Freedom for the Ballplayer, by the Ballplayer

Editor’s Note: This story contains some delicate language, and also espouses strong opinions regarding racial unrest. The words and opinions therein belong to the author, Bob Johnson. They deserve to be shared.

On September 9, 1956 Curt Flood made his MLB debut for the Cincinnati Redlegs. It meant very little at the time. Flood was one of many ballplayers just trying to make a roster during that golden age of outfielders. He eventually became an All Star and world champion with the St Louis Cardinals, the team that upset Cincinnati that 1956 day. And, years later, he would gain some acknowledgment, but not nearly enough, for completely changing the game in favor of the players who have always been the producers, the workers, the ones who actually bring in the money in the sporting business. But Flood’s first game was not the most significant thing to happen that day. That would take place later that evening on television.

Alex Barth, in his book Stepping Up: The Story of Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players’ Rights, rigorously and fairly tells the tale of Curt Flood’s life, career, and courageous effort to end baseball owners’ long-milked, state-provided, golden cow: the reserve clause. Throughout the book, Barth contextualizes Flood’s life and stand for change within the larger 20th Century story of race, violence, social movements, and protest.

Flood was born in Houston while his mom was travelling to be with family for the birth. He was immediately immersed in the psychotic racism of the south. According to an HBO documentary, Curt’s mother, Laura Flood, was nearly lynched before they rejoined the rest of their family and set up home in Oakland. They were a poor family but removed from some of the worst aspects of American racism. Older brother Carl, already a troublemaker as a youth, would be a lifelong problem, for himself as well as Curt. Flood’s first organized baseball experience was playing catcher for the local Junior’s Sweet Shop team in 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. He was being recognized in school and the community for baseball as well as artistic talent. As a sophomore, he was teammates with senior Frank Robinson at McClymonds High School. He came up with a remarkable collection of others at that time in Oakland. George Powles, a white man, the “unofficial mayor of Bushrod Park” in Oakland, mentored many youths including Bill Russell, Vada Pinson, Frank Robinson, and Flood.

Social, cultural, and artistic movements were bubbling like so many pots on a hot stove in the post-war years. National calls for conformity, rigidness, and censorship only turned the heat up another notch. Hypocrisies concerning human freedom and liberty after World War Two poured gasoline from a bottomless container upon the flames each time they occurred. Civil rights for Black people. A still-sought Equal Rights Amendment for women. Atomic and nuclear weapons. Communism, HUAC, subversion, endless and useless doublespeak. Labor organizing. Farmworkers’ rights. Percolating movements towards gay rights. The Beat Generation. The San Francisco Renaissance. Psychedelics, bebop jazz, Zen, dance bands. Rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and the Grateful Dead. Sex, love, experimentation, openness. All very scary things to certain types of folks. Things to be censored, suppressed, and controlled.

The turbulence of the 1950s and 1960s is not all that different, unfortunately, than what we are experiencing in 2020. Some of us are still unsure who’s right about matters of medicine and science: politicians and cable news talkers or doctors and scientists. Some of us still can’t figure out if we buy tickets and turn on TV sets to watch the athletes or the owners. Some will go to any length to rationalize the loss of human life and others will sacrifice anything to try to prevent that loss. In 2020, just as in 1968, there are crashwave waters for some and calm, sunny beaches for others. Some are born into the privilege of calm and easiness. Others are born a rock, chipped and honed by waves that never, ever stop crashing upon them. And, then as now, there are some who dive in, who paddle desperately, in blind hope of maybe rescuing one life in danger. Like Bob Weir sang John Perry Barlow’s words, “Wheel to the storm and fly.”

