Curt Flood’s influence on the business of professional sports is well-established. His lawsuit against Major League Baseball and the league’s reserve clause, which maintained a team’s rights to a player after that player’s contract expired, made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Though the justices found unanimously for MLB, Flood’s fight set the stage for free agency and for the talent getting a fairer shake.
Less well-known about Curt Flood is the fact that he was an accomplished artist — back in his playing days his sketches appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In 1968, he painted a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. and gave it to King’s widow. Coretta Scott King said the painting “comes closest to depicting the dignity and reverence — and especially the love — which characterized his life.” That painting today hangs in the White House.
As an artist, Curt Flood understood the difference between a photograph and the canvas, between life and the stage, between facts and greater truths. In tribute to the man and to Black History Month, here follows a portrait of Curt Flood that he might have appreciated: a short story founded in historical facts but spun with artistic license, fiction in search of the man’s essence and the tenor of his times.
I hadn’t worked in quite a few years ’cept for helping out with the local high school’s teams. Football. Basketball. Baseball, of course. I worked it for the right reasons. No money in it, no money at all. Just that no one wants to see a kid get hurt and that’s what happens when they’re not taped up right and sent out there in harm’s way. Maybe someday one of those kids will be a first-rounder and remember the old guy who volunteered for his high-school alma mater and kept him in one piece. More likely he ends up becoming a real-estate salesman who walks 18 for the exercise and doesn’t stop and think that the reason he’s not limping or having to use a kart is me.
Either way, they’ll probably have trouble remembering my name. They’ll remember that I wore a World Series ring and put it in a safe place before getting to work on them. My wedding ring is in a safe deposit box and my ring from the ’64 World Series is right beside it. My ring from ’67, though, it ain’t never been off ’cept when I’m working, brother, and my name is engraved on there just like Bob Gibson’s on his.
That was one of the great teams, I’ll tell you, ’67 Cards. A hundred and one wins. Took the pennant by 10 ½ games. Four guys in Cooperstown — Gibby, Sweet Lou Brock, Lefty Carlton and Orlando Cepeda, the Baby Bull. Real good players right down the line. Roger Maris, a few years after his 61 and the asterisk but still a heckuva player. Curt Flood, Tim McCarver, Julian Javier. You go right down the line.
Busch Memorial was practically new back in ’67 but they’re calling it Old Busch Stadium nowadays and I guess they’re gonna tear it down with this new place they’re building. Happens. No tears. I’m long gone from there anyway. Packed my bags and went to Florida and never been outside the state in, damn, it ain’t years but decades. Why go anywhere else when I spent my whole working life going everywhere else?
When we first moved down, we bought a little place in St. Pete. I knew it from all the years the Cards came down for Grapefruit League and we played out of Al Lang Stadium right downtown. Nicest park on the whole circuit, I say.
For years in semi-retirement I had my spring routine. The Cardinals came to St. Pete and from the day pitchers and catchers reported I’d head over to the ballpark and they’d give me a day rate to help out. I woulda done it for nuthin’.
I’d catch up with guys who’d first hopped up on my table as rookies, whose careers had been in my hands. Guys who saw my hands as much as they saw their wives’, some of them a lot more, depending on how often they had to play hurt and how close they were to their wives.
The last group of guys I worked with in St. Louis, the years picked them off. One-by-one they went the way of all ballplaying flesh. And, of course, a few of the older guys snagged jobs with clubs and I’d see them in February and March and we’d bullshit around. But a lot of guys — most of them, really — I fell out of touch with.
So, I think it’s a prank call.
“This is Dick Williams,” the voice on the other end of the line says. The name I recognize, the voice I don’t.
“Sure it isn’t … who the hell is this?”
“No, this is Dick Williams,” he says and, yeah, turned out to be telling the truth — a guy with two World Series rings of his own, a guy I never even met even when he managed against us in ’67, is calling me up out of the blue.
