Curt Flood – A Forgotten Star
The Early Years
In the 1950’s, the Cincinnati Redlegs drafted three of the most exciting outfielders of their era, and they all came from the same high school. The first was Frank Robinson, in 1953. He would break into the majors in 1956 and win the Rookie of the Year in the first of his 21 outstanding seasons. That same year, Reds scouts would return to the high school where they recruited Robinson and find two more prospects: Vada Pinson and Curt Flood. Pinson would become a major league force of his own, but would play behind Robinson for most of his career. It’s a shame that more people don’t know the name Vada Pinson. Of the three, Curt Flood was the diamond in the rough.
With Robinson firmly established as the Reds every day left fielder, it was just a matter of time before he would be joined by Flood or Pinson. Flood was the better defender but Pinson hit for average and power and would eventually be the one to play with alongside Robinson. In 1957, the color barrier had been broken, but was not totally eliminated from the game. It has been suggested that the Reds didn’t want to have an all-African-American starting outfield, so it was Flood that had to go. I would like to believe this was not true, but looking at the deal that the Cardinals made in December 1957 suggests otherwise. Cincinnati’s bad judgement soon became the Cardinals gain.
Bing’s Devine Plan
While this drama was being played out in Cincinnati, Cardinals General Manager Bing Devine had been challenged by new owner, August Busch, Jr. to build a dynasty in the gateway city. Devine started looking around for some young players to be the core of this new organization, and Flood became the first of them. Flood was not the first African-American to play for the Cardinals, but he would be the first regular player when he took over for a struggling Bobby Smith two weeks into the 1958 season. The 20 year old rookie would finish the year with a modest .261 batting average. He would also display a bit of power that he would sacrifice later for a higher batting average. He also demonstrated a good eye at the plate with a relatively low strikeout rate – one that he would improve throughout his career. He didn’t know it at the time, but that would become significant in a few years when he found himself hitting behind Lou Brock.
Flood would struggle a little over the next two seasons as pitchers started finding holes in his swing. In 1959, he would platoon in the outfield while new manager Solly Hemus experimented with playing Stan Musial at first base. Even though he struggled at the plate, base runners soon took notice of Flood’s arm. They tested him repeatedly during the season, 18 times quite unsuccessfully. They would not challenge him again until an injury in 1967 affected his throwing, but even then the wily veteran still took down a number of would-be base runners.
As Flood was developing his talent in the St. Louis outfield, Bing Devine continued to find additional pieces for a future championship team. In 1959, Flood would be joined by Bill White, a young catcher named Tim McCarver and a wild hard throwing right hander named Bob Gibson. In 1960 the Cardinals would add Curt Simmons, Julian Javier and Ray Sadecki. The pieces were almost in place.
Flood’s breakout year would be 1961. After struggling at the plate early in the year, a successful run of late inning defensive substitutions gave Flood a chance to show off his bat to new manager, Johnny Keane. One of the first things that Keane did after taking over in mid-summer was to put Flood back as the every day center fielder and he did not disappoint. Flood raised his batting average to .322 with an on-base percentage nearing the magical .400 level. He also managed to cut his strikeout rate in half. All questions about who would be the future center fielder for the Cardinals had been answered.
Flood’s offensive production continued to improve in 1962. He narrowly missed hitting .300, finishing with a .296 average. He drove in an astonishing 70 runs from the top of the batting order. The one-two punch of Flood and Javier was starting to get noticed around the league. What they left on the bases was soon being driven in by Ken Boyer and Bill White. With the pitching rotation coming together nicely, backed by an All-Star infield and Flood directing the outfield, Busch’s dream of a championship team was almost a reality.
1963 would be a very good year for Flood. He would collect over 200 hits, tying Bill White for the team lead. His defensive abilities would finally be recognized when the post-season awards were given out. Flood would earn the first of his seven consecutive Gold Glove awards. Only 13 outfielders would collect more in the history of the award. While Flood was dazzling fans with his glove, two more pieces to the Devine puzzle were put in place: shortstop Dick Groat and future right fielder Mike Shannon.
