Nightengale's Notebook: Juneteenth brings renewed call to put trailblazer Curt Flood in Cooperstown

·20 min read

Judy Pace-Flood, 80, a trailblazing Black actress, will be celebrating Juneteenth on Sunday, just as she and her family have done ever since growing up in Los Angeles.

Only on this day, June 19, 2022, the date takes on much greater historical significance.

This is the 50th anniversary of the Curt Flood decision, a Supreme Court ruling that ultimately was proven wrong, but forever changed the course of baseball and all sports with the advent of free agency.

It’s one of the most important dates in baseball history, with a man sacrificing not only his baseball career, but his entire life. Players no longer had to work their entire careers for the team that first signed or drafted them. They could become free agents, and have the right to choose their place of employment.

There is Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. There is Larry Doby, who did the same in the American League a few months later. And there is Curt Flood, whose act of bravery will never be forgotten, and an integral chapter in the Civil Rights era.

If Marvin Miller, former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, can be inducted into the Hall of Fame last year, if Buck O’Neil, whose prominence brought national attention to the Negro Leagues, can be inducted next month, certainly Flood should enter the sacred grounds of Cooperstown.

Curt Flood played 15 seasons in the major leagues from 1956-1971, 12 of them with the St. Louis Cardinals. He led the NL with 211 hits in 1964 and won seven consecutive Gold Gloves in center field.
Curt Flood played 15 seasons in the major leagues from 1956-1971, 12 of them with the St. Louis Cardinals. He led the NL with 211 hits in 1964 and won seven consecutive Gold Gloves in center field.

“I think it’s disgusting and delusional that he’s not in the Baseball Hall of Fame,’’ Pace-Flood told USA TODAY Sports. “There’s a phrase that I hear that I just hate. It says, 'Well, he was a pretty good player.’

“There’s no person of African descent who played baseball in the ’50s and ’60s that were pretty good players. There was no such thing as a pretty good Black player sitting on the bench. You had to be outstanding.’’

“The hardest place to be as an African American player at that time was a center fielder,’’ Pace-Flood said. “You had the Jim Crow laws and those fans behind you calling you every racial slur, throwing beer cans and things at you, and you didn’t know what was going on behind you.

“This is a time we lost Martin Luther King. We lost Robert Kennedy. He always thought someone was going to kill him, too. He got so many death threats.’’

So, trying to argue whether Flood, a seven-time Gold Glove center fielder, three-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion, is worthy of a Hall of Fame plaque based purely on his statistics is idiotic.

The man changed baseball, and all of sports, forever.

He sacrificed his life to make it a greater place for every professional athlete who put on a uniform, with Time magazine calling him, "One of the 10 most influential athletes of the century.’’ Pitcher Gerrit Cole thanked him during his introductory press conference with the Yankees after signing his historic, nine-year, $324 million contract. And now he has Congress pushing for his Hall of Fame candidacy.

“Curt Flood was a trailblazer in the world of professional sports and workers’ rights,’’ Maryland Congressman David Trone said in 2020 when he organized a bipartisan and bicameral coalition of 102 members of Congress to campaign for Flood’s Hall of Fame election. “Flood stood up for what he believed in, even though he knew it would mean the end of his career.  If it wasn’t for Flood, professional athletes wouldn’t have free agency to own their own career.’’

Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., left, and Judy Pace Flood, stand with Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., right, as Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., speaks during a news conference in 2020 as they call for the late Curt Flood to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., left, and Judy Pace Flood, stand with Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., right, as Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., speaks during a news conference in 2020 as they call for the late Curt Flood to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Flood was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969. He had already spent 12 years in the big leagues. He refused to go.

He informed Miller of his intentions, and while Miller told him it was admirable, warned him that if he sent that letter on Christmas Eve 1969 it would effectively end his career. He was earning $90,000 at the time, $45,000 less than Willie Mays, and perhaps could cost himself at least another $300,000 in career earnings.

Flood didn’t blink. He sent the letter , triggering the start of freedom for players.

“After 12 years in the Major Leagues, I do not feel that 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.’’ 

MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn dismissed the letter, saying MLB would not comply with the request. Three weeks later, Flood filed suit against Major League Baseball and Kuhn, seeking relief from the reserve clause.

“It cost him everything, he had no money, completely losing everything,’’ Pace-Flood said. “But it was breaking his heart to walk away. He was going to do this no matter what happened.’’

Flood was virtually alone in his mission. Players were afraid to join the fight without a single active player supporting him. Sure, a few were supportive privately but feared repercussions if they came out publicly. Some, like Joe DiMaggio and Joe Garagiola, were vehemently against his actions and chastised him publicly.

“I can understand the process for nobody doing anything, or saying anything, just so happy to be playing the game," Pace-Flood said. “He was just ahead of his time. But he just kept pushing, and pushing. The Civil Rights movement gave him more strength.

“And, finally, it happened.’’

The Supreme Court ruled in 1972 in favor of baseball, leaving Flood devastated, she said, but the torch was lit. Three years later, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally took up the battle against the reserve clause, and won, with arbitrator Peter Seitz making the historic ruling.

There now are more than 200 free agents a year. There was more than $3 billion spent in free agency last winter, with 11 players receiving contracts worth at least $100 million.

There are now athletes speaking out, unafraid of the consequences, whether it’s Colin Kaepernick in the NFL, LeBron James in the NBA or Max Scherzer in baseball.

“If Curt was here, the young man who took the knee (Kaepernick), he’d be standing up and applauding,’’ Pace-Flood said. “If he were here, he’d be standing up and applauding LeBron James. He’d be so proud of these young men.’’

Flood is an integral part of the two-hour documentary by James’ production company, “After Jackie,’’ discussing the challenges of Black players who entered baseball after Robinson. Robinson, who retired in 1957, testified on Flood’s behalf in court while every active player refused.

“The problem with the reserve clause is that it ties one man to one owner for the rest of his life,’’ Flood said in an interview with Howard Cosell. “There is no other profession in the history of mankind, except slavery, in which one man was tied to another for life.’’

Flood, who died at the age of 59 in 1997, will again be eligible to be in the 2025 Hall of Fame class. Yet, in the meantime, Pace-Flood refuses to sit idly. She’ll keep pushing. She’ll keep fighting. She fought her own battles in the acting business trying to find work as a dark-skinned Black woman and has never been afraid of challenges.

She landed groundbreaking roles on “Peyton Place,’’ “Bewitched,’’ “I Spy,’’ The Mod Squad’’ and “The Young Lawyers’’ and was Gale Sayers’ wife in the Emmy-award classic, “Brian’s Song,’’ the first film cited in the U.S. Congressional Record.’’ Pace-Flood, a two-time NCAACP Image award winner and five-time nominee, will be honored in two weeks by prestigious Essence Magazine at Essence Fest in New Orleans.

She fought her own battles of racism in the entertainment industry but recoiled in horror hearing the stories that Flood shared throughout his career.

There was the time he was the Carolina League player of the year in the minor leagues but had to stay in the back of the bus instead of entering the hotel to receive his award. There were the times he and his Black teammates sat alone in the clubhouse waiting for their uniforms to be washed on the other side of town by Black cleaners, with team clubhouse attendants refusing to use the same washers and dryers. There were all of those years he couldn’t eat in the same restaurants as his white teammates, sleep in the same hotels or even get in the same cabs.

So, considering what Flood endured, and how he sacrificed everything, including his life, just what would the Hall of Fame election mean to Judy-Pace?

“The truth!’’ she said. “It would mean the absolute truth. It would mean stopping the stories and tell the truth. When an activist like him comes in here and changes an absolutely wrong situation that goes against the constitution, everyone should know about this.

“He’s part of American history.

“He should be in the Hall of Fame.’’

It’s Juneteenth, the day when more than 250,000 slaves in Texas were told they were free in 1865, two years after slavery was abolished.

While we celebrate the federal holiday, please remember the legacy of Flood, too, who brought an overdue freedom in baseball, and sports world.

And the day Curt Flood is enshrined into Cooperstown, we will all be asking ourselves the same question.

What took so damn long?

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Journeyman feels angel's assistance

Veteran infielder Brandon Drury packed up his bags in his Portland home, got into his car, and headed toward Arizona.

He had talked to the Los Angeles Angels about a minor-league contract, but during his drive, the Cincinnati Reds called.

They had interest, too.

They couldn’t give him a big-league deal, and only offered $900,000 if he was called up, but he had a legitimate shot to make the club as a utility player.

Drury contemplated his options, and then it hit him.

He had a chance to play for Reds manager David Bell. He didn’t know Bell, never even met him, but his brother, his loving late brother, Mike Bell, meant the world to him.

How special would it be to play for Mike’s older brother?

Drury signed a minor-league deal with the Reds on March 21, made the big-league roster, and in a couple of weeks, may be making another team, too.

The 2022 National League All-Star team for the first time in his career.

Drury, 29, should be the Reds’ lone All-Star representative, leading the team in virtually every offensive category, including 14 homers – two shy of his career-high – with 35 RBI and an .766 OPS.

“I know Mike is watching this, and loving this,’’ Drury told USA TODAY Sports, his eyes misting. “He meant so much to me. You usually don’t have a super close relationship with a farm director. It doesn’t work like that. But we were super close. We had a special bond.

“I still can’t believe he’s gone.’’

Bell, 46, was the Diamondbacks’ farm director when they acquired Drury in 2013 as part of the seven-player trade, featuring Justin Upton. Bell mentored him and watched him make his major-league debut two years later and become the D-backs starting third baseman. Drury was traded to the New York Yankees in 2018, and later went to the Toronto Blue Jays and Mets.

Bell and Drury remained close, with Bell moving to Minnesota before the 2020 season to join their coaching staff. In January, 2021, Bell underwent a physical, and tumors were discovered on his kidneys. He died two months later.

“It was just terrible, a young, healthy guy, and that happens,’’ Drury says. “I was thinking he’d be ok, and then it was so quick. It was so crazy. It was terrible. Why does something happen to an awesome guy like that?’’

So, wouldn’t it be wonderful now if Drury can honor the Bell family by making the All-Star team, a decade after he and Mike first met, while playing for his brother and his dad, Buddy, as a special assistant in the front office.

“It’s pretty special to see what he’s doing,’’ David Bell says. “We had a connection immediately through my brother. We would talk about players that we like, and Brandon’s name had come up several times throughout the years. Brandon had a special place in Mike’s heart. They had gotten really close.’’

Mike would be ecstatic seeing what Drury is accomplishing this year after struggling since leaving Arizona. He hasn’t been an everyday player in three years, twice traded within a single year. He has had only 130 at-bats in the past two years with the Blue Jays and Mets, and sat around all winter waiting for someone to call.

“When I went home in the offseason, I told my dad, we’ve got to figure this out,’’ Drury said. “What I was doing was obviously not working.’’

Drury, who joined the crowd and kept trying to hit home runs, changed his approach and went back to trying to hit line drives and doubles. It worked last year with the Mets, hitting .274, but with just four homers and 14 RBI as a pinch-hitter. Now, he wanted an everyday job.

The Reds called on his drive to Arizona, and told him he’d have a chance to get playing time, but only if he moved all around the diamond. They already had All-Star Joey Votto at first base, Rookie of the Year winner Jonathan India at second base, and Mike Moustakas entrenched at third.

“He’s a guy we liked in the past, going back to when he was in Arizona,’’ Reds GM Nick Krall says. “Our guys had interest in him. We thought he was a guy could come in and contribute to this play, play a couple of different positions, and maybe fill a utility role.’’

Well, with a series of injuries, Drury is now starting every game, mostly at third base (29) ahead of Moustakas, while hitting second in the lineup.

“He’s been special to watch,’’ David Bell said. “I remember the first day he signed, he came into my office, and was on task, saying, ‘Ok, I need to get onto the field because I’m going to make this team.’ There was a question on that since he was a no-roster player, but he was determined to play, and show what he’s capable of doing."

