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The Curious Case Of Curt Flood

A sports documentary isn't necessarily the first place you'd think of for an effective meditation on heroism. Certainly the term is overused in sports, but it's usually specific to sports – an effective player can be a hero within baseball, and perhaps to his city, but it's very rare that you find someone who's worth discussing in those terms off the field. So HBO's new documentary, The Curious Case of Curt Flood, seemed an unlikely source.

Curt Flood is worth discussing at that level. Although he's somewhat overshadowed by players with more on-the-field prowess like Babe Ruth or Jackie Robinson (though Flood was a great player in his day), his role in baseball history is arguably as important. He challenged baseball's “reserve clause”, a rule which allowed team owners to play and trade their players with no recourse from the players. He lost, but his loss helped to pave the way for victory a few years later.

The challenge also exacerbated Flood's personal problems. While he presented himself as a man-about-town, an artist, a star player, and a principled activist, he also was broke, smoking too much, drinking too much, falling behind on child support, and being blamed/blaming himself for his Cardinals loss in the World Series.

This is the central tension of Flood's life, and the one that The Curious Case of Curt Flood deals with so well. In order to be a hero, at least to the Major League Baseball players of the future who have seen their salaries skyrocket since free agency was instituted, Flood ruined his own life. He ruined his career, and with it, his salary. The stress drove him out of the country and to dangerously high levels of alcoholism. In later interviews, he couldn't help but sound exceptionally bitter that he didn't get the support of the players he aided.

It's almost impossible not to empathize with Flood, even while seeing that he planted the seeds of his own ruination. A few years ago, I went all-in as an activist in order to save my college (Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio) from being closed. I worked at it for over a year, moving from Chicago, and essentially letting it consume my life. The struggle was by no means done when I left, but the stress, infighting, difficulty in maintaining relationships, difficulty in achieving successes, and yes, heavier drinking than normal (though not at alcoholic levels, probably) took its toll. So while I already knew I was invested in Flood's story in a civil rights & labor history fashion, as well as the difficulty of achieving institutional change, I was surprised by how much his personal story emotionally impacted me.

The Curious Case of Curt Flood is aided by the fact that Flood's life fits perfectly into a conventional documentary structure. The doc moves chronologically, essentially starting from Flood's birth and ending with his death. His family history and upbringing help shed light on his adult behavior. He indicated early on just how driven and stubborn he was in the political realm. His personal beliefs and flaws coincided directly with his decision to sue MLB. The direct failure of that suit leaves him a broken man, the indirect success of it embitters him. Finally, he turns his life around at the same time as baseball and society as a whole recognize him as a hero, or at least a pioneer. Development, conflict, failure, then redemption.

Flood's determination and suffering, both his own and that which he caused, tell a universal story. It reminded me of the portrayal of both Bradley Manning and Julian Assange in the Wikileaks documentary I reviewed, or alternately, of “Mark Zuckerberg” in The Social Network. Change is accomplished by multidimensional human beings as often as by saints. It is a beautiful story, told effectively.

Stray Observations:

  • Flood has an interesting parallel in European soccer, where pioneer Jean-Marc Bosman won a major case allowing for free agency within the European Union. Like Flood, Bosman won a major victory for his peers, like Flood, Bosman struggled with poverty and alcoholism after that victory. In another 20 years, maybe he'll be seen as a hero too.
  • TIM MCCARVER TRIGGER WARNING: “He was a Renaissance man before the term was even coined.” No, Tim, that seems unlikely.
  • The documentary re-airs on Friday, and probably at many other times in the future.