Curt Flood, Jr.
"When he was asked by Jackie Robinson to go to Mississippi and join him at an NAACP conference, he jumped at the opportunity. "
As the baseball world celebrates Jackie Robinson Day today, you’ll rightfully see many tributes about the legendary ballplayer’s impact on baseball and American history.
In the baseball world, you could count on one hand the people who should be mentioned along with Robinson as far as a transcendent impact not just on baseball, but on America and professional sports.
One of them is Curt Flood, the star centerfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals of the 1960s, who passed away in 1997.
Today we get some incredible perspective into the life of one of the most important people in American sports history as Curt Flood Jr. joins us for a special two-part Spitballin’.
Flood cast the first stone in fighting against Major League Baseball’s reserve clause at a time when that stone was more of a boulder and nobody else was willing to do it. After being traded to the Phillies, Flood sued Major League Baseball and the battle went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court sided with Major League Baseball by the slimmest of margins, but the wheels had been set in motion to change the game forever.
In doing so, Flood knowingly sacrificed a Major League career that had him on track for Hall of Fame consideration in order to fight for what he believed was right. He also knew that he would be doing so alone.
In the documentary The Curious Case of Curt Flood, the notoriously fearless Bob Gibson said, “Was I behind Curt? Absolutely. But I was about ten steps back just in case there was some fallout.”
In an interview at the time, Flood described his motivation for the case.
Flood said, “What I want out of this thing is to give every ballplayer the chance to be a human being and to take advantage of the fact that we live in a free and democratic society and he should have some choice.”
For perspective on how big a sacrifice he was making, take a look at Flood’s accomplishments up to the point of the trade.
He was a seven-time Gold Glove Award winner, had five top-15 MVP finishes and was a two-time World Series champion. Flood’s 1,690 hits in the 1960s was the fifth-highest total in the National League for the decade, ahead of Hall of Famers like Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Billy Williams and Ernie Banks among others.
This was all accomplished through his age-31 season, the same age Mike Trout will be at the conclusion of this season.
As baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on the 75th anniversary of his debut, let’s also remember the legacy of Flood. When Flood sued Major League Baseball, only one player, past or present, testified in support of him. That was Jackie Robinson.
The two had a history together that went beyond Flood idolizing Robinson as a young baseball fan. Their paths actually crossed briefly as players when an 18-year-old Flood pinch ran in a game for the Reds against Robinson and the Dodgers. It was the fourth Major League game Flood ever appeared in and Robinson would only appear in 11 more games in his career.
Six years later in 1962, Robinson invited a small group of Black athletes to an NAACP rally in Mississippi.
Flood’s complex tale is full of greatness on the field and historical significance outside the lines. In the opinion of many, the impact he had on the sport is up there with names like Ruth, Robinson and Clemente.
Join us as we start to explore his dad’s legacy as we go Spitballin’ with Curt Flood, Jr.
” Bob (Gibson) comes in wearing an overcoat and a hideous rubber mask. He goes about scaring the shit out of us and he just ate it up.”
Mr. Flood, it’s an absolute honor to talk to you about your dad and your perspective on his career and legacy. As someone who loves and appreciates baseball history, this is just incredible. We’ll talk a lot about your dad, but I want to learn your story too. How far back do you have memories with your dad?
I can go back to probably three years old and living in St. Louis with my siblings. My grandparents were restauranteurs. They owned a night club called the Toast of the Town. It was where top Black acts of the segregated St. Louis era would perform. This included performers like Ike and Tina Turner, Nancy Wilson, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and many more. My mom worked there and that’s where the Black ballplayers would hang out at night. That’s where my mom and dad met. My dad was 19 and she was 18 and they got married a year later. She had two children from a previous marriage and my dad adopted them.
But yes, my earliest memory was back from when I was a three-year-old precocious child. I would watch my dad in the morning. He would come down and sit at the breakfast table and read the paper with his coffee. He had this routine every morning with the cream and the sugar. One morning I was up before him and I replaced the sugar with salt. He came down and I sat there and waited. He went through the routine and poured mounds of sugar in his coffee and stirred it. He finally took a sip and the look on his face was priceless. Then he got it. He looked at me like, “You little…” That’s my first memory of being conscious with him.
Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals, May 1966.
I watched the documentary The Curious Case of Curt Flood and thought it was great. There was a part of your childhood they covered when your family moved to California but once the owner of the house found out you were Black, he threatened to shoot your family if you moved in. Your dad went to court and won and injunction and were able to move in. Do you have a memory of that?
