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.

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* 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.

Marvin and Ted, a love story revisited

Marvin Miller, Joe Torre

Marvin Miller (left) with then-Cardinals catcher-turned-third baseman Joe Torre at a 1972 press conference.

Yes, Marvin Miller decided before his death that being elected to the Hall of Fame was no longer worth it. Not even if it was no less than his due. “At the age of 91,” he said, “I can do without farce.”

But there’ll be a nice synergy in Miller and catcher Ted Simmons being inducted into Cooperstown Wednesday, along with two more from last year’s class, Derek Jeter and Larry Walker. Miller and Simmons were joined in an unlikely way early in Simmons’s career.

The pan-damn-ic then told the new Hall of Famers, “Wait ’till next year.” Wherever he reposes in the Elysian Fields, perhaps Miller has bumped into Charlie Watts, the lifelong drummer for a band that once sang, “You can’t always get what you want/but if you try sometimes, you just might find/you get what you need.”

What Miller and Simmons needed from the last-convened Modern Era Committee in 2019 was twelve votes minimum. Miller got the twelve, one shy of Simmons’s thirteen. Both men deserved Hall of Fame plaques long enough before they finally got them. And one inadvertently provided the other with invaluable intelligence.

At age 22 Simmons found himself the Cardinals’ regular catcher entering spring training 1972. Self-aware enough, Simmons decided his emergence should be worth more than a $6,000 raise. He refused to sign a new contract that would pay him one penny less than $30,000. The Cardinals’ general manager, Bing Devine, said not so fast, son, holding the team’s offer to somewhere in the lower $20,000s.

That was while Curt Flood’s reserve clause challenge awaited its day in the Supreme Court. (Flood, alas, would lose there, but he’d kick open a door that refused to be shut again.) Simmons started the reason without a signed new contract. The Cardinals renewed him automatically as the rules of the time allowed.

Everyone in baseball trained their eyes upon the sophomore catcher who belied the usual athletic stereotypes. (Among other things, Simmons would serve active and knowledgeable time on the board of a St. Louis art museum in due course.) They also trained their eyes on the reserve clause abused so long by the owners to bind their players like chattel, until they damn well felt like selling, trading, or releasing them.

Simmons played his way onto the National League’s 1972 All-Star team as its backup catcher. Once he went to Atlanta for the game, Devine rang his hotel phone post haste. Would Simmons kindly accept a mere $75,000—as in, the $30,000 he wanted for 1972 in the first place, plus $45,000 for 1973?

Miller watched Simmons a little nervously, too, knowing the kid pondered taking it to court himself. He understood completely when Simmons accepted Devine’s new proposal. But Simmons handed Miller intelligence you couldn’t buy even on the black market: Those  owners would rather have handed a barely-seasoned kid $75,000 than let any arbitrator get a look at the reserve clause even long distance through a telescope.

Miller had once been a United Steelworkers of America economist. After a players committee including two Hall of Famers (pitchers Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning) and two respected other veterans (pitcher Bob Friend, outfielder Harvey Kuenn) chose him to run their embryonic union, Miller won the rest of the players over by being just who he was—a brain, not a bludgeon. It didn’t hurt that Miller instilled an open-door policy: “It’s your union,” he insisted.

Miller didn’t follow the stereotypical union playbook, either. He may have kept the players’ eyes on the ultimate prize, but he knew and convinced them reasonably that it had to be done step by step, from pension and clubhouse issues forward. Even as he told them, as often as need be, “You are the game. Without you, there is no game.”

His two signature triumphs came almost by accident. The first was when then-Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted-for insurance payment to Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter. Hunter filed a grievance and won. He also became subject of a game-wide bidding war that reached the millions and ended with him taking the third-most lucrative offer put in front of him.

Why only the third? Because the Yankees (whose representative Clyde Kluttz was the former A’s scout who signed Hunter for the A’s in the first place) were willing to divide the dollars Hunter’s way, right down to a certain amount put into an annuity to guarantee his children’s education. It was still enough to make Hunter a rich man on a fair, open market.

But Hunter was a single, isolated case. His triumph didn’t mean the end of the reserve era just yet. To do that, it took then-Dodgers general manager Al Campanis making contract talks far too personal for pitcher Andy Messersmith’s taste in spring training 1975. Messersmith promptly refused to talk to anyone below team president Peter O’Malley. He also refused to sign any contract that didn’t include a no-trade clause.

The Dodgers merely harrumphed that they’d never given no-trade clauses before and they weren’t about to start now. Messersmith said, essentially, that he’d rather be caught naked in a barracuda school than let the Al Campanises dictate his baseball future. He, too, refused to sign a 1975 contract. The Dodgers, too, renewed him automatically under the old rules.

Messersmith pitched on and pitched very well. (He’d lead the National League in starts, complete games, and innings pitched, while throwing seven shutouts and finishing second with a 2.29 ERA.) He withstood the snark of both indignant, ignorant fans and indignant, artery-hardened sportswriters.

“Every time he took the ball,” Simmons once said, “everybody in management wanted him to fail and everybody from the players wanted him to succeed.” Just as long as they didn’t have to bat against him. (The National League’s hitters batted a mere .213 against Messersmith in 1975.)

By that August, Messersmith found himself receiving two things: continuing Dodger offers for then-glandular dollars, and an education from Miller about the reserve clause itself. He was also the only active player left that season who hadn’t signed a 1975 contract. By September, the Dodgers offered him a pot of $540,000 for three years including 1975. “Where’s that no-trade clause?” Messersmith retorted, essentially. Without it, he wouldn’t budge.

When Peter came up with the dough, I was adamant. The money was incredible, but they wouldn’t bring the no-trade to the table. I’d gotten stimulated by Marvin and Dick [Moss, the players’ union’s general counsel]. Now I understood the significance of what this was all about. I was tired of players having no power and no rights.

Ted Simmons

Now a Hall of Fame catcher, Ted Simmons as a Cardinal helped Miller build his leverage against the old reserve clause abuse.

That August, too, Messersmith agreed to file a grievance seeking his free agency if he remained unsigned. The season ended; Messersmith’s stout pitching alone couldn’t keep the Dodgers from finishing second in the National League West. He filed the grievance.

