Little Old Curt Flood:

A Centerfielder's Life

As the 1967 season ended, things could hardly have been going better for Cardinals centerfielder Curt Flood. Fresh off a World Series championship and an All-Star selection, Flood pulled off the even rarer feat of landing a $12,000 raise. Two years later at the close of the 1969 season, things outwardly seemed little different. The Cardinals had struggled to a sub-par year, but Flood, a team captain, still hit .285 while collecting his seventh-straight Gold Glove. Indeed, without some insight into Flood's life, there can hardly seem a more unlikely candidate to risk his career to topple baseball's reserve clause. Flood's story, though, of course, is not just the story of a baseball player. Besides playing a mean centerfield, Flood owned his own photoshop, befriended some sixties reformers, and painted portraits of some of the most popular figures of his day. His self-portrait marks the introduction to this project. A painting he did of Martin Luther King, Jr. still hangs in Coretta Scott King's house, and a portrait of Cardinals and Budweiser owner August A. Busch, Jr., long resided on the owner's yacht. Never just a ballplayer, even in his greatest moments on the diamond, Flood realized how fleeting baseball glory could be, and he never forgot the rough path that had brought him from the Oakland ghetto to baseball stardom.

Born in Houston, Texas as the last of six children, Curt and the rest of the Flood family moved to Oakland in 1940. While Flood's intelligent older brother Carl quickly succumbed to crime, Curt managed to avoid most of the city's problems through his art, and later through baseball. Oddly enough, it seemed the scrawny 5-foot-7, 140 lbs. kid had a real knack for the game. Yet friends and even scouts warned Flood not to be too enthusiastic about a pro career; for Flood had two strikes against him. Not only small, Flood was black. Nevertheless, Flood earned a chance, and in 1956 he signed a contract with the Cincinnati organization for $4,000. Shortly after receiving his diploma from high school, an optimistic young Flood boarded an airplane for Tampa and the deep South (Flood 33).

Not only facing for the first time the blatant racism of the South, Flood had to overcome some tough odds on the baseball field. At the minor league camp he later attended in Douglas, Georgia, officials gave Flood the number 330--not a way to mark a guy as pride of the organization (Flood 36). Yet in his first season of professional action, Flood hit .340 with 29 homeruns. Near the end of the season, Flood even got to see some action with the Reds, the major league ball club. Heading into the annual contract negotiations, Flood brought very high hopes of a substantial pay raise. Unfortunately, Cincinnati General Manager Gabe Paul held a decidedly different view. In the same language used by Spalding over seventy years earlier, Paul told Flood that "the club's expenses were dangerously out of hand" (qtd. in Flood 41). It would behoove Flood to merely renew his old contract, accept promotion to a higher minor league, and continue to play hard (he wanted the ball club to think well of him, didn't he?). Flood reluctantly agreed. He had no choice; the reserve clause granted him no latitude. It was, as he said, "baseball law" (41).

The next season brought more of the same for Flood: great play on the field; the general manager reluctantly agreeing to renew his contract off the field. In the paternalistic language befitting the baseball plantation, Paul told Flood he only wanted the best for his potential star. Shortly thereafter, Flood learned that he had been traded to the Cardinals. Calling himself "a nobody," Flood never thought of refusing to be traded in 1957 (45). He recounts his thought process in his book: "Gabe Paul had told me what a great family they were. I had aspired to a place at the table but had been shown the door instead. Where had I failed Big Daddy?" (47) The firmly entrenched plantation mentality made it difficult for players even to see the injustice of the reserve clause and its implications.

Flood quickly succeeded in the Cardinals' organization. Along with such greats as Bob Gibson, Roger Maris, Bill White, and Orlando Cepada, Flood comprised the nucleus of the most colorful and successful team of the late 1960s. Flood served as the team's captain from 1965 to 1969, a stretch during which the Cardinals captured three pennants and a World Series title. He also proved one of the National League's most consistent hitters during this time period, finishing with a career batting average of .293. Yet it was in the field where Flood really excelled. While capturing seven Gold Gloves, Flood set Major League records of 226 consecutive games without an error and 396 chances without an error. A 1968 "Sports Illustrated" cover proclaimed Flood "The Best Centerfielder in Baseball," tabbing the Cards' star over no less than Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente.

