A Pioneer: Curt Flood Made Huge Impact In Baseball, Sports

By Joseph A. Reaves
Updated: October 24, 2006

ARIZONA — The last time the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers met in the World Series, one play – one screaming line drive – decided the championship.

It also helped make multimillionaires of Magglio Ordoñez and Albert Pujols.

The play came in the top of the seventh inning of a scoreless Game 7 pitchers’ duel between Detroit’s Mickey Lolich and future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson.

With two on and two outs, Gibson gave up back-to-back singles by Norm Cash and Willie Horton.

The next batter, Jim Northrup, laced a line drive that Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood misplayed into a two-run triple. Flood, a seven-time Gold Glove winner named “The Best Centerfielder in Baseball” by Sports Illustrated, broke in on the ball, watched it sail over his head and stumbled retrieving it at the wall.

Those two runs were all the Tigers needed en route to a 4-1 win and their first World Series title since besting the Cubs in seven in 1945.

Flood, a fixture in center field between Lou Brock and Roger Maris, got over his mistake.

Cardinals owner Gussie Busch never did.

One year later, after Flood won yet another Gold Glove committing just four errors all season, the Cardinals traded him to Philadelphia.

Officially, the Cardinals claimed the 31-year-old outfielder was beyond his prime and far too expensive at $90,000 a year.

Unofficially, word was August Busch Jr. still was stewing over Flood’s mistake.

The seven-player trade sent Flood, pitcher Joe Hoerner, outfielder Byron Browne and the television analyst for this year’s World Series, catcher Tim McCarver, to Philadelphia for slugger Dick Allen, shortstop Cookie Rojas and pitcher Jerry Johnson.

The gutsy challenge

At least, that’s what was supposed to happen. Flood refused to go.

St. Louis was the southernmost city in the major leagues at a time when racial strife still was tearing apart the country. But the Cardinals were an enlightened team with players insisting on integrated housing in spring training.

Philadelphia was then, as it is now, a city with tough fans, not all of whom were particularly tolerant. Flood called it the “northernmost southern city” in the nation.

When Flood refused to be traded, he changed baseball forever. He filed suit on Jan. 16, 1970, claiming the reserve clause, which bound players to their teams and prevented them from offering their services to any other club, made him nothing more than a “well-paid slave.”

Flood and his attorney, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, lost the suit at the District Court level and by a 5-3 vote on appeal to the Supreme Court.

But federal judge Irving Ben Cooper urged baseball to begin negotiations between players and owners to change the reserve clause.

By 1972, owners agreed to arbitration.

By 1975, baseball had its first two free agents.

A loss was a victory

This season, 36 years after Flood filed suit, Ordoñez made $16.2 million. Pujols got $14 million to play for Flood’s old Cardinals.

Flood paid a heavy price for taking on the baseball establishment. He got little support from the public or the sporting press.

He sat out the 1970 season and played just 13 games in 1971 for the Washington Senators, who received the rights to Flood from Philadelphia in return for three no-name players who never made it to the Phillies roster. He said he felt so much “ill-will” from fans and from baseball that he couldn’t take it anymore.

Flood left the United States and practiced his passion for painting in Europe awhile, then came home and spent one season as a broadcaster for the Oakland A’s.

In 1997, he died of throat cancer at the age of 59. He’d been a heavy smoker all his life.

At his funeral, Flood was compared with Rosa Parks, the great lady who ignited the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a White man.

“He was a great man,” former Giants infielder Tito Fuentes said standing before the casket. “I’m sorry that so many of the young players who made millions, who benefited from his fight, are not here. They should be here.”

They should have. And Curt Flood should be in the Hall of Fame. He was a great man.