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Mudville: May 28, 2024 12:44 pm PDT

Curt Flood, Jr. II

"You know, they said that free agency would ruin baseball. That didn’t happen at all."

When it comes to figuring out who should and shouldn’t be in the baseball Hall of Fame, one barometer some like to use is whether or not you would stop at a plaque to explain that player’s career to a young fan who may just be learning the sport’s history.

It’s easy enough to pass the plaques of guys like Jessie Haines, Chick Hafey, Freddie Lindstrom and Ross Youngs with nothing more than a polite nod, but when you come across Hank Aaron or Joe DiMaggio, you’re stopping and spending some time there.

Curt Flood doesn’t have a plaque yet, but one day if he does, you can bet fans and players alike who visit the gallery will stop and contemplate the incredible impact he had on not just baseball, but on American sports in general.

We’d also hope those future fans would come away saying, “Wow, Flood was a damn good ballplayer too.”

Curt Flood Jr. joins us for this week’s Spitballin’ to discuss his dad’s playing career and Hall of Fame candidacy in Part 2 of this two-part special.

Last week we looked at Flood’s lawsuit against Major League Baseball and how his challenge of baseball’s reserve clause laid the groundwork for free agency in all sports and much more.

Flood played at a time when the talent among Major League outfielders was nearly unfathomable. His contemporaries included Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Billy Williams, Willie Stargell, Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson and Lou Brock; and that’s just in the National League.

Standing out among that crowd may seem like an impossible task, but Flood certainly did. He was a seven-time Gold Glove Award winner, three time All-Star and received MVP votes in six of the eight seasons in which he had at least 500 plate appearances, finishing as high as fourth in fourth in 1968. He was also one of the main catalysts on three Cardinals World Series teams, two of which ultimately won rings.

For more perspective, Flood ranked fifth in hits for the entire decade of the 1960s. His 1,690 hits put him ahead of the aforementioned Robinson, Williams, Mays and Brock in addition to Ernie Banks, Al Kaline, Carl Yastrzemski, Orlando Cepeda and so many other stars of the era.

It’s important to also note that for 27% of his career at bats, Flood batted second in the lineup, often behind Lou Brock. How many at bats did Flood have to sit there and take pitches waiting for Brock to steal? That also came in an era where it was the responsibility of the number two batter to cut the field in half and hit behind the runner at second to advance him.

Even within those restrictive situations, Flood batted .302 in the pitching-dominant era from 1961-1969. Keep in mind that at the time he was blackballed from the sport as a result of his lawsuit, he was just 31 years old and still producing as a top-of-the-lineup batter and Gold Glove centerfielder.

The message here is that when Flood’s plaque is one day hanging in Cooperstown, it will be one to stop at and take some time to read and appreciate. The headline will be the sacrifices he made so future athletes could benefit from free agency, but you’ll come away being just as impressed at how great of a player he really was.

Flood covered a lot of ground in centerfield at Busch Stadium and we have just as much to cover today as we go Spitballin’ with Curt Flood Jr.

“People will say, ‘Look at all those stolen bases Lou Brock had,’ but nobody looked at the guy behind him that helped him do that.”

Thanks for joining us again this week. Really enjoyed talking about your dad’s legacy off the field last week, and now we’re ready to take a look at just how good of a ballplayer he was. I’m just gonna start right with this statement that I fully agree with. You can’t tell the story of Major League Baseball without Curt Flood. I am sure you’ve heard that plenty of times. What are your thoughts?

Thank you for that. They say that the history is incomplete without his presence in the Hall of Fame and I agree. There’s a glaring continuity issue when telling the story of baseball through the Hall of Fame. He’s literally been passed over 20 times and most recently the Historical Oversight Committee passed him over on this year’s ballot and I don’t get it. It’s just beyond my comprehension at this point. Obviously, the Baseball Writers Association shares a symbiotic relationship with Major League Baseball. It’s their job to write about the sport from an objective position, however, they don’t want to lose their seat at the table. The same goes with Cooperstown. They’re an adjunct of Major League Baseball.

That’s a great point. He wasn’t even among the group that was being voted on. I don’t get it either. It was a large class this year and some names got cleared off the ballot, so maybe there’s hope for the future.