(Arm-and-shoulder-troubled pitcher Dave McNally, technically unsigned but intending to stay retired after leaving the Expos in June, agreed to join the grievance in August, upon Miller’s persuasion—as insurance, in case the Dodger dollars finally seduced Messersmith, who refused to be seduced by dollars alone.)

The owners had no essential argument better than “this is the way we’ve always done it.” The evidence in the grievance included a newspaper article, in which penurious Twins owner Calvin Griffith basically admitted proper reserve clause application allowed a player’s free agency after one contracted season and a second team option season and no more.

Messersmith won. (The owners promptly fired arbitrator Peter Seitz.) The Lords of the Realm author John Helyar described Simmons as “choked up” when he said, “Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way. Andy made it happen for us all.”

Miller was smart enough not to demand immediate free agency for all. Even he recognised teams had certain rights in players they developed, even as he insisted baseball players deserved the same rights as any other American—from the greenest labourer to the most seasoned executive—to test their value on a fair, open job market when no longer under contract.

It did far more for the good of the game than the artery-hardened hysterics of 1975 would have had you believe, especially when they mourned the death of “competitive balance.” Pace Mark Twain, the rumours of that death would prove greatly exaggerated. More teams have won the World Series since the Messersmith triumph than won the Series before it.

It’s not the players’ fault that the owners since have tried everything in their power, and sometimes beyond it, to try putting them back into their “places.” (The 1980s collusion, anyone? Isolated front-office executives willingly handing the gold to players who’d barely proven themselves worth copper? The 1994 strike born of the owners insisting the players stop them before they overspent/mis-spent/mal-spent again? Tanking?)

And they said free agency would destroy the undestroyable game. If you’d asked former commissioner Fay Vincent about that, he’d tell you what he told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick in 2009: Blaming Miller for “destroying” baseball was “like blaming Thomas Edison for putting the candle industry out of business,” which didn’t happen, either.

Perhaps the only thing more astonishing than the owners’ post-Messersmith chicaneries was the years passing by with the idea of Miller in the Hall of Fame not so popular with his former clients (he left the union in 1982) as his work on their behalf. No less than Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said the Hall of Fame should be for players only. You wonder what he thought when the Hall inducted Effa Manley—co-owner of the Negro National League’s Newark Eagles—as a pioneer in 2006.

“Instead of pointing to the sky,” the late Jim Bouton told Crasnick, referring to gestures often made by players crossing the plate after hitting home runs, “today’s players should be pointing to Marvin Miller.” As also to Curt Flood, Ted Simmons, Catfish Hunter, Andy Messersmith, and others who collaborated to do the once unthinkable.

Simmons himself went on to enjoy a career that should have gotten him elected to Cooperstown. His peak value matches that of the average Hall of Fame catcher. He went one and done in his only year’s eligibility on the Baseball Writers Association of America’s Hall ballot. Exactly why never really seemed clear. If he was a better hitter than catcher, the metrics simple and complex alike still show him the number eleven catcher ever to strap it on.

Maybe it was residual ill will over Simmons’s late-career tangle with Whitey Herzog. (Herzog traded him to the Brewers citing defensive shortcomings, after he declined moving to another field position. Yet Herzog eventually became a member of the Modern Era Committee that finally elected Simmons.) Maybe they had a problem marrying baseball’s most honorific museum to an art museum board member.

Miller died in 2012 with only one other regret: not having been able to convince the MLBPA to revisit the 1980 pension realignment that froze players with short careers prior to 1980 out of the pension plan. Players since 1980 need only 43 days major league time to receive a pension and one day to receive health benefits.

The only thing the frozen-out have received since comes from a 2011 deal between then-commissioner Bud Selig and then-MLBPA leader Michael Weiner: $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service time for up to four years. Before you say that’s something, at least, be reminded that they can’t pass those dollars to their loved ones if they pass before the final dollars are collected.

The MLBPA leadership since Miller’s departure has little to no known desire anywhere in its ranks to redress that or anything else involving the pension freeze-out. Attrition has reduced the number of affected players from over 1,100 to just over 600. Would anyone with leverage in the game now think to resolve Miller’s regret?

“Nobody has picked it up,” former Twins pitcher Tom Johnson, one of the affected, told me last December. “Don Fehr [Miller’s successor] didn’t pick it up, [present MLBPA director] Tony Clark hasn’t picked it up, nobody has picked it up and cared about it. I wish they’d go back and listen to that.”

Listening was one of Miller’s strong suits. “It took forever for each of us to get in,” Simmons has said. “He was the real deal. During my career, Marvin was the Players Association. He was an incredible man who was very special to me specifically. It’s an honor to be inducted with him. It’s bittersweet for his family but I’m lucky I can arrive in the flesh.”

Simmons has also said he hoped restoring the Hall inductions would be a stride in the right direction of returning life to something resembling normalcy. Surely he knows that “normalcy” doesn’t always mean without hiccups or pratfalls, both of which baseball has had in abundance for too long.

Portions of this essay have been published previously.

A Curt Flood Award? The first should go to 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.

My first notice came when I saw San Francisco Chronicle writer Susan Slusser’s praise: “How wonderful! The [Major League Baseball Players Association] is instituting a Curt Flood Award for the Oakland native whose efforts helped bring about free agency and allow players to, eventually, be paid their worth on the open market. It will be handed out for the first time Thursday.”

I know who should receive the first Curt Flood Award, and I hope to God the Players Association thinks likewise. The first Flood Award ought to go to Andy Messersmith.

Flood’s Christmas Eve 1969 letter to then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn was the Second Shot Heard ‘Round the World. “After twelve years in the Major Leagues,” he began, “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” Flood fired his gun from the same city in which a certain former slave proclaimed that living now on free soil made him thus a free man.

Small wonder that George F. Will would nickname Flood Dred Scott in Spikes. “[Scott] was not the last time,” Will wrote in 1993, “that the Supreme Court would blunder when asked when a man can be treated like someone’s property . . . Six years later—too late to benefit him—[Flood’s] cause prevailed. The national pastime is clearly better because of that. But more important, so is the nation, because it has learned one more lesson about the foolishness of fearing freedom.”

