Fifty years ago today, the Washington Senators’ center fielder disappeared. He was 33 years old at the time, winner of seven consecutive Gold Gloves, a two-time World Series champion and Bob Gibson’s best friend. He could have had years of good baseball left in him, had many things been different.

But he didn’t walk peacefully into some endless cornfield. James Earl Jones never waxed poetic on the silver screen about the player’s tenure, though his impact on the game remains deep.

And he didn’t call a news conference, though at one time reporters would have flocked to him. The man who sued baseball because he felt players should not play their careers locked to one team had summoned a media storm when he wrote Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in the winter of 1969 requesting that he become a free agent rather than report to Philadelphia after the St. Louis Cardinals traded him there.

No, Curtis Flood, once one of the game’s best defensive outfielders and a founding father of modern free agency, quietly fled Washington and the Senators on April 27, 1971. He had tried to change Major League Baseball forever and emerged too scarred to believe he could ever find a home there again.

“It devoured him,” his widow, Judy Pace Flood, a decorated actor for decades whom Flood first saw when she appeared with Willie Mays on “The Dating Game,” said in a phone interview last week. She remembered one of Flood’s teammates with the Senators told her later that “Curt was the saddest person he had ever met or seen. It was awful.”

The last time Pace Flood saw him that year, she was dropping him off at spring training. He was out of shape after missing a year while he refused to report to Philadelphia, and his new Senators manager, Ted Williams, reportedly bemoaned the fact that the team signed him in the first place. He was radioactive, a man who had sued a baseball establishment so powerful that many of his teammates and close friends, Gibson included, were too worried about the consequences to stand alongside him or attend his court hearings.

And he had signed the second-largest contract on the Senators, for $110,000, just less than stalwart Frank Howard was making at the time — plenty for critics to argue that Flood’s big stand was more about self-interest than any broader question of morality. He had fallen into a years-long battle with alcoholism. More than anything, he feared for his life.

Ever since Flood sent that letter to Kuhn, racist letters and hecklers and baseball writers and others had descended upon him with unprecedented force — which is saying something, because Flood had already dealt with plenty of it.

A new level of racism

Flood grew up in Oakland, Calif., where the Black Panthers rose to prominence, watching the early rumblings of the civil rights movement taking hold as he played American Legion ball alongside future major leaguers Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson.

The Cincinnati Reds signed him when he was 17, and when he arrived at the Florida hotel that had been advertised for the Reds’ players, a hotel employee directed him to a cab line out back where he could take a colored cab to the boardinghouse where the Black players lived.

A little more than a year later, after Flood was traded to the Cardinals, he and Gibson tossed their uniforms onto the pile with the rest of their minor league teammates to be washed between games of a doubleheader. The White clubhouse manager yelled and reached for a long pole with a metal hook on the end.

With Flood’s teammates there watching, the clubhouse manager reached into the soggy pile with that pole, hooked the uniforms and removed them from the pile. He explained to Flood that his uniform would have to be handled at the Black cleaners nearby, leaving him to wait in the clubhouse, without his clothes, as his White teammates waited for the next game to begin.

But when Flood wrote his letter to Kuhn in December 1969, in which he argued that the reserve clause that meant a team had control of a drafted player indefinitely “violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several states,” a new level of racism descended upon him.

He spent the 1970 season fielding much of that racism from afar, living in Copenhagen as he sat out the season and lodged his legal complaints. He would eventually lose his case, Flood v. Kuhn, in front of the Supreme Court in 1972 when his lawyer, former Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg — a longtime friend of baseball players’ union hero and Flood supporter Marvin Miller — seemed to fall apart in front of his former colleagues in what Pace Flood remembers as a “terrible” showing.

But in 1971, after he and the Phillies struck a deal with the then-woeful Senators, Flood watched the hate escalate. Angry fans who said Flood was killing the game found ways to get death threats into his car. They threw beers at him when his back was turned to them in the outfield.

Then one day, Flood showed up to the clubhouse at RFK Stadium, a place fortified against outsiders by dogged security, and found a black wreath in his locker.

“He fled for his life,” Pace Flood said. “He said, ‘If they can get that in my locker, they can get to me.’ He thought he was going to be killed.”

So on April 27, 13 games into what had already been a difficult season, Flood just didn’t show up in the clubhouse at all. His teammates wondered. His coaches asked around. Team owner Bob Short eventually received a telegram explaining that Flood had been away from the field too long and his personal problems were mounting, thanking him for understanding. Short posted that note in the clubhouse by way of quiet explanation, more explanation than Pace Flood or even Flood’s mother would get for weeks. Pace Flood wouldn’t see him again for a decade.

In time, they learned Flood had settled on the Spanish island of Mallorca — “Exiled himself,” as Pace Flood put it. He bought a bar that became popular with American naval men stationed there, especially because Flood’s old friend and one of his few supporters in the media, Howard Cosell, would make sure to overnight him tapes of every one of Muhammad Ali’s fights.

The Curt Flood rule

While he was gone, baseball players, led by Miller, collectively bargained the reserve clause out of existence, and the beginning of modern free agency began. Eventually, the Curt Flood rule would be written into every major league contract, guaranteeing that any player who has been in the majors for 10 years and played with the same team for at least five straight years must give his consent before he can be traded.

Years later, in 1998, Congress adopted the Curt Flood Act, which required that MLB followed antitrust laws when it came to employee practices — though by then, free agency was well-entrenched anyway. And while Flood never benefited from any of those changes, many around the game credit him with advancing the cause by arguing that the reserve clause, which prevented players from seeking employment with whomever they choose, was more than a form of financial suppression but a moral one.

“I do not believe I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes,” Flood wrote to Kuhn in that 1969 letter, which now resides at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“It took an African American to really see quite clearly how wrong it was,” Pace Flood said, remembering that while many of Flood’s contemporaries didn’t testify on his behalf when the case was being litigated, Jackie Robinson did, and his idol’s appearance and support left Flood in tears.

Eventually, Flood made his way back to Oakland. He rekindled his romance with Pace Flood, and the two were married in 1984. He kept his eyes open for opportunities to get back into baseball, though they were not quick in coming, helping on A’s broadcasts for a season before taking the lead on a newly forged MLB senior circuit.

Soon, people around the game began to shower Flood with the appreciation he never could seem to find when he lodged his case. Organizations as wide ranging as the NAACP and the AFL-CIO honored him. When he was diagnosed with throat cancer in the mid-1990s, the players’ union offered to pay for his expenses until his death in 1997. Just last year, Flood received the ultimate tribute from his last baseball home when members of Congress began a lobbying campaign to get Flood inducted to the Hall of Fame — that the author of a sport-altering letter should exist there along with it.

“Inducting Flood into the Hall of Fame would be a fitting tribute to an African American player who stood up for what was right, even though he knew there would be consequences for him,” Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “It took courage and guts — something we could use more of today.”