In part I of this article we explained the history of the reserve clause and set the table for the understanding of what was to be a battle similar to that of David and Goliath. In one corner we had organized baseball with all the money of the owners and the media as well as fans who just did not understand what the battle was about and who mistakenly believed that Curt Flood was attacking their game. In the other corner we had the players who were rather downtrodden and still not sure that they could challenge the powers that be. In their corner was their hope - a man named Curt Flood.
So who was Curt Flood?
Curt was the last of 6 children and was born in Houston Texas although he spent most of his childhood in the ghettos of Oakland, California. Unlike many of the kids in the area, including his brother, Curt managed to stay away from gangs and crime by immersing himself in art and baseball. He distinguished himself in both areas. Although small at 5’ 7” and weighing less than 150 pounds, Flood was a hell of a ballplayer - and the scouts though dubious noticed.
In 1956, though both small and black, which was a strike against would be players at that time, the Cincinnati Reds signed him for $4000. Flood finished high school and then flew to Tampa to join the Reds farm system. He was not expected to do well considering what was against him - blatant racism, playing in the south, and the rigors of playing against the “real” professionals. Curt however was filling out, getting stronger and was fighting through the problems facing him. In his first season he had a .340 average and hit 29 home runs. Towards the end of the season he saw some time with the major league team.
Curt expected a nice pay raise, but was more than a little bit cowed in negotiations when General Manager Gabe Paul told him that expenses were out of hand and that it would be best for Flood to renew his contract at the previous salary and to accept a promotion to a higher minor league. Flood accepted because he had no choice, unless he was willing to walk away from the game - the reserve clause held him there. It happened again the next season. However in 1957 Flood’s contract was traded to the Cardinals.
St. Louis was the premier franchise to play in if you were black in that day and age and Flood soon found himself playing in St. Louis with the big team along with greats like Roger Maris, Orlando Cepeda, Bill White and Bob Gibson. He would play there for the next 12 years where he would become part of the heart and soul of one of the greatest teams St. Louis ever fielded.
During that time he won 7 gold gloves, hit over .300 six times, including a career high .335 in 1967, was a three time All-Star and set a major league record of 227 games (568 chances) without an error. He also served as the St. Louis team captain from 1965-1969 when the Cardinals won two pennants and a World Series. In 1968 the cover of Sports illustrated dubbed curt Flood as “The Best Centerfielder in Baseball.” A high honor indeed when a man named Mays was still patrolling centerfield for the San Francisco Giants.
Perhaps the straw that broke the figurative camel’s back however came in 1969. Augie Busch decided to set his players straight and stop all the grumbling about salaries that was coming from the rank and file. He decided to dress his players down and to make matters worse, he invited the media to the big show. Busch raved about how the players had become more concerned with salary than the fans and the game. Perhaps he had hoped that his tirade would quell the grumbling and get the team focused on baseball but all it did was to demean and dispirit a team who then stumbled to a fourth place finish.
According to some sources, Flood took this attack very personally and it may have set him on his course to confront the reserve clause. His protests, cynicism and anger were becoming more and more noticed in the Cardinal front office and it might have been thought that he was just fomenting trouble within the team. However Curt’s resentment at the treatment just simmered all season. It reached the boiling point just following the season when the Cardinals, either for baseball reasons or just to get rid of a “troublemaker”, traded Flood to Philadelphia in a package deal.
Flood was irate and perhaps feeling like his color was a factor in his trade to Philadelphia, which he called the “Northernmost Southern city.” In fact Philadelphia was a particularly racist market as far as northern teams went, and according to many, the fans in the stands were among the worst in terms of insults and name calling of any fans in any major league city. But that racism was one of the things that inspired Flood to take up the flag and march into battle versus the management and ownership of baseball. So Curt Flood refused to report to Philadelphia.
In Part III we’ll discuss Flood and his motivations in suing baseball and his challenge of the reserve clause.