Who is the most important player in the history of Major League Baseball?
This is not the same as asking who the greatest player in the history of Major League Baseball is, though one could certainly make the case that Babe Ruth is in contention for both titles. Babe Ruth is the all-time leader in every major version of Wins Above Replacement, and if a new one were to emerge, its creator would immediately be forced to justify it if anyone other than Ruth topped the list. And while great, famous baseball players existed before Ruth, none came close to reaching his level of ubiquity—even today, children born more than a half century after his death know Ruth’s name.
While I cannot argue against Babe Ruth, my pick would be Jackie Robinson. The Brooklyn Dodgers infielder was a great player, but his role in breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier is pivotal in shaping the direction of the sport (and society). For his contributions to the sport, and to mark the 50th anniversary of his debut, in 1997, Major League Baseball announced the retirement of Robinson’s #42 across the sport. And following Mariano Rivera’s retirement, the number, except for on April 15 of every year, officially went out of circulation.
While 1997 marked the retirement of #42 across the sport, the number was retired by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1972. Babe Ruth’s #3 was retired by the New York Yankees in 1948. While the league-wide retirement has only happened once, other vitally important baseball players such as Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron have at least received the honor on a team level.
Twelve numbers have been retired by the St. Louis Cardinals. Like most teams, the greatest player in franchise history’s number is among the retired—Stan Musial’s #6 was removed from circulation the day his playing career ended. Unlike most teams, the most important player in franchise history’s number remains in use—it has been worn in all but three seasons since his departure from St. Louis and was most recently used by relief pitcher Brett Cecil.
The most important player to ever wear a St. Louis Cardinals uniform is Curt Flood, and his #21 should be retired by the organization.
Flood’s importance extends beyond his performance on the field, but on purely statistical merits, he has an argument for the honor. Of the eight players who outrank Flood by Wins Above Replacement, five have their number retired by the Cardinals, one played before the Cardinals had uniform numbers (Rogers Hornsby), and another remains active in Major League Baseball and his number has not been issued since his departure (Albert Pujols). Only Ted Simmons had a more productive tenure as a Cardinal than Curt Flood without having his number retired.
The WAR gap between Simmons and Flood is 2.6 wins, and depending on personal taste, there is a case that Flood is indeed the most deserving player without his number retired. While Simmons was perhaps the more well-rounded player of the two, Flood had the most distinct skill—elite defense in center field for the Cardinals. He was recognized in his time for his superior fielding, winning seven consecutive Gold Gloves in his final seven years in St. Louis, and modern metrics confirm his reputation—by Defensive Runs Above Average, Flood ranks 9th among all center fielders in history.
And yet, as strong as Flood’s on-field credentials are, I would not bother advocating for him if he were merely a really good player on the Cardinals from fifty years ago. Curt Flood’s number should be retired because of the indelible mark he left on Major League Baseball.
Flood’s importance to baseball beyond his Hall of Very Good playing career began after he was traded by the Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies following the 1969 season. Flood, who had spent twelve years in St. Louis, was unhappy about the trade and did not want to play for the Phillies, and in coordination with Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Marvin Miller, petitioned MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn that Flood should be allowed to court offers from other teams for the 1970 season.
Flood was not under a contract in the modern sense; rather, because of the Reserve Clause, players’ rights were maintained by teams following the expiration of their contracts. Players were effectively at the mercy of teams to pay them—without competition from other baseball teams, the alternative to playing for the team which maintained one’s rights was to not play baseball. In 1970, Curt Flood, coming off a typically strong season and just two years removed from a 4th place National League Most Valuable Player finish, did precisely that. After the 1970 season, Flood was traded to the Washington Senators. In 1971, he played 13 games and made 40 plate appearances. Flood made his final appearance in the Majors on April 25th of that season. He was 33 years old.
Curt Flood filed a lawsuit against Major League Baseball in early 1970 and continued through with it all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In a controversial 1972 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 in favor of the owners in Flood v. Kuhn. But while Flood and the players lost this battle, the stage was set for free agency. In 1975, pitchers Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith successfully challenged the Reserve Clause, thus becoming free agents. In 1976, a new Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and the MLBPA ushered in an expanded version of free agency.
At the time, Curt Flood was not beloved. Many fans saw Flood as a man with a glamorous profession who made an above-average wage, rather than as a man whose profession allowed him a very brief window to earn a lifetime’s worth of income and whose earnings were artificially limited thanks to a system designed to increase profits for team owners who were much wealthier than the players. But most importantly, Flood was upsetting the status quo—it wasn’t that most fans were anti-players or pro-owners, it was that most fans just wanted to see baseball as they knew it.
But baseball needed to change. From a purely selfish, fan standpoint, free agency led to an explosion in player salaries which even further incentivized players to reach the Majors. From an ethical standpoint, free agency allows players to earn what they are truly worth. The current system is not a perfect meritocracy, but it is a substantial improvement from where baseball stood before Curt Flood took his stand.
I am generally opposed to number retirements. Will future generations care about Dizzy Dean? More importantly, is there any specific reason they should? Sure, he was a great player, but great players come and go. If the St. Louis Cardinals exist for a thousand years into the future, a majority of the records which exist today will be surpassed. But the historical significance of Curt Flood, to the Cardinals and to baseball, transcends his impressive statistics. How the decision to place Curt Flood’s name and likeness on the left field wall between Lou Brock and Whitey Herzog ages is not contingent on other players not surpassing his numbers—Flood’s stature is assured for the remainder of baseball history.
Curt Flood died on January 20, 1997 of pneumonia. Today would have been his 80th birthday. He is the most important baseball player in the history of the St. Louis Cardinals franchise. The Cardinals should recognize him as such.