Flood’s was the groundbreaker that didn’t quite make it. But the graceful center fielder kicked a door open just wide enough for further pressure. Catfish Hunter kicked it a little further open in 1974, after Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted-for insurance payment to the Hall of Fame pitcher and Hunter was thus awarded his free agency.

The Hunter case didn’t challenge the reserve clause itself. The bidding war to follow for his services was won by the team who actually offered him the third-highest dollar-worth amount among the suitors but the division of the dollars Hunter wanted most, including an annuity to guarantee his children’s education. But it shone a light his fellow players had only suspected might reveal platinum on a fair, open job market.

The official name of the case to come would be John A. Messersmith vs. Los Angeles Dodgers. (Messersmith preferred to be known as Andy, though his middle name was actually Alexander.) The official net result of his almost unexpected 1975 challenge was to finish what Flood began. Almost unexpected?

Messersmith first emerged as a California Angels comer with a bristling fastball, a deadly changeup, a 2.77 ERA, a 3.04 fielding-independent pitching rate, and an upbeat personality that didn’t mind crossing the line to periodic flakiness. The Angels traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers in November 1972, in a multi-player swap that made a somewhat temporary Angel out of Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

He was just as good and stubborn on the mound with the Dodgers, finishing fifth in the 1973 National League ERA race (2.70), then becoming one of the league’s two 20-game winners with a 2.59 ERA in 1974 for a pennant-winning Dodgers aggregation. He also finished second to his relief pitching teammate Mike Marshall in the Cy Young Award voting.

“He’s one of the best competitors I’ve ever managed,” said his manager, Walter Alston, before that World Series. “He can do it all. He can pitch, field his position, has a good move to first . . . Andy is the kind of guy who wants the baseball. He wants to pitch and that’s why I put him up there with the other great pitchers I’ve had the good fortune to manage.”

Andy was also the kind of guy who proved to be just as stubborn talking contract as getting hitters out. He reported unsigned to spring training 1975, the original issue being not whether he’d get a well-earned raise from the $100,000 he earned in 1974 but how much of a raise. Then, according to Wall Street Journal writer John Helyar in The Lords of The Realm: The Real History of Baseball, the Dodgers’ then-general manager, Al Campanis, screwed the proverbial pooch:

As they sat in [Campanis’s] Vero Beach office . . . Campanis infuriated the pitcher. Quite apart from how well the pitcher had performed, quite apart from how much the Dodgers could allegedly afford, he injected a deeply “personal issue.” (Even eighteen years later, the matter cut so deep with Messersmith he wouldn’t elaborate on it.”)

Two things happened. One, Messersmith severed talks with the GM. “This is way out of the boundaries of negotiations; this is something else,” he told Campanis. “I’m not going to deal with you anymore.” He insisted on shifting the talks to Peter O’Malley, the club’s president. The other thing to emerge was a new non-monetary demand. No way, Messersmith decided, would he let Al Campanis be in a position to dictate his career. He’d already had to change teams once when he crossed his first GM, the Angels’ Dick Walsh. Now he wanted a no-trade clause in his contract. “I’m going to have some control of my destiny,” declared Messersmith.

O’Malley was more to Messersmith’s taste but no more amenable to a no-trade clause. “We’ve never given one,” he said, “and we aren’t going to start now.”

So Messersmith refused to sign a new contract and pitched 1975 without one. “At the start,” he’d say later, “it was all personal. Al Campanis had stirred my anger, and it became a pride issue. When I get stubborn, I get very stubborn.” The National League’s hitters got a not-so-friendly reminder. Messersmith led the league with forty starts and seven shutouts, and finished second with his 2.29 ERA, and the hitters only hit .213 against him.

“Every time he took the ball,” Hall of Fame catcher Ted Simmons said, “everybody in management wanted him to fail and everybody from the players wanted him to succeed. He was doing it for us all.”

By August, however, Messersmith found himself pitching for something above and beyond the need to stuff Al Campanis. The union’s original executive director, Marvin Miller, called him. By that time baseball had only one unsigned player on active duty—Messersmith himself. Miller wanted to know if Messersmith would consider filing a grievance seeking free agency if he finished the season unsigned.

The Dodgers didn’t make it simple for him. Neither did the near-constant questions from sportswriters Helyar summed up as, “So how ’bout that contract, Andy?” They kept hiking the money the longer and the better Messersmith pitched. Come September, Helyar noted, the offer was three years and $540,000 total. But the offer still excluded the no-trade clause that was Messersmith’s most unbreakable demand.

“We had no intention of trading Andy Messersmith,” O’Malley insisted. “He was a quality individual, a quality performer, and a delight to have on the team.” Messersmith took one look at Campanis still in the front office and decided there was no dollar amount able to buy him off.

“When Peter came up with the dough, I was adamant,” Helyar quoted Messersmith remembering. “The money was incredible, but they wouldn’t bring the no-trade to the table. I’d gotten stimulated by Marvin and [union general counsel] Dick [Moss]. Now I understood the significance of what this was all about. I was tired of players having no power and no rights.”

Miller’s only concurrent worry was whether the incredible money would back Messersmith off the grievance track. The union director thus enlisted pitcher Dave McNally, technically unsigned but contemplating retirement following persistent arm soreness. McNally agreed join a grievance. Messersmith had no intention of backing away from it. “I’ve come this far,” he said. “I need to see this through.”

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. 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.

When the hearings in the case finally took place before arbitrator Peter Seitz, Messersmith stood his ground. And the earth moved under his feet.

After first flattening Kuhn—especially the commissioner’s staggering bid to claim that the end of the reserve clause would mean corrupted or thrown games—Moss delivered a knockout punch with the least likely glove: Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith, courtesy of a Minneapolis Star story from March 1974: “If [a player] doesn’t sign by March 10, I can invoke the option clause. If I do that, I can cut him as much as I want up to 20 percent. Of course, he would then be playing out his option. At the end of the season he would be a free agent.”

In other words, for decades the owners used the strict language of uniform players contract Section 10(A) unlawfully, agreeing among themselves not to sign players who refused their incubment teams’ offers. Seitz, who preferred (and indeed all but begged) that the owners and the players negotiate and settle themselves, was left no choice after the owners’ Player Relations Committee leader John Gaherin told him, “There’s no change in our position. So turn the crank.”