Flood would follow up his 200 hit 1963 season by leading the league with 211 hits in 1964. Perhaps the most amazing thing about his ’64 season was his consistency. By mid-May, he had his batting average up to .300 and it would not fluctuate much for the rest of the year. His .400 on-base percentage in the last month of the season ahead of a red hot Lou Brock was a big part of the Cardinals success in overtaking the Philadelphia Phillies in one of the most exciting pennant races in the history of the National League. Flood would also receive the first of his three All Star Game invitations. In the era of Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Billy Williams, Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson, outfield invitations become something of a rare thing, and Flood would receive just three in his career.
Under new manager, Red Schoendienst, several Cardinals struggled in 1965 and 1966 and the team fell from World Champions to middle of the pack finishes in both seasons. In one of his best managerial decisions, Schoendienst would swap Brock and Flood at the top of the order, preferring Brock’s power and aggressive base running ahead of Flood’s consistent bat. This combination would terrorize pitchers for the remainder of the decade, but some retooling of the team would need to happen before the Cardinals would return to post-season. While all of this was going on, Flood remained steady as a rock, nearly matching his 1964 performance the next season as well as the first half of 1966.
Much more important was something that happened on September 2, 1965. In the seventh inning of a game in Chicago, Curt Flood would commit an error on a ball hit by Harvey Kuenn (who would later manage the Milwaukee Brewers in the 1982 World Series). Flood would not commit another error until the Cardinals played the Cubs again – on June 4, 1967. Almost a year and a half later. That’s a total of 226 games (a National League record) and 586 chances (a Major League Record). Yes, Curt Flood was that good. With all due respect to Jim Edmonds (who won one more Gold Glove) and Willie McGee, nobody played center field for the Cardinals better than Curt Flood.
While Flood was flashing the leather, he also turned in his best offensive season in 1967. An injury would take him out of the lineup for three weeks in July, but when he returned, his .373 finish to the season jump-started an offensive that was struggling. He and teammate Orlando Cepeda would battle Roberto Clemente of the Pirates for the batting title all season long, with Clemente hanging on to win. Flood would finish fifth with a .335 average and Cepeda sixth at .325. Even in 1968, when batting averages were dropping all over the league, Flood was the only Cardinal to keep his above .300, finishing with a .301 average.
Not only was Curt Flood a defensive star, he had become a dependable hitter. He is characterized as a singles hitter with little pop, but that does him a great disservice. Yes, he hit mostly singles, but he also hit near .300 for most of the decade, something no other Cardinals player did.
Cardinals fans will remember Flood for all of his defensive marvels, especially the record error-less streak. Casual fans may remember him slightly differently, and that’s unfortunate. In Game 7 of the 1968 World Series, Flood would be involved in a play that would determine the outcome of the game, and the series.
With the series tied at three games a piece, Bob Gibson would face Mickey Lolich of the Tigers in the decisive game. Both pitchers brought their A game and it would remain scoreless until the top of the seventh inning. After retiring 20 of the first 21 batters he faced, Gibson gives up consecutive singles to Norm Cash and Willie Horton. Jim Northrup follows that with a hard hit ball to center field that we thought would end the inning. Unfortunately, Curt Flood turned the wrong way on the line drive and was unable to catch up to it after the miscue. The ball would roll all the way to the wall, scoring both Horton and Cash. Northrup would be credited with a triple on the play, thanks to a friendly official scorer. Rattled, Gibs0n gives up a double to Bill Freehan, scoring Northrup and giving the Tigers a 3-0 lead. That was all that Lolich needed as he cruised to a complete game victory, making the Tigers the new World Champions of baseball.
For those that only read the headlines, this is what they will remember from the playing career of Curt Flood. Not the consecutive errorless streak, not the year after year of patiently hitting .300 behind Lou Brock – one miscue that may have cost the Cardinals their third World Series title in the decade.
