Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Curt Flood: An every day reminder of one of America's past baseball heroes

Beyond boundaries / Outside Curt Flood Field in Oakland, Calif.

As the Major League baseball pennant races heat up across the country, here in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Giants have gone from first to worst while the Oakland A's of Moneyball fame continue to fight for survival, remaining at or near the top of their division, while playing in what one local sports columnist labeled the Oakland Coliseum as "the greatest terrible place on Earth."

While San Francisco has played center stage to many of baseball's greatest stars -- Willie Mays, and Willie McCovey of the Giants come to mind -- as well as one of the game's biggest anti-heroes, Barry Bonds, across the Bay in Oakland, most of its greatest home-grown talent like Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson and Willie Stargell have earned their accolades elsewhere.

Then, there's Curt Flood, a Major League baseball player, who spent much of his career as a center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Curt Flood / Won seven consecutive Gold Gloves
for the St. Louis Cardinals between 1963-69.
Born in Texas but raised in Oakland, Flood played in the same outfield as Robinson and Pinson at West Oakland's McClymonds High School. Each became a major leaguer with the Cincinnati Reds in the mid-1950s. After two seasons, Flood was traded by the Reds to the Cardinals in December 1957. For the next twelve seasons, Flood became a defensive fixture for the Cardinals, winning seven consecutive Gold Gloves, making three All-Star teams, and winning two World Series titles. In 1969, he collected the first hit in a major league regular season game in Canada. During his career, Flood hit .293, knocked out 1,861 hits and drove in 631 runs.

However, despite his outstanding career on the field, it was outside the lines that Flood developed his principal legacy to the Summer Game. Flood became a pivotal figure in the labor history of baseball when he refused to accept a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies following the 1969 season, and he ultimately appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Flood believed that the decades-old reserve clause that Major League Baseball employed was unfair because it "kept players beholden for life to the team with which they originally signed, even when they had satisfied the terms and conditions of those contracts."

Flood's rebellion against the baseball establishment came at a period of time when the U.S. was coming apart at the seams. We were at war in Southeast Asia, marching for civil rights through the South, and dealing with the tragedy of the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. As a country, we were losing great Americans who were dying for the rights of others.

Curt Flood refused a trade to the
Phillies after the 1969 season.
In his 1971 autobiography, The Way It Is, written with Richard Carter, Flood cited the Phillies' poor record and dilapidated Connie Mack Stadium, and for what he believed were "belligerent -- and, racist -- fans" as reasons for refusing to report to his new team. He forfeited a $100,000 contract for the season and, instead, chose to pursue his legal options with the blessing of the the players' union head Marvin Miller and the union's funding.

In a December 24, 1969 letter addressed to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Flood demanded the commissioner declare him a free agent. He wrote:

After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.

"It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decision. I, therefore, request that you make known to all Major League clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.

No doubt, Flood was influenced by the civil rights events of the 1960s taking place throughout the United States. In Miller's 1991 book A Whole Different Ball Game: The Sport and Business of Baseball, the union head recalled that in a meeting with the executive board of the players' union, Flood said: "I think the change in black consciousness in recent years has made me more sensitive to injustice in every area of my life."

Flood v. Kuhn (U.S. 258) was argued before the Supreme Court on March 20, 1972. Former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, Flood's attorney, argued that the reserve clause depressed wages and limited players to one team for life. Meanwhile, the counsel representing Major League Baseball countered that the commissioner had acted "for the good of the game."

On June 19, 1972, the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 with one recusal in favor of Major League Baseball, invoking the principle of stare decisis ("to stand by things decided"). It cited as precedent  a 1922 ruling in Federal Baseball Club v. National League (259 U.S. 200).

While Flood's legal challenge was ultimately unsuccessful, it united major league baseball players in solidarity as they fought against baseball's reserve clause and sought free agency.

Curt Flood / "Left a legacy of fairness."
Flood sat out the 1970 season and returned briefly in the next year and played in 13 games for the Washington Senators, who acquired him from the Phillies and signed him to a $110,000 contract. He hit only .200 and his defensive skills showed deterioration. He retired after the 1971 season. Four years later, baseball's reserve clause was nullified by an arbitrator and it paved the way for free agency.

On January 20, 1997, Flood died of pneumonia from complications due to throat cancer. Later that same year, Flood's legacy was acknowledged in Congress through the Baseball Fans and Communities Protection Act of 1997. It was numbered HR21 (Flood's Cardinals uniform number) and was introduced in the House of Representatives on the first day of the 105th Congress. The legislation established federal antitrust law protection for major league baseball players to the same extent as provided for other professional athletes. The Curt Flood Act of 1998, which was similar to the House's legislation, was introduced in the Senate and enacted into law the following year.

Flood, who San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Henry Schulman once wrote "left a legacy of fairness," has been described by many as "pioneer, hero, legend, and freedom fighter -- a sort of all-star in the world at large."

In the book Reconstructing Fame: Sport, Race, and Evolving Reputations, David J. Leonard writes about Flood: "The man who was daily denounced and virtually banished from America has since been compared to Dred Scott, Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks as a great American." In the same book, Leonard quotes journalist George F. Will, who said of Flood's contribution to baseball: "Few have ever matched the grace and craftsmanship Curt Flood brought to it as a player. However, none have matched what he did for the game as a citizen. ... He once said, 'I am pleased that God made my skin black, but I wish He had made it thicker.' Friends of baseball, and of freedom, are pleased that he didn't."

A welcome sign to Curt Flood Field
in Oakland, Calif.
In paying tribute to Flood, the city of Oakland renamed a baseball and athletic field in his honor several years ago, Curt Flood Field, that is a little more than a mile from my home. I've driven by it numerous times. Most of the time, I've noticed, the baseball field lies empty and it looks a bit tired and worn. A local high school baseball team and other youth sports groups use the facility that is located at the well-travelled intersection of Coolidge Avenue and School Street in a mixed-race urban neighborhood.

Sometimes, I wonder, if you were to ask most of the kids who play on the field about who Curt Flood was or what he did for them and the Summer Game, would you get more than just a blank stare?

Photos of Curt Flood Field by Michael Dickens, copyright 2013.
Photos of Curt Flood courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

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