You know, they had labor issues brewing this year when it was ultimately decided who was going to be on the ballot and when the voting happened. I’m not an Oliver Stone conspiracy type of guy, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he did not get on the ballot right before what turned out to be a really heated and testy labor dispute. It would seem to me that it would be bad optics having him on the ballot this year. God forbid on December 5 they announced that he made the Hall of Fame three days after the owners locked out the players. I can’t prove that, but it’s ridiculous that the baseball writers and the “Historical Oversight Committee” would leave him off the ballot.

It’s crazy and disappointing to think that after fifty years, there’s still animosity from Major League Baseball towards your dad. Do you think that could ever change?

I actually had a conversation with Rob Manfred a couple of years ago going into when they were voting on the Golden Era players. I reached out to them and got Rob Manfred on the phone. He asked what he could do for me and I said, “It’s been fifty years. My family and I would like to do a reset with Major League Baseball. Let’s put whatever acrimony there has been in the past.” I said I would love for Major League Baseball to begin looking at my dad’s career with the same lens they look at Jackie Robinson’s career. There was a long pause and he said, “You know I have the utmost respect for your father, but not everybody agrees about his legacy.” The conversation kind of went south from there.

You know, they said that free agency would ruin baseball. That didn’t happen at all. Free agency didn’t ruin baseball as everybody had forecasted. It’s only made the game better. It has made the game more competitive and baseball has never been healthier financially throughout the history of the sport. I just don’t get it.

Your dad only had eight seasons with more than 500 at bats and had an incredible amount of accomplishments during that short time. Where do you start when talking about your dad’s career on the field?

You know, I think Bob Gibson put it best when talking about my dad playing centerfield. He said watching Curt Flood’s catches in centerfield was like watching a pretty girl walking down the street; each one was prettier than the next! I saw a recent graphic that showed the players who had the most hits between 1960 and 1969. My dad had the fifth most hits. The only guys with more were Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Maury Wills and Vada Pinson.

That’s some incredible company, especially considering the guys he’s ahead of. Between the court case and his Gold Glove defense, people might forget how good of a hitter your dad was, but he was one of the best of his era.

He was a terrific hitter and was a power hitter in the minors. He was hitting home runs in High Point, North Carolina [29] and Savannah [14] but he didn’t have the power once he got to the big club. His teammate, George Crowe, pulled him aside and said, “Listen, young blood, you can’t swing for the fences like you did in the minors.” My dad credited him with teaching him to become a contact hitter and things took off from there.

That was a great Cardinals lineup and he was as good or better than any of the guys out there. If you look at the batting stats, they’re really impressive.

He also had the unenviable role of hitting behind Lou Brock. My dad was in the number two hole when Brock was leading off. When Brock got on base, as he did so often, what was my dad’s job? Take pitches to allow him to steal and then hit the other way to get him over. That led to a lot of taking or swinging at pitches that he might not have wanted to swing at or take. In essence, he had to sacrifice himself and his at bats a lot and he’s still up there with the fifth most hits in the decade. That’s a hell of a role to play and to play effectively. He’s got just as much invested in getting the runner over as he has getting on. People will say, “Look at all those stolen bases Lou Brock had,” but nobody looked at the guy behind him that helped him do that.

Baseball: Portrait of St. Louis Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst (2) with team (L-R) Mike Shannon (18), Bob Gibson (45), Roger Maris (9), Curt Flood (21), Dal Maxvill (27), Tim McCarver (15), Orlando Cepeda (30), Lou Brock (20), Julian Javier (25) posing in stands during team photo shoot at Civic Center Busch Memorial Stadium. St. Louis, MO 9/12/1968 CREDIT: Neil Leifer (Photo by Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

That’s really a great point and a perspective I didn’t think of. When you start thinking of all the factors like that, it makes your dad’s accomplishments even more impressive.

The other thing he had working against him was that my dad played half his career during the Jim Crow era. He came up in 1956 out of McClymonds High School in Oakland. The Reds signed him, Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson. They were all signed by the same guy for $4,000 each. Back then, there was no such thing as three Black players in the same outfield, so he was sent to High Point, North Carolina in the Carolina League at 18 years old and faced extreme racism and prejudice. He wasn’t allowed to dress in the same places or stay in the same hotels as the white players. They had built this corrugated area outside the clubhouse to get dressed in the sweltering summer heat. It was the same thing the next year when he played in Savannah, Georgia. That kind of thing wears on you; not being able to eat with your team, dress with your team or stay with them on the road. People were still drinking out of different water fountains back then.

