Flood and Messersmith for Cooperstown

Curt Flood

“Few have ever matched the grace and craftsmanship Curt Flood brought to [baseball], However, none has matched what he did for the game as a citizen.”—George F. Will.

Fifty years ago Sunday, Curt Flood’s challenge to baseball’s ancient and abused-by-the-owners reserve clause lost in the Supreme Court. Since Sunday was also Juneteenth, Flood’s widow seized upon the occasion to call for a fresh push to enshrine her pioneering husband in Cooperstown.

Judy Pace-Flood knows something about trailblazing in her own right. Long before she renewed her acquaintance with and married Flood, she was one of the only African American actresses to appear in prime time, portraying the patient wife of a black surgeon in the final season of the legendary 1960s serial Peyton Place.

“It cost him everything, he had no money, completely losing everything,’’ she told USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale.

But it was breaking his heart to walk away. He was going to do this no matter what happened. I can understand the process for nobody doing anything, or saying anything, just so happy to be playing the game. He was just ahead of his time. But he just kept pushing, and pushing. The Civil Rights movement gave him more strength. And, finally, it happened.

The splendid new documentary After Jackie chronicles both Jackie Robinson’s baseball career and post-playing civil rights activism, and the efforts of Flood and fellow Cardinals Bob Gibson and Bill White to bond their team against the still-persistent Jim Crow South and comparable attitudes elsewhere. It presents Flood as just what he was, a sensitive and intelligent man who could change hearts and minds in his clubhouse but found doing so beyond it a greater challenge than he found running fly balls down in center field.

After Jackie addresses Flood’s request for a raise to a six-figure salary for 1969 and then-Cardinals owner Gussie Busch’s initial demurral. That same spring, the players pushed for and got a serious remake of baseball’s player pension plan, including reduction of the vesting time to four years’ major league service and a larger contribution from the owners into the pension fund.

But Busch—who was known for treating his players a lot better than other owners did at the time—was not amused. Enough that he gave his players a dressing-down one fine spring training day that Flood wrote later was code for “behave or get out. I no longer felt like a ninety-thousand-dollar ballplayer but like a green recruit . . . I was sick with shame and so was everyone else on the Cardinals except Busch and his claque.”

After a down 1969 season, Flood got a call from general manager Bing Devine’s aide Jim Toomey: he’d been traded to the Phillies with veteran catcher Tim McCarver, relief pitcher Joe Hoerner, and outfielder Byrone Browne, in exchange for first baseman Dick Allen, second baseman Cookie Rojas, and relief pitcher Jerry Johnson. When the shock wore off, Flood told a friend there was “no way” he’d just “pack up and move twelve years of my life away from here.”

(I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: oh, the sad irony. To Flood, the trade amounted to being reduced to a piece of chattel. To Allen, who’d endured brutal racism in Philadelphia and actually applauded Flood’s quest, the trade amounted to his own Emancipation Proclamation.)

That November, Flood reached out to Major League Baseball Players Association director Marvin Miller to say he wanted to sue baseball challenging the reserve clause. Then, that not-so-foggy Christmas Eve, Flood fired the second shot heard ’round the world: his letter pleading his case first to commissioner Bowie Kuhn. As New York Times sportswriting legend Red Smith described it, incomparably, Kuhn spent an entire letter answering: “Run along, sonny, you bother me.”

Sonny didn’t exactly run along. He meant it when he said hell, no, he won’t go. Flood sat 1970 out on behalf of his new cause despite severe financial pressures some of which may have been provoked by his earlier civil rights activism stirring the usual racists and some of which may have been provoked by his stance against baseball’s reserve system.

His off-season business in tatters, Flood was receptive when Washington Senators owner Bob Short arranged to obtain his negotiating rights from the Phillies and made him a six-figure offer to join the team—promising to pay him no matter what regarding his lawsuit, and promising further that, if they couldn’t come to terms after the 1971 season, Short would release Flood and make him a free agent.

Flood gave it a try. But the toll taken on him by his reserve challenge and his business collapse was too heavy. He left the Senators in late April 1971, repairing to Majorca to buy a bar and begin sorting out his shattered life. He struggled with alcoholism, found work with his native Oakland’s parks department, and in 1986 re-acquainted with Judy Pace, whom he dated for a time after his first marriage collapsed but finally married in 1986. She helped get him to sobriety at last.

In public, he applauded when the reserve system was finally ended in 1975. In private, he feared he paid too steep a price. It took two more events to make Flood’s struggle pay off.

Event One: Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneging on a contracted-for insurance payment to Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter. Hunter took it to arbitration and won his free agency. After a bidding war he signed the third-most profitable offer, from the Yankees, because they agreed to parcel his $3 million to come the way he wanted it, including a set-aside to guarantee his children’s education.

Andy Messersmith

“Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way.”—Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons.

Event Two: Dodgers general manager Al Campanis made contract talks for 1975 a little too personal for pitcher Andy Messersmith’s liking. Messersmith refused from there to talk to anyone lower than team president Peter O’Malley, and he added a demand for a no-trade clause in the bargain. “We’ve never given one,” O’Malley said, “and we aren’t going to start now.”

