Baseball’s 100 Most Important People, Part 4
Continuing from yesterday (http://goo.gl/TvLphS), in today’s installment we provide the last five of the longer biographies, bringing us up through No. 20. As mentioned, starting tomorrow you will see briefer biographies, and thus more of them; tomorrow’s post will cover the individuals ranked from 21 through 40. To revisit the full list from 1 to 100, go back to the launch of this series, at: http://goo.gl/5171CX.
Baseball’s 100 Most Important People
Alan Schwarz and John Thorn
16. JOHN MONTGOMERY WARD
If Ward wasn’t the most important person in baseball during the late 19th century, he certainly was the most interesting. His career as a star player, winning manager, labor organizer, and club owner placed him at the center of many of the most significant events of the period, both on and off the field.
Ward was born in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, in 1860. A gifted student athlete, he attended Pennsylvania State College and won acclaim as a pitcher on the baseball team. He pitched an exhibition game for the independent Philadelphia Athletics in 1877, and although he lost, 5-0, he accepted a professional contract from a team in Janesville, Wisconsin for $20 a week and a $75 bonus. The Bellefonte newspaper editorialized, “There is no reason why a baseball pitcher should not become eventually a great man, but the chances for Monte’s sake, we are sorry to say, are against it, and trust he will pause and reconsider.”
Ward proved the critics wrong. In 1878, his rookie season in the National League, he was the star right-handed pitcher for Providence, winning 22 games and leading the league with a 1.51 ERA. On August 9 he pitched and won two games in one day.
The great George Wright and “Orator” Jim O’Rourke joined the Providence team in 1879. With a better defense behind him and a stronger offense, Ward pitched the Grays to the pennant. He won a league-leading 47 games and lost only 17. His .734 winning percentage and 239 strikeouts also led the NL. In 1880 he won 40 games and threw a league-leading 9 shutouts. On June 17 of that year, he threw the second perfect game and third no-hitter in league history, a 5-0 win over Buffalo.
But Ward was only 20 years old, and the strain on his arm proved too great. After pitching 587 innings in 1879 and 595 in 1880, he battled a sore arm during the next three seasons, pitching fewer innings each year. Yet when he was able to throw, he continued to be successful. On August 17, 1882, he won an 18-inning game, 1-0. But by 1884 his arm was shot, and he appeared in his final nine games as a hurler. In seven seasons Ward won 161 games against 101 losses.
Although finished as a hurler, Ward was hardly washed up as a player. Even as early as 1879, when he was at his best as a hurler, Ward played outfield or third base on the days he wasn’t on the mound. A right-handed thrower, he was a fair left-handed batter, particularly adept at bunting and hitting behind a runner. Ward was an excellent baserunner and fast in the field. Furthermore, he was an exceptional leader. In 1880, though younger than most of his teammates, he even filled in as manager for part of the season.
After his arm went bad, Ward spent more time as a position player. In 1883 the New York Gothams acquired his contract, and during most of the 1884 season he was New York’s regular center fielder. He hit .253 and scored 98 runs. According to some reports, he threw left-handed to rest his ailing right arm. Although he never returned to the mound, his arm recovered enough to allow him to become the Gothams’ regular shortstop in 1885. He was instantly one of the top players at the position.
In both 1888 and 1889 the Giants won the NL pennant, and much of the credit went to their dashing shortstop. In 1889 the Giants trailed in the Series three games to two going into the sixth game. Hank O’Day had shut out New York for eight innings and St. Louis led, 1-0, but in the bottom of the ninth Ward singled and then stole second and third. He scored to tie the game on Connor’s single. Then, in the eleventh inning, he drove in the winning run. The Giants went on to win the next three games and the Series.
While enjoying a full career on the field, Ward also remained busy off the field, earning a law degree from Columbia University. In 1885 the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players was formed to protect and benefit the players collectively and individually, to promote a high standard of conduct, and to foster and encourage the interests of baseball. Ward was elected president. Some team owners feared any sort of player organization, but most at least paid lip service to the aims of the Brotherhood.
