Sadly, I might have forgotten Flood, too, if the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum hadn’t brought his name to my mind. Raymond Doswell, the museum’s curator, announced plans a few weeks ago for an educational program in Kansas City next month to discuss Flood.
Doswell has titled his two-day program “A Supreme Decision: The Curt Flood Symposium.”
His title hit the bull’s-eye. For any man to do what Curt Flood, a star ballplayer for the St. Louis Cardinals, did is to make a supreme decision. Instead of accepting convention, Flood challenged it.
In 1969, he decided to fight the “reserve clause,” a longstanding baseball policy that had bound players to a franchise for eternity or until a team owner decided the player had no value.
By the turn of the ’70s, slavery in America had ended a full century earlier, yet athletes – white, Black and Latino – were still held in bondage, the property of wealthy lords of the game who could move these men around like pieces on a chessboard.
But blood and sweat ought to be able to sell themselves for whatever buyers are willing to pay – and should be allowed to pick the place they want to bleed and to sweat. That’s how Flood looked at it, and he was determined to free himself from the most un-American-like contract possible.
His case, Curt Flood v. Bowie Kuhn, et al., reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled on June 19, 1972, in favor of the owners.
Who could be surprised?
The Flood case stood right alongside Dred Scott v. Sanford or Plessy v Ferguson as historic cases the justices botched. Like those other court cases, Flood’s would shine a spotlight on injustice. It would, in time, chip away at the “reserve clause;” it would usher in changes that would remake Major League Baseball.
All the fat contracts of today’s stars like Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols and Clayton Kershaw exist only because Flood sacrificed prime years of his big-league career to open a pathway for free agency.
That’s one of the forgotten stories in sports: the story of a proud man who, for whatever reasons he might have had, saw merit in controlling his destiny. For if a Black man in 1969 didn’t control his destiny, how much different was he than his forebears, the Black men and Black women who toiled the cotton fields in lifetime servitude?
It might be a stretch for some to say Flood stood as the same sort of Black trailblazer that Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Oliver Brown or James Meredith was. But to not see Flood that way is to dismiss the importance of the Supreme Court case that Muhammad Ali won less than a year earlier.
Both men fought for the right to be men – men on their terms. Ali won, which is perhaps why his case is so memorable in a way that Flood’s case, a lost case, is not.
Yet, because everybody else has forgotten Curt Flood does not mean that we should. He’s a gigantic piece of our history; he’s a piece of America’s history.
That’s the reason, for Black History Month, if not any other time, we should talk about Flood, remember him, salute him and thank him. Doswell, a historian, is planning to do just that, even if most everybody else will not.
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(Photo: James Rackwitz/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT /Landov)