if curt flood had accepted his trade to the phillies in october 1969, he may well have ended up with 3000 hits. he had just completed his age 31 season and had compiled 1,861 hits -- or 53 hits more than lou brock through the same age. flood was averaging about 180 hits a year; if age dragged that down to, say, 160 a year, he would have reached 2,500 at the age of 35. from there he would simply have needed to stick as a part-time player for a few years late in his career to cross the threshhold, which would have occurred some time in the late 1970s -- maybe a year or two before brock.
so he had a realistic shot at it. keep that in mind as you read alex belth's Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights. though he's gone down in history as the guy who took baseball to court to challenge the reserve clause, flood in his playing days had a reputation roughly akin to that of johnny damon today. damon, coincidentally, just finished his age 31 season -- with fewer hits and a lower career batting avg than flood, while playing in a far more generous offensive era. that's not to speak ill of damon, merely to put flood's career into rough context: if he were playing today, he might command $13 million a year.
belth (a fellow blogger) was kind enough to answer some questions about the book. he'll be at Left Bank Books in the central west end thursday night at 7 pm to talk about flood and sign copies of Stepping Up. i'd urge you to check it out; he is passionate about his subject and knows his baseball. the book belongs on the shelf of any cardinal fan with a sense of history.
VEB: How did you get so interested in Curt Flood?
Belth: I think the interest really originated when I worked as a post-production assistant on Ken Burns's baseball documentary. I got a great perspective working on that movie. Ken Burns edits his films up in Vermont, and he was bringing them down to New York to mix the sound, so I actually saw that documentary inch-by-inch, frame-by-frame, minute-by-minute on a big screen as they were putting the sound together.
That's the first time I saw those interviews with Curt, and they were just so striking to me. There was just something about his appearance, where you could instantly tell, without even really knowing the story, that the guy had been through a lot. He had a kind of glazed look, his eyes were glassy -- it didn't seem like he was incoherent or drunk, but there was just something very absorbing and gripping about him. Even the way he talked -- he was very careful, very deliberate about what he was saying. He is just a very sensitive guy, and I think he really suffered quite a bit for what he did.
A few years later I was able to find a copy of his autobiography, which is long out of print, but there just wasn't very much material available on him. He wasn't a guy that you could just go out and absorb three or four books on him. And eventually, after I had been writing Bronx Banter for about a year, I was approached to write a book on a sports figure. I was asked who would be a good subject, and I thought -- I didn't even think about it, really. I said, "Curt Flood."
VEB: That ghostly image you're describing from the Burns documentaries seems to fit -- the guy transformed the game and yet he's almost invisible. As you started talking to people, looking at archives, doing your research, what surprising things did you find? Were there 2 or 3 things you found out about him that you hadn't expected or that changed the way you perceived him?
Belth: When I first started it, I was really intent on getting to the bottom of what his motivations were for doing what he did. I was born in 1971, and my generation tends to either romanticize or ridicule the `60s. I'm from a left-leaning sensibility myself, but I've always been slightly nauseated by martyr-making, so to speak, whether it's for the left or for the right. So at first I was like: "Did he really do this for the rest of the players? Isn't this too good to be true -- was he really such an idealist?" But after writing this book, I think that's exactly why he did it. It's more complicated than that, but it's something that Flood talks about in the Burns documentary: He says he's a man of the `60s. And researching his life really confirmed that. He was really a product of his time. What he did was not in a vacuum; what he did came after Muhammad Ali, it came after John Carlos and Tommy Smith in the '68 Olympics. It came in the era of guys like Bill Russell and Jim Brown and Oscar Robertson and Frank Robinson.
One of the things Flood had said was that he believed in the American Dream: if you work hard, you will be rewarded for that. And Flood really did live the American Dream. He was the underdog who made it. He was undersized. That's something I really got an appreciation for, which was how small he was -- five foot eight and what did he weigh, 155 pounds?
VEB: By the end of the season.
Belth: Yeah. So he really did live the American Dream. But he also lived the underbelly of the American Dream as well -- the debasement of being a black ballplayer in that time, or being a black man, period, in the time in which he played. I think that made success very difficult for him. All of a sudden, he could go into a restaurant where he hadn't been able to get seated several years before, and people were kissing his ass. And he had to look at the waitstaff or the bussers, who were black, who were not accorded that same sort of treatment. So here's a guy, he lives the American Dream, but because he is black and he is outspoken he exposes the hypocrisy of the American Dream at the same time.
Baseball requires that you have this terrific balance between tension and being loose. Flood really had this terrific combination of toughness and vulnerability. He was obviously tough. To be that small and actually make the major leagues, you had to be tough. To be 18 and 19 years old, coming from Oakland and going to play in the deep South in 1956 and '57, you had to be tough. At the same time, it was Flood's sensitivity that made him aware of the world outside of the ballfield. I think he was a guy who was politically aware and conscientious, and I think it was that vulnerability that enabled him to say, "Hey, listen, I'm going to take a stand here and I will sacrifice my career for something that I feel is right. Even in spite of the fact that I know my chances of winning are minimal." It's his sensitivity that enables him to do that, and yet that also made the repercussions more difficult for him. Because I think that intellectually, he understood what he was taking on when he decided to sue baseball; I think intellectually, he understood that it was a long shot for him to win that case. But I don't think that he was maybe in touch enough with the fact that he was probably emotionally ill-equipped to do it. Mentally, he was there, but emotionally I don't think he was the guy.