Seitz turned the crank. Miller signed “assent” and Gaherin signed “dissent” on the document aboard which Seitz ruled in favour of Messersmith. (And McNally, though it was understood if often forgotten that the former Baltimore Orioles standout had signed onto the case strictly as a human insurance policy.) Gaherin promptly and almost apologetically handed Seitz a letter firing him as baseball’s arbitrator.

“Curt Flood stood up for us,” Simmons said. “[Catfish] Hunter showed what was out there. Andy showed us the way. Andy made it happen for us all. It’s what showed a new life.”

It would also have been nice and in the spirit of Flood and Messersmith if the union had thought concurrently to finish what former executive director Michael Weiner began in 2011, and bring complete and final pension redress to what remain 600 plus short-career major league players frozen out of the 1980 pension re-alignment.

Weiner and then-commissioner Bud Selig made possible their current stipend of $625 per quarter for every 43 days’ major league service time for up to four years. The bad news: those players can’t pass the stipend on to their families should they pass on before the stipend ends. They also can’t be part of the players’ medical plan. Miller himself is known to have said that failing to review and revamp that 1980 pension realignment while he led the union was his biggest regret.

But if there’s a better inaugural recipient of the Curt Flood Award than the man who finished what Flood began, I’m unaware of him. Baseball players since have known what they owe Flood. They don’t always remember what they owe Messersmith, too. Giving him the first Flood Award would remind them powerfully.

Year-end, decade-end clearance

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Call it the Trout Decade if you wish—but wonder when the Angels will provide a team their (and baseball’s) best all-around player can be proud of, after he signed a spring 2019 deal to make him an Angel for life.

The decade about to expire began with the Giants winning the first of their three World Series rings in five seasons. It’s ending with, among other things, the Twins signing two pitchers. One got a little ornery over cops getting a little ornery over his wife’s fanny pack as they went to a football game. The other was traded and released by his new time upon arrival, then played for two 2019 teams while looking to find whether his talent still lurked behind a still-pervasive injury history.

The Tens began with the Astros still in the National League where they were born and finishing fourth in the Central division. It ended with the Astros seven years into their life in the American League (they were the team to be named later in the deal making National Leaguers out of the Brewers), and with three American League West titles, two pennants, one World Series triumph, and a scandal involving who and how they managed to rig a center field camera off mandated feed delay into live-time from-off-the-field sign stealing.

Likewise, the Tens began with one franchise ending its actual or alleged curse of who knew exactly what (the Giants) and finished with the Nationals—perhaps the unlikeliest of world champions (23 May: ten games below .500; the night before Halloween: the first team ever to win a World Series entirely on the road)—becoming the decade’s fifth team to end long enough, strange enough trips without even a single lease upon the Promised Land. But none of them did it quite like the Nats: their postseason run included an unprecedented winning of five elimination games in all of which they actually trailed.

In the more or less middle of it, the Red Sox—who finally broke the actual or alleged Curse of the Bambino in the fourth year of the Aughts—won two World Series to make it four without a Series loss in the new century. Yankee fans and the Empire Emeritus itself are not amused that they have but one Series ring in two new century tries. (Yankee fans usually amuse themselves these days by verbally assaulting opponents battling courageously against depressive illness during postseason series.) Those 26 Series conquests prior to 2009 are just so Twentieth Century.

We learned more than we thought and more than we cared to learn about launch angles, spin rates, actual or alleged juiced balls, and tanking. (The Cubs and the Astros did it with surrealistic success but it didn’t mean anyone else could do it likewise.) That was then: Kill the ump! This is now: Automate the ump! Well, the strike zone, anyway. And the umps are all but going along with test plans for it, according to their new collective bargaining agreement. It’s a welcome development and offers no few possibilities for amusement when finally implemented; or, I bet you, too, can’t wait to see the automated strike caller ejected by the likes of Angel Hernandez and Country Joe West.

Injuries are as much part of baseball as curve balls, but some still defy sense and belief, and sometimes in that order. Blake Snell (pitcher) suffered broken toes when . . . the cement bottom of a bathroom decoration he moved landed on them. Joe Kelly (pitcher) hurt his back during spring training while . . . cooking up some Cajun cuisine. Yoenis Cespedes (outfielder), already down for the season with injuries, fractured his ankle stepping . . . into a hole on his Florida ranch. (The Mets eventually reworked his contract into a 2020 pay cut.) Carlos Corres (shortstop) suffered a cracked rib while . . . getting a back massage. Dellin Betances (relief pitcher, then a Yankee and now a Met) came off the injured list, struck out his first two hitters, then returned to the IL . . . after celebrating the Yankee win with a leap that tore his Achilles tendon.

Then there was former major league pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. Preparing to pitch in Japan in 2019, Matsuzaka in February met a fan at a meet-and-greet who shook his hand . . . and caused him shoulder inflammation with that hearty yank, not to mention costing Dice-K the season. This may be the first time a pitcher suffered that kind of shoulder injury on account of a hearty handshake. May. But we also said goodbye to an icon from Japan who became an icon in American baseball. Goodbye until Cooperstown, that is, Ichiro.

We also welcomed to the Hall of Fame the first unanimously-elected member and, coincidentally, the best who ever did his particular job (Mariano Rivera), a gentleman who entered games to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and built churches off the field among other things. Likewise to a worthy starting pitcher (Roy Halladay) for whom comfort in his own skin was an elusive quarry, but whose widow did him proud accepting his plaque. Likewise, too, to a stoic mound craftsman (Mike Mussina), a composed and deadly designated hitter (“I couldn’t get him out,” The Mariano once said about Edgar Martinez, “my God, he had my breakfast, lunch, and dinner”), a bullish bullpen bull (Lee Smith), and a nice guy (Harold Baines) whose sole credential really was just going to work every day, doing his job with no great shakes, and being baseball’s version of the old-time man in the gray flannel suit.

That was also (way back) then: An Oklahoma University president thundering to his board of directors that goddammit he wants a school his football team can be proud of. This is also now: A need for far more thundering by the Angels’ owner and administration that, goddammit, they demand a team the best all-around player in the game this decade, who’s threatening to be remembered as the best all-around player who ever played it before his career is finished, can be proud of. The bad news is that, try though you might, you can’t clone a lineup of nine Mike Trouts.