Despite all his baseball heroics, Flood's activities off the field would more greatly shape the role he would play in baseball history. In 1962, Flood met Johnny and Marian Jorgensen, San Francisco residents and political activities that would have a great effect on Flood's life. In his book, Flood referred to Johnny as "a true activist" (118). In protests against what he saw as an unjust war in Vietnam, Johnny gave up a large defense contract, and the chance at economic securities, for his principles. While the Jorgensen's did not take part in the violent activism that characterized much of the decade, Johnny's humble desire to tend "his own corner of the planet with immaculate honor" made a great impact on Flood (118). Shortly after Johnny died in 1966, Flood turned his "own corner of the planet:" "I strove to emulate this, wanting now to serve my own principles as best I could" he wrote in The Way It Is. "Whatever I contributed to the unique morale of the Cardinals was part of this growth, and so, of course, was my decision to have it out in public with the owners of organized baseball" (121).

Before the 1969 season, Flood faced more administrative problems with baseball. Busch decided it was time the players got a stern talking to. To cap the players' embarassment, Busch invited the team reporters to cover the event. To Busch, it seemed the players had forgotten the purpose of baseball. They were not concerned more about their salaries than the fans. In a long and demeaning speech, Busch attempted to assert his patriarchal role of authority but failed miserably. Afterwards, he asked if the players had any questions or comments. No one spoke up. In a corner of the room, Flood stared angrily ahead (Helyar 101).

Demoralized from the start by Busch's talk, the reigning pennant-winners struggled to a fourth place finish. Flood, trapped between the plantation-like atmosphere of baseball and the social change--examplified to him in the Jorgensen's--sweeping the country, also turned in a sub-par year. More importantly, his occasional protests and growing cynicism with the baseball establishment further alienated Flood from the Cardinals' officials. After the season ended, Flood received a phone call from Jim Toomey, whom Flood later termed "a middle-echelon coffee drinker in the front office" (187) Toomey informed Flood that he had been traded to the Phillies, a struggling club located in what Flood would call "the northernmost southern city" (188). Toomey could cap the end of a twelve-year period in Flood's life with nothing but a "'Good Luck, Curt'" (qtd. in Flood 186).

In Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary some twenty years later, Flood reflected on his reaction to the trade:

I'd often wondered what would I do if I were ever traded, because it happened many, many times. It 'part of the game,' and then suddenly it happened to me. I was leaving probably one of the greatest organizations in hte world at that time for what was probably one of the least like, and, by God, this is America. I'm a human being I'm not a piece of property. I am not a consignment of goods.

Flood decided to retire, but then his friend Marian Jorgensen gave him the idea of suing baseball. Flood's initially dismissed the idea as ridiculous. Baseball's reserve clause had been tested, but always by struggling scrubs like Gardella and Toolson. Never had a three time all-star contested the reserve clause. Never had a player making $90,000 a year risked all to challenge baseball. Yet after a trip to Denmark and much thought, Flood decided to go through with it--to test just one more time "the invulnerbility of baseball" (Flood 189). Flood first consulted a personal attorney, then Marvin Miller and the Player's Association. After Flood dismissed the fears of Miller and the rest, the Player's Association decided to back Flood financially. Miller asked former Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg if he would be interested. Goldberg agreed to accept the poorly-funded Association's case pro-bono, since he considered the reserve clause a long injustice. "Ho-lee cow!" Flood remarked in his book. "Little old Curt Flood had him the most famous lawyer in the world" (194). On Christmas Eve, 1969, Flood sent a letter to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Refusing to be treated as "a piece of property," Flood informed Kuhn of his perceived unconstitutionality of the reserve clause and his desire to play for other clubs the next season (Flood 194). Kuhn quickly dismissed Flood's claim of slavery, stating that he failed to see "its applicability to the situation at hand" (Kuhn 83). The sides were clearly drawn, and neither would budge. For the third time in history, baseball headed toward the Supreme Court.

As Flood's case continued through the system baseball writers and owners seemed particularly baffled by just why it was happening. To many Americans, it simply made no sense that a $90,000-a-year star would seek to risk his career for a principle. Yet one of the primary cause of the suit of baseball could hardly be clear to Flood, a self-proclaimed "child of the sixties." Indeed, if one can look momentarily past the sanctity of baseball, one sees in the Flood case the constant 1960s social clash of new-minded, principled reformer against old-fashioned, traditional establishment--a clash fundamentally over the principles that would govern the country and its institutions.

Introduction Baseball Myths Labor History Flood and the 60s Breaking the Deal Black Power The Courts Legacies

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Maintained by Pat Brady
Last Modified: December 21, 1997