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HBO Revives 'Flood' of Memories
July 11, 2011  | By Eric Mink
 
curious-case-curt-flood-top.jpg
Curt Flood started in center field for the St. Louis Cardinals of my childhood and adolescence. He was an alcoholic. He abandoned his family. He ran away from a team in the middle of a season and never came back. He welched on debts and didn't pay his taxes. He operated a side business that conned fans out of thousands of dollars. He helped the Cardinals win World Series titles in 1964 and 1967, but in the '68 Series, he missed a fly ball in the seventh inning of the seventh game that arguably made the Detroit Tigers that year's champions.

Curt Flood is one of my heroes...

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Irresponsible, dishonorable and self-destructive behavior is not the stuff of which heroes are made, yet Flood's heroism was genuine and true, not only to me but also to countless other fans and, perhaps most especially, to all professional athletes who have come since, and who owe him a debt that is beyond repayment.

How these contradictions co-existed in the person and life of Curt Flood is the animating spirit of a new documentary premiering Wednesday night [July 13] at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

The Curious Case of Curt Flood lays out the triumphant and tragic dimensions of Flood's baseball career and personal life. Its principal narrative thread is the quixotic legal battle Flood waged with the baseball establishment at the peak of his career.

In the fall of 1969, the Cardinals decided to trade Flood and catcher Tim McCarver to the Philadelphia Phillies for slugging outfielder Dick Allen. Flood decided to say no. Player contracts didn't give him the right to say no, but Flood declared he would not allow himself to be treated as if he were someone else's property, no matter how well paid he was.

On January 16, 1970, two days before his 32nd birthday and after intense consultations with the lawyers leading the players' union at the time, Flood filed a federal lawsuit against the most powerful people in Major League Baseball: the team owners, the commissioner, and the presidents of the two leagues. Contract clauses notwithstanding, Flood argued, baseball had neither the legal right nor the moral right to deny any player a say in where and for whom he would work.

As the case crept through the federal court system, Flood's personal life crumbled. He was bombarded by hate mail, death threats and savage racial insults. He was effectively abandoned by former teammates. Relationships dissolved. His money dried up. He drank constantly. He signed with baseball's worst team, the Washington Senators, but his skills had eroded and he quit the team -- by telegram -- never to play again. Then he fled to Denmark without telling anyone where he was going or where he was once he got there.

In the summer of 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Flood, 5-to-3. In its majority opinion, the Court admitted that baseball did not merit special treatment under the law, but it refused to reverse two previous decisions granting it that special treatment.

Flood's downward spiral accelerated. Even three years later, when players' union collective bargaining efforts (energized in large part by Flood's unsuccessful lawsuit) freed players from the absolute control of team owners, Flood was too deep in alcoholism, depression and despair to appreciate it. Not that players seemed inclined to credit him.

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In The Curious Case of Curt Flood, interviews with family members, friends, teammates, professional associates and adversaries, journalists and authors attest to the private agonies that accompanied Flood's all-too-public struggles.

Producer Ezra Edelman and his HBO Sports team keep the screen alive with archival news footage, official and personal photos, game highlights, close-ups of newspaper pages and artful isolations of key passages in legal documents. Flood speaks for himself over the course of some 30 years, in news clips and interviews with the likes of Howard Cosell, Roy Firestone and "Easy" Ed Macauley, a St. Louis college and pro basketball star turned local sportscaster.

This is an extremely tough and unflinching film. It is as sharp and direct in addressing Flood's flaws as it is forthright in celebrating his undeniable athletic skills: a consistently productive hitter (.293 batting average over 15 seasons) and a fielder of extraordinary speed and range (seven straight Gold Glove awards from 1963 through 1969).

Yet relentless honesty -- uncommon as it is in film biographies, sports biographies especially -- is not this film's most remarkable achievement. That distinction belongs to Edelman's success in resolving the seemingly irreconcilable differences between Flood's conduct and our knee-jerk notions of heroism.

The film carefully lays a foundation for this point of view: First, Flood did not stumble into an against-all-odds conflict; he knew precisely what he was getting into. Players' union lawyers counseled him at length that success was unlikely in light of existing Supreme Court precedents. He also understood that even if he prevailed, it would take so long that he would not benefit personally. A victory would be a victory for other current players and for future players, but not for him. Neither point dissuaded Flood from proceeding.

Finally, Flood's character flaws and failings made him an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. Even Flood's closest friends did not dream he was someone who would get into a fight to the finish with the system. But in real life, heroes are not perfect people who act heroically simply because that's what perfect people do. Flood, a distinctly imperfect man, discovered a reservoir of inner courage that allowed him to risk his personal security and well being for the benefit of others.

