Curt Flood just wanted to be remembered. Most history books will remember him. But not as the great baseball player he was. Instead, Flood will be remembered for his courageous fight with Major League Baseball that led to free agency. While Flood was proud that he left his mark on the game, he wanted fans to remember Curt Flood the baseball player, too. And he should be remembered for his exploits on the diamond.
Flood won seven Gold Gloves and was a key cog on the Cardinals 1964 and 1967 Word Series championship teams. He was also a three-time all-star. Flood was among the best in the game at his position. Sports Illustrated called Flood, “Baseball’s Best Centerfielder” on a 1968 cover. This is no small feat considering that Willie Mays was still roaming center in San Francisco. Mays is often considered the best all-around baseball player of all-time. That’s how good Curt Flood was. But his mastery in the outfield is often lost under a pile of court files that would end his career – but open up new opportunities for many others in the future. Baseball would never be the same.
Flood changed the game. His impact is only under Jackie Robinson’s in today’s baseball landscape. Love it or hate it, free agency is a major part of the game today. Yes, all the Yankees bashers will perk up and complain that Flood’s battle ultimately hurt the game. But at the time, his fight was necessary for the players. This was before million-dollar contracts and endorsements. Players were literally owned by teams. They were property of the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees, and every other team. When the team sold them, they were forced to leave with no benefits or say. Then, players had few rights in the game. Now, they have too many. But something had to be done as the 1970s began.
Flood became the man for the job when he was traded along with Tim McCarver to the Philadelphia Phillies for Dick Allen. He didn’t want to go to Philly. The city was seen as racist and unforgiving. Flood wanted no part of it. The Cardinals were his team. He won two rings with them. He was a team captain. Flood was a Cardinal through and through. Now, the team he loved was shipping him away.
It was the perfect time for Flood to take a stand for all baseball players. He filed a suit against Major League Baseball and the reserve clause in the winter of 1970. Flood faced criticism for the move. He was painted as a malcontent, the black sheep of baseball. But he fought through it.
He was used to fighting by now. He grew up during the sixties, a time of social unrest and rampant racism. A young, naïve kid from Oakland was thrust into the racial tension of the South, where his career began in minor league baseball. He was forced to stay in different hotels, take his wash to black laundromats, and took his share of verbal abuse. Still, the young kid kept playing. By the time he was 20-years-old, he was a full-time major leaguer for the St. Louis Cardinals. He soon developed into one of the best young players in the game. He hit for average and played top-rate defense. Flood was becoming a star in St. Louis. He finished his career with a .293 batting average and the seven Gold Gloves. The all-star centerfielder played 12 of his 15 years in St. Louis for some great Cards teams.
It all came to an end in 1970. Flood decided to use the unhappy ending in St. Louis as a beginning for his personal crusade to get players more rights. He sent Commissioner Bowie Kuhn a letter to express his feelings on the recent trade and the reserve clause:
Dear Mr. Kuhn:
After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective 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 decisions. 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.
It began his battle with baseball that would end in the Supreme Court and lead to free agency that so many players today enjoy. Flood’s fight was about much more than baseball. It was about the time he lived in. The Kennedy’s challenged a nation to dream big. Martin Luther King was fighting for his dream. Soldiers were protecting the American Dream in the Vietnam War. Many, including King and the Kennedy brothers, died during their inspiring battles for social change. Flood wanted to make sure their efforts were not in vain.
“I guess you really have to understand who that person, who that Curt Flood was. 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 was truly hypocrisy and now I found that all of those rights that these great Americans were dying for, I didn’t have in my own profession,” Flood said long after the case was over.
Now – 40 years after his movement for change in baseball and 13 years after he died of throat cancer – fans and players should stop and appreciate Curt Flood. His efforts should not be lost on the public. He deserves to be remembered. He should not be left behind in the pages of history. Curt, baseball fans and the people of St. Louis certainly remember the good times you gave them – the dazzling catches, the clutch hits, and the leadership you provided on those championship clubs.
We remember Curt Flood the baseball player, one of the best to don Cardinals red and fly around centerfield. Your efforts on the field were not in vain.