‘I want my father in the Hall of Fame’: Curt Flood’s heroic legacy
No one sacrificed as much as Flood so future major leaguers could benefit
“I want my father in the Hall of Fame because I understand that that institution houses the history; he is an important part of that history.” — Shelly Flood
The 2019 Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony will take place Sunday in Cooperstown, New York. Once again, Curt Flood, author of the most heroic individual acts of resistance in modern Major League Baseball history, will be excluded.
This year’s inductees — Harold Baines, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera and Lee Smith — are incredibly worthy. But none of them has Flood’s revolutionary résumé, although each benefited from Flood’s act of defiance. After the 2000 season, for example, Mussina used free agency to leave the Baltimore Orioles and sign a six-year, $88.5 million contract with the New York Yankees. None of Sunday’s inductees sacrificed as much so future generations of major leaguers could reap the rewards.
This is not a lament about Flood’s continued rejection by baseball, however.
This is about Flood’s children.
What must it have been like to be Flood’s children growing up during their father’s fight?
“Some people don’t even know he had children,” Debbie Flood said.
Curt and Beverly Flood had five children: Debbie, Gary, Shelly, Curt Jr. and Scott. Gary died at age 49 after years of struggling with mental health issues.
Their father was the thorn on a rose that still sticks in the side of Major League Baseball.
While Jackie Robinson attacked the nation’s cancerous racism, Curt Flood shot an arrow directly into the heart of the game when he challenged the ironclad control that teams had over players in 1969.
While most players were too cowardly to support Flood, Robinson showed up in court and openly embraced him.
Baseball, thanks to Robinson, has become a global game. Flood, to this day, is seen by some as antithetical to the big business interests of baseball — of all sports. He was a star player who pushed back against the restrictive status quo.
“He contributed to this society just like everybody else,” Flood’s oldest daughter, Debbie, told me last week. “He gave up his career. He lost his children, his life, everything.”
I have spoken at length with Sharon Robinson about what it meant to be Jackie Robinson’s daughter, what it meant to be the child of a pioneer, an icon. Like the Floods, the Robinsons lost a son as well. Jackie Jr. struggled with addiction and died in a car crash at age 24. Sharon has spoken eloquently about what it meant to share one’s parent with the world. And Sharon and her mother, Rachel, have worked feverishly, with a big assist from Major League Baseball, to keep their father’s legacy alive. She has written incredible books about her father, and the family is about to open a museum in his honor.
Now the Flood children are speaking up and out, and not simply about how their father should be in the Hall of Fame. They are looking to extend his legacy through the Curt Flood Foundation, letting more people know about the heroic sacrifice he made 50 years ago.
His is a living, ongoing history. Every time a free — note: free — agent signs a lucrative contract, or a star refuses a trade or forces his way out of an undesirable situation, Flood’s presence is felt.
The message of Flood’s surviving four children is that, through them, Curt Flood will live.
“We’ve never really had an opportunity to tell our side of the story, and what he meant to us and what we went through,” said Curt Flood Jr., the co-founder and board chair of the Curt Flood Foundation.
“Whenever people talk about my father, his sacrifice, his surmountable and insurmountable struggles, and against all odds, it’s always in the context of him as a single and solitary lone figure,” Flood Jr. said. “Not true. My father had and has a family. One who loved, supported, cared for him and walked that journey along with him.”
The Floods moved from St. Louis to Oakland, California, in 1962. They lived in an exclusive neighborhood, attending all-white schools.
“Oakland was not a very good time for me; that was not a good time for us,” Debbie Flood said. “I fought the whole time I was in Alameda, California. I fought every day. Every day. Why? It was because of my father, because I was black, because of what my father was doing: He was playing baseball. It was like they were saying, ‘You move here, you bring your black bodies to Alameda, California, and buy this wonderful house with all these kids? How dare you?’ ”
“So it was burning crosses on a front lawn. We were going to school and we were getting called n—–s. And they were wondering why I was beating up everybody like I was crazy.”
Flood Jr. was born in 1960. “I don’t remember the early years,” he said. “My awakening happened in 1965, 1966, 1967. I remember those years clearly. We went to spring training with him in 1968. My memory is like it happened yesterday.”
In October 1969, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Flood, a two-time World Series champion, six-time Gold Glove recipient and 12-year veteran, to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood did the unspeakable: He turned down a $100,000 salary for 1970 and declined the trade. He sat out the 1970 season.
His case went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, where he lost in 1972.
Although he lost his challenge, Flood’s resistance was enough to convince baseball owners that the writing was on the wall, and that they’d better agree to an arbitration system. That system terminated the reserve clause in 1972. Three years later, two white pitchers, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, won arbitration, effectively setting free agency in motion.
Baseball has not forgotten nor apparently forgiven Flood for a courageous act of defiance that emboldened previously timid players. Marvin Miller, the former head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, warned Flood that his actions would deny him his rightful place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Whatever decision was made collectively at the time on how Dad would be dealt with, it remained ironclad, meant to stand the test of time. And it has,” Flood’s youngest son, Scott, told me during a recent phone interview.
“Dad was blackballed, plain and simple.”
The sprawling baseball establishment resented what Flood stood for. “They hated that he was smart, a free thinker, aware of the world and conscious of the Civil Rights fight that was going on outside of the baseball field,” Scott Flood said.
The greatest proof of bias by the Hall of Fame is that Flood, with his credentials, is not in it, not even as a contributor.
- Three World Series appearances, two World Series championships.
- Heralded by Sports Illustrated in 1968 as the best center fielder in baseball.
- Winner of consecutive Gold Gloves from 1963 to 1969.
- Set a major league record for consecutive chances and games by an outfielder without an error.
- Advocated for his community of players by making a bold stand against Major League Baseball.
“He represented an affront to the pureness of baseball and what ‘America’s pastime’ as an institution stood for and continues to try to uphold,” Scott Flood said.
Flood’s children were too young in 1969 to know the full impact their father’s act of defiance would have on professional sports. Beyond that, the children were dealing with a rupture in their family. Flood and his first wife, Beverly Collins, married in 1959 and divorced in 1966.
The family moved to Los Angeles in 1967. Debbie Flood felt the tremors of her father’s actions at University High School. They received the blowback when their father took on Major League Baseball.
“We got a lot of threats all the time because of what he was doing,” Debbie Flood said. People said he was destroying the all-American, No. 1 sport. I was already playing sports; I was at University High. I remember, because all the athletic coaches were like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re the daughter?’ ”
“I stopped running. I stopped the whole sports thing. It was just becoming too competitive. They wanted you to be him and not who we were. That’s why [Curt Jr.] stopped. He was like, ‘Oh, no. This is too much. I can’t be him.’ ”
In 1969, Curt Jr., 9 years old, didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
“The complicated idea that his legacy had had to do with something about antitrust and contracts was something that a 9-, 10-year-old couldn’t understand. What he was giving up, what he was sacrificing, was over our heads,” Curt Jr. said.
“All we knew was that the little we saw of him prior to leaving baseball was about to get even less.”
The court battle effectively ended Flood’s career. At age 32, Flood sat out the 1970 season after refusing to report to the Phillies.
Flood played his last game in 1972. Beset with financial problems, Flood appeared in 13 games for the Washington Senators, his skills eroded by the ravages of alcoholism and the pressures of his court case. Between 1972 and 1978, Flood lived out of the country, mostly residing in Spain and Denmark.
Debbie Flood remembers when her father came by to tell the family that he was moving to Spain. Her mother had remarried by then.
“All I remember is my dad walked in and said to my mother that he was leaving. My stepfather walked in, and my father said, ‘I’m leaving. You take care of them. I’m done.’ And walked out. I remember Shelly holding on to him.”
Scott Flood, while the youngest, remembered that visit as well.
