Kindred spirits

While Martin Luther King Jr. was changing the world, his example inspired Curt Flood to change baseball and sports. Today we honor them both.

By Jerry Crasnick

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Long before Curt Flood sacrificed his career to challenge baseball’s reserve clause and pave the way for free agency, he followed his conscience to advocate for social change. As a young ballplayer in the 1960s, Flood spoke out against segregated spring training camps in Florida and traveled to Mississippi with Jackie Robinson to support non-violent protests organized by the NAACP.

 

Flood never met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But the late Civil Rights icon, through his words and actions, inspired and emboldened Flood to become a pioneer.

Today -- Jan. 18, 2021 -- marks a historical two-fer. As America celebrates Martin Luther King Day, the occasion coincides with what would have been Curt Flood’s 83rd birthday. King lost his life to an assassin’s bullet in 1968 and Flood died of throat cancer in 1997. But they remain transcendent figures who changed the world at immense personal cost.

“They were both incredible people who weren’t just doing it for themselves,’’ said Judy Pace Flood, Curt Flood’s widow. “They were doing it because they saw extreme, absolutely devastating wrongs, and they both stepped forward knowing the dangers. Once Curt stepped out there, he knew his whole life was going to change.’’

Photo Courtesy of Judy Pace Flood / 

Curt, Judy & daughters Attorney Shaw Mitchell

and Actress Julia Pace Mitchell

Photo Courtesy of Britannica

Flood’s failed Supreme Court challenge, which preceded an arbitrator’s decision to declare Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free agents in 1975, is often portrayed in a sporting context. But it was in many respects an extension of King and the Civil Rights movement. Flood’s desire to make an impact beyond the ball field was fueled by the racial injustice he experienced first-hand as a black professional athlete in the 1950s and ‘60s.

 

Born in Houston and raised in Oakland, Calif., Flood was a product of McClymonds High School, the alma mater of Bill Russell, Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson. Raised in a racially tolerant, inclusive environment, he endured a series of degradations in his early minor-league stops in the Jim Crow South.

Flood hit .340 for Class B High Point-Thomasville in North Carolina as an 18-year-old in 1956, and he was recognized as the Carolina League’s outstanding player. But he had to sit on the bus and wait while his manager and teammates went inside and retrieved his award. Upon arrival in St. Louis two years later, he lived in a “house of ill repute’’ for three months, said Judy Pace Flood, because no suitable lodging was available.

“Most people don’t understand the experience of that first generation of Major League Baseball players of African-American descent, and what they went through when they went to the deep south,’’ Pace Flood said. “They could not live with their teammates. They could not eat with their teammates. They had to sit in the back of the bus. Before the Civil Rights movement, it was a jarring, extreme experience. It was horrific.’’

A common tale

Flood’s story is familiar to dozens of black players in the 1950s and ‘60s. Dusty Baker, whose career as a major-league player and manager spans 53 years, grew up in Sacramento, Calif., listening to voices across the political and social spectrum. His father was active in the NAACP and gravitated toward the teachings of King, while his mother, a black studies teacher, leaned toward Angela Davis and Malcolm X and a more anti-establishment viewpoint.

Baker read Sepia, Ebony and Jet magazines -- popular African-American publications of the day -- and became versed in the teachings of King. He was a teenager when King delivered his seminal “I Have a Dream Speech’’ in 1963 in Washington, D.C.

“He spoke to the common man, in a highly intellectual but Biblical sense of the word,’’ Baker said. “He was a combination of a preacher and a scholar at the same time.’’

Baker was 18 years old and working his way through Atlanta’s minor-league system when King and Senator Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated in a two-month span in 1968.

“It hit us deep, deep, deep in the heart,’’ Baker said. “It made a lot of people who were trying to be peaceful feel militant. Personally, I’ve had to repel some of my own anger because of the injustices I’ve seen. I had to remember the words of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and my auntie when they talked about ‘forgiveness.’’’

