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COMMENTARY: Remembering Sports' Role in the Civil Rights Movement

Charles E. Sutton | 2/14/2014, 3 p.m.
As I journey through this month of February, I'll certainly remember the contributions of George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman and ...
Curt Flood

Having established a reputation as a "black man who didn't tolerate affronts to his dignity," he now found it within himself to resist the urge to strike back. In the stadium, he responded to the people he called "haters" with the perfect eloquence of a line drive base hit. In 1949, his best season, Robinson was named the league's Most Valuable Player, and in 1962 he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He retired from the major leagues in 1956. In a nutshell, the civil rights movement paved the way for Robinson, who paved the way for Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson and hundreds of others.

Robinson was not satisfied with just being baseball's first black player. He decided to become a torch bearer for civil rights and continued to help lead the cause. The former MVP from Pasadena, California, was determined to have civil rights spread throughout American society and not be limited to sports.

Having garnered the attention of America on the baseball field, he now spread the message that racial integration in every facet of American society would strengthen the country, just as surely as it had strengthened the game of baseball. Every American President who occupied the office between 1956 and 1972 received letters from Robinson expressing various levels of criticism for not doing enough to advance the cause of civil rights. Unwilling to compromise and indifferent to party affiliation, he measured a President's performance by his level of commitment to civil rights. Robinson's position was firm and non-negotiable.

Although the civil rights movement had ended racial discrimination, there were some major league baseball players who felt that the league's business relationship with its players was a merely another form of slavery. Though many players discussed this issue amongst themselves, there was one player, Curt Flood, who decided to do something about it. He exemplified tremendous courage and was willing to put his personal agenda on hold to improve the lives of others. Unlike Robinson, Flood often goes overlooked as it relates to his work during the civil rights movement and his impact on professional sports.

Flood, a 3-time All-Star from Houston, spent most of his career as a center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals. An outstanding defensive player, he led the National League in putouts four times and in fielding percentage twice. He won seven Gold Glove Awards, led the National League in hits (211) in 1964, and batted over .300 six times.

"In slavery they ship you from one plantation to another. In baseball, they do the same thing," Flood wrote in his autobiography. "They ship you from one franchise to another according to the whims of 24 millionaires. You say, 'Curt Flood you're making money, you make $100,000 a year.' Well, that's not the point. The point is I don't want anybody to own me. That belongs to me."

Flood, an overachieving athlete, saw his career essentially ended in 1969 when, at the age of 31, he decided to challenge the reserve clause that made major league baseball players the property of the owners of the teams with which they signed. In October 1969, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies. In December 1969, Flood wrote a letter to Baseball Commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, objecting to the league's reserve clause. Flood requested to be a free agent. Kuhn denied Flood's request, and Flood decided to sue.