After the 1888 season Albert Spalding led a group of stars on a round-the-world trip to introduce baseball and open new markets for his sporting goods. While Ward and other stars were out of the country, the owners pushed through a rule to categorize the players and pay them according to rank. Since the owners determined the categories, the new system first lowered, then froze, player salaries.
For more than a year Ward tried to negotiate, but the owners refused to recognize the Brotherhood. Finally, the situation reached an impasse. In 1890 the players, under Ward, revolted, solicited financial backers, and formed the Players League. Most of the star players in both the National League and the American Association jumped to the new league.
During the 1890 season the three major leagues competed in many of the same cities. All three lost money, and the backers of the Players League lost heart, even though their attendance was the best of the three. After only one year the new league collapsed. A year later the mortally wounded American Association also went under, and four of its teams were absorbed by the NL.
Ward was shortstop and manager of the PL’s Brooklyn team, which finished second. In the settlement after the season, Brooklyn’s Players League backer and Ward each gained stock in the Brooklyn NL club. Ward assumed the player-manager position with Brooklyn, a team that soon became popularly known as “Ward’s Wonders.” He moved the club up to third in the standings in 1892, when he led the league with 80 stolen bases.
That same year Ward won 20 shares of New York Giants stock on a bet with one of their stockholders on where the Giants would finish. Such a conflict of interest and betting on standings would be prohibited by Organized Baseball today. It was common in the 1890s for owners to own shares in other teams (“syndicate baseball,” it came to be called), and occasionally players and managers did the same. In fact, half the owners in the league held Giants stock.
The team, however, was going rapidly downhill. Because the National League needed a strong draw in New York, both to protect its stock holdings and to ensure a large visitor’s share of the take, the other clubowners worked out a deal. Ward resigned as Brooklyn manager and became the Giants’ skipper. In 1893 New York finished fifth in the 12-team NL, and in 1894 he pushed them to second.
In an effort to establish a profitable postseason series similar to the prototypical World Series of the 1880s, the NL instituted the Temple Cup in 1894, with the division winner playing the second-place finisher in a best-of-seven series. The Baltimore Orioles won the pennant that year but didn’t take the Temple Cup very seriously. Ward’s Giants ambushed the Orioles and swept them in four straight games. Ward himself hit .294 and led his team in RBIs.
At age 34 Ward was at the pinnacle of the baseball world, a successful player-manager of a championship team. He chose that moment to retire. His successful law practice was growing, but he resigned primarily due to his inability to get along with Andrew Freedman, the Tammany Hall politician who had taken over the Giants. Ward was hardly alone; few men could work for Freedman for long. By the time he sold his control of the Giants in 1903, Freedman had fired or otherwise lost a dozen managers and driven the Giants to the lowest point in their history.
Ward became a leading corporate lawyer in New York but continued to be involved in baseball. He represented Amos Rusie when the famous pitcher sued Freedman for money he was owed. The case was eventually settled out of court to Rusie’s benefit. In 1909 Ward was a leading, though eventually unsuccessful, candidate to become NL president. In 1911 and 1912 he was president and part owner of the Boston Braves, and in 1913 he was business manager of the Brooklyn team in the Federal League. He was also the founder and first president of the Long Island Golf Association. He wrote several books and numerous magazine articles on baseball.
Ward died in 1925. Nearly 40 years later, in 1964, he was named to the Hall of Fame.
17. CAL RIPKEN
Cal Ripken will be forever remembered for “the streak.” He became the most durable player to ever put on a major-league uniform on September 6, 1995, when he appeared in his 2,131st consecutive game. He surpassed Lou Gehrig’s “unbreakable record” (according to Gehrig’s plaque at Yankee Stadium) at a time when baseball was still suffering the repercussions of the 1994 strike. The national Ripken watch, as he approached the magic number, helped heal some of the wounds felt by many fans. The ovation at Camden Yards on that historic night lasted more than 20 minutes.
