The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights
Posted: Monday April 3, 2006 11:39AM; Updated: Monday April 3, 2006 11:39AM
The following is an excerpt from Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights. Click here to order the book from Amazon.
Flood's strong showing in his first spring training was even more significant when considering that competition for spots on a major league roster was even fiercer than it is today -- especially for African Americans and Hispanics. At the time, there were only sixteen big league teams, not thirty, and many qualified utility players became lifelong minor leaguers because there wasn't room for them with the parent club. It was even tougher for a black player, who had little future as a backup and was often forced to play hurt for fear of being demoted or cut. Early in his minor league career, Frank Robinson was hit under the eye with a pitch and was hospitalized overnight. A couple of days later, he was back in the lineup.
In addition to enduring physical travails, black players endured constant verbal abuse from the fans. It was as much a part of their experience as learning how to hit a curve ball or getting knocked down with a brush-back pitch. The tension and volatility was palpable, as black players like Flood were showered with chants of "spook" and "nigger" on a regular basis, stomaching extreme hostility from people who should have been their supporters. Those players who endured and thrived had to possess not only talent but emotional fortitude as well.
Many young black players emulated the non-confrontational tact that Jackie Robinson adopted during his early years with the Dodgers. For those born in the South, like Ernie Banks, the great slugger for the Cubs, and Hank Aaron, who would become the all-time home run champion, the racist treatment they received didn't come as a surprise. (Still, the death threats Aaron received while playing in Montgomery, Alabama, can't have been easy to ignore.) Some players responded, though. Bill White, a slick fielding first baseman who would later play with Flood, was from Ohio. He did not suffer racist goons lightly. In 1953, White, then nineteen years old, was the only black player in the Carolina League. He yelled back at his hecklers. On one occasion, he gave the crowd the finger, and he and his teammates had to arm themselves with bats to protect themselves as they made their way to the team bus after the game.
One of Flood's first experiences playing in High Point-Thomasville involved a father and his four sons, all of whom had front row seats. The father instructed his boys to chant "black bastard" at Flood. For nine innings, he carefully monitored them to make sure they were doing it to his satisfaction. But worse than the abuse that Flood received from the fans was his neglect by virtually everyone on his team. Flood was used to getting support from his coaches. Now it was as if he didn't exist. And players, white and black, treated him with antipathy -- at the very least, he was competition for them. Flood was effectively frozen out of the social fabric of the team, and during the first few weeks of the season, he would return to his room at night and break down in tears.
The Hi-Toms, as the team was called, played eight games a week: one a day from Monday through Saturday, and a double header on Sunday. When the team traveled, Flood was restricted from eating in restaurants with his teammates. He would remain in the stifling bus, hot and sweaty, still in his dirty uniform, unable to join them. Flood had to go the back door of the kitchen to be served his dinner. Sometimes he wouldn't even be allowed to do that, and a teammate would bring him food on the bus. When the bus stopped at a gas station, Flood was not permitted to use the rest room. If he had to relieve himself, he would have to do so along the highway, where he would try to hide himself from the traffic along the side of the bus.
The road trips bothered some black players more than the catcalls at the ballpark. White players got to stay in air-conditioned hotels, while blacks stayed at a local version of Ma Felder's -- when they were lucky. At least that meant homecooked meals. The alternative was a local YMCA, which often had no shower. Even getting to and from the park could be an ordeal. White cabbies often refused to pick up black players, and even black cabbies would sometimes charge them more than they would white customers.
For Flood, the alienation, anxiety, and humiliation he experienced cut him deeply, but after the first few weeks he became accustomed to the isolation and developed into a cool customer. He showed little emotion, positive or negative. He simply played at full tilt and kept to himself. Being cool for a black man in the fifties was a posture, a way of expressing his disgust and anger at what he had to put up with without becoming unhinged. Black athletes couldn't be brash or outspoken if they valued their lives.
At times, Flood grew so frustrated with his estranged teammates that he even entertained the notion of sabotaging games by "accidentally" dropping a fly ball, just to spite them. He had too much professional pride to actually go through with this plan, and in the second half of the season, relations with his teammates relaxed somewhat. Performance is a great equalizer, and Flood was whaling the ball and playing well in the field. Perhaps because of his performance, Flood became more comfortable sticking up for himself as the season went along. One day, a young black boy ran onto the field during batting practice, swiped a ball from the field, and then ran off into the crowd -- a common occurrence. One of Flood's teammates shouted a racist remark at the kid. Without hesitation, Flood went up to the player and made it perfectly clear that he wasn't going to tolerate that kind of talk anymore. The teammate didn't exactly apologize, but he did back off. Flood also developed ways to cope with abusive fans. They're ignorant; they don't know any better, he'd think. He would imagine pitiable explanations for why these people felt the need to abuse him -- anything to keep the painful truth from breaking his spirit. It was essential to find a way to cope. Frank Robinson, for example, used to chant a mantra to himself: "Have a good year and get out of here, Have a good year and get out of here."
