Remembering Curt Flood After His Death in 1997

A while back I gathered some remembrances of Vada Pinson following his death in October of 1995. His longtime friend, Curt Flood, died not quite a year and a half later, on January 20, 1997. Flood, of course, had a deeper impact on pro baseball, but along with that, he had a more turbulent life than Pinson. The L.A. Times’ obituary noted that Flood, who “made a lasting impact on major league baseball by opening the door to free agency with his unsuccessful challenge of the reserve system, died of throat cancer at the UCLA Medical Center on Monday. Friends said Flood had been ill for more than a year and had contracted pneumonia Friday. He was 59.” Here’s a bit of the L.A. Times coverage of his funeral:

More than 250 people crowded into First AME Church in South Central Los Angeles on Monday to hear Flood – who died of cancer at age 59 on Jan. 20 – remembered as an underappreciated American hero.

The mourners came from the worlds of politics and arts as well as sports. Political opposites, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and George Will, delivered tributes. Brock Peters, the actor, sat next to Lou Brock, the Hall of Famer. Don Fehr, the head of the major-league players’ union, was followed to the pulpit by Bill White, who used to be president of the National League.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) read a statement from President Clinton, lauding Flood as a man “whose achievements on the field were matched only by the strength of his character.”

“Because he came this way,” Jackson said in a stirring eulogy, “baseball is better, America is better and generations unborn are better.”

Mike Eisenbath of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recalled the man and his character:

Bing Devine, the man who brought Curt Flood to the Cardinals, pointed out the obvious coincidence Monday. It is indeed interesting that Flood had died on Martin Luther King Day. . . .

On Monday night, not so many hours after Flood, 59, had died in California of throat cancer, one of his many fans called him the Abraham Lincoln of players in all pro team sports. He helped pave the way for free agency. Flood is surely one of the most influential figures in American sports history.

He also was an excellent ballplayer during one of the Cardinals’ most successful periods, a proud and strong man who lends a sophistication to a franchise history that includes the Gas House Gang.

He was an artist. A Flood portrait of Martin Luther King hangs in the living room of King’s widow, Coretta.

A quiet man, he rarely displayed resentment. Friends and former teammates recall him as having a delicacy about him, an elegant way of moving about life both on the baseball field and elsewhere. He impressed with his inner toughness, his intelligence, an uncommon motivation. Flood’s gifts reached beyond the sports field. He developed his brush strokes on canvas long before he mastered his big-league batting stroke.

Among the anger he kept to himself involved his first trade. The Cards dealt three players who never would amount to much for him. The Cardinals didn’t necessarily expect great things.

As Bing Devine was mulling, nervously, making his first trade as the Cardinals’ general manager, then Cards manager Fred Hutchinson gave the endorsement: “Make the deal. We’ll fit him in somewhere. We think he can hit. We know he can run. Maybe he can play center field for us.” . . .

Despite all his deft athletic and artistic work, Flood called his suit against baseball the “central fact of my life.”

Flood made $72,500 in 1968. He rejected August Busch Jr.’s offer of a $77,500 pact for the 1969 season. Flood told the owner that if he wanted to sign a player who was the best center fielder in baseball and a .300 hitter, it would coast him $90,000, “which is not $77,500 and is not $89,999.”

Flood got the money he wanted for that season. But Busch remembered helping Flood out of financial problems earlier in his career and considered his salary demand ungrateful.

The next offseason, after a sub-par 1969 performance, Flood asked for $100,000.

Before the 1969 World Series began, the Cardinals traded Flood, Tim McCarver, Joe Hoerner and Byron Browne to the Phillies for Richie Allen, Cookie Rojas and Jerry Johnson. Flood was upset. There was the problem of leaving the Cardinals and friends such as Bob Gibson, his 10-year roommate on the road.

He was nearly 32, had been with the team for 12 years and had no desire to leave. Baseball’s rule said he had no choice, if he wanted to continue playing the game.

In a Christmas Eve, 1969, letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Flood said he was not a piece of property to be bought, sold and traded and would not be going to the Phillies. “I couldn’t stand to be treated that way,” Flood once said. “When I was traded, it drove me up a wall.”