Dick spells it all out. He tells me he needs someone like me. He tells me that he’s managing this new team, the West Palm Beach Tropics. I ask him if it’s Single-A, Rookie League, one of these independent semi-pro things. No, he says, it’s this thing that they’re trying to get off the ground, the Senior Professional Baseball Association. To which I say, what the hell.
He goes on and tells me they’re starting up this whole league of guys who used to play in the majors and now got grey hair and liver spots. Old-timers, right. He says the teams got a little but not a lot of money to play with. “Ain’t that always the way,” I say.
I tell Dick I’m not interested in travelling and he says that it’s not major-league travel, ’cause all the teams are in Florida and the Tropics only play the south division in the regular season. Couple of hours on the bus at worst, he says. Occurs to me that I already do that with the high school.
“You’ll sleep in your own bed every night,” he says. “You did move over this side, right?”
“Juno Beach,” I tell him. “Left St. Pete after my wife died two years back. Moved closer to my daughter. She works for Florida Power and Light.”
He says I come highly recommended, a friend telling a friend of a friend. Dick reads the scouting report back to me, how I can wrap an ankle, ice an arm, make your eyes pop on the massage table, and blow my lunch money trying to draw to an inside straight ’cause I’m a slow learner. “It’s like the Boys of Winter,” he says.
He doesn’t have to say anything more. Sounds like fun. From our sleepy little town up the coast, it’s a half-hour drive into to West Palm, a real nice place out of my price range. Dick says it’s not a full-time job, just a couple of months or so. I can still do my volunteer work. I tell him I’m in. I’m coming out of retirement with all these other guys coming out of retirement.
The Tropics were a good bunch of guys for the most part. I knew the Mad Hungarian from our Cards days but in a West Palm uniform he was low-maintenance, probably grew up in some 10-plus years out of the game. Knew Toby Harrah’s name but I had never ever seen him play ‘cept for spring training and it turned out that we got along. Dave Kingman, horse’s ass. We had guys who were going to end up in the Hall of Fame, like Rollie Fingers, and we had guys who had one season of A-ball, like Valentino Falcone — so help me, that was his name, and he hit .188 in the New York Penn League. And that was his luck, too — he tore up his hamstring so bad that I’m betting he uses a handicapped parking spot these days.
I worked five seasons in one that winter. My hands ached. Not that my hands got old. Meat hooks they’d say. My hands stayed a helluva lot younger than those guys who limped into the trainer’s room. But still, my hands ache even now just thinking about that season. MASH units get less traffic. On a good night, there’d be one guy who didn’t go down with a pulled muscle. Guys refused to sit after the game for fear that they’d seize up completely. What you gotta expect when you got guys in their 40s, even 50s, playing a game that tears apart the bodies of kids half their age. I never worked harder than I did that year. “Treated everything but shingles, but it’s still early,” I’d tell people. And then, sonuvabitch, doesn’t Dick Williams get shingles.
Your big bodies, it was just a matter of time before they were on the table. The middle infielders, the ones who looked after themselves, real body smart, they were mostly okay. Ron Washington, I don’t know that I had to do anything for him at all, looked like he could still play if you asked me and he tore the league up. Mickey Rivers, too. They hit better than .360 the both of them.
Crowds were great. Thirty-four hundred for the opener, 1,500 pretty much every night. Not the majors but I saw crowds like that when I was starting out back when they still wore flannel. And we provided real entertainment. The Tropics won going away in the regular season. There wasn’t a team within 10 games of us. We joked that we weren’t gonna get rings and that they’d just give engraved copper bands for arthritic wrists. Believe me, I coulda used two. Figured we were good for one when we met the St. Petersburg Pelicans in the 1989 SPBA championship game, the first ever Old World Series they called it.
So that championship game winds up bein’ played at Terry Park in Fort Myers, and nobody had really thought this out, I guess. Pitchers and catchers had reported to Municipal Stadium in West Palm, which belonged to the Braves and the Expos, the Cards were at Al Lang and big-league teams had the keys to every other Senior Pro field ‘cept Terry Park.
