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.

The second shot heard ’round the world

2019-12-24 CurtFlood

“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.”

2019-12-24 CurtFloodLetter

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.