The past several years have been quite a revelation for baseball. After countless movies, documentaries, myths and self-congratulatory gestures speaking about the “magic” of the sport, the forgotten story of baseball in America and beyond has begun to surface.
The movie “Sugar” told the story of a Dominican baseball hopeful who didn’t make it to the big league and had to find another way to carry on and live his life. In a game filled with cheating of various kinds, steroids crushed whatever notion of purity remained in the sport. Now “The Curious Case of Curt Flood,” an HBO Sports documentary, shows how the idea of the good old days when players played “for the love of the game” is hogwash.
Flood challenged Major League Baseball’s reserve clause in player contracts in his desire to be a free agent. The lawsuit rocked the sport and made Flood, who was once a media darling and the talk of the town in St. Louis, where he played for the Cardinals, public enemy No. 1.
According to BaseballReference.com, the reserve clause in baseball players’ contracts meant that players were bound to one team for a long period, even if the contracts he signed nominally covered only one season. Owners back in the sport’s glory days maintained the clause in perpetuity, keeping players stuck with the same teams for life, playing for whatever the owner felt like paying them. The only way out for a player was to quit, but in doing so he ran the risk of owners colluding to make it hard for him to find another job in the league.
Flood challenged the injustice of this law, drawing the comparison between baseball players’ contracts and slavery, with the only difference being that baseball players were technically allowed to quit. Flood sat out the entire 1970 season while fighting the case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court.
The documentary does a great job of cobbling together old newscasts and commentary from newspapers, lawyers, union leaders like the legendary Marvin Miller and former teammates like Bob Gibson and Tim McCarver to illustrate Flood’s baseball life.
HBO also spoke with Flood’s widow, Judy Pace Flood; his daughter, Shelly Flood; his sister, Rickie Riley; and other family members and former girlfriends to illustrate how his ostracizing from baseball drove him to the bottle and a cigarette habit that eventually pushed away his children and his first wife.
While Flood didn’t win his case, he set in motion the change that eventually led to free agency for baseball players. Every player who is making millions of dollars and is able to go the highest bidder owes a debt to Flood. “The Curious Case of Curt Flood” demonstrates exactly why.