Day of the game I come to the clubhouse hours early to get ready. I’m in there setting up when the commissioner walks in. Curt Flood. I’ve seen him at ceremonies before games, in the seats once they started. Hadn’t actually talked to him, though. I never talked to him after he got traded by the Cards, either. I never talked to him when he went to court against MLB. I never talked to him when he ended up with the Senators for a coupla months when he was done. I always got along with him back in St. Louis. He was always real respectful and polite, no hell-raiser. But we weren’t real close, mostly because he stayed real healthy even though he played real hard.
He doesn’t look real happy when he comes into the clubhouse. Not that it stops me.
“You’re gonna give me another ring,” I say.
“Might have to give you one of mine,” he says.
The stands are empty and so is the clubhouse.
“Stump, I need a favor,” he says.
“My back is killing me,” he says. “Seized up on me in the car. There are guys in this league practically as old as me but if I’m stuck in traffic my back turns to stone.”
Five minutes later he’s stretched out on the table and my hands are working this guy who had a glove as good as any centrefielder I ever saw. How good do you have to be to win Gold Gloves and beat out Willie Mays in his prime? That’s beating out an all-timer. Now, Curt Flood wasn’t the greatest ballplayer by any stretch. Fact is, you coulda seen him in the street and never thought, “there goes a big leaguer.” He was five-feet-nine maybe, a buck seventy-five. Still, he was a real nice player, an honest player, contact hitter, stole bases, with a couple of teams that won World Series and one that shoulda won a third. Don’t get me going about Game 7 in ’68, Mickey Lolich shutting us out at Busch Memorial.
I can tell my patient isn’t in a mood for small talk. His back’s like knots in wood down below his ribcage. Ten minutes. Fifteen. Finally it eases up. When he gets off the table and puts on his big horn-rims he thanks me, shakes my hand but doesn’t smile. And so I ask him if everything is okay.
“Business could be better,” he says.
I’m thinking: There isn’t one guy with a stall in this clubhouse that gives a damn about the business tonight. Everyone of them is out here just ‘cause it’s fun. I’m thinking: I’ve just had my hands on the one guy who this game means most to. All the Tropics, all the rest of the guys in the league made out okay ‘cause of him, but he’s down here because he’s gotta be. The only job he can get in the game. This guy who was a beautiful ballplayer — beautiful not being a word that anyone would throw around much and I sure as hell don’t — isn’t making as much as a half-assed high-school coach.
And then I’m thinking: I stopped giving a damn about Curt Flood when he got traded and wouldn’t go to Philly. He had a good thing in St. Louis, making 90 grand, and it could have been a good thing in Philly and he could have made more money in the game. I didn’t understand him going to court when I was cashing a cheque from the Busch family and, telling you the truth, I don’t understand it all now. I learned how to keep people whole, how to keep things together as good as possible. And back then I thought this guy’s hurting the game, hurting himself. What sense did that make? Goddamnedest thing.
I try to be polite and ask him about the gate for the championship game.
Grim stuff. League’s losing money, he says. Not West Palm or at least not as bad as the others. Most of the teams aren’t getting half as many fans as they need to break even.
Tito Landrum walks in and so does Juan Eichelberger. They razz me, the usual bullshit. They see the guy in the suit and I can tell they’re not real sure who he is. Tito, guy who was just coming in with the Cards when I was going out, not knowing Curt Flood. Sad.
We lost the championship game bad. Bad. The Pelicans beat us 12–4. Our fun was done.
Curt Flood gave the trophy to manager Bobby Tolan after the game. Bobby gave it to Dock Ellis, who pitched the lights out that winter and coached to boot. And Dock gave it to … well, so on and so forth. The trophy got passed around to all these guys and, to me, none of them had ever been a player as good as Curt Flood. Lamar Johnson? Steve Henderson? Not even close.
I didn’t come back to the Tropics the next season. A juco up Jupiter way hired a coach from the high school I volunteered at and he asked me to help out. He had a little money to offer, some expenses. I figured the SPBA was a bad bet and it was, practically out of gas Opening Day. Curt Flood didn’t come back the next winter either. Guess the owners wanted someone who was a real business manager rather than just a name from the history books. The new guy didn’t help. The whole league folded a few weeks into that second season, like a house of baseball cards.