As a minor leaguer with the Braves, Baker received a cultural awakening. In the summer of 1968 in Greenwood, S.C., he lived in the black and Latino section of town in an apartment behind Mama’s Soul Food Kitchen. One night a week, Baker watched TV at the home of a white host family where teammate Bob Didier was living. But he routinely left at 8:45 p.m. and missed the final 15 minutes of the popular western drama “Gunsmoke’’ because blacks had to be off the streets by a 9 o’clock curfew.

As a teammate and protégé of the great Hank Aaron, Baker had a box seat to history. He came to know Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy and other King disciples who carried on the reverend’s work out of their headquarters in Atlanta. When Baker played in the Triple-A International League in 1969, he made a pilgrimage to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where King was fatally shot by James Earl Ray a year earlier. In later years, he took numerous friends to Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King gave his first sermon at age 19, MLK and Congressman John Lewis were memorialized at funeral services, and Raphael Warnock preached from 2005 until his recent election to the U.S. Senate from Georgia.

Baker became friendly with Curt Flood through Orlando Cepeda, a member of the St. Louis Cardinals when Flood made three All-Star teams and won seven consecutive Gold Glove awards from 1963-1969.

“Orlando called him Curtis,’’ Baker said. “He loved him. He used to say, ‘If it hadn’t been for Willie Mays, Curt would have been the best center fielder in baseball.’ Orlando had a favorite word that he used to describe him. He said Curt was ‘heavy.’’’’

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A lasting impact

That portrait has emerged in scores of personality profiles over time. Flood was student body president in high school and an intellectually curious, complex individual who defied quick characterization.

“Flood . . . was not like most ballplayers,’’ wrote Brad Snyder in “A Well-Paid Slave,’’ his 2007 Flood biography. “He would joke around with his teammates one minute and stick his head in a book the next. He spoke in a soft, soothing voice and sounded like a college professor. He liked to draw, played classical music by ear, and taught his best friend and road roommate, Bob Gibson, how to play the ukulele.’’

While his contemporaries read the Sporting News for box scores, wrote Snyder, Flood expanded his world view through the works of black author James Baldwin.

Flood was a Jesse Jackson delegate at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, said Judy Pace Flood, and he was one of several prominent athletes who served as foot soldiers in the advancement of the Civil Rights movement. Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) and Jackie Robinson were among the other influential voices supporting King in his mission.

Civil Rights and worker rights inevitably became intertwined. King was a champion of unions and a strong advocate for the labor movement in America, and Flood set the wheels in motion for change in the sports world in December 1969 when he sent a letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn with the declaration, “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.’’ Flood had refused to accept a trade from St. Louis to Philadelphia, and a free-agent revolution was under way.

Flood paid a price for his stance. After a 13-game cameo with the Washington Senators in 1971, he was out of baseball by age 33. He received death threats and a flood of hate mail and spent several years running a bar in Spain before returning to the U.S.

Fifty years after that personal sacrifice, Flood is gaining momentum as a Baseball Hall of Fame Era Committee candidate in a way that never occurred when he was on the baseball writers’ ballot. Pitcher Gerrit Cole delivered an impromptu history lesson to active players when he thanked Flood and Marvin Miller, the first executive director of the MLB Players Association, upon signing a nine-year, $324 million contract with the New York Yankees in December 2019.

Flood’s personal experiences stoked his passion for change, and Martin Luther King was both an inspiration and a role model. In hindsight, the Civil Rights movement created momentum for another movement that enhances both their legacies.

 “When Curt was playing, he didn’t understand how (ballplayers) didn’t have the right to say where they wanted to go to work or who they wanted to work for, while (black) people were being bombed, churches were being burned, children were being killed and people were being lynched and marching for the right to vote,’’ said Judy Pace Flood. “They did not have the basic rights that all Americans are supposed to have.

“He thought there was something absolutely wrong when owners would say, ‘You must go over here’ or ‘you must go over there,’ and he went about the business of trying to do something about it. He’s responsible for changing, in all disciplines of sports, the way business was done. He absolutely changed it.’’

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