I recently caught my first ever episode of Studio 42 with American Treasure Bob Costas® on the MLB Network. Costas interviewed Bob Gibson and Tim McCarver for the whole hour and had me fascinated from the get-go. Gibson is disarmingly genial for a guy who threw 96 mph fastballs at opponents just because, and McCarver is as great an interviewee as he is awful an interviewer/commentator. Credit to Costas for covering everything from segregated Spring Training facilities to losing World Series efforts against the Yankees and Tigers.
One topic they hit on was Curt Flood, who played center field for those sixties Cardinals teams. It was the rare discussion of Flood purely as a ballplayer. His teammates asserted – and Costas backed them up on this – that Flood was among the best defensive center fielders of all time, with better range than Willie Mays. As Gibson chatted about Flood the teammate, and Flood the player, I realized that before this interview I knew next to nothing of Curt Flood playing baseball. I knew Flood the Martyr, Flood the Patron Saint of Free Agents, but not Flood the baseball player.
This realization sent me down a thought-spiral on memory and legacy and all that stuff. For me Curt Flood isn’t so much a ballplayer as a symbol, a historic figure, a memory. Because he challenged the reserve clause, Flood represents something way bigger in baseball history than his contributions on the field. But maybe instead of complementing a fine career, the legal battles have caused Flood’s achievements to be overlooked.
Hell, between 1963 and 1969, Curt Flood, Willie Mays, and Roberto Clemente won every National League Gold Glove for outfielders. Then, in 1970, it was Flood, Clemente, and Pete Rose. Flood was a decent hitter, but not a superstar like those guys. He wasn’t winning these awards because his offensive production prejudiced voters. Flood made a couple of All Star games too.
From what I’ve read, Curt Flood was a hell of a guy. You have to be bold to take a baseball contract dispute to the Supreme Court, risking your own career to prove a point for your fellow ballplayers. He wrote (not recited to a sportswriter, but really wrote) a book, part autobiography and part critical essay on the commercial realities of baseball as run by the freewheeling and unchecked owners of the time. He owned a bar in Spain. He was commissioner of the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association. And sadly, Flood died young, of throat cancer at just 59 years old.
I wonder what a guy like Curt Flood, whose interests and perspective extended far beyond the diamond, would think of his legacy. I wonder if he’d feel overlooked as a ballplayer, or proud to be something more. Let’s face it, you don’t get rock songs written about you for just tracking down lots of fly balls in center field.
Then yesterday, obviously due to his concern with my current-train-of-thought, Donald Fehr stepped down as head of the MLB Player’s Association. Fehr came up as a lawyer, general counsel to the MLBPA, and prodigy of former Flood co-conspirator Marvin Miller. The first reaction I read to Fehr’s retirement was from Darren Rovell on CNBC.com. Rovell framed the story, and Fehr’s career in about the least surprising way possible:
I thought it was cool that Rovell, who is generally more interested in the businessy and right-now side of things, jumped straight to a piece on legacy. But the way he framed Fehr’s legacy, as either all-about, or not-totally about steroids leaves no room for nuance. Steroids will be a part of the discussion for a long time, but maybe the immediacy of it all makes these issues hard to process.
I recently swore to myself I would stop writing about steroids, because nothing good can come of it anymore, but this is only tangentially related. Fehr ran the MLBPA during the “steroid era.” Until the end, when public suspicion grew into public outrage, he defended the players from accountability on the issue of performance enhancers. But as head of the union wasn’t that his job? Wouldn’t it be fairer to see Fehr in the same light we see defense attorneys? For there to be dialogue, doesn’t somebody need to argue the less popular point? It only got interesting because Fehr was so much better at it than Selig and his cohorts.
Did people know in 1972 that Curt Flood would be the Reserve Clause Guy? Maybe, but if the Reserve Clause wasn’t overturned three years after Flood struck the opening blow, that battle might have been a mere footnote, a triviality.
Then again, what else has Don Fehr really done? His wikipedia page is terribly short.
*Bonus video: Billy Bragg, Power In The Union: