Friday, April 23, 2004

We were earlier discussing the merits of Joe Gordon being voted in by the Veteran's Committee. I was going over the list and another name jumped out at me. He didn't hit .300 lifetime. He never hit 400 HR. He was unable to either score, or drive in 1000 runs in his career. He wasn't able to pilfer 500 bases; heck, he didn't even nab 100.

Maybe he deserves to be in the Hall-of-Fame.

His career could've been of Cooperstown caliber, had he lasted long enough. He was a contemporary of Lou Brock--who is in. Of course Brock stole a lot of bases, but during the great hitting drought (or when pitching was king, depending on your point of view) of 1963-68 (NL ERA 1963-68--3.39), both men were close in age. Brock was 24, our player under consideration was 25. Brock's AVG/OBP/SLG was .288/.327/.437 (114 Runs Created Above Average--RCAA), the other man: .303/.347/.404 with an RCAA of 64 (for the record, the NL's average from 1963-68 was .259/.319/.383). Yes, Brock was a prolific base stealer, however the other man finished top ten in batting every year from 1963-68, except for 1966 (Brock finished top ten in this span just once--1964), and copped the Gold Glove in each of those six years--Brock did not even get one. Each man had a pair of 200 hit seasons in that stretch. Brock was considered the finest base stealer of his time; in the era of Willie Mays, the other was considered the finest defensive centerfielder in baseball. In short, you'd be hard pressed to decide which player you'd want on your club.

The St. Louis Cardinals didn't have to make that choice, they enjoyed the services of both men. Brock went on to knock over 3000 base hits, set a National League record for stolen bases, and be enshrined in baseball's Hall-of-Fame. The other man? He simply blew his career away and missed his chance at immortality.

What cost this man his career? Did he snort/smoke/drink his career away like Darryl Strawberry? Did this man fall in with gamblers? Was he guilty of being a clubhouse cancer, being so poisonous to a team that nobody wanted anything to do with him? Was it laziness, did he not put the effort into his career and simply wasted his obvious talent?


His crime was standing up to the baseball establishment and saying: "NO!"

You've no doubt surmised that Curt Flood is the man under consideration here. Flood challenged the system and, in effect lost his career. The comparison with Lou Brock was simply to remind you what an absolutely fabulous ballplayer Flood actually was--and what he surrendered by taking on "The Lords of Baseball." Curt Flood, while with the Cardinals often clashed with management over his pay. The players literally had no real leverage as respects their career. Their choices were this: "play for what WE say, or don't play at all." Flood summed up his circumstances thusly: "A $90,000 dollar slave is still a slave."

We often hear the expression nowadays that "it's not about the money." In Flood's case, it was true; it wasn't about the money. Flood wasn't trying to go to another team, he didn't want to leave his current team, his home. If the Cardinals didn't want him, then he wanted to decide where he would ply his trade.

We take for granted the multi-million dollar contracts of today. Seeing players shop their talents around the league is something well known to the modern fan, but it wasn't always so. Back in Curt Flood's day, there was something called the "reserve clause." It basically made a player the property of his team until the team decided they didn't want him anymore. There was a clause (known as 10 A) in the standard player contract which stated:

"On or before January 15 ... the Club may tender to the Player a contract for the term of that year by mailing the same to the Player. If prior to the March 1 next succeeding said January 15, the Player and the Club have not agreed upon the terms of such contract, then on or before 10 days after said March 1, the Club shall have the right ... to renew this contract for the period of one year."

When Marvin Miller read the clause, he felt that it only gave the team the right to a player for a single option year. The clubs, on the other hand, felt it gave them perpetual options on a player. Their thinking was, that when they unilaterally renewed a player's contract, that the renewed contract contained 10A (the reserve clause), hence the player would always be the property of the team.

Obviously there was no such thing as free agency. Also there was no salary arbitration, or even impartial arbitration in case there was a difference between a team and a player. The final court of appeal to the player was the commissioner. In short, the player was helpless as respects his baseball career.

Since baseball enjoyed an exemption from antitrust law, they could get away with this.

