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Chat: Alex Belth

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Welcome to Baseball Prospectus' Monday April 10, 2006 7:00 PM ET chat session with Alex Belth.


Alex Belth is a baseball writer for SI.com. His new book, Stepping Up: The Story of Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights is available for sale at major online retailers and bookstores nationwide.

Alex Belth: Hey, everyone. Glad to be here. Let's get started.

Mark Lamster (New York): Hi Alex. One of the things that strikes me about the Flood story is how static the relationship between players and owners remained for nearly a century. Back in 1887, John Ward complained quite famously that ballplayers were being treated as "chattel" by ownership. In his 1969 letter to Bowie Kuhn asking for his freedom to negotiate with the whole league, the terms are virtually identical; Flood doesn't want to be "a piece of property to be bought and sold." I wonder if you could comment a bit about what it says about Flood that he was willing to retake this argument, and what it meant that it was a black man who was making it, and at such a contentious moment in American history.

Alex Belth: Hey, Mark, I think your question gets to the heart of the matter with Flood. And hey there y'all, glad to be here. I want to thank the gang at BP for giving me the time to talk about Curt Flood with you. I've spent the better part of the past three years writing a book about his story and it has been a rewarding journey.

Flood is very much a man of his era. Not only was he a self-proclaimed "child of the sixties" but he was also a teenager in Eishenhower's America, and a cast off in Nixon's seventies. Disposed, and dispatched. Not literally, but figuratively.

I mean Flood grows up in Oakland and visits the Jim Crow south for the first time in February of 1956. He's just turned 18. He's bright and has excelled in both sports and the arts as a teen growing up in Oakland, where he was a year ahead of Vada Pinson, two years behind Frank Robinson and three or four behind Bill Russell. And what he ran into playing in South Carolina and then Georgia in '56 and '57 was cutting. "I am pleased that God made my skin black," he would later write in his auto-biography "The Way It Is", "I just wish he had made it thicker."

Flood was 20 in '58 and so he was a man who came of age during the civil rights era. You had the AFL football strike, Ali, the '68 Olympics--you had guys like Kareem, and Bill Russell, and the Big O, and James Brown. Real Bad asses. Flood was just a part of this generation of black athletes that said, "No, we need to be respected, not just tolerated."

His case wasn't racially motivated in nature--the reserve clause bound every player, black or white, equally. It wasn't like Ali being re-classified because he was the champ and a Muslim with the gift of gab.

Flood didn't act just for the black players. He acted on behalf of all the players. But like he told the player's reps in December 1969, the fact that he was black might have made him more sensitive to the issue of being "owned." All of which was a reminder, David Halberstam said, of what had happened to their ancestors.

What I think gives Flood's story a specific charge is that it culiminates in those crazy years of 1967, 68 and '69. He's in his late twenties. He gets traded a few months after the Manson murders. All the SDS dudes are either totally burned out already or they are talking about bombs in Weatherman. Black Nationalism, black radicalism. Dogs and cats, living together...

And I think Flood caught the wave of the emerging "silent majority" blue collar white sentiment. The gap between players and everybody else was begining to perculate. The union was now in the news much more than it ever had--it just wouldn't go away. And of course, it was easy for fans to just be pissed. Flood was no radical, but he was probably perceived as a radical to some people. And if not a radical, than at least an ingrate.

He went from good press, good guy, to the ultimate crybaby, spoiled so and so.

So there is a lot of stuff going on. Those those are just great years. And Flood is very much 1969. I hated the movie, but what he did was the ultimate "Themla and Louise" move. He knew he was going to lose, that the odds of suceeding were slim. He was just going to drive off that f-'in cliff.

He knew he was risking everything he had--his livelihood, his reputation, his family. It's pretty impressive.

darkhorse (N. Richland Hills, TX): Alex, Do you believe Curt Flood sacrificed completing a Hall of Fame caliber playing career with his fight against MLB's reserve clause?

Alex Belth: Probably not a Hall of Famer on merits alone and I don't think he would have ever gotten there. He was excellent--good seasons 1961-1965. Nice. Solid, but not amazing. Great fielder though.

Mark (New York): How is Flood remembered in Oakland?

Alex Belth: I think he's remembered well. He's a native son after all. I've only been to Oakland once, but I liken it to Brooklyn here in New York. It seems like it has a lot of soul. And an interesting town with the Panthers coming out in the sixties and Berkley just next door.

