Leland Stein III

Curt Flood HBO special off base

In sports column, Uncategorized on August 15, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Curt Flood documentary off base

By Leland Stein III

HBO has produced some memorable sports documentaries in recent years, like Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, the integration of black football players at Southern universities, Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV, Ali versus Frazier I: One Nation Divisible, Do You Believe In Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team and Nine Innings From Ground Zero just to mention a few of my favorite.

HBO Sports recently released “The Curious Case of Curt Flood.” He challenged Major League Baseball when its owners had a plantation mentality where teams owned players forever. Only the owners could they trade, discard and set salaries.

Then in October 1969 Flood was traded from the Cardinals to the Phillies and he said no I will not go. What he actually told reporters was, “In the history of man, there’s no other profession except slavery where one man is tied to one owner for the rest of his life.”

I agree, it all went again America’s preaching about freedom, a right to choose, capitalism and fairness.

People reacted to the slavery comparison like he’d set fire to their shoelaces. “Slavery?” many exclaimed. “Heck he is getting paid $90,000 to play a game!” Flood interjected, “A well-paid slave is still a slave,” thus he started down the horrendous and dreadful path of suing MLB, striving to get the reserve clause declared illegal.

With that as the backdrop, I was eager to catch the HBO documentary, but the title kind of knocked me back, “The Curious Case of Curt Flood.” What did that mean? Was it curious like bizarre or like weird or strange?

Flood fitted into my sphere as a noteworthy, courageous and socially conscious athlete. Like Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Carl Lewis, Muhammad Ali, Spencer Haywood, John Carlos and Tommie Smith. All men that were not afraid to stand on what they believed were necessary and worthy issues that confronted them beyond the playing fields. 

The film reminded me that Flood’s stand was remarkable considering the climate. As pitcher Bob Gibson, Flood’s Hall of Fame team and roommate and fellow black athlete honestly said in the documentary: “Was I behind Curt? Absolutely. But I was about 10 steps back just in case there was some fallout.”

Flood was an exception outfielder and hitter, who helped the Cardinals win a World Series title, but he saw his career essentially ended in 1969 when at age 31 he challenged the reserve clause that made MLB players the property of the owners of the teams with which they signed. Sounds extreme, it was.

MLB athletes had it only a little better than track and field athletes, who could not get a dime for their superior efforts. That’s why legends like Jesse Owens was relegated to race horses after his record setting four gold medal effort in Germany in front of an enraged Hitler.

Instead of focusing the narrative on a young Flood’ unprecedented challenge to the so-called American Pastime’s unfair labor system and his appearing at a civil-rights rally in the deep South, at a time when black athletes ducked controversy the way they ducked the Klu Klux Klan, HBO spent a lot of the documentary focusing on all that was wrong with Flood.

As one reporter noted: “This courageous athlete is depicted as an alcoholic, a womanizer, a woeful husband, a dreadful father, a lousy businessman, and, oh yes, he was a chain smoker who died of throat cancer. In the history of warts-and-all biographies, this one slithers near the top of the list.” 

Flood lost the Supreme Court ruling 5-3 as MLB kept its antitrust exemption. His life unraveled as he fled to Denmark, then Spain. Instead of focusing more of the isolation he felt that and the loss of his livelihood, the documentary went for the jugular and his flaws. The man that ushered in arbitration, free agent, and salary cap deserved better. LeBron James and Alex Rodriguez all owe their monetary wind falls to Flood.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com and Twitter @LelandSteinIII

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