He sued the game. He asked for changes in baseball’s reserve clause and $1.4 million in damages. His lawyers and union chief Marvin Miller warned his chances of winning were slim. “If you go ahead with this, forget any idea of ever being the first black manager,” Miller told him. “Or even a coach or a scout. Forget it!”

He responded: “I want to go out like a man instead of a bottle cap.”

When spring training began in 1970, the case was headed to court and Flood was in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was the beginning of a long, oft-difficult sojourn through the second half of his life.

None of his baseball contemporaries came to his defense. But former big-leaguer and Hall-of-Famer Hank Greenberg testified for Flood’s side. So did Bill Veeck. And Jackie Robinson.

A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s dismissal of the case. The Supreme Court decision came June 19, 1972, and, by 5-3 majority, upheld baseball’s antitrust exemption. But Flood’s courage challenging baseball told the game’s players and leaders that changes would come.

Pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally became free agents when, in 1975, a federal arbitrator upheld the individual bargaining rights of players and granted them free agency. . . .

[In retirement] Flood painted. He wrote. He got away from America’s game and America itself for a while.

“I tried to refresh myself and tried to overcome a lot of the hurt I felt,” Flood once recalled. “I tried to deal with the misunderstanding many people had of what I was attempting to do with my court case, why I was bringing all of it to light. (1970) was a difficult year for several reasons. But as much as anything, I’m a baseball person, and to take that away from me cold turkey like that was not easy for me.”

Flood returned from Copenhagen in 1971, when he signed a $110,000 contract with the Washington Senators. His heart wasn’t in it, and he left after 13 forgettable games. After the Supreme Court decision, Flood moved to Barcelona and then to the Mediterranean island of Majorca.

Drinking was one of Flood’s more haunting problems for a while after his return to the States in the late 1970s. Then, it was making a living in a world where he seemed to be blackballed from working at the one thing at which he had excelled, pro baseball.

Eventually, he owned and operated a public relations firm. He worked as a commercial painter and taught guitar. He worked for a year as color man on the Oakland broadcasts. He worked with kids, notably as an American Legion and Connie Mack coach in Oakland, then as little league commissioner for the Oakland Recreation Department.

A remembrance from Lou Brock: “It’s sad. Most of the pioneers wind up with an arrow in their backs. And he certainly was one of those who had an arrow in his back. As a pioneer, he never got his just due.

“God will amend that.”

Shortstop Dal Maxvill from those ’60s Cardinals teams said “besides his being a good ballplayer, [Flood] was a real professional all the way. He did what had to be done. If Brock led off with a single and stole second and if you needed a ground ball to get him to third, Curt would do that, so Roger Maris could hit a 320-foot fly ball and we’d be ahead 1-0.

“He didn’t have the greatest arm in the world but he was feared because he played so shallow and guys didn’t want to take any chances. He’s going to be missed by a lot of people. I don’t know of any enemies he had. I don’t know that Curt Flood had anybody who didn’t like him.

“He was one of the first (players) to rock the boat. But the players playing today ought to owe him a great deal of gratitude for his courage. He changed the system and the system changed forever.”

Bing Devine, the Cardinals’ former general manager, who traded pitchers Marty Kutyna, Willard Schmidt and Ted Wieand to Cincinnati for Flood and outfielder Joe Taylor in December of 1957, remembered: “I made that trade with a great deal of fear and trepidation.

“A lot people refer to the fact that undoubtedly the best trade I ever made was for Lou Brock because he’s in the Hall of Fame and that’s certainly true. But in my mind, the Curt Flood trade was probably equal to that because of it being my first deal. If that hadn’t worked out, I probably wouldn’t have lasted as long as I did. It’s interesting he died on Martin Luther King Day. In their own way, they probably had the same goal in mind.”

Maury Wills added: “He was a man who dared to live by the strength of his conviction. Most of us were not courageous enough to take that stand. I know I wasn’t.”

In contrast to the general acclaim of Flood, Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote a somewhat acidic item gathering his thoughts on the man. Broeg also provided some interesting details on Flood’s career:

Curt Flood as a player was good, very good, but he could have been great. And if he had won that lawsuit, challenging baseball’s reserve clause, he would have been rich. But back then, he didn’t want money. He only wanted to stay in St. Louis.

