A movie critic has an easy job. He or she watches a movie (gets paid for watching it, in fact) and expresses his or her opinion about it. The critic is never wrong. Others might disagree with the critic’s opinion of the movie, but they can’t say he or she is wrong.
I am not a movie critic, but I saw a film last week that I thought was very good and recommend it for you to watch when it premieres on HBO at 9 p.m. July 13, the day after the All-Star game. “The Curious Case of Curt Flood” is a 90-minute documentary that does a good job of examining the former outfielder’s career and the court case that short-circuited it.
Aside from applauding the film generally, though, I especially liked it because it unmasks Bob Gibson for the Tin Man that he is (that’s a reference to another film, “The Wizard of Oz”).
I don’t think the filmmakers intended to show Gibson in a critical light, but it found him because he put himself in it.
Gibson is the former St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher, a Hall of Famer, teammate, roommate and close friend of Flood.
As a player, Gibson intimidated opposing batters with his blazing fastball and reporters with his menacing stare and gruff responses to questions. In retirement he has not mellowed. He neither takes phone calls from reporters nor returns them.
But when the time came to stand up for his friend, Gibson remained seated.
As Flood’s anti-trust lawsuit against Major League Baseball approached trial in Federal district court in New York in 1970, Gibson said he told Flood, “You’re crazy. You’ll never win that.”
He adds in the film interview, “Was I behind Curt? Absolutely. But I was about 10 steps back just in case there was some fallout.” Gibson laughed when he made that remark, but it wasn’t funny.
Later in the film, Gibson says about the lack of visible support players showed for Flood, “I wouldn’t have showed up, no. I guess it would’ve been support, but I was concerned about me, my family, and making a living and I didn’t want to be in the middle of that at all.”
So that was Big Bad Bob Gibson, fearful of no batter but afraid to show up and wimping out when faced with a life-changing challenge for his good friend, who had supported him defensively on the field for years. Despite appearances, Gibson isn’t a guy you want at your back when the odds are against you.
Gibson, however, wasn’t the only player who didn’t show support for Flood. “One of the disappointments was not a single ball player showed up,” says Allan Zerman, Flood’s St. Louis lawyer, says.
Marvin Miller, the union leader, who educated the players on the importance of sticking together, was disappointed, too. “The players could have been there in the early afternoon or morning,” he says, “but I wasn’t going to urge anyone to do it.”
Judy Pace Flood, Curt’s wife and a consultant on the film, says, “He said if they had been walking down those stairs in unity, it might have changed some of the news, or the way they could report the news. That was one of his feelings.”
Joe Torre, another Flood teammate, epitomizes the self-centered attitude of players. “I didn’t think much about it unfortunately,” Torre tells HBO.
Tim McCarver, who was traded to Philadelphia with Flood in 1969 but opted not to join him in his lawsuit, recalls that Flood attended a meeting of the union’s player representatives to tell them of his plan to sue baseball and to seek their support.
“Sadly,” McCarver says, “what came out of that meeting was even though the expenses were going to be paid by the association I think Curt realized he was isolated and I think he felt that isolation.”
No one suggests that Flood would have won the case had players supported him with a strong public showing, but it might have lessened his post-loss depression. Flood never reported to the Phillies, who traded him to the Washington Senators before the 1971 season,
But the resumption of his career was disastrous, on and off the field.
“He had problems of all kinds,” Miller says. “He had to have a worry about him drinking. We’d go out to lunch and he was drinking and smoking more heavily than I ever saw him do. He was having tremors in his hands.”
And Flood’s baseball talent had abandoned him.
“To see him during the first half of spring training you would say there’s no way this guy could have played in the majors,” says Elliott Maddox, fellow outfielder and roommate with the Senators.
“His skills were gone. I think that’s because he couldn’t concentrate on baseball.”
Maddox again: “Not able to perform on the field, he’d go back to the room and start drinking. And the next day after drinking all night, he’d go to the ball park, his eyes all red, the same thing would happen.”
Flood’s condition was not all his doing. “Behind the scenes,” Maddox relates, “Curt was dealing with a lot of demons. He was receiving all this hate mail, tons of hate mail. He probably received four or five assassination threats a day. In almost every letter, he was being called some type of a nigger. He would tell me ‘I’m doing the same thing any man would do, black or white.”