The following season Ripken would also break the world record of 2,216 consecutive games, a number reached by Sachio Kinugasa, third baseman for the Hiroshima Carp of Japan’s Central League. Ripken’s streak would end at 2,632 on September 19, 1998 with no one in the ballpark aware of the game’s significance. The next night, 30 minutes before the final Orioles home game of the year, Ripken unexpectedly asked Baltimore manager Ray Miller to take him out of the lineup. He wasn’t hurt; he could have played; it was simply time to put an end to a personal accomplishment that had begun to overshadow team goals. Ryan Minor was his replacement.
Ripken was an Oriole practically from birth. He was born and raised in Maryland, the son of an Orioles minor-league manager, Cal Sr., the taciturn founder of “the Oriole Way.” Baltimore drafted the young Ripken out of high school in the second round of the 1978 amateur draft. He broke into the major leagues shortly after the close of the 1981 players strike, debuting as a pinch runner on August 10 against Kansas City. Like Gehrig, once he stepped on the field, it was nearly impossible to get him off it.
In 1982 he was named American League Rookie of the Year after leading rookies in nearly every offensive category. He started the season at third base, but soon shifted to shortstop where he would play every game, and practically every inning, for the next 14 seasons before returning to third base in 1997. He wouldn’t miss a game at third for almost two seasons.
In that span, Ripken became one of the game’s best shortstops with both the bat and glove. Ripken won the AL MVP in 1983 as the leader of an Orioles team that won the World Series; in 1991 he won the award again because of his outstanding achievements (34 homers, 114 RBIs, .556 slugging average) on a sixth-place team. In between MVPs, his father was hired to manage the club, but Cal Sr. was dismissed in the midst of a 21-game losing streak to start the 1988 season.
Cal Jr. became one of baseball’s most popular players: through 1999 he had appeared in 17 straight All-Star Games. He set a major league record (since broken) with 95 consecutive errorless games in 1990, and followed that with back-to-back Gold Glove Awards in 1991 and 1992. He also earned numerous honors for his work off the field as well, including the Bart Giamatti Caring Award (1989), Roberto Clemente Award (1992), and Lou Gehrig Award (1992).
In 1993 Ripken passed Ernie Banks as the all-time home run leader for shortstops. The following year he hit his 300th home run. On September 2, 1999 he became the 29th player to hit 400 home runs, but his season ended prematurely—with him just nine hits shy of 3,000—because of surgery to relieve pressure in his lower back. Despite thedeath of his father in midyear, his .340 average in 332 at bats was the highest of his career, even if it was the first time in 19 years that he failed to play in at least 99 percent of his team’s games. The highlights of the season were his 400th home run and a six-hit game on June 13 during an interleague visit to Atlanta.
Ripken returned for two more seasons of diminishing productivity, but he did cross the 3,000-hit divide. In a particularly satisfying and sentimental farewell appearance at the All-Star Game, Cal, who had been voted in as the AL’s starting third baseman, accepted the offer of starting shortstop Alex Rodriguez to switch positions to open the game. Cal then proceeded to hit a home run in his first time at bat. He was named the All-Star Game MVP in his league’s 4-1 victory.
18. MICKEY MANTLE
Mickey Charles Mantle was the son of Oklahoma lead and zinc miner Mutt Mantle. “I always wished my dad could be somebody else than a miner,” Mantle once said. “I knew it was killing him. He was underground eight hours a day. Every time he took a breath, the dust and dampness went into his lungs.”
Mutt Mantle named his boy after legendary catcher Gordon “Mickey” Cochrane and started him switch-hitting at age 5. “He believed that any kid could develop into a switch hitter if you taught him early enough,” recalled Mantle. Mutt would pitch to young Mantle from one side, and Mickey’s grandfather would lob the ball to him from the other.
Mantle played football and baseball for Commerce High School, earning the nickname “the Commerce Comet.” During one football practice he was kicked in the left shin, and not only did his ankle swell to twice its normal size, but he also developed a 104-degree fever. He eventually developed osteomyelitis (inflammation of the bone marrow) and was threatened with amputation. But at Oklahoma City’s Crippled Children’s Hospital, Mantle received penicillin injections every three hours around the clock, and his condition improved almost immediately.