As a player, that is, not a resident, because he still preferred warmer winter climates. But here, he had a vest-pocket painting agency, truly a love affair with the Cardinals and – until near the end – with the Big Eagle, Gussie Busch.

If you want to assign blame for the problems of the wiry little defensive wonder, blame Curt himself. But also, inferentially, Busch and me, too.

When I left the road with the Cardinals in midseason, 1958, my last word was to josh Flood privately. The little man just had won a 2-1 game at Pittsburgh with a home run, but his trouble was that he swung too often for the fences.

So he was in and out of the lineup too often the next two seasons, when he was roughly a .250 hitter. Meanwhile, with defensive wizardry close to Terry Moore’s in center field, he had impressed Busch.

For one thing, quietly borrowing a passport-sized photo of Gussie in a yachting captain’s getup, Flood displayed his other gift. He was amazing in his ability to copy in oil the likeness of anyone.

Busch, overwhelmed, directed Curt to paint for modest pay all members of the brewery baron’s large family. And then when Johnny Keane relieved Solly Hemus as manager at the Fourth of July in 1961, he gave both Busch and Flood the greatest gift. That is, the chance for the boss’ pet to play every day.

Flood had learned to cut down that big swing. Immediately, he hit .322. Six times he hit over .300 in the next eight years. Hitting behind Lou Brock, he was even better than when leading off. Afield, he made incredible catches. He ran the bases with speed and daring.

By the time the Cardinals won a second world championship in 1967, Flood hit a club-leading .335. Busch lavished his players with the big league’s first $1 million payroll. Flood’s share was a handsome $72,000.

When the Redbirds repeated with a pennant in ’68, yet lost the Series in which Flood made a rare defensive gaffe behind close friend Bob Gibson, Busch had begun to grumble about relations with players, including salaries.

Even though Flood’s average dropped 34 points to .301 in ’68, the Year of the Pitcher, Curt told the Globe-Democrat in an eight-column banner that he “insisted” on $100,000. “And,” he snipped, “I don’t mean $99,999.99.”

For one, I winced. The “Dutchman” Busch wouldn’t like that. He didn’t. Flood settled finally for a handsome hike to $92,000, but he had just become one of the boys in the eyes of the big boss, no longer a favorite son.

In 1969, a subpar season for the Cardinals, Flood nosedived to .285. Harry Walker, a thinking man’s manager at Houston, had bunched his defense up the middle, where Curt often singled past the pitcher. Other clubs followed suit. In addition, the player was living as fast as he ran.

Divorced and away from his family, he spent considerable time in other arms, including Bacchus’ and not Morpheus’. In addition, he put in many of the diminishing waking hours oil-painting photos for a price.

At the batting cage late that season, I scolded him as a friendly Dutch uncle, but I offered a consolation, relative to the tighter up- the-middle defense.

Next year, 1970, Busch Stadium would have artificial turf, quickening ground balls. Many of those balls now being caught would go through as they had in those 200-hit seasons.

Curt shrugged off my criticism of his life style, but smiled over the batting prospects.

They weren’t achieved. Flood was traded to the Phillies at a time when they were futile, part of a multiple-player deal in which another popular player, Tim McCarver, was lost.

When the Cardinals notified Flood of the deal, his first words were, “Oh, no, not Philadelphia.”

The second thought of resistance brought the Flood lawsuit, which he didn’t win, unfortunately. The Phillies had offered to make Flood the first “$100,000 singles’ hitter,” a designation Pete Rose later claimed.

After a fast-track year abroad, he was dealt to Washington in 1971. Flood lasted only several games with the Senators. He quit.
Said a Washington doctor gravely, “The oldest 33-year-old athlete I ever examined.”

As a carrot back there in ’69, I’d suggested to Flood that with a couple more .300 seasons he would be a Hall of Famer in fact as well as in potential. Curtis Charles Flood didn’t make it. He was only 59 when he died.