The Cincinnati Redlegs signed Curt Flood in 1956. He would choose uniform number 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson. They were the Red Stockings at first, from 1882 to 1889 and then the Reds until 1954. From ’54 to ’58 they were the Redlegs and then back to the Reds ever since. The reason for the brief name change is as silly as one might suspect. As the word “red” was being added to the social narrative about communism, socialism, etcetera-ism, as one of those catchwords and phrases with moveable definitions that tend to spiral down to “whatever the power structure doesn’t like at a given time.” So, to prove that they were not spreading Soviet propaganda via pop flies or doing Castro’s bidding on the basepaths, they were the Redlegs for a few years. It’s not unlike the way the mainstream, led by a San Francisco newspaper guy, changed the artists and people of the Beat Generation into Beatniks, not a movement of creativity but some dopey group of TV Maynard Krebses. The Redlegs, self-shamed into a ridiculous name change, sent Curt Flood on a minor league assignment in the Deep South where he was subjected to jarring, disgusting racism. And the Major Leagues were still struggling to rid itself of the color line. In the second half of the Fifties teams were still slowly adding Black players. The Yankees signed catcher Elston Howard in 1955. Claudette Colvin, a Black, pregnant, teenager refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus that year; a brave tactic made more famous shortly after by Rosa Parks who had Colvin beat on the social acceptance barometer. 1955, the year Emmett Till, 14, a year younger than Colvin, was murdered in Mississippi.  Philadelphia, a team that will later factor into Flood’s story, finally integrated in 1957, the year the USSR launched Sputnik. 1957, the year Congress, with machinations from a Senate Majority Leader from Texas, passed the first Civil Rights legislation since Reconstruction. The Boston Red Sox were the last team to integrate and not until 1959, 12 years after Robinson, while Curt Flood was starting to find success with his second team, the St Louis Cardinals. But first was that cup of coffee with the Redlegs. Flood debuted the afternoon of September 9, 1956. He would play sparingly for Cincy as fellow McClymonds alum Vada Pinson had centerfield locked down.

That night a young rock ‘n’ roller, born in Tupelo, who grew up in Memphis, played the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time. There are plenty of myths and rumors to go around: that Sullivan didn’t like Elvis, that his dancing legs were never shown, and, of course, the mythos still hasn’t ended. Controversy, from the usual corners, about Elvis Presley was growing as fast as his fame. In October 1955, DJ Bill Randle brought Elvis to Brooklyn High School in Cleveland to open for Pat Boone and Bill Haley & His Comets. Haley and the Comets are part of rock ‘n’ roll lore; Boone chose to become an icon of hypocrisy. By September 9, 1956, he had already appeared on the Milton Berle and Steve Allen Shows. He had raised the ire of the Catholic Church, who alerted FBI director Hoover to their concerns, in La Crosse, WI, after 2 shows at the Mary E Sawyer Auditorium there the previous May. That September night on the Ed Sullivan Show, Elvis played “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” “Ready Teddy,” and “Hound Dog.” The camera zoomed in to cut Elvis’s dangerous dancing legs off the screen. But it wasn’t at Sullivan’s direction. Elvis dedicated his cover of Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy” to Sullivan who was at home recuperating from a car crash. Charles Laughton was the guest host that night. In the end, hypocrisy and pick-and-choose Puritanism lost. While the moving legs were censored, the percent share of the TV audience that night set a record that no American TV show has topped yet.

With Vada Pinson and Frank Robinson entrenched in the Cincinnati outfield, the promising Flood was traded to St Louis. On May 2 that year Flood debuted with St Louis against, in that great circle of baseball life, the Reds. And in 1958 Curt Flood got his rookie card, #464 in the Topps set that year. Flood struggled offensively early on with St Louis but the outfield defense was already there. In his book, Belth states that, “St Louis was just emerging from the legal segregation o the late fifties. (54)” Racial problems would continue in that city and its surroundings (such as Ferguson) into the 2010s and is still prevalent as of this writing in 2020. Baby steps forward, adult steps backward. Such is our history; this is our story, but only so long as we choose to keep it so. We can make the next chapters better, if we want to.