And just in case you think calling him the best all-around is hyperbole, perhaps you’d like to see how Trout—who traded his pending 2020 free agency for becoming a $430 million Angel for life last spring—shapes up next to all Hall of Fame center fielders whose careers were all or mostly in the postwar/post-integration/night ball era . . .  according to my concept of real batting average (RBA) and not the old, traditional, incomplete, deceptive batting average–which ought to be called, really, a hitting average.

The RBA formula: total bases (TB) + walks (BB) + intentional walks (IBB) + sacrifices (SAC) + hit by pitches (HBP) divided by plate appearances. Tells you more than just unrealistically-treated hits by official at-bats, you’d think. Tells you everything a batter does to help his team win, I’d think, too. (Total bases also treats your hits the way they deserve to be treated, as in all hits are not equal. And, I say again, why shouldn’t you get credit for intentional walks, since the pitcher decided he’d rather you take your base than his head off?)

And here they are, in ascending order according to their RBAs:

HOF—Center Field PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Richie Ashburn 9736 3196 1198 40 130 43 .473
Kirby Puckett 7831 3453 450 85 81 56 .527
Andre Dawson 10769 4787 589 143 142 111 .536
Larry Doby 6299 2621 871 60 45 38 .577
Duke Snider 8237 3865 971 154 84 21 .619
Ken Griffey, Jr. 11304 5271 1312 246 110 81 .621
Willie Mays 12496 6066 1464 214 104 44 .632
Mickey Mantle 9907 4511 1733 148 61 13 .653
Mike Trout 5273 2522 803 199 48 81 .693
HOF AVG             .592

Among other things, look at that table and ask yourselves at last, “Can we please knock it the hell off with all the still-pervasive what-ifs about Mickey Mantle? Once and for all?” And, by the way, take my word for it: I’ve run the numbers on all postwar/post-integration/night-ball Hall of Famers and only one has a higher RBA than Mike Trout. If you guessed Ted Williams (.737 if you’re scoring at home), you win!

Trout was one of three players to sign long-term contracts last spring that will make them richer than the economy of a small tropical nation, more or less, and plant them in one place for just about the rest of their careers. He also opened the mayhem when his Angels, in their first home game following the unexpected death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs, performed the impossible and paid him tribute—with one and all wearing Skaggs jerseys for the game—with a combined no-hitter and concurrent 13-0 blowout of the Mariners. In a bullpen game, even. (Two pitchers, both relievers by normal trade.)

Manny Machado and Bryce Harper didn’t look quite as good as Trout in Years One of their new wealth, but they weren’t necessarily terrible, either. It’s not unrealistic to presume they pressed it a little trying to live up to their new riches, but Machado practically flew under the radar in his Year One compared to Harper, of course, who couldn’t fly under the radar if he used a stealth submarine.

And, yes, his usual gang of critics made a little too much sport—some of it amusing (T-R-A-T-I-O-R, spelled seven Nats fans upon his first return to Washington as a Phillie), some of it pure witlessness—of his former Nationals winning a pennant and a World Series without him. It never crossed their minds to take their eyes off his traditional batting average, look at his real batting average and his 2019 hitting in high leverage, and realise that yes, the Nats would have had an easier time winning with him than with the guy who replaced him in right field:

Real Batting Averages PA TB BB IBB SAC HBP RBA
Bryce Harper, 2019 682 292 99 11 4 6 .604
Adam Eaton, 2019 656 242 65 0 3 9 .486
High Leverage Hitting PA H XBH RBI BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Bryce Harper, 2019 127 35 21 50 .307 .370 .667 1.037 76
Adam Eaton, 2019 87 17 5 16 .236 .305 .333 .638 24

One thing that rankles about Harper: without apology he’s all in favour of making baseball fun again. Baseball’s supposed 2019 themes included “Let the kids play.” Turned out to depend upon whose kids were playing, much of the time. A presumed old-school icon said yes, let them play. Others said not so fast. There were even those leveling death threats against a minor leaguer whose crime was trying to get his butt on base by hook, crook, and any other way he could think to do with his team down to their final three outs on the wrong end of both 3-0 score and a combined no-hitter in the making.

The Yankees declared Kate Smith persona non grata over very dubious charges that she was actually a racist, based on ancient recordings of songs that actually satirised racism. A Mets first baseman, when not smashing a Yankee’s record for home runs in a season by a rookie, told baseball’s government we’ll show you—and delivered a 9-11 tribute in the form of specially-designed commemorative game cleats for his teammates to wear on 11 September. Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso 1, baseball government 0: the Mets in those shoes beat the Diamondbacks with . . . nine runs on eleven hits. Baseball government decided not to fine him or the Mets. How magnanimous of it.

Marvin Miller finally got fed up enough before his 2012 death to reject the idea of Hall of Fame enshrinement. The Modern Era Committee finally said what should have been said long ago: Miller belongs in Cooperstown. His election more or less makes up for the more or less quiet passing of the golden anniversary of baseball’s second shot heard ’round the world—Curt Flood’s Christmas Eve 1969 letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn, launching the reserve clause challenge he’d lose all the way up to the Supreme Court but win in the breach when Andy Messersmith—pitching without a 1975 contract and taking it to postseason arbitration—finished what Dred Scott in Spikes (as George F. Will called him) started.

Once upon a time, Hall of Famer Tom Seaver answered Hall of Famer Bob Gibson’s knockdown of a teammate in spring training by knocking Gibson down in a regular-season game, then ordering the plate ump to stay out of it while he admonished Gibson, “We can stop right now if you want. But you’d better remember that I throw a lot harder than you do, you old fart.” This year, the harder side of life caught up to both lancers whose courage now fights new enemies. Seaver retired from public life now that he battles dementia borne of Lyme disease; Gibson told his fellow Hall of Famers in a July letter that he’d have to miss the annual Hall ceremonies thanks to battling pancreatic cancer. The prayer kits should be hard at work on their behalf.

“May the Great Umpire call him safe at home,” sportswriting legend Grantland Rice wrote eulogising Babe Ruth. The Great Umpire called enough of a 2019 roll safe at home, including and especially Bill Buckner, who wasn’t made to feel safe at home after his fateful mishap in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, but who eventually came to terms with it and made himself a fine post-baseball life that included a close friendship with Mookie Wilson, the Met whose grounder skipped through Buckner’s too-battered ankles in the first place.

