Flood, Curt (18 Jan. 1938 - 20 Jan. 1997), baseball player and artist ...

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Flood, Curt (18 Jan. 1938 - 20 Jan. 1997), baseball player and artist, was born Curtis Charles Flood in Houston, Texas, the youngest of six children of Herman and Laura Flood. In 1940 the family moved to Oakland, California. Flood’s older brother, Carl, who had trouble with the law from childhood, slipped into a life of crime. Flood, however, began playing midget-league baseball at the age of nine. George Powles coached the team and produced, besides Curt Flood, such players as Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Joe Morgan, and Jesse Gonder. The other factor that kept Flood out of trouble was encountering Jim Chambers, who encouraged his interest and development as an artist at Herbert Hoover High School in Oakland. Flood played baseball throughout his teenage years and became a promising athlete. However, he was small, weighing barely one hundred forty pounds and standing only five feet, seven inches tall as a senior in high school. Despite his diminutive stature, he was signed by the Cincinnati Reds in 1956 for a salary of four thousand dollars. He received no bonus for signing, but the contract was impressive for a working-class boy who had just graduated from high school.

As a minor league player in Tampa, Florida, Flood had to endure the racial taunts and slurs that other black ball players suffered when playing newly integrated baseball in the South. Having grown up on the West Coast, he had never encountered the uncompromising nature of southern segregation, and it was quite a revelation to him. The odds were not in Flood’s favor of making it to the major leagues, but he hit .340 in his first year of professional baseball, including twenty-nine home runs. He briefly came up to play with the Reds at the end of the season—Flood was being groomed by the team to be a third baseman—but he had little future in that position with the organization. So, in 1957 Cincinnati traded Flood to the St. Louis Cardinals, who made him a centerfielder, a position he held for them for the next twelve years.

At the time Flood joined the Cardinals, they were geographically the southernmost major league team. Owned by August Busch Jr., who also owned the Anheuser-Busch brewing company, and who was, in many respects, predictably conservative, the team itself exhibited surprisingly liberal tendencies for its day. Minority and white players got along very well, and the team insisted on integrated accommodations for its players during spring training. Under managers Johnny Keane and Red Schoendienst, the team flourished on the field in the mid-1960s. With stars such as pitcher Bob Gibson, third baseman Ken Boyer, second baseman Julian Javier, first baseman Bill White, and outfielder Lou Brock, along with the outstanding play of Flood, who was not only a good hitter but one of the best defensive outfielders of his day, the Cardinals won the World Series in 1964, beating the New York Yankees. Adding outfielder Roger Maris and first baseman Orlando Cepeda, they won again in 1967, beating the Boston Red Sox. St. Louis went to the World Series again in 1968, but lost to the Detroit Tigers in seven games. Busch began to break up his championship team in 1968, and the Cardinals did not go the World Series again until 1982.

In October 1969, after a disappointing season for St. Louis, Flood, catcher Tim McCarver, and pitcher Byron Browne were traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood was thirty-one years old in 1969, and the Cardinals thought, reasonably enough, that the outfielder’s best years were behind him. Flood, shocked and disappointed by the trade and what he took to be the team’s cavalier treatment of him, refused to accept it. At first he considered retiring. He had a lucrative business as a portrait artist in St. Louis and many other ties in the city. Moreover, he had heard that Philadelphia was a tough place for a black player to play, though the Phillies offered Flood a salary of ninety thousand dollars, a handsome sum at the time.

After thinking the matter over and talking with his friend Marian Jorgensen, Flood decided to sue Bowie K. Kuhn, Commissioner of Baseball, and the American and National Leagues over baseball’s reserve clause, which prevented Flood from being able to negotiate with any team he wished that might desire his services. Flood presented his case to his union, the Players Association, and its new executive director, Marvin Miller, who, though thinking the suit was ill timed and not likely to succeed, supported Flood. His fellow players simply wanted Flood’s assurances that he was not challenging the league for racial reasons, which he insisted he was not. Former Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg represented Flood.

Flood was not the first player to challenge the reserve clause, which was established in the 1870s and made a player permanently the property of the particular team that possessed his contract; however, he became the most famous. Baseball owners argued that without the reserve clause, their leagues would have no stability, because players would simply move from team to team in order to leverage the highest salary. The history of early baseball actually supported this contention by the owners. However, the main reason for the reserve clause was to control player salaries by not permitting them to offer their services in an open market. The baseball team owners essentially argued that it was a monopoly that could not function successfully unless it completely controlled the freedom of its employees, a position supported by the U.S. Supreme Court, which had exempted professional baseball teams from antitrust laws in 1922.

Flood was facing long odds in his lawsuit. The public was decidedly against him, not feeling great sympathy for a man claiming to be a “slave” and being treated like “a consignment of goods” who was making ninety thousand dollars a year. Most sportswriters were similarly unsympathetic, as were the lower federal courts and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Flood lost his case and sat out the 1970 season. While appealing the case to the Supreme Court, he returned to baseball briefly, playing for the Washington Senators, which had made a deal with Philadelphia to get him. But Flood left the Senators after playing only thirteen games. He felt that he no longer had the desire or the ability to play, especially in the face of hostility from the baseball establishment, and he moved to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he spent most of the 1970s. He never played professional baseball again.

On 18 June 1972, the Supreme Court affirmed the Second Circuit’s ruling by a vote of five to three. Even though the Court ruled against him, Flood had generated enormous publicity and discussion about the reserve clause. By the end of 1972 baseball owners agreed to salary arbitration, the beginning of the end of the reserve clause. In 1975 pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally challenged the reserve clause by working one year without a contract and then declaring themselves free agents. They won their case in labor arbitration, and the age of free agency had arrived.

Flood was right in calling himself “a child of the sixties.” There was a strong element of protest and reform in his challenge. Other black athletes of the time, most notably MUHAMMAD ALI, openly defied society’s expectations of them and challenged the businesses for which they worked. But the issue here, actually, transcends race and is more powerfully related to athletes being seen by the public as more than mere performers or machines, but as men and women with vital concerns about their well-being and with vital interests that they should be permitted to protect. It must be remembered that all Flood wanted was the right to offer his services to any major league team, the same freedom to move from one job to another that most Americans enjoy.

Flood, who had been a heavy smoker, died of throat cancer at the age of fifty-nine. He was survived by his wife, actress Judy Pace, and a child by a previous relationship. In 1998 Congress passed the Curt Flood Act, giving Major League Baseball players the same protection under antitrust laws that all other athletes enjoyed.

Further Reading

Flood, Curt (with Richard Carter). The Way It Is (1971).
Korr, Charles. The End of Baseball As We Knew It: The Players Union, 1960 - 1981 (2002).
Miller, Marvin. A Whole Different Ball Game: The Sport and Business of Baseball (1991).
Will, George F. Bunts (1999).

Gerald Early

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