The great Bob Gibson joined Flood in the bigs in 1959. Manager Solly Hemus struggled with this infusion of talented Black athletes. He made racist comments directly to the team. In 1960, Hemus told the future All Star Curt Flood that he would, “never make it.”  Hemus was eventually fired and replaced with bench coach Johnny Keane, who believed in Flood and put him in centerfield, like another John would sing about in a timeless 1980s song. But some things were getting better and Curt Flood was growing more involved in causes he cared about like civil rights. He attended an NAACP rally in Jackson MS with other athletes like Jackie Robinson and prizefighter Archie Moore. The Cardinals integrated their spring training motel in 1962. After St Louis traded for Marv Grissom, a white veteran who wanted number 42, Flood switched to jersey number 21, half his original choice. The greatest defensive back in football history, Charles Woodson, wore that number when he played for Green Bay. In early 2011, after Wisconsin politicians forced through legislation deliberately destructive to workers’ rights, Woodson joined in protests and spoke out in defense of people who earn their livelihood through actual work (as opposed to politicians, owners, and other comfortable types who make their money through, well, ways that don’t require sweat).

As the legendary Stan Musial’s career wound down, Flood and Gibson and the whole Cardinals team were on the rise. Flood made his first All Star roster in 1964. That year, after a wild end to the regular season, the Cardinals made their first World Series since 1946. They played the Yankees, who were playing in their fifth straight Series and 15th out of 18 years, an incredible run. The Cards even had Milwaukee native Bob Uecker on the ’64 roster as a backup catcher. The Ueck’s tale of catching fly balls with a tuba in training camp is best read in his own words, in his autobiography, Catcher in the Wry. The Cardinals won the Series, with Gibson, the MVP, and Flood being essential contributors. Tim McCarver, a $75,000 “Bonus Baby” for the Cards, in his foreword to Belth’s book would say that Don Drysdale, one of the Dodgers’ two aces, considered Curt Flood the toughest batter he faced in the NL. And as his baseball stardom rose, so too did recognition for his artwork, in particular a portrait of Martin Luther King.

Photo credit: Fred Waters, Associated Press

St Louis was back in the World Series, under new manager Red Schoendienst, in 1967 facing the Boston Red Sox. St Louis won the championship again. Bob Gibson was MVP again. But Carl Yastrzemski, Yaz, Boston’s superstar player who happened to be white, received 10 times as much for speaking and endorsement deals than the MVP, Gibson. The Cards were back again in 1968. 1968, the year of hate as opposed to the “Summer of Love” the year before. 1968, the year of the disastrous Democratic Convention in Chicago, of assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists at the Olympics, and of more senseless death in Southeast Asia.

1968 was also a year of pitching greatness. Gibson was at the top of his game. And the Cardinals’ opponents, the Detroit Tigers, featured Denny McLain and his 30 wins that season. 52 years later and there hasn’t been another 30 win season since. Roger Maris, in his second season with St Louis, warned his teammates that the Detroit pitcher to worry about in the Series was Mickey Lolich, not McLain. The ’68 Series went 7 games with Detroit winning 4-3. It was a dramatic, back and forth Series that fit the mood of that tumultuous year. Mickey Lolich won the decisive Game 7, Gibson lost. Curt Flood blamed himself for losing that Series after misjudging a hit to deep center field. It wasn’t counted as an error but the two runs given up on the play would be enough for Detroit to win. Some blamed Flood, some defended him, and Flood beat himself up over it. He was a Gold Glove winner, had even gone an entire season without an error, but Flood stewed in that misery into the off-season. Team owner Busch’s negative comments to the team after the loss, lecturing the players about their “responsibilities,” didn’t help anything. This writer is happy to note, in this strange, shortened 2020 season, a similar fate has not befallen Trent Grisham. He had a costly outfield error last October in Milwaukee’s Wild Card loss to the eventual World Series champions, the Washington Nationals. There were plenty of reasons for the Brewers’ loss in 2019 besides Grisham’s one bad play. An off-season trade to San Diego gave Grisham an opportunity to get over that moment and will, hopefully, become the great ballplayer he is capable of becoming.

In Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore, Inc vs. National League of Baseball Clubs, spring 1922, the US Supreme Court decided in favor of ownership protectionism. The case was brought after the demise of the short-lived outlaw Federal League. Despite only operating for two seasons, the Federal League would have a long-lasting impact on baseball with the Federal Baseball case and the building of Wrigley Field in Chicago. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Civil War veteran and Teddy Roosevelt appointee, wrote the Court’s decision. Judges, Supreme or otherwise, have made a habit of poor decision-making throughout US history, from Dred Scott to Federal Baseball to Citizens United. And, every now and then, there are surprises in the other, better, direction, such as Judge Clayton Horn’s deciding against censoring the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and its publisher, City Lights.

