“If you asked me before, ‘Would Curt Flood be the kind of guy to sue baseball?,’ I’d say ‘No.’ Until that point, I didn’t know Curt Flood really had that in him”- former teammate and Hall of Famer, Bob Gibson.
The HBO documentary The Curious Case of Curt Flood chronicles the life of the late St. Louis Cardinals centerfielder Curtis Flood. Former teammates like Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson and former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, described Flood as the glue that held their 1960s teams together. But to call Flood just a great player doesn’t reflect his truly eclectic personality.
He was an artist who enjoyed painting self-portraits as well as a small business owner. He was an avid reader who loved foreign culture and often traveling to Europe and South America in the off season. Career wise, Flood was blessed with success when he reached the majors but the journey to the top was filled pot holes. Growing up during the beginning of the civil rights movement, Flood like all black players, was subjected to racism in when played in the minor leagues in the segregated American south.
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Flood’s widow, Judy Pace Flood recounts a story in Curious Case where Curt unknowingly threw his uniform in the same dirty clothes pile as his teammates after a game. The minor league staff was furious that a black man’s clothes we’re touching his white colleagues and used a fishing hook to reach in and separate them from the rest. This was Flood’s first real taste of racism. He would never forget this incident and like his idol, black baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson, he would become very outspoken about race relations in the sport he loved.
Racism seemed to follow Flood no matter how great his on the field accomplishments were. Months after winning their first championship in 1964; Flood purchased a house for his new family in what was thought to be racially tolerant Oakland, California. The manager of the property refused to allow the Floods to enter due to the fact that his family was black and vowed to stay at the house gun in hand. Flood, a man of principles, took him to court, won and spoke publicly on camera about being denied his simple rights to live as a human being.
Flood was loved in the St. Louis community during the Cardinals great years in the 1960s but he wasn’t immune to controversy. During his tenure as a Cardinal, Flood was known as a ladie’s man. This didn’t please his first wife and she filed for divorce separating him from his children. In the public’s eye Flood’s artistic business ventures appeared to be promising yet he was spending his earnings on his life of leisure which ran his art studio into the ground. With his personal life in disarray, his troubles then followed him onto the field.
In a critical mental lapse Flood missed a routine fly ball in game seven of the 1968 World Series which cost the Cards their season. St. Louis felt Flood was becoming more trouble than he was worth, thus making him tradable.During the off-season the Cardinals made the deal to send Curt Flood out east to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969. With debt and child support payments due, felt he could make more money in free agency. Comparing it to slavery, Flood sat out the 1970 season to challenge baseball’s reserve clause that bounded players to their team. The reserve clause was a standard agreement in all rookie contracts made players property of the original team they were drafted by.
At the time, none of his fellow major league players gave him the needed support at the time, leaving him to be an outcast. Indeed Flood did walk this path alone; however he had no problem being the martyr for what he saw was a corrupted business model and system. In his eyes, this was something that needed to be done. While ultimately he lost his Supreme Court case, Flood’s lawsuit was the first to shed light on the way players were treated like cattle by owners.
The aftermath for Flood personally was devastating. He fell into a deep depression and was driven to drink becoming a full-fledged alcoholic. It wasn’t until the early-90s with the help of a new wife that he did get sober and MLB began to acknowledge and thank him for all he sacrificed so that he endured for the good of the sport.
I can only imagine what would professional sports would be like without Curtis Flood. As fans, we admire and envy the lifestyle our favorite players have but at least they have the option to prosper like their owners who are still predominantly white. Flood gave so much and didn’t receive his recognition until his final days before baseball lost him to cancer in 1997.
Debates about Alex Rodriguez being worth the 275 million dollars that the Yankees awarded him wouldn’t be happening, the speculation on LeBron’s decision on where he would choose to go after he left Cleveland would exist. All professional athletes need to familiarize themselves with Curt Flood and pay homage. Without him, the childhood games that are played on the hardwood, grid-iron, or on the diamond, would just be regular 9 to 5s.
The Curious Case Of Curt Flood premieres Wednesday, July 13th on HBO at 9pm ET time.