded him—with relief pitcher Joe Hoerner, outfielder Byron Browne, and catcher Tim McCarver (who, like Flood, had gone to three World Series and won two as a Cardinal)—to the Philadelphia Phillies, after the 1969 season, for first/third baseman Dick Allen, second baseman Cookie Rojas, and pitcher Jerry Johnson. Flood had long made known his reluctance to leave St. Louis; he’d built a small but somewhat thriving art and photography business there. Indeed, Cardinals owner Gussie Busch once commissioned him to paint a family portrait, which Busch hung in his yacht’s saloon.
Actually, Flood’s battle may have begun well before the trade. In the spring of 1969, the players held out for and won a critical adjustment to their pension plan: a $5.45 million contribution from the owners, lowering the vesting requirement to four years, and, a $10-a-month hike in benefits for each year a player played in the Show, among others. It cut into spring training—numerous players refused to sign their 1969 contracts or report to spring training—and it infuriated few owners as profoundly as Busch.
Busch wasn’t exactly considered one of the most odious owners in the game at the time. Indeed, his Cardinals had baseball’s first million-dollar payroll in 1968. The Cardinals were staked to private rooms in the best hotels on the road. They were one of the first teams to be flown for road trips in a chartered private jet, after Busch had spent many a season letting his players use his private railroad car on the team’s travel trains. When they returned to St. Louis for homestands, Busch blew them one and all to free cases of beer at each return. His generosity often extended to his players when their careers ended. It didn’t begin with awarding Roger Maris an Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship in southern Florida, and it wouldn’t end with dropping a yacht on Lou Brock when the Hall of Fame outfielder retired.
But toward the end of March 1969, Busch stepped into the Cardinals’ spring clubhouse in Florida and let them have it, but good. He practically called them ingrates, never mind that the payroll was baseball’s highest, never mind “the most liberal pension plan” in all sports, they just didn’t get who was taking the real or the biggest risks in getting them what they had or wanted. “Busch,” Flood would remember in his memoir, The Way It Is, “had been talking to us in code. He had been telling us to behave or get out. I no longer felt like a ninety-thousand-dollar ballplayer but like a green recruit . . . I was sick with shame and so was everyone else on the Cardinals except Busch and his claque.”
When general manager Bing Devine’s assistant Jim Toomey called Flood to tell him about the Philadelphia trade, Flood said nothing on the phone. But he would be quoted as telling a friend later the same day, “There ain’t no way I’m going to pack up and move twelve years of my life away from here.” A month later, he reached out to Players Association director Marvin Miller, saying he wanted to sue against the reserve system. By December 1969, the Players Association agreed to pay his legal expenses. By January, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn rejected Flood’s written request to announce his availability to all clubs, and Flood filed baseball’s first legal challenge to the clause and the game’s antitrust exemption since 1953 and a Yankee minor leaguer named George Toolson.
Flood would lose, ultimately, all the way to the Supreme Court in 1972. Ironically, his legal counsel was former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, who knew little enough about baseball and may actually have been in somewhat over his head before his former colleagues. The Court had only strengthened the reserve system in the Toolson case; the justices now ruled, as had lower courts, that the “tangled web” of the matter should be resolved in forums other than the courts.
What Flood had done with his failed reserve clause challenge, however, was to open a gate. This was not a Yankee minor leaguer challenging the structure in 1953, this was one of baseball’s premiere center fielders, considered at his best to be Willie Mays’s equal with a glove. Whatever the outcome of his individual case, merely having challenged it and carried it as far as it carried made Flood the pioneer he was. The striking (no pun intended) part is just how fast the dominoes began to fall after the Supreme Court ruled against him.
After the players struck briefly to win another increase in the owners’ pension plan contributions (the 1969 pact expired in March 1972), another Cardinal, catcher Ted Simmons, refused to sign his 1972 contract unless it paid him $30,000, a few thousand lower than the major league average but double what the promising Simmons earned in 1971. The Cardinals were offering $20,000. He opened the season without a contract and hit furiously enough to be named to the National League’s All-Star team as a reserve, winning sympathetic coverage along the way. On the morning of the All-Star Game, the Cardinals offered $30,000 for 1972 and $45,000 for 1973. Simmons signed and proved the owners would rather give a barely-tested if promising kid $75,000 then let the reserve clause be tested, as the Cardinals feared Simmons would do.
Yankee relief star Sparky Lyle pitched without a 1974 contract until the Yankees—mindful that he was the American League’s relief star of the year with a 1.66 ERA—secured him, with two weeks left in the season, for $87,500 for 1974 and $92,500 for 1975. Bobby Tolan, the swift but contentious center fielder (he often needed Miller’s intercession in disciplinary issues with the Cincinnati Reds), had been dealt to San Diego for 1974 and held out for $100,000—which he eventually got, with a sweetener of a little more than that for 1975.
