Two nights ago, I couldn’t resist when HBO showed a repeat telecast of The Curious Case of Curt Flood. First aired last year, the documentary remains at once spellbinding and troublesome. Spellbinding because of the meticulous attention it pays to Flood’s attack against baseball’s nefarious reserve clause; troublesome because of a few omitted details quite germane to the whole of Flood’s story. The most egregious of those omissions was the documentary’s attention to the racism against which Flood battled as a young Cincinnati Reds sprout and ignorance of the manner in which St. Louis Cardinals players, in the years following the purge of one-time manager Solly Hemus, went out of their way to erode Jim Crow’s influence on the team, in spring training, and on seasonal road trips.
But never mind that for now. Watching the Flood documentary provokes anew a question I first pondered while writing about Flood overall when the documentary premiered in 2011: Does Flood, as many of his admirers believe, belong in the Hall of Fame? I know that’s a tricky subject considering this is the weekend on which Ron Santo and Barry Larkin are to be enshrined. (P.S. Both players deserve the honour. Santo was the best all-around third baseman in the National League for most of the 1960s; Larkin the best all-around shortstop in the league in the 1990s.)
If you take him strictly on his playing record, he doesn’t. He was one of the best defencive center fielders in the game in the 1960s; his range factors (putouts and assists times innings played or games played) were well beyond his league’s averages, in terms of per nine innings and per games played, and he led his league in putouts four times, assists three times, in fielding twice, and he managed to win seven Gold Gloves in an era where Willie Mays remained in his prime. Those are facts often forgotten when the saddest moment of his field career is recalled—he lost Jim Northrup’s drive in the sun, resulting in the two-run triple that wrecked Bob Gibson’s side of a shutout duel with Mickey Lolich in Game Seven, 1968 World Series. (The Tigers would make it 3-0 on Bill Freehan’s followup RBI double, 4-0 on Don Wert’s RBI single in the ninth; the Cardinals would get nothing other than Mike Shannon’s solo bomb in the bottom of the ninth, leaving the Tigers on the mountaintop.)
But Flood wasn’t that much of a hitter; he hit for respectable batting averages but he has a .300 lifetime on-base percentage, which isn’t good for a mostly number-two hitter. He hit lots of singles and quite a few doubles but not all that much else. He did produce 137 runs per 162 games, which isn’t a complete wash but doesn’t compare him favourably to other center fielders of his era; he averaged 171 hits per 162 games, 37 of which were extra base hits. What probably kept him in the lineup, other than his glove skills, was the fact that Flood was a difficult strikeout (he averaged 56 batting strikeouts per 162 games in his career, which is pretty damn good) who could, at least, move runners ahead of him even if he wasn’t the guy you depended on too often to score them.
So why would you think of Curt Flood for Cooperstown? If you have to ask, you don’t remember the details. The Hall of Fame recognises baseball’s pioneers, the men who changed the game radically enough in their time in one or another way. Dred Scott in Spikes (as George F. Will has called Flood) didn’t win his reserve challenge, but he damn sure kicked the door open irrevocably. Flood may have lost in the Supreme Court, and there’s a case to make that had his pro-bono attorney (Arthur Goldberg, himself a former Supreme Court justice who was clearly in over his head) not bungled the arguments before his former colleagues at the Supreme Court, Flood might have won the case.
“Might have won” isn’t the same as winning, of course. “Might have been” isn’t the same as “was.” But if Curt Flood wasn’t the first to challenge the reserve clause, he became the first one to strike at it through the law since a Yankee farmhand named George Toolson tried it in 1953. That he took it all the way to the Supreme Court was itself a kind of warning to baseball. That he suffered for it . . . well, let’s review.
Flood was a troubled man long before he decided he wasn’t just going to take it like a man when the Cardinals swapped him to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1969 season. (Flood was to go with relief pitcher Joe Hoerner, outfielder Byrone Browne, and catcher Tim McCarver—who, what do you know, is going into the Hall of Fame’s broadcast wing this weekend—in exchange for first-and-third baseman Dick Allen, second baseman Cookie Rojas, and pitcher Jerry Johnson.) He had fought and beaten real estate racism in his native Oakland when he sought to buy a home with his first wife, but his first marriage collapsed, largely under pressures yielded from Flood’s civil rights activism, the long baseball road trips, and his deepening dependence on alcohol as a salve.