When he recovered, New York Yankees scout Tom Greenwade signed him to a $400-a-month contract. When Mutt Mantle hinted his son could make as much working in the mines and playing ball on Sundays, Greenwade threw in a $1,100 bonus. Greenwade knew at the time he was getting someone special. “The first time I saw Mantle I knew how Paul Krichell felt when he first saw Lou Gehrig. He knew that as a scout he’d never have another moment like it.”
Mantle was sent to Independence of the Class D K-O-M League, where he batted .313. He played shortstop and committed 47 errors in only 89 games. His next destination was Joplin in the Class C Western Association, where he hit a league-leading .383 with 26 homers and 136 runs batted in.
“He should lead the league in everything,” Yankees manager Casey Stengel said of Mantle before the 1951 season. “With his combination of speed and power he should win the triple batting crown every year. In fact, he should do everything he wants to do.”
One thing Mantle couldn’t do, however, was play shortstop. He had made 55 errors at Joplin. With Phil Rizzuto still firmly in control of the position in New York, Mantle needed to find another role. He had the speed and range to play center field, but an aging Joe DiMaggio still owned the position, and any attempt to move New York’s hero could cause a riot. Stengel tried Mantle in right field.
Mantle went north with the Yankees in 1951 and started on Opening Day. He impressed observers with a 450-foot homer off Randy Gumpert on May 1, but, overall, he had trouble adjusting to big-league pitching. The Yankees finally realized that Mantle required more seasoning and shipped him down to Kansas City.
Mantle’s hitting slump continued. He called home and told his father, “I don’t think I can play baseball any more.” The next day Mutt Mantle arrived in Kansas City and started packing his son’s belongings into a suitcase.
That was enough to jolt Mantle out of his slump. During his 40-game stay at Kansas City, he batted .361, hit 11 homers, drove in 50 runs, and was back in Yankee Stadium by the close of August.
In Game 2 of that year’s World Series, Mantle tripped over an exposed drainpipe in Yankee Stadium’s right-center field. He tore cartilage in his knee and missed the rest of the Series. The day after the injury, Mutt Mantle, a spectator at the World Series, was taken ill. By the next summer he was dead of Hodgkin’s Disease, the same malady that had killed Mutt’s father.
Mickey Mantle soon developed into a star, but he was still a small-town boy in the big city. He shared an apartment above the Stage Delicatessen with Hank Bauer and Johnny Hopp, and in his first year gained 25 pounds from eating corned beef, cheesecake, and matzo ball soup. He eventually became fast friends with Whitey Ford and Billy Martin—and with that duo, his diet was often more liquid than solid.
In 1957, a fight broke out at New York’s Copacabana nightclub involving Mantle and Martin. In an effort to protect Mantle from further trouble the Yankees traded Martin to the Athletics. The two remained friends, however. “We used to tease each other about whose liver was going to go first,” said Mantle.
Part of the reason for Mantle’s high living was his suspicion that he would follow his father and grandfather to an early grave. At age 46 Mantle lamented, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”
Mantle specialized in monster home runs. One of his most famous was a 565-foot blast at Washington’s Griffith Stadium in 1953. “I never saw a ball hit so far. You could have cut it up into 15 singles,” marveled Yankees pitcher Bob Kuzava. On May 13, 1955, Mantle hit three homers into the distant Yankee Stadium bleachers. Each cleared the 461-foot sign. On May 23, 1963, he struck the park’s right-field facade. It was estimated that—had it kept sailing—the ball would have traveled 602 feet.
Mantle was perhaps at his finest in the mid-1950s. In 1956 he won the American League Triple Crown with 52 homers, 130 RBIs, and a .353 batting average. He hit three more home runs in the World Series and won the AL Most Valuable Player Award. In 1957 Mantle again won the MVP Award. In the 1957 World Series, Milwaukee second baseman Red Schoendienst came down on Mantle’s right shoulder. The injury would hamper him for years, although he would win another MVP Award in 1962, along with a Gold Glove.