That’s a sad reality to hear. There were still Major League teams that hadn’t integrated when your dad first broke into the league. I hadn’t thought about it until you mentioned it, but it had to be incredibly hard for your dad to be that successful during that era.  

Sometimes I get from people that my dad falls just short of the numbers required for Cooperstown. Let’s take a look at it. First, his career ended at 31 years old [when he sued Major League Baseball]. But let’s look at the years he did play. The 12 hours before my dad showed up to the ballpark were vastly different than the 12 hours the white players experienced before they showed up to the ballpark. Everything was different, from being able to hail a cab, to not being able to eat in certain restaurants, having to stay in substandard hotels without nice mattresses. Those were stressors that only the Black players dealt with. I’m talking specifically about the period from when my dad came up to the big club in 1958 and when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. That’s more than half of his career and he still put up stellar numbers.

Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals, May 1966.

That’s something that needs to be taken into account for sure. I always thought it was important not just to look at a player’s numbers, but to understand them in the context in which they happened. But I think people need to consider the off-field factors you mentioned as well.

Yes, and you had his manager Solly Hemus too, who was a notorious racist. He had told both my dad and Bob Gibson that they should probably find another line of work; that they wouldn’t amount to anything. In 1961 when Hemus was fired and was replaced by Johnny Keane, who was much more comfortable with Black players, my dad’s career took off. Hemus was fired that summer and from the end of June until the end of the season my dad hit [.347], so it gives you an idea of how toxic racism was in life. When you’re extricated out from under it, things can completely turn around for you. From that point when Hemus was fired, he went on to become the baseball player he would be known for the balance of his entire career.

When looking back at your dad’s playing career, how do you view the accomplishments that he was able to put up despite all of that?

I’d have to take a step back and say again that you have to look at the era between 1947 and 1965 through a different lens. The era between Jackie Robinson’s debut up to the Civil Rights Act. It’s got to be looked at differently, almost the way they give handicaps in golf. I talked about all the things my dad faced and that went for all Black ballplayers. How do you hamstring all those players and expect them to put up the same type of numbers as the white ballplayers? How are they supposed to excel like them when their experience off the field was so different? How can that be a valid measure for Cooperstown? For them to hold Black players from that era to the same standard as white ballplayers is unfair. If my dad played the bulk of his career after Jim Crow, I think he would have done even better.

You bring up a great point that there other Hall of Fame inductees who had their careers compromised for one reason and were still inducted. Some were injuries, military service, early retirement and other factors. Your dad’s case is so unique and then you add in the obstacles he faced due to racism and I think you really opened my eyes than about how the careers of Black players who played during Jim Crow should be viewed.

I know it’s hard to separate the race issue from it. Three years after my dad’s case was decided, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally [two white players] challenged the reserve clause and had the same exact argument as my dad. This time, they allowed an arbitrator to look at it. No one can tell me that as we sit here a hundred years after Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the language of the reserve clause that my dad would challenge it and narrowly lose in the Supreme Court, yet a scant three years later they would have a new turn of awareness and suddenly see the light. Race more than likely had to have an effect on it. The notion that my dad was this brown kid trying to do that didn’t help. In the very least it didn’t help and at worst, it could have been the reason he lost.

My dad was a 5’9”, 160 pounds soaking wet, chocolate brown guy challenging the lily-white American pastime. He was challenging Americana and supposedly threatening to destroy it. But it shouldn’t have been rebellious. It was America. You’re supposed to be able to offer your services to the highest bidder to be able to make your home. You should be able to market your services to test the free market. That’s not revolutionary stuff; that’s America. That’s what America is supposed to be; you’re supposed to be able to make the best living you can.      

That’s so well put. Thank you again for taking so much time to spend so much time talking about your dad. I’ve learned about and admired your dad since I was a kid learning the history of the game, so it’s just so awesome to talk to you and hear your perspective. I have loved all the stories you shared and hope one day your dad takes his rightful place in Cooperstown.

Let’s end on this; let’s say you ran into a Hall of Fame voter and had to give your elevator pitch supporting your dad’s Hall of Fame candidacy. What would it be?

If I had to make an elevator pitch, if would be that if Cooperstown is the place where the history of Major League Baseball is kept and if the voters are the caretakers of it, there is a continuity issue if my dad is kept out. With my dad’s contribution to the sport of baseball and all of sports being left out, there is a glaring and embarrassing gap in the history of Major League Baseball as told by the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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