I remember that vividly. It was after the 1964 World Series when they beat the Yankees in seven. My parents had a lease to buy a home outside of Oakland where he grew up in a town called Alamo. It was a ranch-style home with a swimming pool. Interestingly enough, the footage they showed in the documentary showed the front of the house and the front living room curtains. I was actually looking out the window as a four-and-a-half year old as the cameras were rolling.
Do your baseball memories with him go back that far as well?
Going to the ballpark and being conscious of it, probably in 1965 and 1966. I was five and six years old and we’d go into the clubhouse. I was hell on wheels. His Cardinals teammates gave me the nickname “Little Greenie,” which was the pep pill players would take. They called me Little Greenie because I would bounce off the walls in there. It was a lot of fun. My brother and I would go to Spring Training every year through 1968 and that was an absolute blast. It was a lot of fun. The smell of pine tar, the grass, baseball glove leather; all of that immediately takes me back. There was a wall of candy in the locker room. It was paradise for a kid.
Curt Flood #21 of the St. Louis Cardinals slides into second base against the Boston Red Sox during the World Series in October 1967 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. The Cardinals won the series 4-3. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
It had to be, especially considering the guys on the club. Were there any players who were your favorites?
I had fun with Vada Pinson. He would chase me around the clubhouse with a pair of scissors because my Afro was too big. With Bob Gibson, I don’t know if you’re ever had any encounters with him, but everything they say about him was true! Everything they say about him being mean and singularly focused on himself. In 1966, we were down in Spring Training and in a new hotel that Augie Busch moved the team into because the previous one wouldn’t allow Black people.
Bob and my dad were roommates on the road in the early days. Their rooms at the hotel in Spring Training were connected with this door. My dad told us he had this friend that he wanted us to meet, but the guy was in an accident. My dad said his face was disfigured and told us not to stare at him. For a little kid, nothing makes sense, but we said, “OK.” So there was a knock on the adjoining door. My dad said that it must be his friend and opened the door. Bob comes in wearing an overcoat and a hideous rubber mask. He goes about scaring the shit out of us and he just ate it up.
That’s hysterical! Bob Gibson is scary enough on his own, let alone wearing a scary mask. What a great story.
You know, years later we were at an Old Timers Game and we were sitting at a table with Bob. I said, “Bob, do you remember in Spring Training when you scared the shit out of us with that mask. He just looked at me and said, “Never happened.” I looked at Bob with complete fascination. I remember at one of Randy Hundley’s sports fantasy camps. My dad, Bob and I were sitting on a bench at the old Busch Stadium and there was a little kid leaning over the railing saying, “Mr. Gibson! Mr. Gibson! Can I please get an autograph?” It went on and on and I’m thinking, “Jesus, would you respond to this kid?” The kid says, “Mr. Gibson, we drove 300 miles to see you!” Bob finally turns around, looks at the kid and was like, “You didn’t even know I was gonna be here!” I was like, “Wow!” But he was just that kind of guy.
(L-R) Casual portrait of St. Louis Cardinals Roger Maris (9), Tim McCarver (15), Bob Gibson (45), Mike Shannon (18), Lou Brock (20), Orlando Cepeda (30), Curt Flood (21), Julian Javier (25), Dal Maxvill (27), and manager Red Schoendienst in locker room. St. Louis, MO 9/12/1968 CREDIT: Neil Leifer (Photo by Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)
Were there any other players you have these great stories with too?
Tim McCarver. His locker was next to my dad’s. I was fascinated that he kept a turtle shell in his locker. It actually turned out to be his protective baseball cup. I always thought it was a tortoise shell though. One day I went to reach for it and he pushed me away. I had the chance to recount that story to Tim about six months ago. We did a symposium for the University of Maryland’s Shirley Povich Center for Sports and I told him the story, but he didn’t remember it.
Good move by McCarver saving you on that! I had one more question about your childhood. Did you play sports growing up and how was your experience doing so as Curt Flood’s son?
I played baseball from tee ball through high school and also played football those same ages. I sucked at tee ball and I sucked in minors baseball, but between the ages of 10 and 11, something happened. I really became a good little ballplayer. I began to love football more than I loved baseball though. I always played baseball, but it was more of a routine. I loved football. In high school, girls go to football games. They don’t go to baseball games.
That’s a great point! How was your career as a football player?