In 1961 Mantle and teammate Roger Maris were both in pursuit of Babe Ruth’s 60-home run single-season record. In September, Mantle developed a cold he couldn’t shake and announcer Mel Allen recommended an East Side physician who could fix him right up—”the best there is.” The doctor, garbed in a bloodstained smock, injected Mantle with some mysterious substance that immediately put him into a dizzied, feverish state.
Mantle missed several crucial games and had to have the area where he had been injected cut open and lanced. In the end he played 8 fewer games and had 76 fewer at bats than Maris, who had eclipsed Ruth’s record by a single homer. The doctor even had the nerve to send Mantle a bill. “I never did pay it,” said Mantle. “I wanted to sue. A few years later he stopped practicing.”
Even though that malady went away, injuries continued to haunt Mantle. Playing in Baltimore in June 1963, he broke his ankle and was out of the lineup for two months. His first at bat after returning to active duty was a pinch-hit, game-tying homer with two outs in the ninth inning.
But Mantle’s best days were over. His damaged shoulder caused him great pain, and in the mid-1960s he had difficulty throwing and even batting from the left side. He played first base the final two years of his career.
During spring training in 1969 Mantle announced his retirement. “I can’t play any more,” he stated. “I can’t hit the ball when I need to. I can’t steal second when I need to. I can’t go from first to third when I need to. I can’t score from second when I need to. I have to quit.”
After his retirement Mantle became involved in a number of ventures including a popular restaurant on New York’s Park Avenue South. He also announced for a while on NBC’s Saturday Game of the Week. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974, his first year of eligibility.
In later years the once-shy Mantle emerged as a raconteur and may, in fact, have been even more popular than he was while playing. In one of his stories St. Peter met him at the Pearly Gates. “Sorry, Mickey,” St. Peter said, “because of the way you lived on earth, you can’t come in. But, before you leave, would you please autograph these baseballs for Him?”
After a 1993 stay in the Betty Ford Center in California, Mantle also emerged in the unlikely role of clean-living spokesman. He appeared on TV programs to talk about his experiences and to warn kids about drug and alcohol abuse. The transformation was apparently too late for Mantle himself. In 1994 he received a liver transplant at Baylor University Hospital in Dallas. Around the same time, he formed the Mickey Mantle Foundation to raise awareness of the importance of becoming an organ donor.
Ironically, it was during the successful transplant surgery that doctors discovered an inoperable cancer lesion. Mickey Mantle died August 13, 1995 at the age of 63.
19. CHRISTY MATHEWSON
In a sport dominated by ruffians, Christy Mathewson exuded a sense of nobility. Not only was he a great pitcher—the co-holder of the National League record for career victories, with 373, and the league record-holder for most victories in a season, with 37—but also he was a gentleman, a man of moral convictions who inspired an entire generation of fans. Mothers could contemplate their sons growing up to become baseball players if the game welcomed men like Matty.
“Mathewson was the greatest pitcher who ever lived,” said Connie Mack, who managed the Philadelphia Athletics through a half-century of baseball. “He had knowledge, judgment, perfect control, and form. It was wonderful to watch him pitch … when he wasn’t pitching against you.”
In the 1905 World Series against the Athletics Mathewson pitched three complete-game shutouts. In 1908 he walked an average of less than one player per game while winning 37 games (he won 30 or more games four time). From June 13 through July 18, 1913, he pitched 68 consecutive innings without surrendering a single base on balls. For 12 consecutive years he captured a minimum of 22 victories.
Christopher Mathewson began pitching at age 13 for his hometown team in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. It was there that Mathewson later added a new pitch to his arsenal, learning the delivery from a left-handed teammate. “Williams [Dave Williams, who went on to pitch briefly for the Boston Red Sox] pitched this ball with the same motion that he threw his out-curve,” noted Mathewson, “but turned his hand over and snapped his wrist as he let the ball go. He never could tell where it was going, so it was of no use to him in a game. It was a freak delivery. It fascinated me.”
