Fifty Years Ago, Curt Flood Walked Away from the Senators. He Left Baseball Forever ChangedHistorians in the News
tags: racism, baseball, sports, African American history, Curt Flood
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.