Fifty years ago, Curt Flood walked away from the Senators. He left baseball forever changed.

And he didn’t call a press conference even though reporters would have come to him earlier. The man who sued baseball for believing players shouldn’t limit their careers to one team had sparked a media storm when, in the winter of 1969, he wrote to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to become a free agent instead of following the St. in Philadelphia. Louis Cardinals traded him there.

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No, Curtis Flood, once one of the game’s best defensive outfielders and founding father of the modern free hand, quietly fled Washington and the Senators on April 27, 1971. He had tried to change major league baseball forever and was too scarred to believe it could ever find a home again.

“It devoured him,” said his widow Judy Pace Flood, a decade-long decorated actress who first saw Flood when she appeared with Willie Mays on “The Dating Game,” in a telephone interview last week. She remembered that one of Flood’s teammates with the Senators later said to her, “Curt was the saddest person he had ever met or seen. It was awful.”

The last time Pace Flood saw him that year she took him to spring training. He was out of shape after missing a year while refusing to report to Philadelphia, and his new Senator manager, Ted Williams, reportedly lamented the fact that the team had 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, including Gibson, were too concerned about the consequences to stand by his side or attend his trials.

And he had signed the second largest Senatorial treaty for $ 110,000, just under less than Frank Howard at the time – enough for critics to argue that Flood’s grand stand was more about selfishness than a broader moral issue . He had gotten into a year-long battle against alcoholism. Above all, he feared for his life.

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Since Flood had sent that letter to Kuhn, racist letters and hecklers, as well as baseball clerks and others, had descended on him with unprecedented violence – which says something because Flood had already looked at much of it.

A new level of racism

Flood grew up in Oakland, California, where the Black Panthers grew in prominence. They watched the early rumble of the civil rights movement as he played the American Legion ball along with future great leaders Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson.

The Cincinnati Reds signed him when he was 17, and when he arrived at the Florida hotel advertised for the Reds’ players, a hotel clerk directed him to a taxi line where he could take a colored cab to the guesthouse could The black gamblers lived.

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A little over a year later, after Flood was sold to the Cardinals, he and Gibson tossed their uniforms with the rest of the minor league teammates to wash them in between double-header games. The manager of the white clubhouse screamed and grabbed a long pole with a metal hook on the end.

While Flood’s teammates watched, the clubhouse manager reached into the damp pile with this rod, hooked the uniforms on, and removed them from the pile. He explained to Flood that his uniform would need to be handled by the black cleaners nearby and kept him waiting in the clubhouse without his clothes while his white teammates waited for the next game to start.

But when Flood wrote his letter to Kuhn in December 1969, in which he argued that the reserve clause, which meant that a team had control of a drafted player, “violated my fundamental rights as a citizen, and not with the laws of the world, indefinitely United States of America and the United States is compatible from different states, “a new level of racism came down on him.

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He spent the 1970 season fighting much of this racism from afar. He was living in Copenhagen when he put the season off and filed his legal complaints. He would eventually get his Flood v. Kuhn lost in the Supreme Court in 1972 when his attorney, former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg – a longtime friend of baseball player union hero and flood supporter Marvin Miller – seemed to fall apart in front of his former colleagues on what Pace Flood referred to as ” terrible “show remembers.

But in 1971, after he and the Phillies made a deal with the then-sad Senators, Flood watched the hatred escalate. Disgruntled fans who said Flood would kill the game found ways to get death threats into his car. They tossed him beer when he turned his back on them in the field.

Then one day Flood showed up at the RFK Stadium, a place fortified against outsiders by persistent security guards, and found a black wreath in his locker.

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“He fled for his life,” said Pace Flood. “He said, ‘If you can get this in my locker, you can reach me.’ He thought he was going to be killed. “

On April 27, 13 games in an already difficult season, Flood didn’t show up at all at the clubhouse. His teammates asked themselves. His trainers asked around. Team owner Bob Short eventually received a telegram explaining that Flood had been off the field too long and his personal problems were increasing, and thanked him for his understanding. Short posted this note in the clubhouse as a quiet explanation, more than Pace Flood or even Flood’s mom for weeks. Pace Flood wouldn’t see him again for a decade.

Over time, they learned that Flood had settled on the Spanish island of Mallorca – “exile itself”, as Pace Flood put it. He bought a bar that became popular with American Navy men stationed there, largely because Flood’s old friend and one of his few media supporters, Howard Cosell, would see to it that he received tapes of every fight from Muhammad Ali overnight.

The Curt Flood Rule

While he was away, baseball players, led by Miller, negotiated the reserve clause together, and the dawn of the modern free hand began. Finally, the Curt Flood rule would be included in every major league contract to ensure that any player who has been with the majors for 10 years and played with the same team for at least five consecutive years must give their consent before doing so he can be traded.

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Years later, in 1998, Congress passed the Curt Flood Act, which required MLB to comply with antitrust laws regarding employee practices – even though the free hand was well established by then. And while Flood never benefited from any of these changes, many in the game owe him to him for moving things forward, arguing that the reserve clause that prevented players from choosing employment with whomever was more than a form of financial repression, but a morality is one.

“I don’t think I am a piece of property that can be bought and sold regardless of my wishes,” Flood wrote in that 1969 letter to Kuhn, who is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“It took an African American to really see clearly how wrong it was,” Pace Flood said, recalling that many of Flood’s contemporaries did not testify on his behalf when the case was heard, Jackie Robinson and the looks of his idol and support left flood in tears.

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Eventually Flood returned to Oakland. He sparked his romance with Pace Flood and the two married in 1984. He kept his eyes peeled to get back into baseball, though it wasn’t coming quickly, and helped A on the shows for a season before taking the lead in the newly forged MLB Senior Circuit.

Soon, people around the game began to shower Flood with the appreciation he never seemed to find when he filed his case. Organizations such as the NAACP and the AFL-CIO have honored him. When he was diagnosed with throat cancer in the mid-1990s, the players’ union offered to pay his expenses until his death in 1997. It wasn’t until last year that Flood received the ultimate tribute from his last baseball home when members of Congress began a campaign to get Flood into the Hall of Fame – that the writer of a sport-changing letter should coexist with him.

“Flood’s induction into the Hall of Fame would be a fitting tribute to an African American player who stood up for what was right, knowing there would be consequences for him,” said Rep. James E. Clyburn ( DS.C.), wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “It took courage and courage – something we can use more of today.”