I went to Beverly Hills High School and was a wide receiver. My senior year in 1977-78, we had the best team in the history of our high school. We went to the CIF semifinals and were knocked off by Lompoc High School one game away from playing at the Coliseum in the finals. We had only lost one game in the season and we were playing against Morningside at Beverly Hills High School. Morningside was an all-Black school in Inglewood. They were beating us and there was about a minute and a half left in the game. I had just scored on this diving catch in the end zone. I came back the next series and did a routine down-and-out. I went up for the ball and got upended by two defensive backs and came down on my shoulder. I broke my humerus, broke my clavicle and fractured a bone in my back. I ended up in traction for ten days.
Fortunately, a kid on the B team’s dad was this renowned surgeon and he happened to be in the stands. He rode with me to the hospital in the ambulance. That was the end of my career. The guys I played with went on to play at Cal and other places, and their careers kind of all just petered out. When we get together, they’ll say, “Hey Flood, at least you went out with a bang!”
Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood works from a photo while doing an oil painting of a child in his St. Louis apartment. Also an artist in the field, Flood is called the wall-to-wall outfielder for the National League leading Red Birds. September 14, 1967
There’s so much to cover with your dad’s career and Hall of Fame candidacy, and we’ll get to that next week, but for now I wanted to get into the trade and the fight against the Reserve Clause. You were about nine or ten years old at the time. From your perspective, did you understand what was going on?
No, and it was on purpose. At that time, my mom couldn’t stand my dad, so any information that would have been supportive wouldn’t have filtered through to us. She remarried a man called Richard Johnson, an entertainment lawyer. We lived in what’s commonly referred to, and it’s really stupid, the Black Beverly Hills in Los Angeles. Windsor Hills View Park. Tina Turner lived three houses away, Ray Charles lived around the corner, Jim Gilliam lived a two minute walk from us, Tommy Davis lived about ten minutes away and Willie Davis lived next to him. Their kids were our age and I’m still friends with them. The Lakers players lived there too.
Seemingly everybody’s family had a unique story. Pops was playing baseball in St. Louis, so he was a little low on the celebrity totem pole for the neighborhood. It was a neighborhood that was robust with examples of extreme success. I didn’t know what was going on. It was fine that my dad didn’t come up in conversation so that I didn’t have to explain what was going on. There were plenty of diversions.
Was there a time where you did realize the historical significance your dad held?
It came later on. I was in the 11th grade or so and Flood v. Kuhn was in our History text book. We talked about it in class and then it got around the school that dad was in the History text book. Here I am at Beverly Hills High School where there was no shortage of celebrity kids and powerful people, and I got a measure of props for that.
With today being Jackie Robinson Day and the anniversary of his debut, I think it’s important to share with our readers the connection and relationship your dad had with Jackie Robinson. Could you talk about the relationship your dad had with him?
I wish I was 20 years older to know what it was like to be a kid and watch Jackie Robinson cross the color line and become a Big League ballplayer and have him as my idol. That’s how my dad saw him. I can only imagine that he was my dad’s everything. My dad adored baseball. That’s where he excelled. He was the runt of the family, but suddenly he found that he could play with kids who were two or three years older and play on their level. My dad worshipped the ground that Jackie played above and walked above.
When he was asked by Jackie Robinson to go to Mississippi and join him at an NAACP conference, he jumped at the opportunity. Fast forward to the Supreme Court case where Jackie and Hank Greenberg were the only people connected with baseball to support him. When Jackie came into the courtroom, it brought tears to my dad’s eyes. He was my dad’s everything.
This has been so fascinating to hear your perspective on your dad’s place in history and your stories as well. Next week will be great too as we dive into your dad’s playing days and his Hall of Fame candidacy, but for now I have just one more question. It’s my opinion, and I believe many others too, that the four most impactful people in shaping Major League Baseball history were Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood and Roberto Clemente. What is your reaction to hear a statement like that about your dad?
I think you hit it on the head. Those four figures would be the Mount Rushmore. I don’t want to sound as though Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith don’t have a place in it either though. My dad created a groundswell that became tsunami-like in very short order. All McNally and Messersmith had to do was stay on the surfboard. Stand up on the board and don’t fall off. The groundswell came at a cost not only to my dad, but my family as well. No man or woman should have had to gone through what he has and my family has. We continue to go through it with the insult of the Baseball Historical Oversight Committee passing him up for Hall of Fame consideration. That’s another slap in the face.
There was a deep cost [for suing Major League Baseball] and we paid the price. He paid the price. He lost his health, his family and his financial well-being. It broke him as a man. He came up and baseball was all he had. Baseball people were all he had and it was gone.