At Bucknell College Mathewson continued to star as a pitcher but also made a name for himself in football. He was known as “Gun Boots” because of his skill in dropkicking. Signed to a professional baseball contract with Taunton, Massachusetts, of the New England League, he made his professional debut came on July 21, 1899, in a 6-5 loss to Manchester.
The next year Mathewson signed with Norfolk of the Virginia League. He was 20-2 by late July, when he was sold to the Giants for $2,000. Manager John “Phenomenal” Smith, a one-time big-league pitcher himself, had offers for Mathewson from both the Phillies and the Giants and gave the pitcher his choice. Mathewson, believing the Giants were more in need of pitching, opted for New York.
In New York, manager George Davis christened Mathewson’s trick pitch the “fadeaway.” Despite his innovation, Mathewson proved ineffective in 1900, going 0-3 with a 5.08 ERA, and returned to Norfolk at season’s end. The Cincinnati Reds proceeded to draft Mathewson off the Norfolk roster, but the Giants had second thoughts about handing the talented righthander back. They traded washed-up fireballer Amos Rusie for him on December 15, 1900. Rusie, who had already accumulated 245 big league victories, would not win another game. The deal turned out to be baseball’s greatest steal.
Mathewson had a wide variety of pitches, including a fastball, curve, and the aforementioned fadeaway. Although the fadeaway was his most famous pitch, he never would say which of his offerings was the best. “Anybody’s best pitch is the one the batters ain’t hitting that day,” he observed. “And it doesn’t take long to find out. If they start hitting my fastball, they don’t see it anymore that afternoon. If they start getting a hold of my curveball, I just put it away for the day. When they start hitting both of them on the same day, that’s when they put me away.”
As successful as he was, Mathewson was, to some extent, a hard-luck pitcher. Bad things often happened to the Giants when Mathewson took the mound in big games. It was Mathewson who was pitching against the Cubs on September 23, 1908, when first baseman Fred Merkle pulled his famed “Merkle Boner” play, forgetting to touch second base when Al Bridwell drove in what appeared to be the winning run from third base. Merkle headed into the clubhouse to join the celebration but was called out by umpire Hank O’Day. The game ended in a deadlock.
That tie had to be replayed on October 8, 1908. With the pennant at stake, “Big Six” Mathewson was once again on the mound. He sailed along until the third inning, when center fielder Cy Seymour, stubbornly ignoring Mathewson’s entreaties to play deeper, saw a Joe Tinker fly ball sail over his head for a triple. Four runs scored that inning, and the Giants lost the game, 4-2, as well as the flag.
Mathewson was the victim again in the the final inning of the final game of the 1912 World Series when Fred Snodgrass committed his “$30,000 Muff” in center field and catcher Chief Meyers and Merkle let an easy foul pop drop between them. Mathewson lost another heartbreaker as the Red Sox won the game and the Series.
If Mathewson had one flaw, it was his lack of concentration when he had a big lead. “Matty was a great one for loafing when the pressure was off, when we were way ahead,” teammate Larry Doyle said. “He was only great when he had to be. In tight ball games, he was darn near impossible to hit. But when the score was lopsided, Matty didn’t seem to care a whit about his reputation and he’d toss in plenty of fat ones.”
In 1914 Mathewson started to wear out. He finished with a record of 24-13, but in the second half of the season he began to complain of pains in his left side. In 1915 Mathewson suffered his first losing season since 1902, and by 1916 he was being used out of the bullpen. On July 20, 1916, McGraw traded Mathewson to the Reds along with two other future Hall of Famers, Edd Roush and Bill McKechnie, for Reds manager Buck Herzog and outfielder Red Killefer.
Although the deal was made to allow Mathewson to manage Cincinnati, Reds fans were probably relieved to get him off the Giants’ mound. With New York, Mathewson’s record against the Reds was 64-18, with 22 wins in a row at one point.
