Charles Curtis Flood (Curt Flood), three-time All-Star Major League Baseball centerfielder and labor rights advocate, was born on January 18, 1938, in Houston, Texas, to Herman and Laura Flood. Flood and his mother lived in Houston for nearly two years before returning to the family’s home in Oakland, California. Flood, inspired and instructed by his father, showed an early aptitude for art. Growing up in a working-class home within a racially-charged city, however, he quickly learned that talent alone would not guarantee him a successful life. His artistic and athletic skills along with his work ethic caught the attention of his teachers and coaches. Despite being shorter and thinner than most boys, Flood quickly outperformed the other kids on his childhood baseball teams. His athletic prowess was so well-recognized that on January 30, 1956, he signed a contract with the Cincinnati Reds almost immediately after graduating from high school.
Flood was soon confronted with the realities of the segregated South upon his arrival at spring training and during his tenure with the Red’s farm team, which was located at High Point in North Carolina. Though Flood performed well within the Red’s organization, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in December 1957. Flood played his first major-league game with the Cardinals after being on their farm team for only three weeks. His first two seasons with the team were rough, as he and other black players were often benched, despite their superior performances. Eventually, they became a cohesive and successful team. Flood and his teammates flourished under new management and fostered a rare interracial camaraderie in the 1960s. Flood went on to play twelve seasons with the Cardinals in which he earned some of baseball’s most prestigious honors. He won the Gold Glove Award for his position every season from 1963 to 1969 and played on the National League’s All-Star team in 1964, 1966, and 1968. He helped lead his team to three World Series appearances and two victories (1964 and 1967) during his tenure.
In his twelve seasons with the Cardinals, Flood firmly established himself in St. Louis. On February 13, 1959, he married the single-mother of two children, Beverly Collins, and added to the family three children of their own. Keeping his interest in art alive, Flood also opened his own portrait and photography business in St. Louis. He was president of Aunts and Uncles, a St. Louis organization that furnished clothing and shoes to underprivileged children. Though Flood seemed to live the American dream, he had difficulty balancing his career with his family life. He and Beverly divorced, remarried, and separated once more.
While Flood acquired an impressive MLB record, it was his departure from sports and his contribution to the free-agency movement that left an indelible mark on the league. In 1969 Flood was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies against his will. While it was common-place (and legal) for a player to be traded without regard to their wishes under baseball’s reserve clause, Flood decided to fight the decision and sue MLB for violating the Thirteenth Amendment and antitrust laws. This controversial decision earned him much praise and criticism. His comment in an interview to sportscaster Howard Cosell about being a “well-paid slave” offended some, while others believed it to be an apt description of baseball’s reserve clause—the manner in which teams bought and sold baseball players like commodities.
The landmark case Flood v. Kuhn made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled 5 to 3 against Flood. Although he did not win his case, his decision to take a stand influenced other ballplayers to unify in an effort to challenge MLB for more rights in the trading process. The product of that subsequent movement ushered in the free agency era that exists today.
During the court process, Flood made a brief but unsuccessful return to baseball with the Washington Senators. With mounting criticism and an inability to recapture his old form, Flood left the team in 1971 before the end of the season. After the Supreme Court decision, Flood left the United States for a few years to seek refuge in such locations as the Mediterranean, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, from media scrutiny. He ultimately returned to Oakland, California, where he lived out his life working for the Little League program with the Oakland Department of Parks and Aquatics.
In the aftermath of his baseball career and lawsuit, Flood suffered from alcoholism. He began to turn his life around with his marriage to actress Judy Pace in 1986. He also began to receive recognition for his pioneering efforts on behalf of players’ rights from his fellow baseball players. In 1994 he was among those featured in Ken Burns’s documentary television series Baseball. Other documentaries by director Spike Lee and the ESPN sports network profiled Flood. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1996 and passed away at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles on January 20, 1997. He was buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. In 1998 the United States Senate passed the Curt Flood Act—legislation that abolished baseball’s antitrust exemption. His life and the trial have been the subject of many books and subsequent broadcasts, including an HBO sports documentary entitled, The Curious Case of Curt Flood (2011).