After the decision, the notorious Paragraph 10a guaranteed the awful Reserve Clause in all player contracts. All players were bound to their team owners, able to be bought and sold, and the only way out was retirement. All players had to toil under this system; for Black players, it was a compounding of generations of pain. Curt Flood didn’t need an owner or manager to blame him for the 1968 loss, he did that himself. But he was still an excellent centerfielder, still in or very near the prime of his career. He was in bed when the too-early call came to inform that he had been traded to Philadelphia. Although it involved five other players, including Tim McCarver, it was largely perceived as a swap of Flood for Dick Allen. But Curt Flood didn’t want to go to Philadelphia.

St Louis had the better team. Flood had developed relationships there, built a life there. Philadelphia was known for racist hostility toward Black athletes. After talking with his attorney, Allan Zerman, and Players Association executive director Marvin Miller, Flood decided to fight the trade through the courts. Miller, who, coincidentally was pushed toward the executive director role by legendary Philly Robin Roberts, informed Flood it was almost certainly a doomed cause but agreed to support him anyway. Flood worried that his brother’s legal problems would impact the case but he refused to back down. Curt Flood was suing Major League Baseball.

There had been two previous challenges of the Federal Baseball case, by George Toolson and Danny Gardella. Both lost. Flood persevered. The executive board of the Players Association voted 25-0 to support Flood. Attorney and former SCOTUS Justice Arthur Goldberg disliked the reserve clause and supported Flood’s position. But support would grow increasingly hard for Flood to find. He was accused by fans, driven by the press, of being just another overpaid athlete. McCarver would later write that, “it was a cruel irony that when Curt went ahead with his lawsuit, the baseball establishment portrayed him as angry, selfish individual…For his principled stand, he gave up a salary of 100,000…as well as any future in baseball management or coaching. (Barth, xi)” These issues of labor, contracts, and the battle of players versus owners continues to the present day, as both bickered over how and when to return to play in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. On TV, at the bar, or in the frightening back alleys of online comments sections, the battle wages on. Who deserves the money that the game is bringing in? Are folks buying tickets and turning on TVs to see the owners in a skybox? Do owners carry the risk of concussions and broken bodies rendering them unable to play catch with or even recognize their own children and grandchildren after they’ve ceased bringing in all that money with their work? The answers to these questions may seem obvious but they still seem awful difficult for a lot of people.

Goldberg made Flood’s case before District Court; Judge Irving Ben Cooper sided with the owners. Judge Cooper prodded and teased Flood on the stand, asking him if the trial was as easy as batting. Jackie Robinson testified for Flood. Hank Greenberg was the only other former player to support him. Fellow players and teammates, including Gibson, were leery of public support lest they too be blacklisted from their livelihoods as well. Joe Garagiola was the only ballplayer to testify on behalf of the owners, a choice he later deeply regretted. Family and business problems added to Flood’s burden during the trials. As the case progressed, Flood signed with the Washington Senators in 1972. Manager Ted Williams, who had opposed the reserve clause fight, welcomed Flood. Flood left the Senators after just 13 games.  The Supreme Court heard his case in 1972. SCOTUS, including Chief Justice Burger siding with Nixon appointee William Rehnquist, decide against Flood 5-3 (Justice Powell abstained as an owner of Anheuser Busch stock). Flood moved to Spain.

Larry Merchant wrote in the New York Post, “When the ballplayers finally do get a better deal, Curt Flood will have played a role in it.  He struck out, but not before he fouled off so many pitches that he helped wear down the other side.” Merchant was proven correct. He was a boxing announcer for HBO for decades and, even at an advanced age, never had a problem asking tough questions or stating unpopular opinions, as he did with a prime Floyd Mayweather. In 2011, HBO aired a documentary about Curt Flood. The doc is visually appealing but otherwise disappointing. A theory is offered that Flood wasn’t really an artist; it doesn’t make much sense but these theories never do. And a lot of screen time is given to talking about Flood’s personal problems, including alcoholism. These references were not out of respect for the many battles of Flood. These theories, and discussion of his addictions, made Flood seem less, and his great accomplishments drawn into question.

