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Curt Flood’s baseball career ended in Washington. Really.
There was no mention of Flood’s short, sad 1971 season with the Senators in Ken Burns’ nine-inning documentary on baseball and Billy Crystal. Now the Smithsonian has made the same error of omission in the big baseball exhibit that opened a few weeks ago.
Amid the tchotchkes included in the National Museum of Natural History’s latest and greatest attraction, there’s space devoted to Flood’s fight against baseball’s reserve clause, which tied ballplayers to teams even in the absence of a contract and turned the sport’s labor/management situation into a one-sided affair favoring the owners. There’s a copy of a December 1969 letter that Flood wrote to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn asking the league to void his trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies: “…I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes,” wrote Flood, then a 31-year-old, 14-year veteran. “I believe that any system that produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the
Kuhn denied Flood’s request and upheld his transfer to Philly.
Beside the letter, museum curators have installed an instructional panel describing Flood’s subsequent lawsuit against Kuhn. Flood lost his case at every judicial level, but baseball historians are in near unanimity that his litigation hastened the demise of the reserve clause and opened the door for free agency and the sort of portability that today’s ballplayers regard as a birthright.
According to the museum text, “Flood’s 1970 lawsuit ended his career.”
Flood died of throat cancer in 1997. If Hollywood ever takes on Flood’s life story—and given that he took perhaps the most selfless stand ever taken by a boy of summer, it should—the script will probably have his playing career ending with his lawsuit, also.
But no matter what Burns and the Smithsonian and some future scriptwriter don’t say, Flood’s baseball career actually ended right here in D.C., 33 years ago this week. With a whimper.
Rather than report to the Phillies, Flood held out for all of 1970 to protest the trade and even moved to Denmark to take up painting during his time away from the game. But before the 1971 season, with his suit already tossed out by a U.S. District Court judge, Flood tried to launch a comeback by accepting a trade from Philadelphia to the Senators.
Owner Bob Short lured the center fielder, a seven-time Gold Glove winner and three-time all-star, back to the states with a $110,000-per-year contract, which made Flood the second-highest paid Senator, behind Bunyonesque slugger Frank Howard but ahead of the dead-armed Denny McLain, a former 31-game winner for the Detroit Tigers.
Bernie Allen, then a second baseman with the Senators, was already a huge fan of Flood’s before he came to Washington. Allen, who served as the team’s player representative, had been at the momentous Major League Baseball Players Association meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in late 1969 at which Flood had announced for the first time that he intended to fight the reserve clause and asked if the union would support him. Flood’s letter to Kuhn was written right after that meeting.
“We all admired him for the guts he showed,” says Allen, who remembers making $18,000 for the 1971 season. “I was with Brooks Robinson at that [players’ association] meeting, and when Curt told everybody what he was going to do—to fight baseball, fight the reserve clause—our jaws just dropped and we said, ‘You know you’ll be blackballed?’ and he said, ‘I know.’ It was a system that none of us liked—we had to just sign for whatever the team wanted to give us—but nobody had the courage to fight it. Curt knew what he was getting into and did it anyway. He was an all-star center fielder who lost his job…and was run completely out of the country because he would dare challenge baseball. I think the players saw that he never got any personal benefit out of it and were glad to have him come to the Senators. We all hoped he’d be the same player he was when he left.”
He wasn’t. Flood reported to the team’s 1971 spring training in Pompano, Fla., in fine physical condition, but without the baseball tools he’d had in St. Louis before the hiatus.
“It was clear this guy lost a lot in that year away,” says Dick Bosman, the ace of the Senators pitching staff that year. “You hear people say, ‘That guy lost a step!’ Well, Curt Flood lost three steps. There wasn’t a whole lot of bat speed left, either. Don’t get me wrong—he tried real hard—but there was nothing left.”
Not even Senators manager Ted Williams, who was one of the few players in baseball history whose hitting and fielding skills survived a long layoff, could get Flood back in game shape. But despite a sorry spring, Williams put Flood in the starting lineup come opening day. Flood, however, never found his legs or his swing.
And just 13 games into the season, he gave up. He didn’t make it to RFK Stadium for the Senators’ April 27 home game against the Minnesota Twins.
“I had lunch with Curt that day,” recalls Casey Cox, a Senators reliever who, like Flood, lived at the Anthony House hotel near Dupont Circle during the 1971 season. “We always rode back and forth to the park together, and we agreed to meet at 3:30 [p.m.] to share a cab. He never showed up.”
Cox went to RFK by himself, and during warm-ups owner Short called him off the field to ask if he knew where Flood was. That’s when Cox began getting worried.
“It’s a big deal when a guy doesn’t show up at the park,” Cox says. “I knew he wasn’t hitting really well, and he was struggling, but, hell, he’d been out for a year, and he was hustling his ass off in center field. I wondered if something bad had happened to him. He never gave me any indication that he was just going to leave.”
But leave is exactly what Flood had done. Around the time Cox was getting in a cab for RFK, Flood was on his way to JFK International Airport in New York, where he boarded a jet for Lisbon, Portugal. Before saying goodbye to the United States for a while and the game of baseball forever, Flood addressed a brief telegram to Short at the stadium. It read: “I TRIED A YEAR AND A HALF IS TOO MUCH VERY SERIOUS PERSONAL PROBLEMS MOUNTING EVERY DAY THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONFIDENCE AND UNDERSTANDING FLOOD.”
Short tacked it onto a bulletin board in the Senators clubhouse while his team beat the Twins, 2-0, behind a six-hit, complete-game performance by McLain, his finest outing ever in Washington. So, after the game, the players learned they’d lost a teammate for more than one night.
“He’d just disappeared,” says former Senators coach Joe Camacho. “Everybody liked the guy, but he’d lost everything, and I guess his pride just wouldn’t let him go on like that.”
Before leaving the stadium that night, Camacho took the telegram off the board. He keeps Flood’s farewell inside a scrapbook in his house. It would make a nice addition to the Smithsonian’s display. —Dave McKenna