St. Louis Cardinals

Greatest Cardinals No. 13: OF Curt Flood

NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.

No. 13: OF Curt Flood

If there’s anyone Mike Trout needs to thank for his record-breaking, $430 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels, it’s Curt Flood.

Because built into the legacy of the former Cardinal outfielder’s fight against baseball’s reserve clause is a robust free agent market where teams bid against one another for top talent. All players have benefited by Flood’s fight.

But making players rich isn’t why Flood sued baseball for free agency back in 1969.

Flood initially signed with the Cincinnati Reds straight out of high school in 1956 and was surprised to find that the spring-training accommodations arranged for him and other black players were separate from the white players. The racism he experienced while playing in the Carolina and South Atlantic League was even more blatant.

He couldn’t have meals with his teammates or stay with them in the same hotels. Most didn’t speak to him anyway.

Flood recalled watching a clubhouse attendant use a stick with a nail to separate his dirty uniform from the laundry pile so it could be washed separately at a black-only cleaners. And the chatter directed to him from the grandstands could be cruel.

“They called me everything but a child of God,” Flood would say.

The reserve clause, to Flood, was more oppressive than the segregated south, in that it reduced players to little more than the personal property of team ownership. He compared it to slavery.

So when the Cardinals tried to trade him to Philadelphia, even though he was no longer under contract with the team, he refused to be a bartering chip and sued Major League Baseball for his free agency.

Contrary to popular assumption, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Flood, refusing to break with a precedent set in a 1922 decision. Within five years, because other players took up the fight, his cause still won.

The sacrifice was all Flood’s, though. Apart from a 13-game comeback attempt with the Washington Senators in 1971, he never played baseball again. His career was all but over by the time he was 32. In the meantime, stress took its toll in the form of alcoholism, legal trouble and financial loss.

Another byproduct of Flood’s legacy as the “father of free agency” — albeit a less important one — is that it has obscured his brilliance as a ballplayer.

Flood was one of the best outfielders of his day and was vital to three National League pennants and two World Series championships in the 1960s. His ability to hit from behind in the count made him the perfect protection in the lineup for leadoff hitter and base burglar Lou Brock.

St. Louis acquired him from Cincinnati for a trio of pitchers in 1958. As the team’s starting center fielder, Flood joined a young core of players that would help reverse the frustration of the 1950s.

The rebuilt Redbirds challenged for the pennant by 1963, when they won 93 games and flew into second place, just six games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers. Flood, who hit no worse than .296 in each of the previous two years, batted .302/.345/.402 with a career-best 112 runs scored and 34 doubles. He also won the first of seven consecutive Gold Glove Awards, joining Pittsburgh’s Roberto Clemente and San Francisco’s Willie Mays as the era’s standard bearers for defensive excellence in the outfield. It also was the first of six straight years Flood would receive votes for Most Valuable Player.

During the miracle year of 1964, when the Cardinals rallied from 6 ½ back with 13 games left to catch the Phillies and win the pennant, Flood was the National League leader in hits with 211 while batting .311/.356/.378. He had two RBIs in Game 1 of the World Series, which the Cardinals won over the New York Yankees in seven games.

Flood found some pop in his bat in 1965 when he added 11 home runs and a career-best 83 RBIs to a .310/.366/.421 slash line.

But his career year came in 1967. St. Louis won 101 games to run away with its second pennant in four years, then took down the Boston Red Sox in a seven-game World Series. Several Cardinals enjoyed big years, including catcher Tim McCarver, Brock and NL MVP Orlando Cepeda, the first baseman. Flood batted a career-best .335/.378/.414 and knocked in the first run of a crucial Game 3 series victory.

13 Curt Flood catch.jpg
A high leap by St. Louis’ Curt Flood in front of gate in Wrigley Field right center field wall brings down long drive by Nelson Mathews of Chicago Cubs in fifth inning of game in Chicago, Sept. 18, 1962.(AP Photo) ASSOCIATED PRESS

The next year was a near carbon-copy of the one before, with the Cardinals building a nine-game lead over the Giants to cinch the league championship and Flood topping the .300 mark for the fifth time in seven seasons. But the 1968 season ended in disappointment, in part, because of Flood’s rare misplay of a fly ball.

The Cardinals built a three-games-to-one lead over Detroit in the World Series, but the Tigers won Games 5 and 6 to force a decisive seventh game at Busch Stadium II. Starting pitchers Bob Gibson and Mickey Lolich had battled through six scoreless innings when, in the Detroit half of the seventh, Norm Cash and Willie Horton each got two-out hits.

The next batter, Jim Northrup, hit a hard liner to dead center field. Flood’s first step was in toward the plate, then he slipped on the damp outfield grass as the ball sailed over his head toward the wall. Northrup ended up with a triple and both runs scored on a ball Flood admitted he should have caught. St. Louis ended up losing the game, 4-1, and what would have been their second championship in a row.

The Cardinals fell into fourth place in 1969, the first season of divisional play. Though he’d had a decent year — .285 with 31 doubles, 80 runs and the last of his Gold Gloves — Flood had been in tense standoff with the team ownership over salary. Five days after the season ended, on Oct. 7, the Cardinals informed Flood he’d been traded along with McCarver, Joe Hoerner and Byron Browne to Philadelphia for Dick Allen, Jerry Johnson and Cookie Rojas.

He met with Phillies General Manager Bob Quinn, who offered him $10,000 more than he had demanded from the Cardinals. But Flood’s home and business were in St. Louis and Philadelphia had been a second-division team whose fans were known for some of the same things he’d experienced in the minor leagues. He refused to play for the Phillies and it’s from there that the remainder of the story unfolds.

But Flood regained his sobriety and married actress Judy Pace (who played Gale Sayer’s wife in “Brian’s Song”). A gifted artist, his well-known portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King now hangs in the White House.

Throat cancer took Flood’s life in 1997, but he would earn two final accolades. Time magazine named him one of the 10 most influential athletes of the 20th century and, in 2015, he was inducted into the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame.

SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1958-1969

KEY STATS

.293/.342/.389 in St. Louis | 7 Gold Gloves | 3x All-Star | 2 WS rings | 42.3 WAR | Cardinals HoF’15

TOP 100 SCORE: 4.69

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BND Assigning News Editor Todd Eschman has won numerous state and regional awards for his columns, feature stories and news reporting. He was born and raised in Belleville, attended SIU-Carbondale, and is a member of the BBWAA, SABR and St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame.
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