“My most vivid memory of him is the night he left for Spain. I must have been about 6 or 7 when that happened,” he recalled. “The night he left, he came to our house. He and my mom were arguing. He was upset my mother had remarried. She’d married an entertainment attorney with a practice in Beverly Hills; his name is Richard Johnson. I remember him yelling, at my mom, or the air, or whatever, something to the effect of, ‘You have all this, you can take care of them now.’
“He had a driver waiting outside and he stormed off. He was probably drinking, and we didn’t see him again for another five years or so.”
Flood cared for his family but lost his way.
“When he started fighting baseball, he walked out on us,” Debbie Flood said. “That’s what I mean when I say he lost his children. His whole focus became what he was doing. He just lost focus of us and walked away. He didn’t walk away, he ran off. He left all five of his children behind and ran off.”
Scott remembers the day his dad returned.
“The day he came back he picked us up and took us to the toy store and said we could pick out anything we wanted. And I remember my brothers and sisters saying they couldn’t believe I was calling him Dad because he’d been gone so long.”
When Flood returned from Europe, he went bowling with Curt Jr.
“At one point he gave me his 1967 World Series championship ring,” Curt Jr. recalled. “He said, ‘I’m sorry.’ He didn’t go into much detail. We went back to bowling, and that was it. I still have the ring.”
Curt Jr. added: “Each of us had a connection with him in our adult years. Everyone knows he was a deadbeat dad and that he struggled with the disease of alcoholism. But we all had our particular relationship with him after he got sober.”
“He tried to reconcile the relationship with each one of us,” Debbie Flood said. “Some of the discussions were very difficult, but he really did work at trying to resolve all the issues before he left out of here.”
Flood was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1995. Chemotherapy and throat surgery left him unable to speak. He died in January 1997 at age 59.
“Before my father died, I had an opportunity to really clear the air with he and I. And he wrote it out because he couldn’t speak any longer,” Debbie Flood recalled. ”Everything he ever wrote me, I kept. We were able to squash our differences. Before he died, he said, ‘I wish I had really been a better parent.’ ”
Like all families, the Floods have had their individual burdens. Debbie was declared legally deaf when she was 5. Shelly struggled with her own addiction issues and has been sober for more than 12 years. Curt Jr. had personal setbacks and is now back on his feet.
Curt Jr. was a junior in high school and a football player when his dad returned to the United States. He had been a talented little league and senior league baseball player. “But baseball stopped being fun for me around those years,” he said. He played football until suffering a career-ending injury.
Curt Jr. spent two years at Tuskegee Institute, then joined the Navy, where he served for five years. He attended Northeastern University in Boston and began a career in public relations and marketing.
Debbie Flood became a social worker/investigator veteran of the Children’s Law Center of California in Los Angeles.
Shelly Flood is a drug and alcohol youth counselor in L.A.
The youngest, Scott Flood, is a documentary film producer who lives with his wife in Brooklyn, New York.
Beverly Collins’ marriage to attorney Richard Johnson lasted for 10 years. For the past 42 years, she has been married to musician Albert “Tootie” Heath.
Curt Flood married actress Judy Pace in 1986, and they remained married until his death in 1997.
Today, the Flood children are working together to extend their father’s legacy while reminding modern-day players that his sacrifice 50 years ago echoes today. Flood illuminated the road that Jackie Robinson paved.
“It’s a harmonious conversion of our history for us: where we’ve been, where we are, who we are,” Shelly Flood said. “We want to be responsible for Dad’s legacy by giving back — not the way he did, because he did it through baseball. Debbie and I are social service providers; mental health, homelessness, all of that, is near and dear to our hearts.”
Curt Flood’s children, long silent, have so much to say.
“My father was an incredible man,” Debbie Flood said. “He was a self-taught man. We are all from the dirt, just like him. Every last one of us. And I’ve recognized that in all of my siblings, in their struggles, their plights and what they have accomplished. I’m sure today, if my father were here, he would say, ‘I did a fairly good job.’ “