Mel Stottlemyre was the best Yankee pitcher during the worst Yankee decade before becoming a respected pitching coach for the Mets and, in time, the Yankees. Eli Grba was a Yankee who became the first Angel to throw a regular-season major league pitch and, in time, overcame a sad battle with the bottle. Don Newcombe was an outsize pitching talent, the first black pitcher to start a World Series game, but whose worst enemy was himself: unforgiving of his failures more than happy about his successes (he was baseball’s first Cy Young Award winner among other things), and finally conquering the bottle himself to become a beloved Dodger ambassador.

Frank Robinson went from the Hall of Fame (he remains perhaps the greatest all-around player in Reds history and belied their “old thirty” pronouncement to win the Triple Crown in his first season as an Oriole) to becoming baseball’s first black manager and, in the interim, may have invented the kangaroo court in baseball clubhouses. Jim Bouton was a Yankee turned Pilot turned Astro turned author who finished what Jim Brosnan started, revealing from the inside (in Ball Four) that ballplayers in general and Yankees in particular, were only too human, before making a splendid second life as a broadcaster, Big League Chew co-inventor, competition ballroom dancer, and commissioner of a recreational league playing baseball the old-old-1890s-fashoned way.

Joe Grzenda wasn’t allowed to finish saving the final Washington Senators home game ever thanks to an on-field riot of heartsick fans . . . but he kept the ball until the Show returned to D.C., handing it to then-president George W. Bush for the first ceremonial first pitch in Nationals history. “I congratulate all Hall of Famers. Some I played with, and some I helped put there,” said Ernie Broglio once upon a time, having developed a fine sense of humour about being on the wrong end of the most notorious trade (for one such Hall of Famer, Lou Brock) in Cubs history.

A high-school teammate of Broglio’s, Pumpsie Green, was the man who finally integrated the Red Sox on the field, took modest pride in it, and proved a far better man than ballplayer. Bill James about relief pitcher Don Mossi: “He could run ugly, hit ugly, throw ugly, field ugly, and ugly for power. He was ugly to all fields. He could ugly behind the runner as well as anybody, and you talk about pressure . . . man, you never saw a player who was uglier the in clutch.” Jim Bouton about Mossi: “He looks like a cab coming down the street with the doors open.” Reality about Mossi: an effective relief pitcher and, better yet, a successful west coast motelier, passionate gardener, hunter, and camper, and a 25-time great-grandfather. Ugly is in the eye of the beholder.

Al Jackson was an Original Mets lefthanded pitcher, one of the few Casey Stengel really trusted, and the man who helped almost knock the Cardinals out of a 1964 pennant on the final season weekend, when he beat Hall of Famer Bob Gibson with a 1-0 shutout. (After blowing the Cardinals out the next day, alas, the Mets couldn’t finish what they started and the Cardinals snuck into the pennant on the final day.) Joe Keough, outfielder, compromised by injuries, earned his place in Royals history: he won the Royals’ first-ever regular season game with a game-winning pinch hit in the bottom of the twelfth.

Ron Fairly was a solid outfielder for the Dodgers and other clubs before becoming a much-liked broadcaster; between playing and calling games, Fairly’s baseball life involved over seven thousand major league games. And you can bet the record of every last one, every last inning, was kept meticulously by Seymour Siwoff‘s Elias Sports Bureau, which Siwoff bought from its co-founders’ widows to keep alive and make into an institution. Everyone who loves statistics as the life blood of baseball owes Siwoff. And, yes, you can look it up.

The second shot heard ’round the world

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“Curt Flood stood up for us.”—Hall of Famer Ted Simmons.

Irony is almost as common to baseball as are the bat and the ball. Few examples remain more profound than one eight-player trade between the Phillies and the Cardinals in October 1969 that ended up changing the game for the men who played it.

The Phillies’ side of the deal included sending Hall of Fame-worthy third/first baseman Dick Allen to the Cardinals, whose package to the Phillies included seven-straight Gold Glove center fielder Curt Flood.

To Allen, whose Philadelphia experience was unconscionably brutal even by the norms of 1960s’ racial growing pains, the trade equaled the Emancipation Proclamation. To Flood, whose St. Louis experience including planting roots and owning and operating a portraiture studio in the city, the trade equaled what his eventual wife calls “like someone putting a knife in his stomach, or your mom throwing you away. It was that kind of deep hurt.”

Judy Pace was a groundbreaking black television actress (she had a prominent role in the popular television serial Peyton Place in its final season) and Flood’s girl friend for three years by the time Flood decided he wasn’t just a piece of livestock to be sold or dealt at will. They parted when Flood hied to Spain during his reserve clause battle but reconnected and married in 1986, eleven years before Flood’s death of throat cancer.

And Mrs. Pace-Flood thinks a fresh Hall of Fame election makes it more possible for her late husband to earn the honour as a baseball pioneer. “I’m so happy that Marvin [Miller] got in,” she tells William C. Rhoden, longtime New York Times sports columnist now writing for The Undefeated. “I want Curt to follow. There’s unfinished business.”

That business began fifty years ago today, when Flood—writing on the stationery of his portraiture studio—sent commissioner Bowie Kuhn a slightly early Christmas present, refusing to just report to the Phillies like a good little boy and rejecting the idea that he was mere property. “I believe,” he wrote, “that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several states.”

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The Curt Flood letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

To those who believe to this day that the Flood letter was really Marvin Miller’s handiwork, Mrs. Pace-Flood has a reply: “People ask about the letter, they don’t want to believe that he wrote that letter,” she tells Rhoden. “They want to know if Marvin Miller wrote the letter or if Marvin gave him the ideas. No. Marvin did not write the letter. Curt was brilliant.”

Arguably, Flood was the National League’s best defensive center fielder who wasn’t named Willie Mays in the 1960s. He won those seven Gold Gloves consecutively from 1963-69. As would future Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith at shortstop, Flood likewise made himself into a respectably fine hitter as the years of his career went forward. And there was more to him than just a rangy-squared outfielder.