On April 27, only 18 games into the 1972 season, Flood did not show up for a game at RFK Stadium in Washington.
“He’s not there,” Maddox recalls. “I’m worried. I kept thinking ‘I hope he didn’t do anything crazy.’”
Then the players are summoned to the clubhouse, where a telegram from Flood to owner Bob Short is read:
“I tried a year and a half. It’s too much. Very serious personal problems mounting every day. Thanks for your confidence and understanding.” It was signed “Flood.”
The film addresses Flood’s place in the creation of free agency in baseball and reluctantly, it seems, stops short of crediting his lawsuit as the impetus, as so many others have erroneously done.
“The Flood case at the very least gave impetus to getting impartial arbitration,” Miller says, “and that in turn led to the Messersmith-McNally case.” It was that case and the arbitrator who decided it, Peter Seitz, that spawned free agency.
“People think Curt Flood was the guy that broke the reserve system; technically that’s not so,” says Richard Moss, who as the union’s general counsel argued and won the Messersmith-McNally case.
Lou Hoynes was a management lawyer who gave the owners bad advice in that case. Seitz strongly urged the two sides to negotiate a settlement, hinting that if he had to rule it would be in the players’ favor.
However, Hoynes, the National League attorney, and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn advised the owners not to worry about a negative Seitz decision. If he ruled against them, they said, they could go to court and have the decision overturned.
The flaw in that advice was neither Kuhn nor Hoynes was an expert on arbitration decisions and didn’t know that judges rarely overturned arbitrators’ decisions. They learned soon enough when two levels of Federal judges upheld Seitz’s decision.
In the Flood film, though, Hoynes gets it right when he says of Flood, “I don’t see him as being fundamentally different from George Toolson or other people who took a shot at baseball’s reserve system. They all lost. But the others there was no mechanism to keep the issue alive. By the time Curt Flood comes along the Players Association already has this front and center in their sights.”
TRAINERS HOLDING KEYS TO PERJURY CASES
In one case, the former personal trainer has saved the player from going to prison. In the other, the former personal trainer is trying to put the player in prison. It is at this juncture that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens meet.
Bonds has already had his perjury trial, and while nothing is certain with a jury, it seems very likely that Greg Anderson’s refusal to testify at his trial saved Bonds from conviction on perjury charges and a prison sentence.
Prosecutors are determining whether to retry the former outfielder on the perjury charges while his lawyers seek to have the judge throw out his conviction for obstruction of justice.
Unless there is a further delay, Clemens is scheduled to go on trial Wednesday (July 6) in Washington for allegedly lying to Congress about use of performance-enhancing substances.
His chief antagonist is Brian McNamee, who was told he would not be prosecuted if he told the truth about his involvement with steroids, among other substances. He told them he injected Clemens when he was pitching, and Clemens denies it.
The government’s case against Bonds in San Francisco was undermined by its inability to get Anderson to confirm on the witness stand that certain evidence, such as a steroids calendar, was for Bonds.
One of the government’s challenges in Washington will be to establish that a needle McNamee says he used to inject Clemens was used for that purpose.
Clemens’ lawyers have tried to undermine McNamee’s credibility stemming from an old rape allegation with which he was never charged. If they succeed, it could have an effect on the Clemens trial similar to Anderson’s refusal to testify had on the Bonds trial: positive for the defendant, negative for the prosecution.
RETALIATION NO LAUGHING MATTER
It’s just a joke, son, except the son is the one who supposedly made the joke, which some baseball people don’t think it was, but Major League Baseball officials apparently have accepted that explanation, and they’re the ones who count.
Jeff Wilpon, son of the Mets’ owner and the team’s chief operating officer, was quoted last week as saying he would give a pitcher a bonus or take him to dinner if he retaliated against an opposing pitcher who hit a Mets’ batter. Other news reports said Wilpon chastised Mets’ pitchers for not retaliating.
Such talk by a club official usually is cause for discipline by the commissioner’s office, but a person I spoke to in the commissioner’s office about Wilpon’s comment said he understood that Wilpon said he was joking and that his explanation was accepted.
Bad decision if that is so. Club officials should not be making comments about retaliation, joking or otherwise.
Certainly retaliation has always been part of the game, but let the guys who play the game take care of it. Wilpon has been destructive enough in the front office. He doesn’t have to spread it to the field.