With both pro football and basketball roiled by labor strife, HBO could hardly have picked a more propitious time for “The Curious Case of Curt Flood,” a documentary airing the same week as baseball’s All-Star Game. Flood famously sued Major League Baseball in his battle for free agency, but the issues surrounding the case — including its disposition and the tragic fate of the player himself — are doubtless fuzzy for many, and captured here in great (indeed, perhaps over-abundant) detail. Still, it’s a fascinating look at today’s sports landscape through the prism of the past.
Having played on two World Series championship teams, Flood was near the peak of his on-field prowess at age 31, when the St. Louis Cardinals decided to trade him. At that point, thanks to what was known as “the reserve clause,” baseball teams essentially owned the rights to players in perpetuity.
“It was at the time an outlandish notion: That a ballplayer should have the right to choose the team for which he played,” notes narrator Liev Schreiber, channeling writer Aaron Cohen.
Moreover, Flood knew challenging the system would likely bring an end to his career, since even in victory no owner would want to touch him. Yet the outfielder saw and couched the struggle in civil-rights terms, describing the owners’ ability to buy and sell players as “a master and slave relationship.”
Flood’s message was clouded both by the messenger and the era. In the 1960s, to have an African-American man making what was then big money openly talk about being a “slave” didn’t sit well with many whites, who were still uncomfortable with civil-rights advances made during the Johnson administration.
Nor did other players rally around him, even as his case made its way to the Supreme Court. As former teammate and roommate Bob Gibson notes, most admired Flood but were afraid to endanger their own careers.
In addition to Gibson, the producers interview other Flood contemporaries (among them Tim McCarver); Flood’s widow, actress Judy Pace Flood; and attorney Marvin Miller, who led the charge to gain free agency.
The story turns tragic in the wake of Flood’s lawsuit, a stretch the doc chronicles a bit excessively, if understandably so.
Clearly, Flood’s push gains significance in the wake of high-profile free-agent deals like those last summer that reshaped the Miami Heat. And it reflects the perpetual tension between labor and management in big-money sports, as well as how the balance of power has shifted in the last half-century.
“The Curious Case of Curt Flood” isn’t perfect, but when a documentary can bring sports, culture and politics together the way this one does, score that as a home run.