After 50 years it’s not too late for ‘Thank You’
Sometimes heroes are hard to define. Space on the relevancy bar is crowded these days.
I thought about that when I realized that 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the late Curt Flood challenging Major League Baseball’s reserve clause and its anti-trust status as the ‘national pastime.’ It’s also because there is a growing movement that says Flood belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Flood, for you who weren’t born or don’t remember, was the 12-year veteran African-American St. Louis Cardinals outfielder who refused a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969. Not only did he refuse to report to his new team, but he later wrote: “After a dozen years in the majors, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.”
With that, the gauntlet was hurled. Flood’s challenge made it all the way to the Supreme Court; but he lost his case.
Still, baseball was changed; moreover, so was the business of baseball: revolutionized by a star outfielder who began the process that set his fellow players free.
They honor Jackie Robinson for breaking baseball’s color barrier. But few remember that it was Robinson who testified before the high court on Flood’s behalf. Flood later wrote a poignant thank you to Robinson in Flood’s autobiography, The Way It Is.
Flood told Robinson – who was hobbled over and nearly incapacitated by diabetes when he testified, but here he was standing tall once more as a lightning rod of change to the game – “I really appreciate you taking the time and effort to do this,”
Robinson replied, “Well, you can’t be out there by yourself, and I would be remiss if I didn’t share these burdens with you.”
There was a deeper connection between Flood and Robinson according to Buck Leonard, the Rocky Mount native and Hall-of-Famer.
“Those two individuals were quite similar, which is why you saw Jackie at the trial to give his support,” Leonard said. “Both were very strong-willed, both were very determined, and both had this tremendous self-belief. In both cases, those character traits were put to the test.”
And while Flood lost his case in 1972, look at how just three years removed, players Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally won the first cases for arbitration, literally ushering in the era of free agency.
No less than former commissioner Bud Selig says Flood was ahead of his time; that owners weren’t ready for free agency. Somehow, that rings hollow because it also echoes the similar idea that baseball wasn’t ready for integration until 1947, thanks to – Jackie Robinson.
While there’re many who accept Robinson’s impact on baseball, Flood’s transformation to the business model of the sport was set in motion when he said “no.”
Flood was a game-changer, one of three significant acts of defiance by black athletes during those times: Muhammad Ali refusing induction into the U.S. Army in 1967; Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ raised fist demonstration on the victory stand at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968; and finally, Curt Flood in ’69. All athletes who sacrificed their careers, but ended up advancing the cause of human rights.
Flood’s stand didn’t just impact the game in the short term. Take for example 21-year veteran LaTroy Hawkins. Thanks to free agency, he was able to stretch a career an entire score of years, playing for 11 different teams.
“Curt Flood impacted me in the way that I was able to go out and get my full market value,” Hawkins told NY Times sports columnist Bill Rhoden. “I was able to go out and pick and choose what team I wanted to play for. That was a direct connection to what Curt Flood stood for.”
“His stand revolutionized the game. It just didn’t affect African American players; it affected every player in a positive way,” Hawkins concluded.
Messersmith and McNally set the process in motion, and now there’s a direct correlation that stretches from that pair to another duo reaping the benefits of Curt Flood’s sacrifice just this past year – the 50th anniversary. Their names are Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, baseball’s newest super-millionaires.
And if that’s not how you start a revolution, then I don’t know what is.
Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at email@example.com or call 252-332-7211.