I’d heard the stories about Flood refusing to go to Philadelphia because of its Southern feelings about black people, so I found a Philadelphia Daily News retrospective on Flood’s life by Mark Kram, from 2002. Kram said of the owners:

By the sheer arrogance with which they conducted their affairs, you get the feeling in retrospect that it was as if they were daring someone like Flood to step forward and take them on. How else could you explain the way that the Cardinals informed him he had been shipped to the Phillies : by form letter, with a box checked that explained that he was no longer their property. He had played for them since 1958 for 12 years and helped them to world championships in 1964 and 1967, and yet no one from the Cardinals even had the courtesy to phone him. While it was assumed then that Flood did not want to come to Philadelphia because the city and organization were racially backward, [Judy] Pace- Flood says he simply rejected the deal because it “violated his dignity as a man.”

So Flood had no special animus toward Philadelphia?

“None whatsoever that I was aware of,” says [Judy] Pace-Flood , a former actress who appeared in the TV series “Peyton Place” and had movie parts in “The Fortune Cookie” (1966) and “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970), among others. “What it came down to was that he objected to be treated as chattel.”

Pace-Flood married Curt in 1986. Here are two more quotes. Flood told San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Joan Ryan before he died: “I lost money, coaching jobs, a shot at the Hall of Fame. But when you weigh that against all the things that are really and truly important, things that are deep inside you, then I think I’ve succeeded.”

Frank Robinson said of the stance baseball ownership took toward players: “What they were counting on was the fact that you were probably in a position where you had to take it [their contract offer]. You probably had a wife and children to support, and you needed that check every 2 weeks. They would say, ‘Now, do you want to play or not?’ They held every card.”

Finally, here is the story of Flood’s situation when Vada Pinson died: he was already getting treatment for the cancer that would kill him:

So far, he has tolerated the chemotherapy; the second cycle began Monday. But now Curt Flood is to undergo radiation for throat cancer Thursday morning, and the doctors say he cannot skip the treatment.

So Curt Flood hopes his friend of 50 years, Vada Pinson, will understand if he is unable to make it to Oakland for Pinson’s funeral that day.

“Vada would say, `You did what? Get out of here,'” Flood said Tuesday from his home in Los Angeles, where he looks up from the phone and every day sees the same picture on the wall: Vada Pinson, Curt Flood and Lou Brock on a framed cover of the Sporting News.

“I’ve seen that handsome face for many years,” Flood said. “Vada was neat as a pin. He shined his shoes between innings, almost.”

The picture was taken in 1969, when the three were together in the outfield of the St. Louis Cardinals. “The doctors say they caught it in time,” Flood said of the cancer. “The prognosis is good. They say it’s 90 to 95 percent curable. I haven’t been sick. I haven’t lost my hair … or my testiness.

“Yes, it’s scary. It’s something God puts on your shoulders: `Here, handle this.”‘ Last winter, when Flood was inducted into the Bay Area Hall of Fame, his presenter was Vada Pinson, who drove all the way from South Florida. The scheduled inductee this winter: Pinson. Of course, you know who Pinson asked to present him.

“I’m going to ask them to honor his last wish,” Flood said Tuesday.
“My lasting image of Vada: I always remember Vada Pinson’s smile. It was always present. If not on his face, it was in his voice.”

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Published in: on January 9, 2011 at 4:56 am  Comments (1)  
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  1. Curt Flood was a grossly underappreciated pioneer, and he deserved a better fate. But there are some notable blemishes: His demand following the 1968 season to be paid $100,000 is a head scratcher, given his almost father-son relationship with team owner August Busch III during the bulk of Flood’s time as a player for the Cardinals. Flood’s dishonesty was disclosed by Brad Snyder, author of “A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports.” Snyder wrote that Flood did not paint those oil portraits, but rather paid an artist in Burbank named Lawrence Williams to do the work. According to Snyder, “Williams would blow up photographs, stretch and mount them on Masonite, and then paint over the blown-up photographs with a palter knife instead of a brush” (p. 325). Finally, even with Frank Howard’s blunt observation that “we all drank in those days,” Flood’s infatuation with vodka martinis went well beyond social drinking and no doubt contributed to his decline as a player at an age (31) when his skills should have been near their peak. Curt Flood was no martyred saint, but he had more courage than his peers and, belatedly, received his due as the man most responsible for weakening the one-sided system sustained by the reserve clause.


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