VEB: The Cardinal from that era who I would associate with African-American pride was Bob Gibson. That was the guy who seemed to have a consciousness, at the time, that really was steeped in what was going on in the `60s with civil rights and the decay of the inner city and everything else. In his autobiography, which -- the name is escaping me at the moment --
Belth: Ghetto to Glory.
VEB: -- right, Ghetto to Glory. In that book he talks about growing up in the slums surrounded by rats, all his siblings and him crammed together into a few rooms, and you get that sense of someone who has been hardened and has developed a social consciousness. Yet in the book, he's surprisingly candid about saying, "I was right behind Curt -- a hundred feet behind him," I would have thought Gibson would have been the guy who would just be pissed off and say, "Fuck it, I'm suing, I'm not putting up with this." Of course, he never got traded. . . .
Belth: Yeah, that wasn't going to happen to him. At the same time, it underscores the fact that ballplayers were incredibly vulnerable at that point. It was the early days of Marvin Miller and the union, and it was quite different, I think, to be an outspoken African-American in an individual sport like boxing, in the case of Ali, than to be one in a team sport where no matter how big you were, in terms of success, the threat of being shipped down to the minors was very real. I mean, this is the world that these guys grew up in.
It wasn't just because Flood was black that he did what he did. It was because Flood was a particularly special or sensitive person. Because as you say, Gibson didn't stand up; Hank Aaron didn't stand up. And once Flood did stand up, none of these guys were willing to come out and back him up. I think it's a little easy to be backward-looking now and condemn the rest of the players for not having Flood's back, but when you look at the reality of the moment, their insecurities were very real, and I think you need to take that into account.
VEB: Is there a Don Quixote thing here almost? It's almost like the odds were so long and you almost had to be kind of a foolish idealist to do what he did.
Belth: I don't have a definite answer for that, but if we look at ballplayers in general -- maybe ballplayers compared to actors, who have always had a pretty strong union sense about them -- ballplayers look out for themselves. This isn't a judgment on them, I just think that's the case. Flood was somebody who actually did think about other things, rather than just himself. And because he was a talented painter, because he had traveled abroad, I think he really saw life for himself after baseball. But I don't think he could walk away from the money.
Interestingly, everything kind of went downhill for Flood in baseball after game 7 of the '68 World Series, because '69 was a down year for him on the field and a terrible one for him off the field. And I think also when you look at '68 and '69, politically, the left-wing movement really was crashing. It was like a crash and burn thing, and so there almost feels like not only idealism, but a bit of that late-'60s fatalism, maybe self-destructiveness, in Flood's act that made perfect sense for that moment.The Manson murders happened like six weeks before Flood got traded, I think, you know what I mean?
VEB: There's an ironic sense to this, because Flood really acted out of altruistic motives to the greatest extent that we can imagine, but he created essentially now what we consider to be a pretty selfish generation of ballplayers. He lived to see players making eight-figure salaries. How did he feel about that?
Belth: My sense was that he was resentful that he was not given his due. On the other hand, I think that he felt as if the players were the show, and so once they got to be paid figures that were beyond his wildest imagination, I don't think he begrudged the players at all. And I have to say that I'm kind of cautious about using Flood as a way to put down modern ballplayers. The thing that's really a shame is that maybe a lot of ballplayers might not know Flood's story, and that there isn't a greater acknowledgement of what he did do, but I don't know that it's altogether too surprising. I think there should be some sort of acknowledgement of Curt Flood by the Player's Association --- a Curt Flood Award or a Curt Flood Scholarship, something that could really be put to good use.
VEB: In a sense this story's about the rise and fall of an idealistic era, as much as it's about baseball.
Belth: Yeah, what he did was just in the spirit of that moment. I think the irony of Flood's case is that he just missed in a way. His timing was just off. His trial took place in May and early June of 1970, and in May of 1970 the basic agreement agreed on by the players and the owners put in an impartial arbitrator, which ultimately was the vehicle that got Peter Sietz there and was able to topple the reserve clause. What if Flood had been traded a year later. What if Miller had said, "Okay, just try this [arbitrator], no problem." The fact that this case goes to the Supreme Court and you have a bunch of new Justices that are appointed by Nixon -- I mean two years earlier, it could have been a very different story. And the fact that basically the Court said, "Well, baseball's antitrust exemption is an aberration, an anomaly, but we're just not going to do anything about it." I mean, that's the ultimate thing: Flood did what he thought was right, and he was actually proven right. But he still lost.