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After years of self-loathing and life-threatening alcohol abuse, Flood began to find a measure of redemption. He reconnected with a girlfriend he had abandoned decades earlier, actress Judy Pace (right), who encouraged and insisted on his return to sobriety and supported him as he worked on it. They later married, and Judy Pace Flood is credited as a consultant to the HBO documentary. Flood also rebuilt his ravaged relationships with the now-grown children of his first marriage.

But it wasn't until 1994, in the midst of a strike against team owners, that a new generation of major league players gave Flood the acknowledgment and appreciation they owed him for his sacrifice on their behalf.

The Curious Case of Curt Flood is unsparing, but it is not unkind. Curt Flood was a troubled man with a need gnawing inside him. But a need for what: Love? Respect? A place in history? A need to stand up to injustice? To change baseball? To help players? To improve the status of African Americans, as one of his heroes, Jackie Robinson, had done? Probably bits of all those things.

But ultimately he was a flawed human being who was neither thoroughly admirable nor thoroughly deplorable. Just like the rest of us. Except that when his moment came, he acted heroically. Not like very many of us at all.

--

Eric Mink -- ericmink1@gmail.com -- most recently was the Op-Ed editor and columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He previously covered television and media for the Post-Dispatch and the New York Daily News. Mink teaches film studies at Webster University in St. Louis and provides writing and editing services to independent clients.

20 Comments

Good review. Clean and forthright writing - wish I could as well.

Comment posted on July 11, 2011 4:28 PM
 
 

Thanks for the article on Curt. I was an asssociate of his in his painting and was with him when he presented his portrait of Gov. Hearnes to the Governor during a World Series.
I wanted to do it at a game, but things did not go that way and we did it at a breakfast or lunch.
I also took his painting of President Kennedy to
show the people at the John F. Kennedy High and that created a stir at the office until I brought it back.
Right now I am doing blogs for the Eureka-Wildwood Patch and he might be a good subject for one. Once I was at a game and he hit two consecutive pitches, foul balls, to the same fan who caught them both without leaving his seat.

George

Comment posted on July 11, 2011 4:57 PM
 
 
Jim Mayer said:

Fantastic summary, thanks!

Comment posted on July 11, 2011 5:13 PM
 
 

Wow. Great review. Isn't it wonderful that employee/employer relations can evolve over time?
Isn't it terrible that they may devolve just as quickly?

Comment posted on July 11, 2011 5:17 PM
 
 

My own hero and near-contemporary. Can't wait to see it.

Comment posted on July 11, 2011 5:36 PM
 
 
Don Hart said:

A brilliant job of peeling the layers of onion. Curt was a hero of mine as soon as Cincinnati traded him to the Cardinals.

Thanks Eric, when you avoid promoting liberal dogma, it's a pleasure to read your work.

Comment posted on July 11, 2011 5:54 PM
 
 

Excellent review. You use the online medium very effectively. The extra length of the piece compared to the classic print review makes it much better.

Comment posted on July 11, 2011 9:26 PM
 
 

That's a great bio/synopsis. If the movie is as well executed as your review it is a winner. Personally, I don't have time or patience for TV - I don't own one and consequently no TV is worth watching for me. But I still like to read your stuff and miss your regular contributions to the SLPD. I'm glad to be on your email list, Eric. Good luck to you.

- Andy Ayers
formerly: Riddle's Penultimate Cafe & Wine Bar
now: Eat Here St. Louis, LLC

Comment posted on July 11, 2011 9:27 PM
 
 
John said:

I have not seen the film, but I will be sure to see it, thanks to your review, Eric. Coincidentally, right now the Old Testament lessons most churches are reading on Sunday are about Jacob (later Israel) who was definitely a rogue--a very flawed individual--who was the third Patriarch (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) whom God used to create his chosen people and further his purposes in the world. I believe Curt Flood's challenge to the reserve clause was a godly thing to do. I am an alcoholic, like Curt Flood (still recovering for 27 years), but I have not made nearly the sacrifices that he did to right a wrong. I just preached a sermon that argued that we cannot expect to be very successful when we try to join God in his mission to establish the kingdom of God in the face of hostile elites and political, social, and economic systems that support them, but being successful is not what is required. Doing the right thing is what is required. Curt wasn't successful as we understand what that means, but his cause was eventually successful, and I'm glad that the most recent generation of ball players seem to understand what he did for them. Thanks again, Eric, for giving us a cogent and articulate essay on how an HBO movie can widen our horizons about heroism.