Mission accomplished.

“I’ve always believed in my ability, but it’s definitely been pretty fun so far to play good baseball again,’’ Drury says, “especially when I was really, really struggling. This has been a great opportunity for me. I’m just trying to ride the wave.’’

And making someone awfully proudly watching from the heavens.

“I know Mike is watching me and looking out for me,’’ Drury says, “I can just feel it. How cool is that?’’

Can A's work in Las Vegas?

Major League Baseball is tired of waiting.

Oakland must decide in a few weeks whether it really has a chance to keep the Athletics.

And the clock is ticking on Tampa Bay Rays with the stadium lease expiring in 2027 while needing time to build a new ballpark.

While MLB wants to hold out Nashville, Tenn., and Montreal as expansion sites, the most popular destination appears to be Las Vegas if a franchise relocates.

“There is really significant activity in Oakland,’’ Commissioner Rob Manfred said, “but here's work to do on the Oakland side. I think the A's prudently have continued to pursue the Las Vegas alternative. We like Las Vegas as a market.’’

So, would Major League Baseball in Las Vegas work?

We asked its most famous baseball native, Bryce Harper.

“It will only work if it’s an expansion franchise,’’ he told USA TODAY Sports. “Kind of like the [NHL] Golden Knights. It would be tough for any other team to be loved like the Knights. It was our first professional sports team, they had success right away, and they’re so Vegas. It’s a show every night. One of the best atmospheres I’ve ever been.

“People come from everywhere in Vegas, there are so many transients, but I don’t know if you could bring a team here and have success. I think it has to be an expansion franchise where we could call our own.’’

Certainly, it has worked in the NFL with the Raiders selling out every game in Vegas, but you’re talking about only nine regular-season games, and of course, it’s the NFL.

“It would just be different in any other sport,’’ Harper. “It would have been hard for the Coyotes to leave Arizona and come to Vegas and be successful. Vegas wants their own team. They don’t want anyone moving here. They want a fresh, new expansion team.

“If someone else moves here, I just don’t see it being that successful.’’

Around the basepaths

► The Cincinnati Reds are already attracting a horde of scouts to watch starters Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle, with about seven scouts on hand this past week to write reports on them.

The Reds are expected to trade at least one of the starters, if not both, with a scarce inventory of starting pitchers available on the trade market.

While Castillo could be everyone’s first choice, Mahle, 27, is opening eyes with his strong performance this past month. He is yielding 1.30 ERA in his last four starts, yielding just 16 hits with seven walks and 36 strikeouts in his past 27 ⅔ innings.

The team that would has expressed strong interest in Mahle and Castillo are the Toronto Blue Jays, who desperately need another starter with Hyun-jin Ryu out for the season.

They have a fine 1-2-3 punch with Kevin Gausmann, Alek Manoah and Jose Berrios, but badly need some depth, and the Reds could come to their rescue.

One problem.

Mahle is unvaccinated, and unless Canada changes its COVID-19 laws before the Aug. 2 trade deadline, Mahle would be a non-starter for the Blue Jays considering he would be unable to pitch any home games unless he becomes vaccinated.

► It was during the 2019 winter meetings – a month after the Washington Nationals won the World Series – that two of their biggest stars hit free agency.

Starter Stephen Strasburg, who opted out of his contract, re-signed with the Nationals on a seven-year, $245 million contract.

Two days later, third baseman Anthony Rendon signed a seven-year, $245 million contract, too, with the Los Angeles Angels.

It turned out to be a combined $490 million disaster.

Rendon, for the second consecutive season, is undergoing season-ending surgery, this time on his wrist. He will have missed 221 games in three years, and that includes the shortened 60-game season in 2020.

His performance has been brutal when even on the field, hitting .252 with just 20 homers and 89 RBI with a .780 OPS and negative 0.1 WAR.

It could go down as the worst signing in Angels’ history, particularly considering that it could impede the Angels’ chances of keeping Shohei Ohtani when he’s eligible for free agency after the 2023 season.

Strasburg’s deal could be even worse.

