January 18, 2011
Big League Stew honors one birthday boy per week by taking a longer look at his career. Players will be culled from both past and present. Today we remember one of the most important players in baseball history, a principled man who was taken from us much too soon.
It's a sad reminder to learn that Curt Flood would have only turned 73 years old Tuesday. He died 14 years ago, just two days after his 59th birthday, after a battle with throat cancer. Though Flood was one of the best center fielders of the 1960s, he was far better known for filing the lawsuit that led to the end of baseball's "reserve clause" and the dawn of free agency — all of which occurred shortly after he retired. He never reaped the benefits of his courage, but every ballplayer of the last 40 years owes him a heavy debt of gratitude.
Flood's instrumental role in ending the reserve clause has tended to obscure just how good a player he was. He won seven straight Gold Gloves from 1963-1969, made three All-Star teams, and received MVP votes in every season from 1963 to 1968. His offensive numbers don't look that strong today, but that's because his peak occurred during the mid- to late-1960s, the "second deadball era," the greatest offensive depression since the 1910s. As it was, he maintained a high batting average with moderate power, rarely struck out, and batted leadoff, second and third for a Cardinals team that won two championships and three pennants.
Flood essentially left baseball after filing his lawsuit in 1969. He lost the case and left the game with bitter sadness, returning briefly in 1971 and playing 13 games before retiring for good. Largely blackballed by the game he'd challenged, he struggled with finances and battled alcoholism, but became a skilled painter. (Coretta Scott King retained a painting Flood had done of her husband, Martin Luther King.) Flood also successfully overcame his addiction before his 50th birthday.
Best Year 1967: .335/.378/.414, 5 HR, 50 RBIs, Gold Glove, 5.1 WAR
In truth, it was hard to pick a single best year for Flood, because so many of his seasons were so similar. From 1961 to 1969, his yearly numbers weren't far off from his average, as he posted a .300 average with a handful of homers and sterling work in the field, unseating Willie Mays as the consensus best defensive center fielder in the National League. But Flood hit for the highest average of his career in 1967, and he led the Cardinals to their second championship in four years. Though the All-Star voters didn't see fit to send Flood to the All-Star game — as they had done in 1964 and 1966 — he went on a tear in the second half, hitting .373 as the Cardinals won the pennant by 10.5 games.
Worst Year 1966: .267/.298/.364, 10 HR, 78 RBIs, Gold Glove, 1.5 WAR
It was ironic that Flood wasn't an All-Star during his best season, despite having been named to the team the previous year, which was his worst as an everyday player. Now, it wasn't his absolute worst season, because he was called up before he was really a finished product as a hitter, and was a mostly part-time player until 1962. His platoon performance from 1958-1960 was basically replacement-level. But 1966 was a real disappointment, as he lost 43 points of batting average and — not that there were many sabermetricians around to notice — saw his OBP drop 68 points as he cut his walks in half. Despite the offensive stagnation, it was one of his finest defensive seasons, as he didn't commit a single error.
Claim to Fame: Flood v. Kuhn
Following the 1969 season, the Cardinals traded Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies without even notifying him of their plans. He refused to comply and wrote a letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn requesting to be able to consider offers from other cities. Kuhn refused. When Flood filed suit against Major League Baseball, he was alone. He was well-paid by baseball standards, but as he told Howard Cosell, "A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave." A difficult divorce had left Flood increasingly nervous about his finances, and he was already struggling to control his drinking. Though he was supported by retired players Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg, and by owner Bill Veeck, no active players showed up at the trial to testify in his defense. The Supreme Court ruled against him in 1972, with the majority opinion written by Harry Blackmun, who would write the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade the following year.
Yet just three years later, an arbitration panel granted free agency to pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, creating the precedent that has ruled baseball for the past 36 years. Flood was, understandably, bitter:
"The Supreme Court decided not to give it to me, so they gave it to two white guys. I think that's what they were waiting for," he said.
Off the Field: Flood was a talented draftsman and successful portrait painter, and during his time with the Cardinals, he founded a charity called Aunts and Uncles that provided shoes to poor African-American children in St. Louis. Still, he recognized that the lawsuit was "the central fact of my life." He spent several years away from baseball following the suit, but he returned to it in later years. In 1978, he was a broadcaster for the Oakland A's, and in 1989 and 1990, he served as commissioner of the Senior Professional Baseball Association, a Florida-based winter league for older baseball players. (The Association folded in late 1990.)