*Before I start this rant (and it’s gonna be a RANT)…I want to say one thing; Curt Flood deserves to be in Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame. If you come away with nothing else in this commentary, I want you to come away with the man that challenged major league baseball’s reserve clause made the biggest contribution the game of baseball in the 20th Century since the addition of lights (night games). It is unconscionable that Flood, who died in 1997, is not in the Hall of Fame, and it begs us to ask the question, why?
We thought a new HBO documentary, “The Curious Case of Curt Flood” would at least, partially answer that question. We certainly knew the documentary would examine the case of Kuhn vs. Flood, the lawsuit filed in 1970 that challenged the St. Louis Cardinals right to trade him to the Philadelphia Phillies without his consent and against his will. An act considered blasphemy at the time but would ultimately establish the case law for what would be become free agency. We had hoped the documentary would also examine the case, and even help make the case, for Flood’s election to the Hall of Fame (HOF). Curiously enough, it did not mention the Hall of Fame, in relation to Curt, one time. I don’t think it mentioned the Hall of Fame, at all. Very disappointing.
It did bring forth critical discoveries around why Flood lost his case. The case didn’t lose because it was not without merit. The case lost because Flood’s attorney, former Supreme Court Justice, Arthur Goldberg was unprepared and mis-argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972. The Messersmith-McNally suit two years later won, largely based on the case law of Flood’s case. By the time that case came up, the Flood case was fresh in the court’s mind and the merits stood when argued properly. The documentary did cover that sufficiently. However, the rest of the documentary sought to overstate and overexamine his off the field life, paid little attention to his baseball career statistics and left you praising the “courage” and “sacrifices” of a very troubled man, but little else. I left the Los Angeles premier steaming mad that this injustice had been done.
Curt Flood was a great ballplayer. He was among the “elite” players in the game’s compensation structure (top five percent), and the Cardinals didn’t pay him $90,000 just because they liked him. He would be considered “a franchise player” today. He was the best “everyday” player (HOFer Pitcher Bob Gibson was the best player) on the best team in baseball. The Cardinals went the World Series three times in five years and won two championships. That’s why the game, the fans and the media ridiculed him so. Why would a man making a $100,000 in 1970 (which is what the Phillies offered him to show up after the trade), when the average household was only making $18,000, “complain” about his job shipping him to another market? It seemed insane to the casual observer, but they missed the point. Curt Flood’s classic comment to Howard Cosell’s sarcastic inquiry as to why rock the boat was that “a well-paid slave is nevertheless, STILL A SLAVE.” It was then people got it.
If you quit your job today, your previous employer cannot tell you that you can’t get work elsewhere…except in Major League Baseball. Consider this; the greatest equality symbol in the history of baseball, Jackie Robinson, retired in 1957 because the Dodgers traded him to the Giants and he didn’t want to go. He still wanted to play, he still could play, but he just didn’t want to play for his career long arch-nemesis, the Giants. But he had no choice in where he could play, and his only option was to quit. So he did. The year the Kuhn case was decided, the San Francisco Giants traded the person many people think was the greatest all-around player in the history of the game, Willie Mays, to the New York Mets. Mays didn’t buck the system. He could’ve quit, but he wanted to play. He reported to the Mets. That was the practice then, and Curt Flood challenged and put a major crack in that practice. Free agency, or an athlete’s ability to sell their services to the highest bidder now dictates, is now the practice, not just baseball but, in all professional sports. The game of baseball has been made better for it. Yet the Hall of Fame has ignored his contributes to the game, on and off the field. The Curious Case of Curt Flood was supposed to bring to light the blackballing that is taking place in the case of Flood’s HOF induction.
The only thing curious about the case this documentary made was the question of what was it trying to do, lift up the man’s accomplishment or tear down the man’s character. It did more of the latter than the former. It is a disservice to the memory of Curt Flood and the advocacy of his right to be in the Hall of Fame. But if you can wade through the mercurial interviews and pull out the substance of Flood’s mission, the hardships pointed out stemming from his sacrifice seem almost petty, in the real context of this fascinating “David vs. Goliath” story, and had no real place in the documentary
The documentary do did an adequate job of laying context to what the Reserve Clause meant to baseball, as our national pastime, to really understand what Flood actually did and why it was so important. The Reserve Clause allowed baseball team owners to own players for their entire playing career. Players could be traded or sold for cash from one team to the other, and they were forced to go against their will—or they could quit and never play again. An owner could effectively force a player to the bench and let him languish there until he chose to quit. Either way, the owner determined if the player could still play, or would still play. The player had no control of his own career. That’s why it earned the name, “the slave clause.” If Abraham Lincoln is considered, by most accounts, America’s “Greatest President” for his deconstruction of slavery to save the union (for the record; Lincoln never freed the slaves), why would Curt Flood not be amongst the game’s greatest players for deconstructing baseball’s slave system? It’s a curious case indeed for a man that continues to be slighted for doing what was right.
HBO didn’t make the case at all. In some regard, I don’t even think they helped the case to get Curt Flood, the Father of Free Agency, elected to the baseball Hall of Fame. They completed missed the point, and Curt Flood is still not in the Hall of Fame.
So, the curiosity continues…but one day somebody’s going ask the right question.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum (www.urbanissuesforum.com) and author of the upcoming book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21st Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com or on Twitter at @dranthonysamad.