I spoke to several people from Oakland and they generally speak well of Flood. I mean, he partied and was out, so his family has a bit of reputation, but I think they feel a lot of pride in him.

Nick from WH (San Francisco): Do you think there's still a real appreciation of Curt Flood and what he did among current ballplayers? Which players today have a real sense of the history of the game's labor relations? Also, do you think the union has been weakened a lot by the steroid fiasco? And do you think Fehr and others deserve much criticism for the controversy? Congratulations about the book. Can't wait to read it.

Alex Belth: Hey bro. I got the first question a lot so thanks to everyone for it. Do comtemporary players appreciate Flood. Or even know who he is? I can't tell you for sure to be honest, because I haven't talked to enough active players. I'm sure guys like Schilling and Piazza and Tony Clark know who Flood is, but I don't know if the younger guys do. I don't know how many do over all.

The baseball players have a very successful union but I don't know how many of these guys are history buffs.
I don't think this is something that is endemic to ballplayers. I'm not just making excuses for them, but they don't remember anything that happened five minutes ago, just like everyone else-- probably more so because they lead such specific, narrow lives, let alone something that happened in the sixties.

I spoke with Gene Orzo, the general counsel for the Players Association and he assured me that most of the players know indeed who Flood is.

Ken Arneson (Alameda, CA): What current player would you say most resembles Flood in talent level and style of play?

Alex Belth: I was just thinking about that. Maybe Juan Pierre. But a much better fielder. Doug Glanville (retired) but a much better hitter. Hard to come up with a comp, man, cause the guy was freakin 5'8, 160 lbs, tops. He was a small dude. I dunno, Figgens maybe.

Brandon (Indianapolis): Alex: Even though I am a huge baseball fan, I had never heard of Curt Flood until your XM interview. Would you mind providing a synopsis of your book and state why Flood's MLB "career" will interest MLB fans? Thanks!

Alex Belth: Curt Flood was part of the second generation of black ball players to come after Jackie Robinson. This was the era of Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Bob Gibson. Flood came of age during the civil rights era, during which baseball players were bound to their team in perpetuity due to a series of clauses that comprise the "reserve clause."

There was no free agency, players had no right to any kind of self-determination. By the late sixties a handful of top players broke the $100,000 salary mark--some going as high as $125,000, but none of them ever had any real negotiating right until Marvin Miller became the head of the union in 1966. During the most radical days of the sixties, Miller provided conscientious players like Flood an vehicle to apply the injustices that were taking place with cities burning every summer for four years and the war in Vietnam, and the assasination of Malcolm X, King and the Kennedys, to their own profession.

In 1969, after 12 years with the Cardinals, Flood was traded to the Phillies. He was 31, and refused to go. He retired and eventually sued baseball. His case went to court the following year, he ended up with a brief stint in Washington in 1971 but his career was essentially over, and made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1972. He lost. By a narrow margin.

He left the country, he was crushed. He was paranoid and shaken and alcholic. Several years later, the players won free agency, through a different legal avenue. Flood is like a ghost. Remembered by some, but forgotten by many.

Brian (Los Angeles): Hey Alex. Great book -- it made me admire Marvin Miller even more than I already did. Do you see any plausible scenario where he'd make the Hall of Fame?

Alex Belth: Yeah, everyone has to take a truth potion. I don't know, man, I doubt Miller will ever get elected in while he's alive. I spoke with a guy in St. Louis who knows that Simbo--Ted Simmons was furious with the voters who didn't campaign more vigoursly for Miller the last time around. It's not enough to say you are going to vote for him, evidentally, you have to be really out there pushing for the guy. And they let him down.

Terrible job, Mikey, terrible job.

I think it's a shame. The guy is one of the handful of most important figures in the sports history. He's still alive, he's lucid and bright and accesible.

But they'll never do it.

emanski (NJ): Have you uncovered anything new or more interesting about why Flood didn't want to go to Philadelphia?

Alex Belth: Eh, you know what? I think the whole Philadelphia thing was part of an immediate reaction on Flood's part. I mean, I don't know that he would have been any happier being traded to the Red Sox or the Pirates--though as the new Clemente book by David Maraniss and the 1971 book about the Pirates by Bruce Markusen demonstrate, that was one cool-ass motley crew they had their in Pittsburgh.

I've been asked, well what if Flood had been traded to the Dodgers instead? Or to his hometown to the A's or the Giants? What then? And I can't answer that question for sure. McCarver told me that he thinks Flood would have done what he did had been traded in 67 or 68 too. Not that it was premeditated in any sense, but that is where he was at with the reserve clause.