After their shared big day on September 9, 1956, both Flood and Elvis endured downfalls and struggles. Fortunately for Elvis, his descent into addiction and drug use has never been the featured topic in discussing his life and career. Flood and Elvis, Billie and Janis, Mantle and Cobain, and countless others. The pressure of fighting a cause or an addiction, the weight of being a hero, stress, mental health, it all adds up to a burdensome load. Each person, famous or not, is more than their lowest point. We would do well to find that goodness rather than fine-tooth comb searching for the bad. We recently lost Justin Townes Earle, a decent man with struggles of his own, and a brilliant country musician. Listen to his song “White Gardenias,” about Billie Holiday and, if you can, find a little joy in knowing that people like them, and Flood and Elvis and so many more, breathed in the same air we do and breathed out songs that may cast an eternal light on our paths.

Like Flood, Elvis would suffer family problems as well. He divorced Priscilla. He descended into drug addiction and was no longer able to entertain his gazillion fans. He died at Graceland in 1977. For some, as with Prince, Amy Winehouse, Cobain, and too many others, the mourning never stopped. By the mid-1980s, Pricilla Beaulieu Presley was a key part of Dallas, the most popular TV show of the decade. She was the third actress to play the Jenna Wade character. I am told, but have no memory of it, that when I was two years old my mom and family friends brought me with on a trip to Graceland. It would have been 1985 or 1986, somewhere in the middle of Dallas’s “dream season” where Jenna’s fiancée Bobby Ewing came back from the dead to be found by his ex wife, very much alive and Irish Springing himself down in her shower.

In time, in the end, Curt Flood won. It just took a lot longer than it should have, as tends to be the case when freedom and liberty is concerned. Eventually, the owners and players agreed to have Peter Seitz arbitrate new contract situations. The owners turned on Seitz after he sided with players in some decisions and, like Flood a few years before but for the opposite reasons, they challenged from court to court until eventually realizing that the reserve clause had finally reached its end by 1976. Players would now become free agents after six years of MLB experience. 1976, an Olympic year, Sugar Ray Leonard’s year. 1976, an election year, Jimmy Carter’s year. And 1976, the year labor liberty started to occur in American professional sports. Despite the handwringings, warnings and accusations that it would ruin baseball, the sport only became more profitable after Flood and the end of the reserve clause. It happened in the NFL, too. By 1993, free agency entered the NFL with the first major signing being Reggie White. NFL profits were launched moon-ward and haven’t returned to earth since. TV contracts, cable, Ted Turner and Superstation WTBS, and a bunch of other end-of-20th-Century things made everyone involved richer, instead of the owners and only the owners.

Flood, sober, was able to rebuild his life in the 1980s but was never as famous as a ballplayer as Hank Aaron or Willie Mays or as an athlete-activist like Muhammad Ali or Bill Russell. Like Claudette Colvin, like Bayard Rustin. For whatever reason, in this country, in this culture, some heroes end up in shadows while others shine beneath the spot. But Marvin Miller never forgot what Flood did and he didn’t want anyone else to forget it either. He reminded players receiving larger contracts in free agency that, “Curt Flood got you these things. (Barth, 195) ” During the 1994 strike, Players Association executive director Don Fehr had Flood come to Atlanta to speak to the player representatives. He received a standing ovation. It was overdue recognition arriving right in time. Flood died of lung cancer on January 17, 1997. It was nine days before Green Bay, with the first big NFL free agent signing Reggie White, and Brett Favre recovering from painkiller addiction, won Super Bowl XXXI. This writer may not have been able to celebrate that moment without Curt Flood’s sacrifice.