“Flood was a quiet man, a deep thinker, and an independent cuss,” wrote John Helyar in The Lords of the Realm, published three years before Flood’s death. “He told friends on the club that he’d refuse to go if the Cardinals ever traded him. He’d quit before he left St. Louis. He had strong ties to the city, after playing for the Cardinals since 1958, and had begun a photographic and art business on the side. Flood was an outstanding portrait painter, whose rendering of [Cardinals owner] Gussie Busch hung in the saloon of the owner’s yacht.”

Let it be said that even in the era when owners tended to be paternalistic when not dismissive of their hired hands on the field Busch was somewhat anomalous in how he treated his players. He treated them like princelings, even if you considered that it was patrician patronage.

Busch put baseball’s first million dollar payroll on the field in 1968. He footed the bills for private rooms in top hotels when the Cardinals made road trips. Their homecomings included each player getting a free case of one of his Anheuser-Busch beers. And when the jet age arrived, Busch—who’d previously attached his luxury Pullman car Adolphus to trains for Cardinals players to travel in—flew them aboard charter jets.

He also helped Hall of Famer Stan Musial get into the restaurant business, when Musial bought into the St. Louis steakhouse where among other things fellow Hall of Famer Yogi Berra (a native St. Louisian) met his future wife. He helped Flood start his portrature business. He rewarded Roger Maris for two fine seasons as a Cardinal to finish his troubled career with a particularly profitable Anheuser-Busch distributorship after Maris retired.  He’d hand Hall of Famers Lou Brock a yacht and Bob Gibson a luxurious motor home upon their retirements.

And after the players threatened a spring 1969 strike over getting a hike in the owners’ contribution to their pension plan, a hike they eventually got when they could still high tail it to the spring camps and get into game shape, Busch responded by walking into his players’ spring training clubhouse in St. Petersburg with a few brewery directors and delivered a lecture that only sounded the essence of calm reason.

It was really an old-fashioned patrician dressing down to the plebeians. “I hope that many millions of fans will retain their loyalty to baseball,” Busch was quoted as telling them. “We are going to do everything we can to make sure they do . . . I don’t react well to ultimatums. I don’t mind negotiations—that’s how we get together—but ultimatums rub me the wrong way, and I think ultimatums rub the fans the wrong way . . . ”

When reporters also present asked for comments, not one Cardinal said a word, probably too stunned to speak. “One of the players,” Helyar wrote, “stood there in a particularly raging silence. His name was Curt Flood.” Flood himself held out on his own for a raise for 1969 and got it, but Busch’s clubhouse speech sounded to him as though he “had been telling us to behave or get out. I no longer felt like a $90,000 ballplayer but like a green recruit.”

Flood became a Cardinal in the first place thanks to a 1957 trade that sent him there from the Reds in a five-player swap, and he’d sworn he’d do what it took never to be traded again. Now, after the 1969 Cardinals finished fourth in the new National League East, as Helyar quoted him, Flood told a friend, “There ain’t no way I’m going to pack up and move twelve years of my life away from here. No way at all.”

By November 1969, Flood called Miller to say he wanted to challenge baseball’s abused reserve system, by which the owners used the actual reserve clause’s one-firm/one-option year on player contracts to bind them for life or until the owners saw fit to trade or sell them. The Players Association agreed to foot the bill for Flood’s legal expenses, but first Flood wanted to try his luck with Kuhn. Hence the letter. And, hence, Kuhn’s reply just prior to New Year’s Day, as legendary sportswriter Red Smith put it: “Run along, sonny, you bother me.”

Known officially as Flood vs. Kuhn, the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Before it was decided, the Cardinals were hit with a 1972 contract holdout, a 21-year-old catcher who’d just established himself as the number one Cardinal behind the plate. Before the kid was finished he’d expose another rupture in the owners’ armours.

Ted Simmons wanted $30,000; the Cardinals wouldn’t go much past $20,000. Simmons played under an automatic renewal, unsigned. As his season grew more torrid, he got a shock at the All-Star break, when he was in Atlanta as the NL’s reserve All-Star catcher: the Cardinals were ready to hand him $70,000: the $30,000 he wanted for 1972 and $45,000 for 1973.

With Simmons’s new signing the Cardinals betrayed a secret: the owners would rather open the vaults and hand a kid seventy large than let him even think about a reserve clause test. Then came the bad news for Flood, whose legal team included former Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg: the Supreme Court ruled against him.

The good news: Flood kicked a door open just a little bit. The Court itself called the reserve clause “an anomaly” and “an aberration” but decided it should be remedied by Congress. Which was akin to sending a lunch argument between two sharks to be remedied by a barracuda. Someone among the owners who didn’t have oatmeal for brains tried to warn them. “As the champagne corks popped,” Helyar wrote, “[owners’ negotiator] John Gaherin still cautioned: Flood’s defeat hadn’t brought an end to the forces of change; it had only bought them some time.”

Hall of Fame pitcher Catfish Hunter would kick the door open further after the 1974 season. When Athletics owner Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted-for insurance payment to Hunter, he took it to arbitration—and won, with the arbitrator declaring the contract breached and Hunter a free agent. Kuhn’s failed bid to get it overturned failed when Miller threatened a lawsuit.

Thus Hunter became the target of a bidding war that brought Hunter offers of, essentially, the galaxy, safe passage through the Cardassian Empire, grazing rights on Bejor, and a fleet of luxury starships. Kidding. Sort of. Hunter ended up taking the third most valuable package among the offers, from the Yankees, because of the money distribution he wanted including an annuity for his children’s education.

Hunter taught the world what a top of the line baseball player could get on a fair and open job market in a very profitable industry, in essence. All that was left was for some player, any player, to have the moxie to chase it for reasons having nothing to do with breach of contract and everything to do, more or less, with treating the reserve clause in strict interpretation. Meaning that the contract expired legally after the player had played his mandated first year and his team-optioned second year.

After the owners continued stalling on salary arbitration, which Gaherin himself believed might have forestalled the absolute end of the reserve system, one of the National League’s best pitchers refused to sign his 1975 contract after being enraged when Dodgers general manager Al Campanis “injected a deeply ‘personal issue'” into their talks.