Mathewson’s last pitching performance, his only one for the Reds, was a specially contrived matchup against another aging hurler and Matty’s longtime rival, the Cubs’ Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown. In the second game of a Labor Day doubleheader, Mathewson outlasted Brown, 10-8.
After several decades the significance of this game became apparent. The annals showed that when Mathewson retired he had accumulated 372 victories, a National League record. Grover Cleveland Alexander subsequently won 373, consigning Mathewson’s mark to second place. But a statistician later discovered that a May 1902 Mathewson 4-2 victory over Pittsburgh had been erroneously entered in the record books as a loss. Matty’s crown had been restored, even if it had to be shared.
Mathewson managed Cincinnati until midseason 1918, when he joined the armed services and served as a captain on the Western Front, where he was hit by a whiff of poison gas. In 1919 he returned to baseball as a coach for the Giants, but two years later was diagnosed as having tuberculosis in both lungs.
He was sent to Saranac Lake, N.Y., for treatment, where one of his lungs collapsed. Baseball was his medicine. “When a fellow cannot read, or write, or talk, and can only move his fingers and forearms, it requires some resourcefulness to keep his mind off his troubles. I started working out a baseball game, figuring every chance and studying how it should be played mechanically so as to offer the same chances as are offered on a ballfield. It interested me and kept my mind engaged.”
In 1922 Mathewson returned home, and his spirit was too strong to merely survive. In 1923 he accepted the post of general manager of Judge Emil Fuchs’ Boston Braves. It was a challenge Mathewson never should have taken. In 1925 the strain caused him to collapse. He returned to Saranac Lake and died there on October 7, as the World Series opened. Players on both squads wore black armbands in tribute.
In 1936 Christy Mathewson was among the first five players to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
20. CURT FLOOD
Every time a major leaguer collects a paycheck, he should thank Curt Flood. In 1970 the St. Louis Cardinals’ center fielder sued Major League Baseball in an effort to eliminate the reserve clause that had, since 1879, bound a player to his team forever. Although Flood lost the battle, the players ultimately won the war. Flood’s suit paved the way for arbitration, free agency, and million-dollar salaries.
After two short trials with Cincinnati, Flood was traded to St. Louis. He came to the majors to stay in 1958 at age 20. Flood played sparingly until the middle of 1961, when Johnny Keane replaced Solly Hemus as the Cardinals’ skipper. In 1961 he batted .322, up 85 points from the previous year. It was the first of six .300-plus seasons in his remaining nine years with the Cardinals.
Flood’s real gift was playing outfield. He won the first of seven straight Gold Glove Awards in 1963. By the middle of the decade it was widely acknowledged that he’d surpassed Willie Mays as baseball’s best center fielder. A 1968 Sports Illustrated cover featured a self-portrait by Flood the painter.
From September 3, 1965, through June 2, 1967, Flood played 226 errorless games in the outfield for a National League record and handled 568 consecutive chances, a record in the majors. On June 19, 1967, two weeks after he muffed a ball to end the streak, Flood completed the first unassisted double play by an NL outfielder in 34 years, the first in the majors since 1945.
Surprisingly, Flood’s most memorable moment in three World Series appearances occurred when he misjudged a fly ball in the 1968 classic. With two out in the seventh inning of a scoreless Game 7, Jim Northrup drove a Bob Gibson pitch deep into center field. Flood took a step in and then could not catch up to the drive, which fell for a triple, scoring both runners. Northrup later scored, and Detroit held on to win the Series.
Flood was a co-captain, with Tim McCarver, of those St. Louis pennant winners. When the Cards failed to win a third straight flag in 1969, the front office set about remaking the squad. Late in the season Flood complained publicly about management throwing in the towel while the team still had a chance to win in 1970. He was among the first to go.
On October 7, 1969, the Cardinals traded Flood, McCarver, pitcher Joe Hoerner, and outfielder Byron Browne to Philadelphia for first baseman Dick Allen, second baseman Cookie Rojas, and pitcher Jerry Johnson. Flood found out about the trade from a reporter who called to ask for a comment. After 12 years with the Cardinals, he felt he had earned more consideration. “If I had been a foot-shuffling porter, they might have at least given me a pocket watch,” Flood wrote. Moreover, he said, the trade “violated the logic and integrity of my existence. I was not a consignment of goods.”
