The Man Who Freed the Baseball Players

GEORGE F. WILL

November 22, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

New York. -- Curt Flood, a 165-pound whippet of a center fielder, could outrun most fly balls but it took him 24 years to catch up to his 1969 Gold Glove award.

His story is rich with lessons about courage, freedom and the conceit that we can predict freedom's consequences.

He had a career batting average of .293 in 15 seasons, 12 with the Cardinals. But nothing so became him in baseball as his manner of leaving it. Although he played 13 games with the 1971 Senators, he really left after the 1969 season when the Cardinals traded him to Philadelphia and he said hell no, I won't go.

Black ballplayers have done much to move freedom forward. In 1944, 11 years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, a lieutenant in Texas faced a court-martial for a similar refusal on an Army bus: Lt. Jackie Robinson. A similar spiritedness made Mr. Flood help win for players the elemental right to negotiate with employers their terms of employment.

He was born in Houston in 1938 and played his way up through minor leagues in the South in the 1950s, before public accommodations were desegregated. He received food at the back door of restaurants that served his white teammates and he relieved himself behind the bus on the shoulder of the highway.

In the 1950s and 1960s pitchers were driven to distraction by black players such as Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson who played with an implacable intensity that suggested the controlled venting of indignation stored up during many minor-league and spring-training experiences in a South in transition. The Cardinals of the 1960s were fueled partly by the fierce pride of four black men who were taking out their anger on the ball and on opponents -- Mr. Flood, Bill White (now president of the National League) and two Hall of Famers, Lou Brock and Bob Gibson, the take-no-prisoners pitcher who once drilled the ribs of a rookie who had the impertinence to hit a long foul off him.

When the Cardinals traded Mr. Flood, he challenged baseball's reserve clause which bound a player to a team until that team traded or released him. Seeking to win for players the right to sell their labor in a free market, he challenged baseball's anti-trust exemption. He lost the 1970 season and lost in the Supreme Court, but he had lit a fuse.

In 1975 the clause was overturned by an arbitrator. Loud were the lamentations predicting the end of baseball's competitive balance -- a few rich teams would buy the best players -- and a decline of attendance. Well.

The decade 1978-87 was the first in baseball history in which 10 different teams won the World Series. Until 1990 there had been no ''worst-to-first'' volatility in this century -- no team won a pennant the year after finishing last. The Twins and Braves did in 1991 and the Phillies did in 1993. The 1993 A's were the first team since 1915 -- the A's Philadelphia ancestors -- to finish alone in last place the year after finishing first.

In 1993 the team with the worst attendance -- the Padres with 1,375,432 -- drew more fans than the St. Louis Browns drew in the entire 1930s (1,184,436). The Orioles' lowest attendance for two consecutive regularly scheduled games was 83,307 -- more than the Browns (who became the Orioles in 1954) drew in all of 1935.

In 1954, the year Jacques Barzun wrote that anyone who would know America must know baseball, the average attendance was 13,000. This year the Padres averaged 17,191 and the major-league average was 31,337. The Rockies drew 4,483,350, more people than live in Minnesota or 31 other states. Major-league attendance was 70,257,938, more than the combined population of 32 states.

But no one last year bought a ticket to see an owner. Because of what Mr. Flood started, the players, who largely create baseball value, now receive their share of that value. In 1969 the players' average salary was $24,909. In 1993 it was $1.1 million, much more than Curt Flood earned in his entire career.

Rawlings Gold Gloves are awarded annually to the nine players in each league voted best defensively at their positions. Mr. Flood won in 1969, when this could have been said of him: ''Two-thirds of the planet is covered by water and the rest is covered by Flood.'' But in the turbulence of his rebellion he never collected his glove. He got it here last week at this year's award ceremony.

He once said, ''I am pleased that God made my skin black, but I wish He had made it thicker.'' Friends of baseball, and of freedom, are pleased that He didn't.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.