Curt Flood outlived the Senior Professional Baseball Association by seven years but that championship game was the last time I’d ever see him. I was in the training room at the juco when I read in the paper about how he was gone, just 57. Little thing in the paper about four lines long. Stuff about losing in the Supreme Court, stuff about him being a “trailblazer” and million-dollar contracts and all that. Cancer, it said. Nothing about the player, the centrefielder. He was a piece of those great teams, a real important piece. Time is kinder to some than others, just like the game I guess. And Curt Flood, he always got cheated.
‘Bout an hour after I read that thing a kid, a real nice player, was up on my table. Back spasms. And he asked me about my ring when I slipped it off. World Series, 1967, I told him. I got two of ‘em, I told him.
It was right then that I remembered how Curt Flood wasn’t wearing either of his when I sank my hands into his back.
Author’s post-script: I spoke to Curt Flood 25 years ago, on or about the 25th anniversary of his filing against Major League Baseball. The timing only occurred to me well after the fact.
I wasn’t writing a retrospective piece about his paradigm-shifting battle with MLB. No, the catalysts for reaching out to Flood were a pair of events of the day. Major League Baseball had cancelled the 1994 World Series and during the game’s long, cold winter, owners were poised to open spring training with scabs and replacement players. At the same time, a group that included former MLBPA general counsel Richard Moss, sports economist Andrew Zimbalist and politicians had proposed an alternative professional circuit. They branded it the United Baseball League and announced plans for it to roll out in the biggest and best available U.S. and Canadian cities. Before they had secured a franchise deposit or named a team or signed a player, the UBL group recruited Flood to stand out in front and serve as a spokesman.
The symbolism was hardly subtle. The UBL wanted to challenge MLB, so who better to represent them than the man who had taken on the Establishment and changed the game at the cost, not entirely unanticipated, of his career and a measure of long-lived infamy?
I’ll admit it here now: I was a fan of the man. More than that, I felt uniquely honoured to talk to him.
The first World Series I remember distinctly was St. Louis vs. Boston back in ’67. My interest in sports took off when I was in high school, when Flood’s case was before the courts. I still have a well-worn copy of The Way It Is, Flood’s autobiography tracking his youth in Oakland, his minor-league career that took him through the segregated south and his fight for ballplayers’ rights. As a teenager I didn’t fully grasp the risks he took but I could appreciate the philosophy behind his fight, summarized by one sentence in his letter to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn: “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.”
Flood’s challenge to the reserve clause had killed any chance for him finding a job in baseball. I had read accounts of a person who had been emotionally broken by his fight and fully expected to find myself speaking to sport’s angriest man.
He seemed the farthest thing from it.
“I hope I don’t seem bitter,” he told me. “I was an angry young man, or at least the public perceived that I was going to ruin the baseball that they knew. Since my case, the opposite has been true. Since free agency, since players became eligible to move, not at will, but in a reasonable length of time, baseball has grown. Baseball never made more money, never drew more people, never has been more successful than it has been over the last 20 years or so.
“I played 15 years in baseball. I had a wonderful life because of it. I made wonderful friends in the game. When I left the major leagues, the major leagues didn’t leave me. Teammates, roommates have been my friends for 30 going on 40 years. Orlando Cepeda called me to ask me about a car. Ozzie Smith gave me a call because he was coming to town. My friends, guys like Bob Gibson or Joe Torre, are still in the game. They’re more than names to me. You have to understand how much [the strike and labour disputes in 1994] hurt me. But I wouldn’t do or conspire to do anything that would do harm to my friends and something that I love as much as baseball.”
The UBL didn’t even get as far as the Senior Professional Baseball Association, didn’t even get as far as naming teams and Opening Day. Order was restored the next spring and the game came alive in all the famous ballparks with all the famous ballplayers, none who could love baseball as unconditionally as Curt Flood.
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