And future Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter, already earning six figures a year, found himself declared a free agent, when Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted insurance payment. When arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled him a free agent, Finley took it to court and lost. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to block any bidding on Hunter until he could “review” the Seitz ruling, but backed off when Miller threatened a lawsuit if Kuhn even thought about going against the ruling. The bids got as high as the Padres offering $3.85 million and hiking it to $4 million; Hunter’s sole actual demands were five guaranteed years and annuities to ensure the education of his children.
That bidding war ended, of course, when Hunter took somewhat less than the highest bid to sign with the Yankees. Their secret weapon was someone with whom Hunter had a longtime friendship: Clyde Kluttz, who’d signed him for the A’s in the first place but now ran the Yankees’ scouting system. Here, as originally, Hunter never specified dollars. He merely specified terms: five years’ salary, fifteen years’ deferred money, and his children’s education. Kluttz scratched the dollar terms the Yankess were willing to deal on a napkin. The package came to $3.5 million. Hunter’s lawyer was said to be stunned that a two-week bidding war would end with Hunter taking the third-best offer.
When those cases didn’t seem to budge the owners on salary arbitration, the issue many analysts believe might have forestalled outright free agency if the owners had agreed to it, the Los Angeles Dodgers managed to start spring training in 1975 by alienating their best pitcher. General manager Al Campanis foolishly injected personal issues into contract talks with Andy Messersmith. The otherwise carefree righthander refused from there to negotiate with anyone lower than president Peter O’Malley, who was willing to pay Messersmith big enough dollars but not to write a no-trade clause into the contract.
Only as he pitched on in 1975 did Messersmith begin understanding the depth of what he was doing. By the time he finished 1975—he led the National League in shutouts, starts, complete games, and innings pitched, while finishing second with a 2.29 ERA and third with 19 wins—Messersmith had transformed his personal battle into a broader fight, even as the Dodgers offered him $150,000 for 1975, $170,000 for 1976, and $220,000 for 1977. “The money was incredible,” the pitcher would recall, “but they wouldn’t bring the no-trade to the table . . . Now I understood the significance of what this was all about. I was tired of players having no power and no rights.”
When retiree-in-waiting Dave McNally signed on as a co-plaintiff in case Messersmith might waver (which he didn’t: When I get stubborn, I get very stubborn), it went to Seitz. Hearing the arguments (and perhaps astonished that no less than Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith acknowledged that the proper interpretation of the reserve clause was to make a player a free agent after his second, club-option season), Seitz ruled for Messersmith-McNally. Ted Simmons offered the classic wrapup. Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed us what was out there. Andy showed us the way. Andy made it happen for us all.
During his own case, Flood had at one point traveled to Europe. When it reached the Supreme Court, Flood had returned to Spain. A year after the deal he rejected, however, Curt Flood became a Senator. Washington, that is. Flood became a Senator in part because owner Bob Short, desperately seeking crowd-pullers after he’d alienated his fan base by jacking prices up heavily enough, following the Senators’ surprise presence in the 1969 pennant races (and manager Ted Williams’s accolade as Manager of the Year), struck a deal with the Phillies that may have been the most decent thing he did during his tenure.
Short couldn’t put the deal on paper because it might have proven illegal under baseball’s rules of the time. He sent the Phillies three minor leaguers in exchange for the rights to negotiate with Flood, who’d sat out 1970 as his battle began. Then, he offered Flood a $110,000 salary for 1971, paying the outfielder half in advance, promising that if the two couldn’t agree on a final contract he would make Flood a free agent. He even offered to put a no-trade clause into the pact.
Flood’s 1970 wasn’t occupied solely with the lawsuit. His divorce dogged him. So did what some called excessive child support demands. So did some financial trouble tied to his St. Louis portraiture business. The Senators’ deal would alleviate a lot, or so it seemed. The off-field pressures plus the lack of 1970 baseball activity took toll enough on the man George F. Will would come to call Dred Scott in Spikes. Flood looked contented enough in spring training with the Senators, but after fourteen games in 1971 that saw him a sad shell of his former self—once a solid hitter, now a lineup liability; once a rangy gazelle in center field, now a weakened impression of himself—he left the team, leaving $55,000 on the table and a note of apology to Short.
In time, however, Flood reconstructed his shattered life. He overcame alcoholism; he spent time as an Oakland Athletics broadcaster; he served as commissioner of the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball League, for which he once suited up and hit one over the fence, something that wasn’t his calling card in his prime playing years.
Flood stood up for his fellow major leaguers. He didn’t win his own fight; he didn’t break the reserve clause, or the manner in which the owners misapplied it. But he did plant the first major signpost toward the misapplication’s eventual demise. It’s the reason why supporters argue for his Hall of Fame enshrinement, since he doesn’t have a Hall case on his overall statistics alone. (Though you could make a case for him as a defencive player, assuming the Hall would be inclined to recognise that factor on its own.) And it’s the reason why he is the subject of six books beyond his own memoir, and at least one sobering HBO documentary.