Curt Flood baseball memorabilia to be auctioned

The St. Louis Cardinals' Curt Flood , here in 1967, put baseball on the road to free agency after rejecting a 1969 trade to the Phillies. He died in 1997.
The St. Louis Cardinals' Curt Flood , here in 1967, put baseball on the road to free agency after rejecting a 1969 trade to the Phillies. He died in 1997.
Posted: November 13, 2009

Much of the memorabilia Curt Flood's widow will sell at a Louisville auction tomorrow remains painful for Philadelphians to contemplate.

There is his white-gold World Series ring from 1964, the year the Phillies' historic collapse gave his Cardinals the pennant. There are trophies and awards that remind us how good a player Philadelphia lost when Flood, setting in motion the legal fight that would topple baseball's reserve clause and trigger free agency, refused his 1969 trade here. There are letters and documents from that landmark case, which reached the U.S. Supreme Court three years later.

No matter how historians or his widow try to spin the events triggered by that seven-player Phillies-Cardinals trade 40 years ago this fall, there's no escaping the idea that the catalog of more than 60 items adds up to a stinging rejection of this city and its baseball team.

Judy Pace-Flood, whose late husband's collection will be sold by Hunt Auctions of Exton at the Louisville Slugger Museum's 5th Annual Live Auction this weekend, doesn't see it that way.

And she said her husband, who died at 59 of throat cancer in 1997, did not see it that way, either, even though Philadelphia and the Phillies in the late 1960s must have raised numerous red flags for a talented black athlete such as Flood.

His decision to test the reserve clause "had nothing to do with where Curt was going," she said in a telephone interview this week. "To view his actions in that light is far too simplistic. It's like saying that those civil-rights pioneers who challenged the laws that made them ride in the back of the bus did so only because they thought the ride was too bumpy back there. It was much more complex than Philadelphia."

Still, Flood did call Philadelphia America's "northernmost Southern city." And, the reserve clause still intact, he did return to the game elsewhere, ending his career in Washington in 1971.

Now, four decades after the historic event, it's tempting to speculate how different baseball might be had not the prospect of playing for the 1970 Phillies been so unappealing.

Would Flood still have tested the system? And if not, how long would it have been before someone else did? Would the free-agent era his action precipitated have been delayed for a year? A decade? Longer?

Flood's saga began Oct. 7, 1969, when the Cardinals dealt the centerfielder, who had been seeking a raise from $90,000 to $100,000, to the Phillies with Tim McCarver, Joel Horner, and Byron Browne for Dick Allen, Cookie Rojas, and Jerry Johnson.

While the news did not stun Flood, a three-time all-star with two World Series rings and seven Gold Gloves, the way it was delivered did. It came first from a St. Louis sportswriter and then from a midlevel Cardinals executive.

"It would be like ABC taking a star off its No. 1-rated show and sending him to CBS, and then having a page tell him the news," said Pace-Flood, who is a stage, screen, and television actress.

Emotionally stung, the 31-year-old player told Cardinals general manager Bing Devine that he would retire. Would he have reacted similarly to a trade to New York, Chicago or Los Angeles?

Those Phillies certainly weren't an appealing destination for anyone. They had finished 33 games below .500 in a controversy-clouded 1969 season. They had been late to integration, and, in his final seasons here, the enigmatic Allen had endured race-tinged abuse from fans. The team had a tiny payroll and played in a rundown stadium in a deteriorating neighborhood.

Phillies general manager John Quinn met with Flood in Philadelphia on Nov. 7 to persuade him to come.

But by then, according to author Brad Snyder's recent biography of Flood, A Well-Paid Slave, the player had begun contemplating another alternative.

In consultation with a St. Louis lawyer, he decided to test the reserve clause, which tied a player to a team for as long as the team liked.

"He was only 31, and he knew from that moment on that he was sacrificing whatever future he may have had in baseball," Pace-Flood said. "But Curt was a unique person. He was a Renaissance man. He was a wonderful painter, a classical guitarist, and a major-league ballplayer. He was a man who knew his mind."

On Christmas Eve 1969, Flood sent a letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn revealing his intentions. It was then that he began to refer to issues larger than Philadelphia.

"After twelve years in the major leagues," it began, "I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several states.

"It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decision."

The case, Flood v. Kuhn, eventually wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on June 18, 1972 - a day after the Watergate break-in - left the system intact but emboldened future challengers.

Finally, in 1975, as a result of a case brought by Dodgers pitcher Andy Messersmith and Expos pitcher Dave McNally, the antiquated system was struck down by an arbitrator's ruling. The era of free agency had begun.

Flood never enjoyed the fruits of his efforts. He never did play in Philadelphia, which got two other Cardinals, including '71 rookie-of-the-year runner-up Willie Montanez, in compensation.

Flood later agreed to play in Washington. The Phillies shipped him there, and in 1971, he played just 13 games with the Senators before quitting for good.

"Every major-league baseball player owes Curt Flood a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid," pitcher Tom Glavine, then the National League's player representative, said at the time of Flood's death.

That recognition has not helped Flood gain entry into the Hall of Fame, where his career achievements - on and off the field - seem to warrant serious consideration.

"We're still working on getting him in," Pace-Flood said.

She said the decision to sell Flood's baseball memorabilia - it includes a ball autographed by civil-rights pioneer Rosa Parks - was not a financial one.

According to Hunt Auction president David Hunt, Flood's widow approached them. He said the Flood items were a small part of a much larger sale and, in that context, were "more significant historically than financially."

The estimated value of the Flood items, according to the show's 214-page catalog, is between $60,000 and $80,000.

"It's difficult to put an estimate on items like these," Hunt said, "because they are one of a kind. Their value is what the audience that day perceives it to be."

Hunt said the market for memorabilia like Flood's tended to hold or strengthen during recessions.

"If I have a stock in a company, that company might be gone tomorrow," he said. "But Babe Ruth's bat, while its value may fluctuate, will still be Babe Ruth's bat in the morning."

It is anticipated that Flood's World Series ring ($15,000 to $20,000) and his 1963 Gold Glove Award ($5,000 to $7,000) will be the sale's most valuable items.

"I just felt it was time to share these things with museums and baseball fans who have expressed so much interest in what Curt did," Pace-Flood said.

"The time was right."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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