But $100,000 in L.A. could have sounded very different to him than the $100,000 plus he turned down to play in Philly.

Beyond that, I think it was more than just Philly. It was the reserve clause. Philly just made it easy, more decisive. Flood would have had a tougher choice had he gone to L.A.

Shaun P (Bronx Banter, USA): Alex, do you know if Justice Blackmun ever regretted voting the way he did in Flood v Kuhn?

Alex Belth: I don't know, but he sure should have. The bunch of dopes. You know Flood always believed that his losing, on all levels all the way to the top, was racially tinged. I don't know if you agree but he sure felt that way. Beyond the legal arguments, there are some people that will say, "hey, man, they just weren't going to give it to a black guy, but when two white guys hold out [Messersmith and McNally], they are the pioneers all of a sudden."

Being black sure didn't help him. But look at Messersmith, he's a guy who wants nothing to do with baseball. I tracked him down for an article I was writing for SI.com and he told me he just wasn't interested in talking about that time in his life. Fair enough, but it has been a dubious honor at best, damaging at worst.

darkhorse (N. Richland Hills, TX): Getting back to my earlier question, I'd place Flood's peak as being much longer, from 1962-69. His hitting is far more impressive, especially when you consider the prime defensive position Flood played, and the depressed run environment of the '60s. Curt showed little sign of letup during the 1969 season, and with three more quality years, he'd have been around 2400 hits. Very impressive when you consider his stellar defense. Another question: Do you think the Reds would request a do-over of the trade that sent Flood to St. Louis for scrub relievers Marty Kutyna and Ted Wieand, given the opportunity? :)

Alex Belth:
Well, it's hard to say because the wide-held belief is that the Reds traded Flood because they weren't ready to have an all-black outfield--which would have been Flood, Pinson and Frank Robinson. Did they miss out? Yeah, that would have been great. Might have gotten them to another World Serious during that stretch, who knows?

You make great points though. Flood was no slouch. The thing that I really learned about him is what a consumate team player he was. Great at the sacrifice play. Always pumped for his teammates, used to have a sign over his locker that read, "Concentration." Hard worker. And what he ended up doing off the field was very much an extension of that sensibility.

Flood is the quitessential RBI sac fly. After Flood lost in court, Larry Merchant wrote that he was like a batter striking out but not after fouling off so many pitches that he wore out the pithcer for the batters coming behind him. Kind of corny but it works.

jjaffe (New York City): Alex, first off, congrats on your book. As someone who's quite attuned to the history of the game's labor relations, how do you compare Donald Fehr with Marvin Miller in terms of strengths and weaknesses? Do you think the former is out of touch with his constituency?

Alex Belth: Hey J, thanks. I dunno, it's like comparing Mays and Aaron to Bonds and T.O. and A.I. The eras are so different. They are dealing with such different circumstances. And, they are just different kind of guys. I don't know if Fehr is the communicator among the rank and file that Miller was. Miller was terrific with his people. He listened, he cared what they had to say. He was composed and determined but had a sense of humor.

Don Fehr seems exceedingly bright and talented but doesn't seem like a lot of laughs. I'd kind of hate to be him. Miller is the in the catbird seat, that's why he can act as crazy as he wants. That's his right, he's earned it. Good for him.

Nick from WH (San Francisco): gotta just chime in again and say that I loved the Mad Dog reference. Nice.

Alex Belth: Excellent job, Mikey. Those guys have it down because they are the audio personification of the Fat and Skinny shtick (Laurel and Hardy, Siskel and Ebert, etc.). They are totally over the top but when they are good radio, they are hilarious.

Sliced Bread (Bronx Banter): Welcome back from St. Louis, Alex. Was Andy Phillips out there with you? That would be the only logical explanation I've heard for him not starting over Cairo yesterday. Serious question re: Flood - who among the current stars of the game do you think would have 'stepped up' and fought the league as he did? Do you know which, if any, modern players Flood admired?

Alex Belth: Not sure which modern players Flood admired, but I'm sure he followed Rickey Henderson's career, even from a distance, cause they are both from Oakland.

I don't know, Pedro maybe. I could see Pedro being that kind of a guy. Or Carlos Delgado.

DerekJetersAura (Houston): Hey, I really look forward to reading your book. Curt Flood is one of my favorite people in baseball history and was a fine player. What are your thoughts on the RBI program? The results are mixed and the only player coming from it is Carl Crawford, if I am not mistaken. Wouldn't it be more efficient if they targeted kids around 5-7 instead of ones in their early teens? By then most kids have decided their favorite sport. Thanks.

Alex Belth: Hey, man. Thanks for the question. I don't know enough about RBI to have any kind of informed opinion, but baseball is just not the sport you see black kids playing in the city. It's funny, cause I was just out in St. Louis for the first time last week and there are a lot of black people there and I'm like who do you guys root for in hoops? St. Louis hasn't had a hoops team since the Spirits. And the answer I got is a lot of them don't really follow hoops like that at all. They're Rams fans. Well, dag, I associate black people in the city with basketball, so that's bugged.

Lucky for me, I'm also fortunate enough to associate Spanish kids with baseball. And up where I live, I'm close to a lot of Dominican kids and adults who LOVE baseball. So you see it all spring into the fall around and that's great.

I don't know if or when black kids will ever return to baseball. Tough one.

Anthony (Long Island): Where is your favorite place to sit at Yankee Stadium? Personally, I think up high behind home plate is the best view in baseball.

Alex Belth: Yeah, over the last couple of years, I've kind of been re-defining my version of the perfect seats. I like one of the first four or five rows in the lower tier (lower third deck) behind home plate. And you can give or take a few rows here or there, they are all great. That way you get a nice overview of the field, and you are right on top of the action while not being too close at all.

IN23 (Baltimore): Hey Alex i'm looking forward to picking up the book sometime soon, it sounds very interesting. What what your biggest obstacles that you had to overcome to write the book?

Alex Belth: Biggest obstacle was my own craziness. After coming up with such a good idea for a book, I actually had to sit down and sweat and grind and write it. That offended me greatly for at least a full year and a half, which made the act of writing more difficult than it already is. I was pretty pissed off that I actually had to work to get done. Never really had such a great relationship with discipline myself.

But once I got over myself--which took a lot of time and patience (fortunately, I've got a great girl friend)--the process, the work became less of an affront to my greatness and more the thing that was going to set me free.

I didn't get a lot of cooperation from Flood's family or some of his teammates. I wouldn't say that was an obstacle. In some ways, you could argue coming from an outside perspective frees you of any possible intanglements you could run into with families. They are complicated and understandably have their own agendas.

It made my book less specific than it could have been. I wish I had more details to paint in the story, but you work with what you can get, right? There are still parts of Flood's life that remain enigmatic to me.

On the other hand, I've got to tell you, there are parts that I cut out or didn't include because I didn't see a reason to get too personal. When I talked to some of his family members and heard some of the stories I got a kind of nauseous feeling in my stomach. I was like, aw man, this guy had a tough life. I don't want to go digging around in there. Maybe biography is the wrong genre for me. This should be private, left to his family. I had to allude to his difficulties but I didn't want to dwell on them. That isn't the point of the book.

Steve Lombardi (New Jersey): Alex - great job on the Flood book. I truly enjoyed it. When you look at games played, PA, RCAA, OWP, RC/G and OPS vs. the league average, the OF who was the most like Flood (in terms of with the bat) was Garry Maddox. This is interesting because Maddox was stellar with the glove - like Flood. And, of course, Maddox was traded to the Phillies - like Flood. When I think of Maddox, I always think of the Kiner quote "Two-thirds of the earth is covered by water, the other one-third is covered by Garry Maddox." In your research, were there any quotes on Flood, from any source, that you will always remember? If yes, what one stands out the most?

Alex Belth: Nice to hear from you, bro. A reporter once asked Gibson what it was like to have Flood making plays like he did in center field and Gibson said that it was like watching the girls go by, each one was prettier than the next. Or something to that effect. That's a good one.

Greg Gallagher (Santa Monica, CA): I understand that none of the current major leaguers attended Curt Flood's funeral. Did any of the agents (who probably benefited most by free agency) attend? Scott Boras?

Alex Belth: Greg G over dere. Hey, gunna make this the last one. I'm mad hungry and I've got to troop all the way to the Bronx before I'm gunna eat. No, there weren't any active players there to the best of my knowledge though a lot of Flood's former teammates were. Don't know about Boras, but fill in wise crack____here.

Alex Belth: Hey, I got to get running. To all the heads I didn't get to--I'll get you next time out. Thanks again to BP for giving me the time. Head over to alexbelth.com--a work in progress--when you get a minute. Thanks for dropping by. Alex

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