Jabari Asim: Curt Flood, a Star on and off the Field
WASHINGTON — The last time my beloved Cardinals faced the Detroit Tigers in the World Series, I was too young to go. My brother, just a few years older, was able to make it to one game of the seven-game showdown, which the Tigers ultimately won. He brought back a souvenir booklet full of stats and photos of all my favorite players. I read it passionately, confident I’d get my own the next year. It was 1968, after all, and the Cardinals had won the National League pennant two years running. But the Redbirds didn’t make it to the fall classic in 1969 — or 1970 either. Despite my steadfast loyalty, they didn’t return to the World Series until 1982.
When the men from that famous matchup reunite during this fall’s Cards-Tigers clash, one of the best players will be missing. Curt Flood, a staple of the Cards’ great teams in the 1960s, died in 1997.
A three-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove winner, Flood played for the Cardinals for 12 seasons. He once played 226 consecutive games without an error, a record at the time. Tragically, his misplay of a line drive in the seventh game of the ’68 Series ended his postseason career on a sour note. But he deserves to be remembered for more than that.
In the days before sports agents and athletes better known for their sneaker ads than their on-field performance, Flood challenged baseball’s reserve clause, a rule that tied a player to a team as long as the team wanted him, and he could be traded to anywhere without his approval.
After years of undeserved obscurity, Flood has resurfaced as the subject of two books, “Stepping Up” by Alex Belth and, more recently, “A Well-Paid Slave” by Brad Snyder. “Few current players today know the name Curt Flood,” Snyder writes, “and even fewer know about the sacrifices he made for them.”
Proud, well-read and possessing the soul of an artist, Flood refused to report to his new team when the Cardinals traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies in the fall of 1969. In a letter to Bowie Kuhn, then-commissioner of baseball, Flood wrote, “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.”
When Flood filed his lawsuit on Jan. 16, 1970, the players’ association voted unanimously to back him. Yet according to Snyder, the game’s premier black superstars — Frank Robinson, Willie Mays and others — offered only tepid support. By then Flood was used to standing on principle, even if it meant standing alone. When he was just 24, he accepted an invitation from his idol, Jackie Robinson, to address an NAACP regional conference in Jackson, Miss. Before an audience of 3,800, Flood spoke out against racial injustice. Other well-known black ballplayers declined to participate.
Although he grew up in Oakland, Calif., Flood had plenty of direct experience with Jim Crow. He played two years of minor league ball in Southern cities, including High Point, N.C. Influenced by the tempestuous Robinson, he was inclined to fight fire with fire. Recalling his High Point stint in his memoir, “The Way It Is,” Flood wrote, “One of my first and most enduring memories is of a large loud cracker who installed himself and his four little boys in a front-row box and started yelling ‘black bastard’ at me.”
When Flood joined the Cardinals, the racial climate in St. Louis was not much better. It was “the southernmost city in the major leagues, both geographically and politically,” Snyder writes, “as segregated in 1958 as any Southern city.” But he grew comfortable enough during his 12 years there to want to stay.
His lawsuit against baseball failed, and Flood became a pariah. A brief 1971 comeback attempt with the Washington Senators only revealed how much his skills had eroded during his time away from the game.
But his legal struggle led to drastic changes for pro athletes, including free agency, huge salaries and the right of veteran players to veto trades. For all of that, the swift center fielder deserves a moment of tribute from the players during the Cardinals-Tigers rematch. Speaking at Flood’s funeral, Jesse Jackson summed up his legacy best: “Baseball didn’t change Curt Flood. Curt Flood changed baseball.”
Jabari Asim’s e-mail address is asimj(at symbol)washpost.com.’TIS THE REASON…
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