Comment posted on July 11, 2011 11:11 PM
 
 
Steven said:

Mr Mink,

Thank you for a wonderful article. I have become sicken how TV has been so dumbed down that I don't watch it anymore but will subscribe to HBO for a month or whatever so I can watch this program.

Yours Truly,

Steven Fieg

Comment posted on July 12, 2011 5:43 AM
 
 
mike said:

I'm almost compelled to sign up for HBO(almost)....great summation, enjoyable read.....just like Dred Scott, there is a presumption that the protagonist won his case.....but in reality only defined the issue for the rest of us to eventually act on......

Comment posted on July 12, 2011 8:26 AM
 
 

This is GREAT, Eric! Thanks for sending. Am forwarding to Myron Holtzman, former writer of the Cardinals Magazine.

Comment posted on July 12, 2011 9:43 AM
 
 
Eric Mink said:

Just a quick correction pointed out by reader Joe Kissane: Dick Allen spent some time in various seasons playing the outfield, but his principal positions were in the infield -- initially at third base and later at first.

Comment posted on July 12, 2011 11:52 AM
 
 

Eric: Great piece. I look forward to watching the documentary.

Comment posted on July 12, 2011 12:07 PM
 
 

Eric, this is truly outstanding, and it may be one of yuor best ever. What you say about the treatment of the life of flood should give pause to all who are concerned with the history of any
field. I entirely share you views about Flood, and your approach to biography.

Mel

Comment posted on July 12, 2011 1:49 PM
 
 

Over the years, my brother and I have often discussed baseball, Cardinal baseball mostly, and our conversations frequently wander back to Curt Flood and his role in today's baseball players' freedom and pay. Eric has done a fantasic job of distilling the life of a conflicted man; I hope that the documentary is half as good. Gotta find somebody with HBO! Thanks, Eric!

Comment posted on July 12, 2011 9:09 PM
 
 

That was a good 'un, as John Lennon once said of one of Paulie's tunes. The Cards were also the team of my youth, since they were then the only franchise close to the deep south. It also helped that I met Dizzy Dean one time when he was in my hometown promoting his charcoal biz in Wiggins, Miss. I'm wondering, Eric, if you think the Flood doc is a good Peabody candidate. If so, I will email board members to be on the lookout.

Comment posted on July 14, 2011 10:41 AM
 
 
Eric Mink said:

I apologize for being so tardy in responding to comments posted here. I'll work backwards, though it's unfair:
NOEL: Hey thanks so much. I know the Cardinals was the team of the south, given the absence of franchises back then -- you being a Mississippi guy and all. Unbelievable that you met Dizzy. I think it's an excellent Peabody candidate.
GLORIA: Thanks for your generous comments. I hope you get to see it soon and let me know your thoughts on it.
MEL: Thanks. Let's not forget to credit producer Ezra Edelman, who also did HBO's Bird and Magic documentary, for such outstanding work.
PETER: Thanks. After you've seen it, tell me what you think.
JOANIE: Thanks, and it's very nice of you to forward it to Myron. I'd bet he knew Flood, at least to some degree.
MIKE: Thanks. You catch an important distinction. The Dred Scott comparison is a tad excessive, I think, but it's not totally without foundation.
STEVEN: Hey, maybe you'll see enough to make it worth extending the subscription. Money's damn tight, though.
JOHN: I very much appreciate your kind words. And your own perspectives clearly merit serious thought and reflection. I wish you well.

Comment posted on July 15, 2011 7:13 PM
 
 
Eric Mink said:

Catching up on replies, Part Two:
ANDY: Thanks very much. I think you'd find the Flood documentary worthwhile and hope you figure out a way to see it.
MARK: You're very kind. Thanks. I don't know if I'm using the medium right or not. I thought things were supposed to be short, but my brain ends to overthink, hence the length. TVWW's Dave and Diane are nice to let me run off at the mouth.
DON: Thanks very much, Don, for your assessment of the Flood piece. Of course we've discussed my political stuff previously. The funny thing is, folks seemed to enjoy reading that, too, even if they disagreed with the point of view!
DAVID: Maybe by now, you've seen it. Let me know what you thought.
CRAIG: Many thanks. Your broader point is very well taken.
DOUG and JIM: Thanks to you both.

Comment posted on July 15, 2011 7:21 PM
 
 
Eric Min said:

Replies, Part Three:

GEORGE: The documentary goes into some depth about the business Flood set up to sell paintings, both in the glory years of his career and, later, when he was out of baseball and desperate for funds.
If you're seen the film by now, I wonder if you'd share your perspectives on what the film says about that aspect of Flood's activities. It was pretty controversial, although there seemed to be solid evidence backing it up for the later period of time.

Comment posted on July 15, 2011 7:25 PM