Reclaiming Curt Flood; Reclaiming Baseball

By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Updated: June 29, 2006

NEW YORK — Growing up in New York in the 1960s meant sports, and sports in the spring, summer and fall, meant baseball if you had a field to play in, or stickball if you did not.

There was no other way.

It meant baseball cards, and as an African American, it meant intense pride in the accomplishments of African American baseball players.

As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, and as the 1970s turned into the 1980s, not only in New York, but around the country there developed something of a disconnect between African Americans and baseball.

An increasing number of Afro-Latino ballplayers came to the USA, bringing an enthusiasm and dynamism that strengthened the sport, while at the same time, the African American baseball player and fan seemed to be slowly stepping back into the recesses.

There are many ironies in the evolution of baseball and Black America. While Jackie Robinson broke the color line in the Major Leagues in 1947, another African American, just as great but not as well remembered – Curt Flood – was instrumental in the transformation of Major League Baseball and the ‘liberation’ of the players.

Before Curt Flood’s famous challenge in the early 1970s, baseball players, irrespective of color, were bound to their teams like indentured servants by something called the “reserve clause.” Flood, recognizing the fundamental injustice of this shackle, took this on in a lawsuit which came to be known as Flood v Kuhn.

While Curt Flood lost these suits, it ultimately set the stage for the elimination of the reserve clause and the advent of “free agency,” the system that we have come to know.

Despite the righteousness of his cause, and despite his death in 1997, Curt Flood has never been forgiven by the titans of the baseball industry. His audacity has kept Flood, an outstanding ballplayer by everyone’s judgment, out of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Repeated appeals to the Hall of Fame for Flood’s inclusion have gone nowhere and have been treated to both silence and contempt.

Flood’s challenge to Major League Baseball was both an act of outstanding courage, as well as a thrust coming from Black America’s love affair with the sport of baseball. Baseball had been an important, if not critical, component of African American culture since the beginnings of baseball itself.

After having been excluded from what came to be known as Major League Baseball during the racial cleansing of the sport in the late 19th century, African Americans went on to found the legendary “Negro Leagues” which produced some of the most dazzling players the sport has ever seen (people such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell Baseball that kept the Black ballplayer outside the so-called mainstream. ).

Black America took great pride in the Negro Leagues while at the same time waging a relentless struggle against the white supremacist restrictions of Major League.

Black America began to lose its affection for baseball sometime in the 1970s. There were probably several contributing factors. As the cities began to witness so-called revitalization, land became a premium.

It does not take much land to have a basketball court, but it does to have a baseball field. Thus, the land was sacrificed in the name of real estate development and it became more and more difficult to introduce a new generation to the sport, since there was no where to play.

Second, as right-wing tax cuts strangled the public sector, schools had to make very difficult choices as to what sports – if any – to keep, and soon baseball was being eliminated as a precursor to the elimination of most sports.

Third, the price of tickets to Major League games skyrocketed. Once upon a time, baseball was a working class sport. Over time the price of tickets rose significantly, with the owners placing more of a priority on skyboxes and new, expensive stadiums, than on the accessibility of baseball to working class constituents.

A final possible factor is pure, gut speculation which I derive from my parents’ attitude toward the Dodgers. My parents will never be able to root for the “Los Angeles” Dodgers, nor will they ever permit me or my sister (or our children) to, even if we should move to California and live at Normandy and Wilshire in LA.

The feelings that many people of my parents’ generation (particularly from New York) hold concerning the betrayal represented by the disgraceful desertion of New York by the formerly Brooklyn Dodgers, probably sowed the seeds of a disconnect that has never been repaired.

The move by the Dodgers and Giants reminded all fans that the baseball owners had no loyalty to the communities that supported them; only loyalty to the almighty dollar.

Yet, this is a sport that was more central to Black America than any other, a true team sport with players like Robinson and Flood, as well as countless others we shall never remember.

We should reclaim baseball because, more than anything else, it was a battleground for our dignity; a battleground where we proved to be victorious despite all of the racist obstacles put in our path.

Reclaiming baseball is not only about encouraging our children to play in and follow the sport, but to reclaim the heritage of the courageous players like Curt Flood. Flood put the demand for dignity and justice in front of his career, and paid a stiff price.

In reclaiming baseball, and reclaiming figures like Curt Flood, we are in essence saying, “…brother, we could not have done it without you; you were the right person at the right moment…”