Seeing Curt Flood wear a red curly “W” hat is just one of the bittersweet images from HBO’s new documentary on the former center fielder who challenged baseball’s reserve clause with a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. By the time Flood played for the Washington Senators and manager Ted Williams, his skills had eroded and it was quickly clear he was finished as a major leaguer.
Flood had sat out the 1970 season after the St. Louis Cardinals traded his rights to the Philadelphia Phillies. He risked his career and forever altered his life by taking the game to court over its rule that bound players to their original teams. The Senators dealt for him and persuaded him to come to spring training in Pompano Beach, Fla., in 1971.
The dazzling defender who had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated in his heyday with the Cardinals never materialized with Washington. He played his final 13 big league games with the Senators, hitting .200 in 35 at-bats with no extra-base hits and no stolen bases.
Still, it should interest Washington baseball fans to see the glimpses of Flood with the Senators in “The Curious Case of Curt Flood,” which debuted Wednesday. He’s more known in this town for Flood v. Kuhn, a case that didn’t go his way but helped set the stage for free agency in baseball.
Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally may have truly ushered in a new era for the players in 1975, but former union head Marvin Miller makes clear in the documentary the courage Flood had and the influence his actions had on labor matters. Like so much in Flood’s life, it took years for him to feel properly recognized. Players of his day hardly backed him. At least his hero, Jackie Robinson, and players of more recent vintage let him know how they felt and he was able to be more at peace before his death in 1997.
The documentary is directed by Cleveland Park native Ezra Edelman. For more on Edelman, check out the last note in Sunday’s Capital Buzz post from Thomas Heath. Among the interviewees are Hall of Famer Bob Gibson and author Brad Snyder, who wrote “A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports.”