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The push for Curt Flood’s enshrinement into the Baseball Hall of Fame intensifies

Fifty years after Flood’s game-changing letter, there’s still unfinished business

Dear Mr. Kuhn: After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel that 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.”

— Portion of Curt Flood’s letter to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, dated Dec. 24, 1969

On Christmas Eve, actress Judy Pace-Flood will gather with a few close friends and family in Los Angeles to celebrate.

“We’ll all get together in the afternoon, with my family, and two of my girlfriends and we’re going to have a good, good time,” Pace said last week from her home in California.

This year’s celebration carries extra significance: It marks the 50th anniversary of what may be one of the most defiant letters a player has ever written to the commissioner of a major sport. Curt Flood’s Christmas Eve letter to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1969 served notice that baseball’s practice of treating players like cattle was no longer acceptable. The chains that bound players were about to be broken.

Actress Judy Pace Flood attends the Los Angeles Premiere of HBO’s “The Curious Case of Curt Flood” at Museum Of Tolerance on July 11, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

By Christmas 1969, Pace and Flood had been dating for three years; they were a power couple living their respective dreams, the epitome of Nina Simone’s Young, Gifted and Black.

Flood, who was born in Houston and raised in Oakland, California, was 31 at the time and one of the best center fielders of his era. He had won seven consecutive Gold Glove Awards, hit higher than .300 in six of his 12 years with the St. Louis Cardinals and was a key player in the team’s 1964 and ’67 World Series championships.

Pace, 27 at the time, was a groundbreaking actor in her own right. She had received her first big break in Hollywood a year earlier in the TV series Peyton Place and was being recognized for other roles as well.

“We both had reached a place where we imagined we wanted to be and we were having a wonderful time,” she said.

But in October 1969, Flood was unceremoniously traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the lowly Philadelphia Phillies, largely as punishment for demanding a raise. Under the “reserve clause,” a player was property of a team until the team decided to make a change.

The trade hit Flood like a body blow.

“That was devastating, absolutely devastating,” Pace recalled. “It was like someone comes and cuts your legs. Curt said it was like someone putting a knife in his stomach, or your mom throwing you away. It was that kind of deep hurt.”

Actress Judy Pace Flood attends the Los Angeles Premiere of HBO’s The Curious Case of Curt Flood at Museum of Tolerance on July 11, 2011, in Los Angeles.

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Initially, Flood told Pace that he would simply retire from baseball. But the swirling winds of revolution in the United States, with young African Americans fighting against oppression, and students opposing the war in Vietnam, inspired Flood to rethink his reaction. He decided to fight Major League Baseball and take on its reserve clause.

Marvin Miler, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, convened a meeting of player reps in Puerto Rico. Flood made his case against the reserve system. The union reps voted to support Flood but Miller warned Flood that they both were making powerful enemies for life.

Miller also warned Flood that the suit would cost him his career, and that he would likely never be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Flood looked back on his life and all the suffering he had seen in his own country: the lynching, fire hoses and dogs being turned on young people in the South, little girls losing their lives in churches that had been bombed. If they could resist and keep marching, Flood could take on Major League Baseball.

After 50 years, the powerful forces within baseball that opposed Flood and Miller have partially relented. Last week the veterans committee voted 12 to 9 to induct Miller into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“I never thought that Marvin would be put in because the people he was up against were the people who had so much power, and I thought their legacy would continue to keep him out,” Pace said. “They were the men who had bags of money.’’

Pace was sensitized to Flood’s struggle.

This was a time of revolution, and Flood and Pace were in the vanguard of struggle in their respective fields. While Flood was taking on major league baseball, Pace was pushing against barriers in Hollywood — as a woman, a black woman and a brown-skinned black woman. She had to fight against color-coded casting.

“I am the first dark brown actress who was presented as beautiful and sexy and had men chasing her,” she said. “The industry has been around since the 1900s and we had to the 1960s before there was a dark brown actress.

“Getting roles was like going in and knocking down doors. I had to work a whole lot harder in order to even be considered as leading lady.”

When Flood sat out the 1970 season and moved to Spain, his relationship with Pace ended. Much like Colin Kaepernick, who was blackballed by NFL owners beginning in 2016 for his social protests, baseball owners were loath to touch Flood, the player who had violated baseball’s holy grail: the reserve clause.

Pace married another man in 1972, the same year the Supreme Court voted against Flood. She and her husband divorced in 1984.

Flood returned to the United States, pulled his life back together after battling alcoholism. He reconnected with Pace soon after and they were married in 1986 until Flood’s death from throat cancer in 1997.

It’s been 50 years since Curt Flood sent this historic letter to MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn on Christmas Eve — the first in a long line of steps that eventually led to the development of free agency.

Flood’s historic letter remains a shining example of his persistence, courage and sense of justice.

“People ask about the letter, they don’t want to believe that he wrote that letter,” Pace said. “They want to know if Marvin Miller wrote the letter or if Marvin gave him the ideas.

“No,” she said, “Marvin did not write the letter. Curt was brilliant.”

The cause for Curt Flood’s enshrinement is being led on multiple fronts, by Flood’s children from his first marriage, by Pace-Flood, by the players association and high-profile players such as pitcher Gerrit Cole.

Last week Cole referenced Flood and Miller during his introductory news conference in New York. Cole said that “challenging the reserve clause was one of the first steppingstones to ultimately the system we have today, which I believe brings out the genuine competitiveness that we have in baseball.”

Cole added that Flood was instrumental in getting the ball rolling.

“I just think it’s so important that players know the other sacrifices that players made in order to keep the integrity of the game where it is.”

Tony Clark, executive director of the players association, called Flood the most important athlete in the 20th century. Clark has long advocated for Flood’s enshrinement into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“If the Hall of Fame is a museum that is reflective of our game’s history and historic performances,” Clark said in his office last week, “his enshrinement would be an affirmation of Curt’s contribution to our game and our history.”

For Pace-Flood, the 50th anniversary of her husband’s letter to Bowie Kuhn is merely a reminder that Flood was right in 1969 and he is right in 2019. His eventual induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame would right a wrong and close a chapter.

“I’m so happy that Marvin got in,” she said. “I want Curt to follow. There’s unfinished business.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.