Messersmith answered, in essence, “That’s what you think.” The Dodgers renewed his contract automatically after Messersmith wouldn’t sign a new deal. Then he went forth and led the National League with seven shutouts, nineteen complete games, 322 innings pitched, and finished second with his 2.29 ERA. He also earned a second straight Gold Glove and finished fifth in the league’s Cy Young Award voting.

By that August, though, it went from the personal to the bigger picture. With the Dodgers offering him more money to change his mind (at one point the offer reached three years and $540,000 total), Messersmith wouldn’t move an inch—especially after Miller opened his eyes about the reserve clause as it was written versus as it was abused for so long.

“There’s no reason why a club should be entitled to renew a player’s contract year after year if the player refuses to sign and wants to go elsewhere,” Messersmith said in due course, while seeing and raising a bit Flood’s once-fabled remark about a $90,000 a year slave still being a well-paid slave.

I thought about it for a long time and I didn’t do it necessarily for me, because I’m making a lot of money. I didn’t want people to think, ‘Well, here’s a guy in involuntary servitude at $115,000 a year.’ That’s a lot of bull. But then, when you stop and think about the players who have nowhere to go and no recourse . . . this isn’t for a guy like me or any other established ballplayer unless you’re having problems with your owner or something like that. It’s more for the guy who is sitting on the bench and who believes he hasn’t been given a chance.

Messersmith delivered the baby Flood sired.* He paid a price of his own for cutting the cord and slapping the infant on its hopeful butt. It took him until two days into the 1976 regular season to find a serious suitor, signing with the Braves for $1 million over three years. But between straining to prove himself worth the money and a series of injuries small and serious, Messersmith was finished as a top of the line pitcher and retired after 1979.

Those who opposed both men by parroting the ancient owners’ insistence that the end of the reserve era would mean the end of “competitive balance” (As if there was competitive balance when the Yankees were winning all those pennants all those years—Jim Bouton) discovered soon enough how wrong they were.

Once free agency settled in in earnest, after a few hiccups, there came the first decade of major league baseball’s life in which ten different teams won the ten World Series played: 1978-87. Since 1978, 23 different teams have won the World Series. That beats how many different teams have won the NFL’s Super Bowl, the NBA’s Naismith Trophy, and the NHL’s Stanley Cup.

Only one of those four major North American team sports lacks the salary cap for which pine a few too many witless old school baseball fans and chroniclers and a few too many of baseball’s owners. Hint: Its legends aren’t named Tom Brady, LeBron James, or Wayne Gretzky. And baseball’s owners today continue trying to find ways to cut players back down to size.

The push for baseball players’ free agency wasn’t made by a pair of scrubs, either.

In the long sunset of Hall of Famer Willie Mays’s career, Flood—whom George F. Will once called “Dred Scott in spikes”—was his league’s best defensive center fielder, and he had eight straight Gold Gloves for evidence before he launched a crusade for freedom in the same city where Dred Scott first brought his case for freedom. He’s also ninth all time for defensive runs above his league average for center fielders, +99.

Flood has something else in common with Scott aside from his race: Over a century apart, Scott and Flood proved the Supreme Court would never be allergic to ruling erroneously.

Messersmith was one of the game’s premier pitchers when he launched his own crusade for freedom, including the freedom to stay where he was. It’s easy to remember he won free agency. It’s not always easy to remember the issue that ignited him was the no-trade clause that’s long since been a standard in contracts signed by players achieving their free agency.

Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons phrased it short, sweet, and to the point after Messersmith prevailed before arbitrator Peter Seitz: “Curt Flood stood up for us. Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way. Andy made it happen for everybody.”

Right there you have the simplest argument on behalf of electing Flood and Messersmith to the Hall of Fame as the pioneers they were.

—————————————————-

* Dave McNally, you say? Well, yes—but for a small detail or two. Technically, the former Oriole pitching standout was an unsigned player for 1975, too, after he was traded to the Montreal Expos but the Expos reneged on the promise of a two-year deal. He tried to pitch in ’75, but his arm and shoulder refused to cooperate, and in early June he went home to Montana to run his Ford dealership.

It was only that August—when Miller began to fear Messersmith wouldn’t go the distance and take it all the way to the arbitration challenge, since the Dodgers kept sweetening the pot to get the stubborn pitcher to sign—when McNally entered the reserve challenge picture. According to John Helyar’s Lords of the Realm, Miller called McNally to ask: “I’d like to add your name to the grievance as insurance if Andy decides to sign a new Dodger contract.”

McNally said he’d be “willing to help” if needed. The Expos panicked. They sent team president John McHale to Montana to convince McNally to sign. McHale offered $125,000 for 1976 and, when McNally said he was finished anyway, offered a signing bonus of $25,000—even if all McNally did was show up to spring training.

The now-former pitcher talked to Miller the following day and told him, according to Helyar, “McHale wasn’t honest with me last year, and I’m not going to trust him again. It’s tempting to show up to spring training for twenty-five grand, but I have no intention of playing and it wouldn’t be right to take the money.”

But McNally—who died of cancer in 2002—was really only Miller’s insurance policy. It wasn’t quite his fault that he couldn’t go the distance unsigned in 1975, but it doesn’t change that Messersmith went the distance and did the proverbial heavy lifting.