HBO examines Curt Flood saga

Curt FloodOn October 7, 1969, while most of the sports world was gearing up for the  upcoming World Series between the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Mets, a  much more significant baseball event was about to unfold.  On that date,  Curt Flood, the talented centerfielder for the St Louis Cardinals, was part of a  seven player trade that would have sent the perennial Gold Glove Winner to the  Philadelphia Phillies.  Flood’s refusal to accept the trade, and his  subsequent challenge of Major League Baseball’s reserve clause is the subject of  the brand new HBO documentary, “The Curious Case of Curt Flood, “ which makes  its debut on Wednesday, July 13 at 9 pm.  Produced by Ross Greenburg and  Rick Bernstein, “The Curious Case of Curt Flood” tells the story of the man who  whose actions would ultimately change the economic foundation of professional  sports, but did so at the expense of his own athletic career.

Signed by the Cincinnati Reds in 1956, Curt Flood was traded to the St Louis  Cardinals after the 1957 season.  By the early 1960’s, Flood had become a  fixture in the Cardinals outfield, winning the first of his seven straight Gold  Glove awards in 1963, and earning his first All-Star berth in 1964.   Playing alongside future Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Bob Gibson, Flood was a  key component to the Cardinals success, as the franchise won three National  League pennants (1964,’67.’68), during Flood’s tenure, and were World Champions  in 1964 and 1967.  At the conclusion of the 1969 season, the Cardinals  worked out a trade with the Phillies, which was to send Flood, along with  catcher Tim McCarver, outfielder Byron Browne and pitcher Joe Hoerner to  Philadelphia in exchange for first baseman Dick Allen, second baseman Cookie  Rojas and relief pitcher Jerry Johnson.  Flood, explaining that he had  several reservations concerning the Phillies organization, announced his refusal  to cooperate with the deal.

At the time of the Flood trade, Major league Baseball was operating under the  reserve clause, a system which made players the virtual property of the teams  they originally signed with until they were either traded or released.   Under these conditions, professional ballplayers had very little leverage when  negotiating their contracts, and in 1969, the average salary for a major leaguer  was around $25,000 a year.  Curt Flood’s actions were a direct challenge to  the reserve clause, which Flood criticized as being “inconsistent with the laws  of the United States.”  Flood’s request to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn  that he be made a free agent was denied, prompting Flood to file a lawsuit  against Kuhn and Major League Baseball, sitting out the 1970 season and  forfeiting a $100,000 salary in the process.  Flood’s case would eventually  reach the United States Supreme Court, which ruled against him 5-3.  Curt  Flood returned to baseball in 1971 as a member of the Washington Senators, but  by then his skills had abandoned him, and his comeback lasted only 13  games.  Curt Flood died of throat cancer on January 20, 1997 at the age of  59.

“The Curious Case of Curt Flood” tells both the story of the man and the  legacy.  Interviews with his widow Judy Pace Flood along with Cardinal  teammates Bob Gibson, Tim McCarver and Dal Maxvill give insight into Floods  personality, but it’s the landscape of professional sports where Curt Flood’s  influence is most felt.  Although Flood lost his case, his fight against  the reserve clause emboldened others to continue the fight, and in 1975, the  reserve clause was finally struck down when an arbitrator ruled pitchers Andy  Messersmith and Dave McNally free agents. At that time, the average Major League  salary stood at $44,000 a season.  Today, the figure stands at over $3  million. As Ross Greenburg points out, “Every player in every team sport owes a  debt of gratitude to Curt Flood.”