After numerous contract disputes with the St. Louis Cardinals, the club dealt Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood didn't want to leave the Cardinals because he made St. Louis his home. Since the Cards didn't want him, Flood wanted to choose his next destination. However, Flood was in a tough spot. He had no court of appeals--save Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. So Flood contacted Kuhn about exploring his options. Kuhn responded that baseball's collective bargaining agreement (CBA) forbade that kind of activity (which was true, the CBA of that time included the reserve system) and encouraged Flood to join his new team.

So Flood was boxed in. He had no access to impartial arbitration--there was no provision for that in baseball; so he had to sue via antitrust law. However it was a supreme longshot. Flood had two big strikes against him: one, Flood was bringing an antitrust suit against an organization that wasn't subject to antitrust law. His second obstacle was: even if baseball were covered by antitrust law, baseball's CBA had no provisions for free agency. Generally, in the courts a CBA is given more weight that antitrust law, because the accord (CBA) was agreed to by both sides (the owners and the MLBPA) in arm's length bargaining.

Flood lost, not only his case, but in reality--his career.

Still, his suit brought some action from baseball ownership. In 1970, MLBPA executive director -- Marvin Miller -- got the clubs to agree to having an impartial arbitrator (rather than the courts) to settle disputes between both parties. With that in place, Miller needed a player to test 10A which said (again):

" On or before January 15 ... the Club may tender to the Player a contract for the term of that year by mailing the same to the Player. If prior to the March 1 next succeeding said January 15, the Player and the Club have not agreed upon the terms of such contract, then on or before 10 days after said March 1, the Club shall have the right ... to renew this contract for the period of one year."

The trouble was, owners still held the whip hand on pay. A club could bring great pressure on a player to sign a contract, which would include the renewal (or reserve) clause. Miller needed a player to go through an entire season without signing a contract. Doing so, would obligate the club to invoke the renewal option. Miller contended that a player, once he played out the option year in his contract, was no longer bound [contractually] to his team, making him a free agent. With an impartial arbitrator in place, he hoped the arbitrator would read the reserve clause the way he did; that it only gave a team a one year option on the player's services. Before 1970, a player had to appeal to the commissioner in such a dispute (as Flood did) with predictable results.

Finally, in 1975, a player did play the entire season without a contract--Andy Messersmith of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He did not sign a contract for that year obligating the Dodgers to invoke the renewal option, which they did. After playing out his option year, Messersmith (along with Dave McNally who had since retired), filed a grievance with baseball's arbitrator: Peter Seitz. Messersmith (and McNally) claimed that there was no longer any contractual bond between themselves and their clubs. Seitz agreed and the free agency era was ushered in.

We may not like the current system in baseball, but in fairness, baseball is a multi-billion dollar industry, and without the players, there would be no industry. The players certainly deserve their fair share of baseball's revenues. The system does need some changing, but then again, it needed changing back in Flood's day. However, in any revolution, somebody has to fire the first shot. Flood fired that shot, and in effect, was the first casualty of that [revolution], Flood sacrificed his career, a possible Hall-of-Fame career, to enable the players to have the freedom to choose, and to be rewarded for their contributions to the game of baseball.

We cannot give Curt Flood his career back, but we can reward him for making baseball better. Make no mistake, baseball is better because of it. We can lament the obscene contracts and the seeming lack of loyalty in the game today, but remember: in Flood's day, a player sometimes had to take jobs in the offseason to make ends meet. With the wealth available to players today, the men who thrill us with their talents can devote themselves full time to the development and improvement of their skills. They now have the ways and means (and the time) to improving their games and their conditioning, which makes baseball that much better to watch.

For that, and the fact he was a pretty damned special ballplayer, maybe Curt Flood deserves to be immortalized in Cooperstown--not so much for his on field contributions as his contribution to the game. Maybe somebody else might have stood up, but the fact of the matter is that Curt Flood did make that courageous stand. Personally, I hope one day that the Veterans Committee sees fit to let Curt Flood take a special place in baseball history.

Since we've been dealing with baseball history of late (because I can't discuss this years Expos and Jays without going fetal) today's link is fellow Primate Jon Daly's blog: Baseball History. It's full of interesting stuff (and gives him something to do when he's not nuking Baseball Primer) plus you can comment on his musings or drop him an e-mail.

(Just kidding Jon)

Best Regards