It’s been hard, occasionally impossible, to feel pride in sports lately. But August 26, 2020 was not one of those hard or impossible days. On that day, like certain others, we could swell with pride for what the Milwaukee Bucks, and several other teams and individual players, in several different sports and leagues, chose to do. In the face of so many monstrous (as in not human at all) words and actions, choices and deeds, they have decided to boycott a playoff game in support of Jacob Blake, the young man a police in Kenosha chose to attempt to murder by repeatedly shooting him in the back. Yes, those of us who truly care about human life are hurting in the shadows of heartless cowards who’ve been given power they cannot handle. But we also stand on the shoulders of giants. Giants of goodness who sacrifice, who give back, and whose choices and actions can give us hope in these terrible times.

Strikes and lockouts. The frustrating wait to find out if there would be baseball in 2020. Sacrifice for causes larger than even the playoffs. The bizarre need of so many to attack, to label selfish, to blame the same people we shout ourselves hoarse for. Each athlete, each artist, every single person has to make choices. Will we take or give? No matter what we do, it impacts someone else. Athletes like Flood just happen to impact more others than most of us. This year we have been asked to sacrifice. Youth have lost sports seasons, proms, and graduation ceremonies. We have lost sports and events and jobs. More than 180,000 families in this country grieve for those they have lost to the coronavirus. Most of us remain hopeful for better days and realize that it is okay to sacrifice some things for better futures, for ourselves and our fellows. Some, however, will choose to take even more and doublespeak our way around it, like grabbing ‘em by the pussy with one hand and clutching a Bible in the other, hollering for decency amid their own chosen obscenity. Others will give until they have nothing left to give. As Alex Barth states at the end of his book, “For Curt Flood, the real sacrifice would have been reporting to the Phillies after his trade without saying a word. (202)”.  

What, then, is decency? How can something as seemingly obvious as goodness become so muddled, opaque, and confused? A generationally talented musician rises out of poverty, brings joy to vast swaths of the world, but gets labeled as dangerous by easily frightened but powerful groups. Dancing hips made somehow more dangerous, somehow worse, than the many maimed and murdered Black lives, young and old, then and now. Life rendered something less than form by the Ed Sullivans of then and by the both-siders of now. A great ballplayer sacrifices his body, as all athletes do, to bring joy to so many others and sacrifices his career for a greater good but gets labeled as selfish and manipulative, even by those who benefit from his cause. Perhaps we might do well to use words and phrases as they are actually meant: decency, respect, sacrifice, honor, civility, sanctity, work, socialism, small government, life. Self-described Christians ignored actual Commandment-breaking throughout their land to focus on Elvis Presley’s dance moves. Their descendents today worship very famous tabloid adulterer Donald Trump. And, today, right now, we can see, more clearly than at maybe any point in our history, people’s morals and values. Sides are being taken but the battleground is the same it was in 1918 or 1956 or ’76 or 1994. Until the people who do the work that brings the money in are given fair credit for doing so, this problem will continue to exist. Athletes have earned their money. It was not just given to them like it was just given to folks like Jared Kushner. They can say what they want and we should respect that. And we should stand with them in this all-important cause, of literal life and death, not just because of the excitement and joys they have so often given to us, but also because it is the absolute right thing to do.

September is a time of beginnings and (big innings and) ends. Curt Flood didn’t know it then but his reverberating cause began in September. Elvis Presley went on Sullivan for the first time. The green leaves end and the colors begin. At the end of the regular season, the month is full of first and last at-bats. Curt Flood, Buck Ewing, Bobby Thomson, and Nico Hoerner among many others debuted on September 9. Willie Mays played his last that date. People, like Frank Chance and Abner Dalrymple (and this writer), are born. Richie Ashburn and Catfish Hunter died. Edwin Jackson was born on September 9 and made his MLB on the same date. Sandy Koufax found perfection. This country was officially named the United States of America on September 9,, 1776. When he retired, Flood ranked third in National League history for games played in centerfield; the two players ahead of him at the time: Willie Mays and Richie Ashburn. Beginnings, big innings, and ends. The idea of America is worth cheering for and, if we don’t destroy it like so much Ebbets Field, it might become less a myth in need of doublespeak and more a real thing, strong enough to last a real long time, big enough to care for more than those who look a certain way. One big full stadium with the bleachers in the sun and luxury boxes obscured way up in the clouds.



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