That's one of the most interesting parts of looking back at someone who was an idealist, is that you look back on it now and you say, okay, he did what he thought was the right thing. That's very admirable. It's a great thing to stand by your ideals, but at the same time there was a heavy price to pay for those ideals. Which isn't to say that he was right or wrong, it's just to say that the reality is also, there is hell to pay for doing the right thing.
Gerald Early gave a presentation on Curt Flood in 2000, and in it he talked about how there were some people in the black community at the time who really did support what Flood did, and other people who were like, "You're a damn fool giving up ninety thousand dollars a year. This isn't progress." Early also suggested that a guy like Flood would have appealed more to white liberals necessarily than to black working class then.
VEB: Well from that standpoint, as you started out saying awhile ago, he was the American Dream, a success story.
Belth: Yeah. "How do you give this up, dude, you made it."
VEB: Came out of the Oakland ghetto, making ninety thousand a year . . .
Belth: I grew up painting and drawing, so one of the things I think was just instantly attractive about him was that he was an artist. And he painted portraits, which I always found very interesting because having had some facility at being able to draw people with a certain degree of likeness as a kid, I knew you can draw somebody and show it to them and you get this kind of instant gratification. So it's interesting that he wasn't painting landscapes or abstract pictures; he was painting portraits. Flood was really quite a people-pleaser. And the fact that he came to be considered an ungrateful or an uppity so-and-so, I think that really devastated him. He was viewed as a selfish $90,000-a-year crybaby who was trying to ruin the game he loved. I think that was really damaging for him.
VEB: Do you think perhaps playing in St. Louis made that worse? St. Louisans have always had a particularly strong identification with their baseball team, but we can be vicious when one of our heroes does us wrong or lets us down. So being a people-pleaser by nature, perhaps Flood suffered even more because of the community he played in?
Belth: I don't know St. Louis well enough, but I don't think that the Cardinal fans turned on Flood. I mean, I don't know that they ever turned on Flood after game 7 of '68. You would probably know that better than I would because you grew up there. Are there any people that you ever talk to that are just like, you say "Curt Flood" and the first thing they say is: "Fucking '68, man."
VEB: No, not at all. It's not a Bill Buckner type of thing whatsoever. People do remember that play, but it's not in a condemning way, it's just kind of part of the mythology of that Series.
Belth: The thing about Flood is that he's often remembered incorrectly. You often hear people say, "Oh yeah, Curt Flood, he was the first free agent, right?" Or, "Curt Flood, yeah his case led to free agency, all these players today, they owe everything to Curt Flood." And he wasn't the first free agent and, literally speaking, the only thing that his case produced was a legal dead-end. I think that what you can say about Flood, definitively, is that Flood was the most prominent player ever to stand up against the reserve clause, and by doing what he did, he exposed on a nationwide level the inequities that existed in baseball. So I think that his legacy is educational, and I mean that in the highest form of praise. He educated the public, he educated his fellow players. Some of his fellow players might have thought he was a damn fool, but other players might have thought, "Hey man, here's some guy who's really willing to put his ass on the line for this."
VEB: Nobody ever wants to go first.
Belth: Right. And talk about ballplayers: who wants to be known as the guy that hit the sacrifice fly? I mean, where's the glory in the sacrifice? It's funny, because fans spend a lot of time praising guys like David Eckstein for being these little scrappy guys.
VEB: And people do love it. Eckstein is clearly, other than Pujols, the favorite in St. Louis because of that quality.
Belth: And that quality also helps when you're white.
VEB: Yeah, well it's interesting though, I mean the way you're describing Flood, he's a little guy who's excelled despite physical limitations. There are some similarities.
Belth: You get a sense with him that he's maximizing what he does have. And I think Flood was very much the same way. From what I hear about him, he wasn't a flashy ballplayer in the way that like Edmonds would be. He was a guy who positioned himself very well, he was very smart, he didn't have a great arm, but he covered a lot of ground. I gotta tell you, the single most frustrating part of this project is that Flood played in an era where there was just not a lot of accessible footage. I spent three years writing about this guy, and there's so much of him that I haven't seen. There are some terrific stills that I've seen, but game footage? I haven't seen that much.
Even the contemporaries that would remember him, they're out of the game or they're passed away. Right now in baseball itself, there's probably a handful of announcers, coaches, and managers that were contemporaries of Flood. Joe Torre was; Tim McCarver. Tony La Russa probably is very cognizant -- because he's also a lawyer -- of Flood's story. But how many other guys? Rob Dibble is not gonna go on Sportscenter and start talking about Curt Flood. It's not to say they don't have an appreciation for it, but they didn't see him play either. By the time they were in the game he was already a distant memory.
VEB: I think of him as this kind of ghost. He became haunted by what he did and the outcome of his case, and yet he kind of haunts the game. There's a sense that people are afraid of him. There's something scary about him because of what he did.
Belth: I think it's true. The players are too involved in the moment to appreciate him, and you know damn well the owners aren't gonna go and recognize him. And that is a remarkable thing. All these years later, over 30 years later, Curt Flood is still too dangerous. What he represents is still too much a threat.