While the Hi-Toms found themselves in a pennant race late in the season, Flood went into a deep slump and saw his batting average drop to its lowest point of the year. By that point, he was utterly enervated from the heat, the rigorous schedule, and the tension of being a black player in the South. He had lost considerable weight, and was down to 135 pounds. Somehow, though, he recovered and batted close to .500 over the final three weeks of the season, leading his team to a first-place finish. (His game-winning home run on August 22 against the Wilson Tobs was a highlight.) Though the Hi- Toms were swept by Fayetteville in the playoffs, they'd had a great year.
Flood had had a great year, too -- so great, in fact, that he won the league's Player of the Year award for hitting .340 with 29 home runs and 128 runs scored. This caught the attention of the Reds, and in September, he was called up to the big league club. Flood's hard work had paid off: he was going to the majors.
The Reds had been a perennially lackluster team for over a decade, having finished no higher than third place in the National League in that time. In 1956, however, they were surprisingly good, led by power hitters Ted Kluszewski, Wally Post, and the rookie Frank Robinson. In fact, the Reds had five players with more than twenty home runs, and the team tied a major league record for homers hit in a season with 221. Robinson was sensational, batting .290 with 38 home runs and 122 runs scored. He was the clear choice for the National League Rookie of the Year award. Cincinnati also set a club record for attendance, drawing 1,125,928 fans. The team competed with the Milwaukee Braves and the Brooklyn Dodgers all season but finally fell apart in mid-September.
Flood arrived with the Reds just as the team was running out of steam, but it didn't matter much to him. While the Reds players and their fans were deflated by how the season was ending, it was a charged atmosphere for Flood. In the majors, the balls were whiter, the uniforms crisper, and the lights brighter. Tens of thousands of fans packed the stadiums. The teams traveled by plane, not some old bus with cigarette holes in the upholstery. Players didn't need to tend to their own uniforms before and after the game. They didn't pack or carry their bags either. Somebody did that for them. After the game, instead of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and maybe some candy bars, there was a spread -- cold cuts, cheese, fruit, juices, and pastries. And they didn't have to buy their own beer. It was already there, cold, waiting for them. When the Reds were in New York to play the Giants for a two-game series on September 11 and 12, Flood wrote letters on hotel stationary to his family, Powles, Bercovich, and Chambers, boasting about his big league life.
Flood's first major league appearance came in St. Louis on Sunday, September 9. In a 6-5 loss, Flood pinch-ran for catcher Smokey Burgess in the eighth inning and was left stranded on base. Three days later, at the Polo Grounds in New York, he struck out as a pinch hitter against Johnny Antonelli, the Giants ace, in his first major league at-bat. After that, he would have just a few uneventful appearances as a pinch runner before the end of the season, but whatever disappointment he felt about his quiet debut was overshadowed by his excitement at simply being a major leaguer.
As the season ended, Flood was called in to see the Reds general manager Gabe Paul to discuss next year's contract. The meeting was to be his first real encounter with baseball's reserve system -- a lopsided, owner-friendly framework that eliminated any leverage a player, black or white, had when it came to negotiating his contract. The key to the reserve system lay in paragraph 10a of the players' standard contract. This clause, known as the option clause or reserve clause, stated that if a team and its player could not come to terms on a new contract, the club could simply renew the previous contract for an additional year without the player's consent. Since teams customarily signed players to one-year deals at the time, they could invoke the reserve clause indefinitely. What's more, by contract they could cut a player's salary up to 25 percent in the process. The players were powerless. Their only alternative was to retire.
Baseball's imbalanced system had an explanation: the sport was exempt from the antitrust laws that bound other industries. In 1922, a Supreme Court ruling, Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore, Inc. v National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, claimed that while baseball was a business, it was not interstate commerce and therefore was not subject to antitrust laws. In a decision that would become infamous, the acclaimed Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that baseball, driven by "personal effort, not related to production, is not a subject of commerce." The ruling was absurd. It allowed the owners to get away with murder. The players had no right of self-determination.
In his meeting with Paul, Flood reminded the general manager of how well he had performed. He thought his numbers spoke for themselves, and he expected a raise. As Flood recited each of his statistics, Paul frowned and shook his head. He told Flood that while the Reds were pleased with his progress, the organization was not in a position to offer him a bigger contract for 1957. Paul explained that the club was experiencing a financial crunch but that if Flood was smart and continued to work hard, there was room for advancement in the organization. He urged Flood to be patient and to see that his time would eventually come. In the meantime, Flood was offered the same money for 1957 that he earned in 1956: $4,000, take it or leave it. He signed, and his unsentimental education in the world of baseball contract negotiations had begun.
Flood's first year in professional baseball had left him drained as well as disillusioned. Still, when the Reds sent him to the Dominican Republic winter league to continue his seasoning -- standard practice with promising young players -- he was obliged to go. However, Flood didn't have much pep left in him at that point, and he was cut and sent home after only a few weeks. He was too exhausted to care how this would look on his resume. He was relieved to go home.