He was dogged by increasing alimony and child support demands since, and his St. Louis portraiture business (Flood was a talented artist, though he often contracted work to other painters he knew) had run into financial troubles, particularly when he tried to give his shifty brother a new shot at life and said brother instead gave him financial and legal headaches. Still, Flood was comparatively content in St. Louis and happy as a Cardinal. Owner Gussie Busch mostly doted on him; Flood gave Busch a portrait of himself, and the brewer hung it proudly aboard his yacht. His teammates liked and respected him.
But in late spring training 1969, Busch—furious over a league-wide player holdout, with numerous players refusing to sign 1969 contracts until they won a critical money raise and vesting requirement shrinkage to their pension plan—rounded his players up and dressed them down in terms Flood himself would remember this way: Busch 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 he mounted his reserve challenge, Flood beat a retreat to Europe, where he’d been content any time he visited; when he tried a baseball comeback with the Washington Senators (in 1971, after then-owner Bob Short bought his negotiating rights from the Phillies and—the details were kept quiet long enough—offered Flood a six-figure salary, with half paid up front, plus a no-trade clause and an agreement to make him a free agent at season’s end if they couldn’t agree on a final contract), it aborted after fourteen games in which it was obvious that the struggles had eroded the talent. When the Supreme Court ruled against him, Flood’s quotient of threatening mail (Bob Gibson once guessed Flood averaged five death threats a day), accusing him of trying to destroy baseball, ramped up.It took time, but he beat the bottle, remarried (to actress Judy Pace), re-established himself with his children, and—in a moment that must have been delicious for him—addressed and encouraged players who struck in 1994, when the owners tried to cram a salary cap down their throats that they had rejected previously. He died three years later after a battle with throat cancer. And, incidentally, what the death threateners accused him of trying to do didn’t come to pass.
Baseball’s competitive balance improved radically after Andy Messersmith finished what Flood started. You can look it up: More individual teams have won World Series since the Messersmith-McNally ruling than won them before it. (I wonder: Did those threatening Flood’s life over his reserve challenge ever stop to ponder how competitively balanced baseball was when the Yankees were winning all those pennants and World Series up to and including 1964?) Ted Simmons, who once played without a contract and looked like a reserve clause threat until he signed a yummy new package down the stretch of his holdout season, put it like this: “Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter (who’d won free agency after Charlie Finley reneged on an insurance payment in his contract, and a big bidding war for millions) showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way.”
Marvin Miller hasn’t been enshrined in Cooperstown yet, either. But he deserves to be. Miller may have warned Flood he didn’t have a prayer of winning, but he stood by his man and stood fast as he shepherded baseball players, as the first executive director of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, toward one after another breakdown of the feudal system that ruled them until the 1970s. In essence, Miller informed one and all that you weren’t going to baseball games to see the owners, and it was foolhardy to think that baseball players shouldn’t have the same employment rights ordinary people, workers and executives alike (try to imagine, say, IBM demanding compensation if a key technician or executive, whose contract has expired, took a delicious new deal from Microsoft), had in the marketplace.
Messersmith, an excellent pitcher who often bumped into greatness, until shoulder miseries derailed his career after his case (and a delicious new deal), pitched 1975 without a contract. The further his season went, the more he understood the issues that went beyond his own dispute. (He’d objected to the Los Angeles Dodgers refusing him a no-trade contract clause, even when the Dodgers offered to sweeten his pot double as the season went on, and for multiple years.) With freshly retired (in June, thanks to arm miseries) but technically unsigned Dave McNally signing onto the challenge as a fallback in case Messersmith wavered (McNally had been playing without a 1975 deal he felt meant the Montreal Expos reneged on commitments that got him to agree to being traded there), Messersmith took it all the way to arbitrator Peter Seitz, and Seitz—after the owners declined to negotiate the issue with the players’ union, as Seitz had urged after the hearings were done—ruled directly against the reserve clause as it had been abused for generations.
If you want to put Curt Flood in the Hall of Fame, you do it on the grounds that he was a baseball pioneer. That’s how he belongs and that’s why he belongs. And if you believe Marvin Miller is overdue for enshrinement (and he is), it would be nothing less than just and appropriate that, in due course, he and Flood should be enshrined together, hand in hand, perhaps with Messersmith, honouring at long enough last the trio who changed baseball irrevocably, and for the competitive better.