He has made just one start this year and is back on the injured list again with a possible recurrence of thoracic outlet syndrome.

So, three years after signing his deal, he has made just eight starts, lasting 31 ⅓ innings, with a 6.89 ERA.

►  It has been embarrassing watching teams using position players in games this year to save their bullpen, and its’ a disgrace when Cubs first baseman Frank Schwindel appears in twice as many games in one week than closer David Robertson.

Now, with teams mandated to cut their pitching staffs to 13 beginning Monday, now what happens?

Will there be more position players taking the mound and risking injury, or will teams finally realize starters need to go deeper into games to prevent burning out the bullpen?

Enough of the circus acts with the Detroit Tigers using a franchise-record three position players in one game last week.

There’s nothing humorous at all about it.

Schwindel just went on the injured list with an inflamed lower back.

Cardinals future Hall of Fame catcher Yadier Molina, 39, who twice has pitched this year for the first time in his career, is out for several weeks with persistent knee pain.

Their clubs won’t admit it, of course, but you don’t think pitching played a factor in their injuries?

Who’s laughing now?

► Baseball executives are predicting that the most natural fit for the Cubs’ All-Star catcher Willson Contreras are the San Diego Padres, who badly need offensive help, and love their star players. Contreras is a free agent at the end of the season, seeking at least $100 million, and most teams are expected to balk at the asking price for a rental.

The New York Mets, Houston Astros, Tampa Bay Rays and San Francisco Giants also are possibilities for Contreras.

► The Los Angeles Angels are exploring the possibility of adding veteran second baseman Robinson Cano to their team after the season-ending injury to Anthony Rendon. Cano is currently playing at Triple-A El Paso, but the Padres won’t stand in his way of getting a big-league job.

►  The Arizona Diamondbacks have enlisted the help of Chili Davis, the long-time hitting coach dismissed last year by the Mets, to try and help Cole Tucker’s offensive woes.

Tucker, the former first-round draft pick in 2014, was released this month by the Pirates and picked up on waivers by the D-backs. Tucker was hitting just .175 with a .175 on-base percentage and .222 slugging percentage this year when the Pirates designated him for assignment.

► Kudos to Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who kept Tyler Anderson in the game without removing him after 123 pitches, in a bid to earn a no-hitter. He fell two innings short.”

“This is the Dodgers,’’ Roberts said. “It’s Dodger Stadium. It’s the Freeway Series. It’s Trout, Ohtani, and you’ve got Tyler Anderson with an opportunity to take a no-hitter into the ninth inning with 50,000 people. That’s a special moment. …

“I know I’ve got this reputation as the Grim Reaper, but I’m a sports fan too.”

► Fabulous family moment at Wrigley Field on Saturday when Cubs catcher Willson Contreras and his younger brother, William, of Atlanta, were the starting catchers for the first time against one another, with their parents in the stands.

They hugged one another in the first inning when Willson came to the plate with their dad wearing an Atlanta jersey and Cubs’ cap.

“It’s like a dream coming true on my side, watching him play since he was a kid,” Willson Contreras, 30, told reporters. “This is a dream come true. It’s a huge achievement for the whole family.”

The Yankees,are 32 games over .500. They are a major-league best 48-16 with a surreal 11 game-lead in the AL East. They are only the eight team since 1901 to win at least 48 of their first 64 games.

Yes, the Yankees are proving over and over that they are the team to beat this year. Their odds of winning their first World Series since 2009 are now even with the Dodgers, according to Hard Rock Sports Book.

► Congratulations to a wonderful career by classy center fielder Lorenzo Cain of the Milwaukee Brewers, who was designated for assignment Saturday on the same day he achieved his 10-year service time milestone.

Cain, who is expected to retire, hasn’t been an everyday player since 2019, hitting just .179 with a .465 OPS this season.

“It just got to a point where it’s probably time,” he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “I haven’t been performing like I would’ve liked but the situation is what it is. I’ve had a great career. I can’t really be upset about anything. But, yeah, it’s time.’’

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Curt Flood gets renewed push for Hall of Fame candidacy