He declared he would retire rather than report to Philadelphia, a standard ploy for a traded veteran player. He disliked the Philadelphia organization’s reputation and the city’s treatment of black players. But as the hurt of the trade faded, its injustice remained. Flood began to think about suing baseball over the reserve clause, which bound him either to play for Philadelphia or retire. He consulted a local attorney, who endorsed the possibility of a successful lawsuit.
Flood met with Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), who had been trying to reform the game’s archaic labor-relations policies ever since he had taken over as head of the union in 1966. Miller warned that the suit could end Flood’s career and cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost salary as well as legal fees. Flood declared, “I want to go out like a man instead of disappearing like a bottle cap.”
Still, Flood took Miller’s advice to think the suit through carefully. He dined with Philadelphia general manager John Quinn, who thought at the time that he’d convinced Flood to join the Phillies. Flood decided to proceed with the suit anyway, and in mid-December he met with MLBPA representatives, who voted unanimously to pay legal fees and other expenses related to Flood’s suit.
On December 24, 1969, Flood, with help from Miller and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, drafted the following letter to baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn:
“After twelve years in the major leagues, 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. I, therefore, request that you make known to all Major League clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.”
Kuhn’s reply reaffirmed Organized Baseball’s intention to hold Flood to the provisions of his 1969 contract, which included the right of the Cardinals to assign it wherever they pleased. In April, Philadelphia acquired first baseman Willie Montanez and minor league pitcher Bob Browning from St. Louis as substitutes for Flood. In January 1970, the case of Flood v. Kuhn was filed in U.S. District Court in New York. Judge Irving Ben Cooper denied Flood’s request for an injunction voiding the trade and recommended the issue be settled in a trial, which began in May.
Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg testified for Flood, along with former club owner Bill Veeck and former pitcher and author Jim Brosnan. No active players testified for Flood, nor did any show up to give moral support. Despite the MLBPA representatives’ vote, rank-and-file players were divided, some believing Organized Baseball’s dire predictions that eliminating the reserve clause would destroy the game.
Sitting out the 1970 season to avoid prejudicing his case, Flood went to Copenhagen after the trial to paint and to pursue plans to open a restaurant. In August, Judge Cooper decided against Flood without touching on the merits of the reserve clause. His ruling simply upheld the 1922 U.S. Supreme Court decision exempting Organized Baseball from antitrust laws because it was not interstate commerce. A federal appeals court upheld Cooper’s ruling, but the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Flood’s appeal.
On June 12, 1972, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-3 decision against Flood, with Justice Lewis Powell abstaining because he held stock in Anheuser-Busch, which owned the Cardinals. However, the majority opinion hoisted a warning flag for baseball, calling its antitrust exemption an “aberration” and an “anomaly.” Flood’s suit had exposed the vulnerability of Organized Baseball’s legal position, as well as its immorality, and had begun the march toward the modification of the reserve rules, which culminated in arbitrator Peter Seitz’s 1976 ruling establishing free agency.
Flood reaped little from shaking the game to its roots. With his U.S. business interests going sour, he accepted owner Bob Short’s offer to play for the Washington Senators for the 1971 season, after securing an agreement that Major League Baseball’s attorneys would not use it against him in court. Short had to send Philadelphia a player for the right to negotiate with Flood and two more after signing him. But after batting .200 in 13 games, Flood left the team, saying that age and rust had robbed him of his skills.
Flood went back to Europe, landing in Spain, but ultimately returned to the Bay Area, where he worked as a broadcaster for the Oakland Athletics in 1978, painted, and headed Oakland’s Little League. And in one final irony, the man who had sued a commissioner of Organized Baseball ultimately became one himself. Flood headed the short-lived Senior League, which played its single season in the winter of 1989-90.