A Child of the Sixties:

Curt Flood and the 1960s

In the recent wake of the suit, a clearly flustered Cardinals owner August A. Busch, Jr. lamented the current sorry state of the nation and its national pastime. As Flood described in his autobiography: "With considerable emotion, he advised reporters he could not fathom what was happening in our country. He declared that my recalcitrance was somehow related to the unrest on American campuses. He was absolutely right. And when he said that he could not understand it, he was absolutely right for the second time in the day" (16-17). While Flood's story generally remained confined to the sports page, as Flood and Busch note, the suit quite accurately mirrored the social movements of the day. This, indeed, was no coincidence. Flood's suit of baseball, not only reflected the prevailing attitudes of the day, but can serve as a crowning example of the 1960s social change paradigm of reformer against establishment.

Replete with its own myth and ruling Lords, baseball clearly fits the definitions of old fashioned establishment. In his autobiography, Kuhn described the owners as "highly establishmentarian in their attitudes" and as a group "far right of the political center" (77). Fittingly, the Lords of baseball faced their greatest challenge in a time period where (particularly young) Americans were questioning everything. In his book, And the Crooked Places Made Straight: The Struggle for Social Change in the 1960s, David Chalmers stated that the established elite, like Busch, saw the reforms "not as a legitimate outcome of classic American values, but as a criminal conspiracy against sanctified institutions." Chalmers established the perceived invulnerability of another seemingly timeless American institution: the segregationist South. In alluding to a 1940s sociological study that deemed racism and segregation so entrenched in the South to literally be unchangeable, Chalmers illustrated the apparent hopelessness of the Civil Rights Movement. By 1970, the movement had made great strides--enough perhaps for Flood to think the time had come to challenge baseball, "the one constant through all the years" (Robinson).

While baseball nicely fits into the institutional mold, the rich and successful baseball player at first appears more difficult to cast as reformer. Yet Flood can serve in many ways as a prototypical sixties reformer. Chalmers picked the rise of television as one reason for the reforms of the sixties. Television spread information and images over the nation for the first time and motivated action by rewarding "the voice that shouted loudest." Flood, a successful painter, All-Star, and World Series winner, could shout pretty loud. Similarly, much of the reform in the sixties, particularly on the college campuses, came from the relatively wealthy, whom sixties historian Todd Gitlin termed "the fat of the land." Using their wealth and relatively high status in society, the uppper-class white freedom-riders when beat up garnered the most publicity. During his first meeting with Goldberg, Flood borrowed from the language of campus protesters in defiantly proclaiming, "I just won't be treated as if I were an IBM card" (Flood 194).

Similarly, the sixties reformer needed to show an absolute allegiance to his or cause. The reform gained much more cultural power when the individual sacrificed important chances at success and suffered hardship for the principle. While Martin Luther King, Jr. and others often best illustrated this by being sent to jail, Flood also made a public sacrifice. In making the suit, Flood accepted and acknowledged that he might never play baseball again--giving up both his livelihood and his love for a principle. While Flood briefly returned to baseball in 1971, in his court battle he gave up several hundred thousand dollars in potential salary and a reasonable shot at the Hall of Fame. Reminscent of the language of King, Flood quotes an earlier reformer, Frederick Douglas, in his autobiography, "if there is no struggle, there is no progress.... Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and never will" (qtd. in Flood 206). While marking himself as an archetypal sixties reformer, Flood's actions baffled many in the baseball industry who Flood states "were entirely incapable of understanding a basic principle of human life was involved." In a interview years later Flood remarked, "sometimes, the simpliest concepts like morality are the most difficult for people to understand" (qtd. in Ryan).

More than Flood's suit is a story about baseball, it is a story about the sixties. "Customary though it may be to write about that institutionalized pastime as though it existed apart from the general environment, my story does not lend itself to such treatment," he wrote in his autobiography. "In fact, without attention to its social setting, the story would be incomprehensible and so would I" (14). Through his run-ins with racist fans, his talks with the Jorgensens, and his perusals of the evening news, Flood faced an American reality absolutely incompatible with the myths of baseball existance. A much hated war raged on in Vietnam. Students destroyed ROTC building with increasing frequency. Black Power movements reached their peaks. The Kent State and Jackson State shootings loomed just around the corner. Years later, Flood describes the social factors that shaped him:

Hear Flood describe himself as "a child of the sixties"

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 60s. During that period of time this country was coming apart at the seems. 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 assasinated, 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 (Burns).

While Flood sympathized with the angry revolters on college campuses and the threats of violence from the Black Panthers, he carefully framed his reform attempt in the language of earlier civil rights leaders. In describing one reason why the Civil Rights Movement proved so effective, Chalmers stated that it "was a reform movement that appealed to established institutions to live up to their values, rather than a revolutionary one that sought to change those institutions in values" (30). Flood, while seeking change, simply asked baseball, America's national pastime, to uphold the traditional American values of freedom and self-determination.

In the end though, the Supreme Court narrowly sided with baseball. Flood's suit had failed. Yet, as Miller later writes, Flood achieved a particularly sixties triumph in defeat: "Much more important--what Flood v. Kuhn really accomplished--was, in the much-used phrase of the 1960s, raising the consciousness of everyone in baseball" (Miller). Chalmers' called the sixties "a clash between structure and consciousness" where every reform movement sought to change institutions and behaviour first through consciousness (xv). Flood's case, even in defeat, accomplished just that. While before Flood's suit many baseball fans knew and cared very little about baseball labor practices, a national poll taken shortly afterwards revealed that baseball fans stood against the reserve clause by a margin of over eight to one.

While the political and social climate of the 1960s go a long way toward shaping Flood's suit, in and of themselves, they are insufficient. Another reason caused the star outfielder to turn a careful eye to baseball's myths and lore and challenge one of the nation's oldest institutions. Still plagued by chants of "'jigaboo,'" and "'nigger'" from the stands and facing an entirely white and often racist front office, Flood was decidedly, as Jackie Robinson would write, "a black man in a white man's world" (qtd. in Burns).

Introduction Baseball Myths Labor History Flood's Life Black Power Breaking the Deal The Courts Legacies

Works Cited and
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Maintained by Pat Brady
Last Modified: December 21, 1997