Challenging the Reserve Clause
Some historical analysis of the end of Flood’s career will point to the miscue in the 1968 World Series as the event that lead to his being traded after the 1969 season. While that is a convenient excuse, the real reason was a contract dispute prior to the 1969 season. Flood wanted $90,000 and the Cardinals offered something less, in the $78,000 range. Flood stood firm and held out, as many players did in that era. Eventually, the Cardinals gave in and signed Flood for his asking price, but as Steve Carlton would soon learn, that was not a good way to remain on the Cardinals. Gussie Busch did not like holdouts, and it was a sure way to get shipped out of St. Louis.
Perhaps it was due to the stress of the holdout, or maybe some lingering memories of the end of the 1968 World Series, Flood saw his offensive production drop in 1969. His average would fall to .285, which is still respectable for Gold Glove center fielder, but well short of where had had been. Only newcomer Joe Torre and veteran Lou Brock posted higher batting average and on-base percentages. As a result, Flood became somewhat of a scapegoat for a team that finished far below expectations, thanks to a horrifically slow start to the season.
At season’s end, the Cardinals got an opportunity to acquire one of baseball’s elite power hitters, Richie Allen, and the front office jumped on it. There were other players in the final deal, including Tim McCarver, but the principal part of the trade was Curt Flood for Richie Allen. This is the moment when baseball is changed forever – Curt Flood did not accept the trade and refused to report to Philadelphia. It would be impossible for us today to appreciate what some of the players went through in the 60’s, and if you were an African-American player, Philadelphia would have been one of the last places you would want to play. There is a reason that Richie Allen wanted out, and that was not lost on Flood. He had been a part of St. Louis for the last twelve years, and had given a lot to the fans. In return, the fans had been good to Flood and he was one of the most beloved of the Cardinals of the time. All of that was turned upside town in just a moment.
In refusing to report, Flood had to walk away from the game he loved. He would have to sit out and wait for his contract to expire before re-entering the game as a free agent, much like a player that had been released and was no longer wanted. The difference here was that Flood was still in the peak of his career. At age 31, he still had some games left in his body, until the stress of his battle with baseball took it all away. Marvin Miller, head of the player’s union, helped Flood challenge the reserve clause in the collective bargaining agreement. Due to a series of unfortunate events, Flood lost his grievance against baseball and would lose a year of playing time – essentially ending his career. Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally would again challenge the reserve clause in 1975 and win their arbitration case, creating the free agency era that the players enjoy today. Messersmith and McNally got the benefit, but it was Flood that challenged the system and sacrificed the latter part of his career in doing so.
How much did that cost Flood ? Perhaps a place in Cooperstown.
After Flood’s year long holdout in Philadelphia, he was traded to the Washington Senators in 1971. Flood would try to resurrect his career, but it didn’t take long to see that the battle with baseball had taken its toll, and Flood was nowhere near the player he had been. He would finish his career with 7 consecutive Gold Gloves, 1,861 hits, a lifetime .293 batting average and a career on-base percentage of .342. Had he not battled baseball, and stayed healthy, 2,500 hits would not have been out of Flood’s reach. Add another Gold Glove or two and he would be approaching Roberto Clemente territory. As a player, Flood was on a path that should have put him in the Hall of Fame. Given the recent interest in Marvin Miller’s controversial consideration for induction into the Hall of Fame, perhaps the Alumni Committee should instead take another look at the player that sacrificed more than Miller to change baseball and forever change the economic balance of the game.
To Learn More
There are quite a few biographies that try to tackle the career of Curt Flood. Most either portray him as a martyr or a fool and don’t give much more insight than you would get by spending a couple of hours pouring through baseball-reference.com. There are two that stand out above all the others, and I would recommend both if you are interested in learning more about Flood’s career and fight with the game.
The first is Curt Flo0d’s autobiography, The Way it Is. It was written shortly after Flood left baseball, and there is a big sense of bitterness in his writing – but that is important if you want to understand what he went through at the time. Apply a little bit of a filter and you will find a wonderful historical text about one of the most exciting periods in baseball, and one of the players that made it that way.
The other book is Brad Snyder’s A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports. This looks more at the legal process that led up to the arbitration hearing and all that went wrong with it. It’s more about the legal system and contracts than baseball, but you will learn a lot by reading it. It is exceptionally well written and helps put a complicated part of baseball history in perspective.