From that moment Andy Messersmith refused to talk to anyone lower than Dodger president Peter O’Malley. He also refused to sign any deal that didn’t include a no-trade clause, refusing to let the Campanises determine his career path. Messersmith pitched without signing a 1975 contract no matter how much money the increasingly edgy Dodgers offered as the season went on. (It may have reached as high as $550,000 over three years.)

This was no ordinary pitcher. Messersmith led the 1975 National League in shutouts, complete games, and innings pitched, with a 2.29 earned run average, a 3.09 fielding-independent pitching rate, and the lowest hits-against-per-nine rate in the league with 6.8. Not until August 1975 did Miller present himself to Messersmith, when the pitcher was the last unsigned player to remain unsigned and finally agreed to file the grievance seeking free agency.

Arbitrator Peter Seitz tried to persuade the owners to take the case away and negotiate, even offering to be the mediator if they did. They didn’t, and Messersmith won. Ted Simmons nailed it in one simple statement: “Curt Flood stood up for us. [Catfish] Hunter showed us what was out there. Andy showed us the way.”

“I never went into this for the glory and betterment of the Players Association. At the start, it was all personal,” Messersmith said in due course. “The money was incredible, but they wouldn’t being the no-trade clause to the table . . . Now I understood the significance of what this was all about. I was tired of players having no power and no rights.”

Messersmith finished what Flood began. Today, with Miller finally elected to the Hall of Fame despite his late-life demurrals (he died in 2012), there’s a small swell hoping that Flood will receive the same honour as a baseball pioneer. Including new Yankee pitcher Gerrit Cole, who signed a deal about which Flood himself could only have fantasised, nine years and $324 million, average annual value $36 million.

When Cole was introduced formally as a Yankee, he paid tribute to Flood, Simmons, Hunter, and Messersmith. “[C]hallenging the reserve clause was one of the first stepping stones to ultimately the system we have today, which I believe brings out the genuine competitiveness that we have in baseball,” Cole told the presser. “I just think it’s so important that players know the other sacrifices that players made in order to keep the integrity of the game where it is.”

Flood wasn’t entirely alone during his challenge. Teammates supported him morally. So did Dick Allen, to whom the trade was liberation day. Trial testimony on Flood’s behalf came included from Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson (Mrs. Pace-Flood once said his testimony almost brought Flood to tears, coming from his personal baseball idol) and Hank Greenberg. ABC Sports broadcast legend Howard Cosell backed Flood publicly.

But Flood still felt as though on the threshold of a nightmare. “You couldn’t even use the word nervous,” Mrs. Pace-Flood said in a 2017 interview. “It was completely draining for Curt, mentally and physically. It was as if his whole world was going to disappear. All that he had worked for, all that he loved, all that he ever wanted to do—those things were hanging in the balance with the outcome of this case.”

2019-12-24 CurtFloodTedWilliams

Curt Flood, in the Senators’ dugout, next to his manager—Hall of Famer Ted Williams.

After sitting 1970 out, Flood actually tried a baseball comeback—with the Washington Senators, whose otherwise capricious owner Bob Short delivered perhaps the finest gesture of his baseball life on Flood’s behalf. Short made a deal with the Phillies to get negotiating rights to Flood. Then he made Flood an offer he couldn’t refuse: He offered Flood $100,000 for 1971, agreed to pay the money no matter what, and agreed further that, if they couldn’t come to terms for 1972, he’d make Flood a free agent.

The kicker, according to Tom Deveaux’s The Washington Senators 1901-1971: Short wouldn’t put that agreement in writing, since it would violate the rules of the time. And, according to Flood himself, Short would deny those extra conditions existed if they were made public.

The worse news was that Flood no longer had it, and he knew it a little too sadly. He left the team on 27 April, leaving Short a note saying he’d tried but the long layoff proved too much, not to mention having run into financial trouble with his portraiture business. That was putting it politely. The business went bankrupt, and Flood also faced issues with the Internal Revenue Service over the home he’d bought his mother.

Flood bought a bar on Majorca to begin sorting out his shattered life, but in time he returned to America, tried broadcasting with the A’s for a spell, and reconnected with Judy Pace. He also became, of all things, the commissioner of two short-lived professional baseball leagues, the Senior Professional Baseball Association (1988-89) and the United Baseball League (mid-1990s).

“Flood seemed a strange choice to be commissioner of a league that desperately would need the assistance of the major leagues,” wrote Peter Golenbock in his book about the SPBA, The Forever Boys: The Bittersweet World of Major League Baseball as Seen Through the Eyes of the Men Who Played One More Time, published in 1991. “Later I would discover that many of the players considered themselves outcasts from baseball, so perhaps Flood’s choice as commissioner had been fitting after all.”

“Dred Scott in spikes,” George F. Will called Flood in 1993.

There was poetry and portent in the fact that Curt Flood’s career blossomed in St. Louis, the city where Dred Scott had taken his case to court. In 1966, the Cardinals moved into a new stadium that is located just a long fungo from the courthouse where Scott, a slave, argued that he had lived on free soil and therefore should be free . . . [Scott] was not the last time that the Supreme Court would blunder when asked when a man can be treated like someone’s property.

That is the question Curt Flood posed when the Cardinals tried to trade him. They said he had to go wherever they decided to send him. It had always been so, and always would be. He said, well, we’ll just see about that. He rose in rebellion against the reserve clause that denied baseball players the fundamental right to negotiate terms of employment with whomever they chose. He lost the 1970 season and lost in the Supreme Court, but he had lit a fuse.

Six years later—too late to benefit him—his cause prevailed. The national pastime is clearly better because of that. But more important, so is the nation, because it has learned one more lesson about the foolishness of fearing freedom.

Will observed wryly that what was once said of another player could have been said of Flood the center fielder—two-thirds of the earth is covered by water and the rest was covered by Flood. That was nothing compared to the flood he began when he stood on his hind legs and demanded, quietly but firmly, the rights of any working man or woman from the most obscure labourer to the most elevated chief executive officer.

Flood belongs in the Hall of Fame as the citizen who first told baseball seriously that denying a man the right to sell his services fairly and openly was, shall we say, un-American. So does the California guy who finished what Dred Scott in Spikes began, when Flood fired the second shot heard ’round the world one not-so-foggy Christmas Eve.