Curt Flood story just broke my heart … again

July 19, 2011
By admin

It’s been a long time since a television program had the kind of impact on me that the recent Curt Flood documentary from HBO would elicit. Watching “The Curious Case of Curt Flood” last week just blew me away, in part because he had always been one of my favorite players when I was a teenager, but more precisely because of an odd addendum to his tragic story of having taken on the Major League Baseball establishment and then been quite brutally squashed and shoved aside for his efforts.

If you haven’t seen the amazing documentary, I would urge you to do so. I had, of course, read much about Flood’s historic challenge to baseball’s infamous “Reserve Clause” starting in 1969, and as a student of baseball history understood much about the importance of what he had done and the horrible, almost Shakespearean price that he paid in doing it.

The story is told so well and so passionately that it resonated with me once again to a remarkable degree. The narrative neatly detailed the early clashes that the All-Star centerfielder would have with the overt racism that bedeviled the country in the 1960’s, but the story seemed to sort of begin with the Jim Northrup triple in Game Seven of the 1968 World Series, the ball that somehow managed to elude the Gold Glove outfielder after a stumble. This was foreshadowing for a second half of his life that would be as tragic and dispiriting as anyone could conjure up.

After Flood held out for a $100,000 salary in the next year, Gussie Busch, the paternalistic owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, decided to trade his All-Star centerfielder to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood didn’t receive so much as a telephone call from Cardinals GM Bing Devine informing him of the move. After much deliberation, he filed an antitrust lawsuit against Major League Baseball for $1 million, challenging the game’s bizarre half-century status as somehow being exempt from antitrust legislation because the sport didn’t constitute interstate commerce.

I won’t take you through all the meanderings of the case up until the equally bizarre 1975 Supreme Court ruling that conceded that while MLB pretty clearly was, in fact, interstate commerce, the robed nine men solemnly intoned that it was Congress’ job to address the peculiar legal status of the sport, not the court’s. And so Flood had risked – and lost – the balance of a standout career trying to tear down a labor monstrosity that insisted that a ballplayer could be tied to an organization for his whole life without so much as a whisper of a say in the matter.

The tragic elements in Flood’s story had surfaced even before the fateful decision to take his employer to court, but accelerated with a vengeance once the hate mail from confused baseball fans started to come his way. He was drinking heavily, ultimately would abandon his young family, fled to Spain and later Italy to be free of the tumult that surrounded every facet of his life, including an ex-wife and a boatload of creditors demanding money that the unemployed centerfielder didn’t have.

And yet I was most taken in the HBO documentary by – to me – the truly curious revelation in his sad story. I had known from my many years in the sports memorabilia world of Flood’s remarkable painting ability, having seen some of his portraits sell for real money in some of the major sports auctions around the country. And so I was absolutely stunned to learn in the HBO feature that the whole thing had been a sham and that Flood had not actually been the painter of any of the pieces that bore his signature.

With all of the torture that Flood endured in the second half of his life, this was given a minor role in the HBO film, but I wonder if it doesn’t rate more. For a man of extraordinary athletic talent and grace – and no small measure of true artistic ability as well, just not as an oil painter – I can’t help but wonder if this seemingly peripheral aspect of his existential being wasn’t far more burdensome and debilitating than the documentary lets on.

“My dad didn’t have it in him to be a fraud,” Flood’s daughter seemingly implores the viewer to believe following the clips suggesting that he may have been just that. I don’t have the educational background to psychoanalyze Curt Flood or anybody else, for that matter, but I can’t help but think that posing as the creator of widely admired artwork is potentially a vastly more devastating blow to a man’s intrinsic sense of self than might have been presented here.

Like I said, I was simply blown away by that revelation. Doesn’t change my admiration for what Curt Flood did in standing up against the baseball establishment or the importance of his role in baseball history one teeny weenie little morsel. I deeply admire him and consider his to be a historically significant and courageous figure. Just a human one, too, and one who paid a far greater price for every choice he made in his life than most of us can ever imagine.
- T.S. O’Connell

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *