Curt Flood: Between the Lines
My good friend Alex Belth spent the better part of the last three years writing the first-ever biography on Curt Flood, a player I had the privilege of watching perform with the St. Louis Cardinals during the 1960s. Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights tells the life story of a man with a conscience who took on the system and paved the way for free agency. The book is long overdue and is an important part of baseball and social history.
Belth is well-known in the baseball blogosphere as the founder and co-writer of Bronx Banter. He is also a contributing columnist for SI.com. In addition, Alex penned a guest article (Otis Redding Was Right) - a stirrring tribute to a dear friend - as one of our designated hitters last November. He is an exceptional writer and storyteller. An excerpt of the book and interview with Belth are available for readers who would like to preview Stepping Up.
I wrote the following essay on Flood exclusively for alexbelth.com. Alex has granted me permission to publish it here as well. Whereas Stepping Up details Flood's formative years in Oakland and off-the-field battles against Major League Baseball as an adult, my article is 100% about Curt Flood, the baseball player.
* * * * *
Curt Flood. With those initials, he was destined to be a center fielder. And what a center fielder he was!
He wasn't a power hitter. He wasn't a base stealer. He didn't draw many walks either. But Flood was a terrific player.
Sure, Curtis Charles Flood has become more famous over the years for what he did off the field. Taking on the owners by challenging the reserve clause was a courageous act. But let's not forget what he did between the chalk lines. Flood, in fact, was best known for what he did right smack in the middle of those white lines.
You see, Flood was one of the greatest fielding center fielders of all time. He won seven consecutive Gold Gloves. Yes, from 1963-1969, Curt won the coveted Rawlings award every year.
Only 11 outfielders have been named a Gold Glove winner more often than Flood. Two of these players - Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente - were on the National League Gold Glove team with Flood for six straight years. Now that is pretty good company to keep. To wit, Mays and Clemente are tied with the most Gold Gloves (12) of any outfielder since the inception of the award in 1957.
Mays and Clemente were automatics year-in and year-out. That meant Flood had to beat out the likes of Hank Aaron, Johnny Callison, Willie Davis, Vada Pinson, Frank Robinson, and Bill Virdon to earn a spot on that team. A 25-year-old Flood replaced Virdon as a Gold Glover in 1963. Virdon, in turn, had beaten out Pinson in 1962. Davis, whose career began in 1960, picked up two Gold Gloves after Flood retired.
From Flood's rookie year in 1958 through his last full season in 1969, he had a higher fielding percentage than Mays (.987 to .982) along with more assists (114 to 100) and double plays (28 to 23). Among all NL center fielders during that span, Flood ranked first in fielding percentage and double plays; and second in putouts (4005 to 4239 for Mays) and assists (only Pinson, with 116, had more). It is noteworthy that Flood remained in center and Pinson was switched to right the one year they played together in St. Louis (1969), even though the latter was seven months younger than the former and a lifelong CF.
Flood had marvelous range. He could run down fly balls with the best of 'em. Flood, however, didn't have much of a choice. He played the majority of his career in what was once known as Sportsman's Park. It was renamed Busch Stadium in 1953, but it was a vastly different ballpark than the one that was built in 1966. The center field fence at Sportsman's Park-turned-Busch Stadium I was more than 420 feet from home plate. Flood had a lot of ground to cover, and, boy, did he do it well.
The man who wore the number 21 on the back of his flannel jersey also played a pretty mean center field in the first year of the new Busch Stadium. He led MLB in putouts with 391 and was the only outfielder who played in at least 100 games not to make an error all season. Flood played 159 games in the field and remains one of only 10 outfielders to field 1.000 in 150 or more games in a season. Among these players, nobody had as many fielding chances as he did that year.
From September 3, 1965 through June 2, 1967, Flood played 226 games in the outfield and handled 568 chances - a league record - without committing an error. Two weeks after his streak was broken, Flood completed the first unassisted double play by an NL outfielder since 1945.
According to Baseball Prospectus, Flood's defensive prowess in 1966 was worth 23 runs above an average outfielder. He had his worst year offensively that season (.267 AVG/.298 OBP/.364 SLG) since 1960, but he more than made up for it defensively. For his career, it is estimated that Flood saved about 109 runs in the field over an average player and 380 runs over a replacement level player.
Over the course of Flood's career, his defense was worth about 10 runs per year compared to a typical CF and more than 30 per year vs. a backup or bench player. In the world of sabermetrics, every 10 runs equates to a win. As a result, Flood's defense alone was worth at least one extra victory annually for the Cardinals and perhaps as many as three.
Although best known for his work with the glove, Flood was an important member of the Cardinals' offense as well. He played during an era when batting average was more highly valued than it is today. Curt batted over .300 six times during his career, including a personal high of .335 in 1967 when the league average was just .249. He had more than 200 hits in back-to-back seasons and led the NL with 211 in 1964. You could find Flood's name in the top ten in hits and batting average five times, doubles four times, triples once, and hit by pitch twice. He ranked in the top ten in times on base for three consecutive campaigns.
Putting the ball in play was another emphasis of the day and Flood could do that about as well as anyone. Curt never struck out even 60 times in a single season despite seven years in which he had more than 600 at bats. Importantly, he was one of the eight toughest batters to fan in the NL every year from 1962-1968.
Flood was also a player who could do the "little things." He was a leadoff hitter before Lou Brock arrived on the scene and for another year after that. The unselfish Flood then batted second or third the rest of his career (in lineups that featured players like Ken Boyer, Bill White and later Orlando Cepeda, Roger Maris, and Joe Torre). He could take pitches to allow Brock the opportunity to steal bases and was adept at hitting behind the runner and bunting. Flood, in fact, was tied for fifth with the most sacrifice hits during the 1960s.
The 5-foot-9, 165-pound Flood finished in the top 24 in the MVP voting every year from 1963-1968. He placed fourth in 1968 (behind teammate Bob Gibson, who won the MVP and Cy Young that year; Pete Rose; and Willie McCovey), yet ranked in the top ten in just two categories - placing fifth in hits and batting average. Of his 186 hits, 160 were singles. He had just 17 doubles, 4 triples, and 5 home runs. Granted, it was the "Year of the Pitcher," but Curt really didn't do anything fancy. The co-captain just went out and played spectacular defense in center field while putting up solid numbers at the plate.
Flood ranked 21st in Win Shares during the 1960s. In fairness to other players of that era, using this period most likely overstates Flood's standing among his peers because it just so happens to coincide with the ten best years of his career. Nonetheless, he was a key player for the Cardinals, tying for the team lead in Win Shares in 1962 and never finishing worse than fifth from that point forward.
The Win Shares formula rates Flood as the best defensive outfielder in baseball history, per inning played. As Bill James noted in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Flood "rates higher than he probably ought to because he skipped the decline phase of his career." James ranks Paul Blair, Garry Maddox, and the DiMaggios with Flood as the best ever in terms of their "prime years."
More than any everyday player, Flood was the face of the Cardinals during the 1960s. He led the team in games, at bats, hits, doubles, runs, times on base, and total bases. Flood was also in the top three among NL center fielders - along with Mays and Pinson - in each of these categories.
A competitive player, Flood was all about winning. The three-time All-Star was a major factor in the Cardinals going 1027-883 (.538) with three NL pennants and two World Series championships during his stay in St. Louis. Although Flood's offensive numbers pale by comparison to the greats of his day, he was good enough to bat first, second, or third for one of the most successful franchises during the 1960s.
But it was Flood's defense that will be remembered more than anything else - well, at least when it comes to what he did between the lines.