- The Washington Times - Monday, July 11, 2011

‘Can I ask you a question about Curt Flood?” Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth, who hasn’t been talking much lately, was leaving the clubhouse and en route to wherever he’ll spend the All-Star break. But he stopped and looked upward like folks do, as if hard-to-recall facts are written on ceilings.

“Curt … Flood. Curt … Flood. He was the first free agent, right?”

Not exactly. But close enough.

Flood didn’t knock down the door — that recognition goes to pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally — but he cleared the path by challenging baseball’s reserve clause that bound a player to a team in perpetuity. The 12-year veteran had won seven Gold Gloves and made three All-Star appearances when St. Louis traded him to Philadelphia in 1969, prompting a lawsuit that ended, in defeat, at the Supreme Court.

HBO offers a closer look at this landmark figure in “The Curious Case of Curt Flood,” which debuts Wednesday at 9 p.m. Though many might want to watch “The Espys” instead, the Flood documentary is definitely worth 90 minutes of time from anyone interested in sports or the cause of workers’ rights.

“Every player in every team sport owes a debt of gratitude to Curt Flood,” HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg said in a release. “His life story is a very complex character study. His battle to win free agency and have the right to choose where to work is an inspiring story. He is one of the giants in the history of sports but has largely been forgotten.”

Werth learned about Flood last season when he approached then-Phillies first-base coach Davey Lopes. On the verge of entering the free agent market, Werth wanted some advice.

“He said [Flood] went through a lot and essentially sacrificed his career so guys today can have what we have,” said Werth, who eventually signed with Washington for $126 million. “Guys like me really benefited, and he means a lot.”

Most of Werth’s teammates I asked had never heard of Flood, or were unaware of his historic role. Utilityman Jerry Hairston Jr. was the lone exception, responding quickly when asked if he knew. “Absolutely. I heard about him growing up while my dad played,” Hairston said. “[Flood’s] stance on free agency changed the game.”

The center fielder had played in three World Series with the Cardinals and his career was flourishing when his contract expired and he was traded to Philadelphia — one of the NL’s worst teams. He sat out the 1970 season while his lawsuit worked through the courts. Union chief Marvin Miller was grateful for a man willing to challenge the iron-clad policy that enabled owners to treat players like property.

“Or sold for cash … literally sold for cash,” Miller says in the film. “The one difference between outright slavery and what you found is that a ball player could quit. Or course, if he did, he could not play professional baseball anywhere.”

Flood suffered tremendous upheaval in his personal life during the trial, leaving his family, roaming Europe, drinking heavily and falling into debt. His daughter Shelly Flood says her dad was tormented by the ordeal.

“When he came back to the United States he was beat up spiritually and emotionally,” she said in a phone interview. “His whole inner-self was damaged and it took years of his own personal combat against life to recuperate.”

Flood signed with the Washington Senators in 1971 but played only 13 games before quitting. He clearly wasn’t the same player anymore, unable to get around on fastballs or make as many plays in the field.

Washington baseball historian Phil Wood remembers watching Flood play an exhibition game with the Senators. He also remembers Flood’s case being a huge story.

“Baseball fans’ first reaction was ‘How dare he do that?’ Wood said at Nationals Park. “Then you start looking at the situation and realize that the whole reserve clause thing is kind of slavery, just dressed up as something else. As long as he’d been in the game, he should’ve had some say-so on where he plays.

“He didn’t come across as an angry guy,” Wood said. “He came across as a reasonable guy. He thought it was a reasonable thing to be asking for. People forget that he lost, but he planted the seed that got players thinking about it. If he doesn’t sue baseball, does free agency happen in 1975? Probably not.”

Now, free agency is a fact of life in every major team sport. And it all began with the curious case of Curt Flood.

• Deron Snyder can be reached at deronsnyder@gmail.com.

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