Posted: Monday April 3, 2006 11:53AM; Updated: Monday April 3, 2006 5:05PM
Flood was a particularly conscientious man, acutely aware and sensitive to the political and social realities beyond the baseball field. He was also a man shaped by the times in which he played, and his professional career almost perfectly book-ended the civil rights era. His first Spring Training camp came only months after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Birmingham bus and he was traded in October 1969.
"I'm a man of the '60s," he later told documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. "During that period of time this country was coming apart at the seams ... To think that merely because I was a professional baseball player, I could ignore what was going on outside the walls of Busch Stadium ... All of those rights that these great Americans were dying for, I didn't have in my own profession."
Flood was a part of the second generation of black ball players that were allowed to play in the majors, many of whom were willing to be more political than the trailblazers, Jackie Robinson notwithstanding. "The generation of Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson paved the way for black athletes," says sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards, "but the black athletes in the '60s wanted something more than the right to play alongside white athletes: they demanded respect." While Flood may have seemed an unlikely revolutionary figure -- he didn't have the stature of Muhammad Ali, wasn't an outspoken icon like Bill Russell or Jim Brown, or even a soft-spoken figure like Arthur Ashe -- his actions were completely in line with his character as a player.
Flood had always been a team-oriented man. During the peak of his career, when he regularly hit .300 he often batted behind Lou Brock and learned to take pitches so that Brock could swipe second. He studied how to hit the ball behind the runner from Dick Groat, and flourished at an unselfish brand of play. Moreover, he played hurt, always hustled and sacrificed points of on his batting average to help the team. Had he been white, he would have been Pete Rose without the showboat hustle, the kind of overachieving underdog that fans love.
His toughness is self-evident when you consider that he was 18 and 19 when he arrived for his first two years of professional ball in the minor leagues. Flood played in South Carolina, where he would be the league's MVP, and then Georgia at a time when the Southern recalcitrance to Brown vs Board of Education began to swiftly intensify. Flood's experiences cut him deeply. "I am pleased God made my skin black," he would later write in his autobiography The Way It Is, "I only wish He had made it thicker."
At 5-foot-8, 155 pounds, Flood was an undersized black man who had not only made it but fashioned an all star career on a championship team. He was one of the greatest defensive center fielders to ever play the game. And Flood was popular in St. Louis with both the fans and the media. A talented portrait painter, he was not someone the public expected to be a radical.
One of the greatest ironies of Flood's story was that he embodied the American Dream that he was later accused of having no regard for. He achieved success through hard work and resilience and he possessed a combination of toughness and vulnerability which enabled him to thrive on the field as well as take on Major League Baseball off it.
Ultimately it was Flood's vulnerability and thoughtfulness that prompted his risky lawsuit. It would be that same vulnerability that made the lawsuit's failure and the repercussions he faced all the more devastating. "Do you know what it means to go against the grain in this country," Flood told Esquire in the late seventies. "Your neighbors hate you. Do you know what it's like to be called the little black son of a bitch who tried to destroy baseball, the American Pastime?"
Intellectually, Flood understood that defeating baseball in the courts was a long shot, yet emotionally he was ill-equipped to handle the consequences his actions would have, and the sensitive man was crushed as he was portrayed as an ungrateful black upstart -- some considered him Miller's dupe -- whose sole intent was self serving and designed in effect to ruin the National Pastime. He would leave the country for five years, mired in alcoholism, paranoia and hurt feelings. When he returned to the States, the players had finally won their freedom, but it would still take years for Flood's life to stabilize.
"People try to make a Greek tragedy out of my life and they can't do it," Flood said with a smile to Joan Ryan of The San Francisco Chronicle in 1995. "I have never felt I gave up too much. All the things I got from it, they're all intangibles. They're all inside me. Yes, I sacrificed a lot -- the money, maybe even the Hall of Fame -- and you weigh that against all the things that are really and truly important that are deep inside you, and I think I succeeded.
"I did it because I believed in the American dream. I believed that if you were right that nine smart men on the Supreme Court would say that."
He was wrong about that, but right about so much more.
Alex Belth is the founder and co-author of Bronx Banter. His biography of Curt Flood, "Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights," is available on Amazon.com.