The typical baseball fan views themselves as fans of a specific team and also of specific players, and they do not see any disconnect between these two things. After all, team success and individual player success correlate–if Yadier Molina gets a hit, it is good news both for his statistical record (and presumably his self-esteem) and for the St. Louis Cardinals, the baseball team which employs him. In most cases, this is a completely fair and accurate view.
But teams and players are not always on the same side, something which should be abundantly clear to anybody keeping even a half-hearted eye on the current labor situation between Major League Baseball owners and their locked-out employees. Reconciling this is not always easy. I take a pretty stridently anti-sports owner stand pretty much as a universal rule, but ultimately I do want a specific billionaire to be really happy in late October or early November and I dedicate hundreds of hours throughout the summer to watching this pursuit. This is a specific celebration I want to see–Bill DeWitt Jr. fist-pumping because the front office was able to keep payroll low enough to improve the team’s balance sheet does nothing for me, and a celebration on the field at Busch Stadium inherently involves the players who actually author the baseball moments I cherish. But I still want to see it.
Legendary Brooklyn Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber famously claimed that the three most important men in baseball history were Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Marvin Miller. The impact each of the three made, in very different ways, continues to shape baseball long after they are gone. But none of the three achieved what they achieved alone. Babe Ruth, the slugger who re-defined the way baseball is played and catapulted the game from regional curiosity to a significant cultural institution, began his playing career as a pitcher, and had it not been for Boston Red Sox outfielder Harry Hooper advising manager Ed Barrow to give Ruth a shot in other positions thanks to his potent bat, he may have become a good but ultimately non-transcendent pitcher for the rest of eternity. Jackie Robinson has his number retired across Major League Baseball due to his significance within the sport, as the first player to break the sport’s decades-old color barrier, but had the sixteen clubs in the white Major Leagues had even the slightest bit of foresight, not to mention humanity, the color barrier could have easily been broken by Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, or, preferably, somebody much earlier than them.
Marvin Miller, considerably less famous than Ruth or Robinson, was a lawyer by trade, the lead negotiator for United Steelworkers and, for the first forty-eight years of his life, a baseball fan but a man unaffiliated in any substantial way with the sport. But starting with his 1966 election as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, who guided the previously weak organization through formal unionization, Marvin Miller began to turn the structure of Major League Baseball on its head. But he couldn’t do it alone–tautologically, that is not how unions work. Miller was a visionary, but he was not, in this context, the labor.
Curt Flood was a spectacular outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1958 through 1969. He was a decent hitter, precisely league-average throughout his tenure by the Baseball Reference estimation OPS+ and 2% above league-average by FanGraphs’s wRC+, but where Flood really shined was in the field. Patrolling center field for 1,682 games with St. Louis, Flood developed a reputation as a defensive superstar, snagging Gold Gloves in his final seven seasons with the Cardinals and notching MVP votes in six of them. By Defensive Runs Above Average, one of the more trusted fielding metrics that covers the majority of MLB’s existence, only seven center fielders were more valuable in the field than Flood. When Flood retired, that number was just three. But his broader significance to the sport was only beginning.
On October 7, 1969, Flood was involved in a major seven-player swap which was to send him and three others–Tim McCarver, Joe Hoerner, and Byron Browne–to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for Dick Allen, Cookie Rojas, and Jerry Johnson. Flood, a veteran who would be 32 years old by the start of the 1970 season, was disheartened by the trade and did not want to play for the Phillies, a 63-99 team in 1969 with a reputation, deserved or not, for hostility towards African-American players such as Flood. Upon meeting with Marvin Miller, Flood wrote a letter, dated December 24, 1969, to Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Flood wrote, “After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.” This was later quoted verbatim in a letter addressed to the Baseball Hall of Fame and signed by a bipartisan delegation of six members of Congress imploring for Flood’s induction, in what may be the first topic I’ve ever seen in which both Roy Blunt and Cori Bush stood in agreement.
Kuhn denied Flood the free agency which he had requested, and in 1972, Flood v. Kuhn was argued before the Supreme Court of the United States. Despite the support of no less a baseball luminary than Jackie Robinson, Flood and the MLBPA’s challenge to the league’s antitrust exemption was rejected by the court in a 5-3 decision (in a decision which seems absolutely inconceivable by modern federal government standards, justice Lewis Powell recused himself due to a conflict of interest as an owner of Anheuser-Busch stock, given their connection to the St. Louis Cardinals). But the structural integrity of the reserve clause had been challenged. By the end of the 1970s, Marvin Miller and the MLBPA had negotiated and won via legal challenge free agency. The battles fought by the union since have not needed to be of such magnitude. And while perhaps somebody else would have been the test case if not for Flood, the same could be said of Jackie Robinson’s role in the integration of the sport. The bravery required to be the first through the door merits constant recognition.
Flood’s role in player empowerment is well-known–the role of his teammate of five games between the 1968 and 1969 seasons, long-time St. Louis Cardinals catcher Ted Simmons, is less celebrated. It is a story about which I was only very vaguely familiar prior to reading Dayn Perry’s excellent look back at the year 1972 in baseball, a re-telling of the modern baseball labor movement and so much more. Should Simmons be regarded as a labor pioneer on par with Flood? Well, no. But he still very much deserves to be mentioned in the broader story.
In an era defined mostly by a particular brand of buttoned-down, unabrasive conservatism within the St. Louis Cardinals organization, Ted Simmons was the exception. In contrast to the squared-off haircuts worn by most of the team, the man nicknamed “Simba” donned a noticeably long cut (though far from Syndergaardian, it qualifies as the next decade’s evolutionary step after some thought the Beatles had scandalously long hair on The Ed Sullivan Show). Born and raised in suburban Detroit, Simmons bypassed a baseball scholarship from the University of Michigan to sign with the Cardinals but he attended classes at the school and later obtained a degree from the school in 1996. Dubbed a “flower child” by teammate Joe Torre, Simmons denounced the Vietnam War and openly detested President Richard Nixon. In 2014, when racial protests in the St. Louis area were international news and the Cardinals organization avoided anything resembling a political stance, Simmons spoke openly about his disgust at the racism that his black teammates had experienced in St. Louis during his playing career.
His liberalism (and honestly, any sort of openly political statement on any side) likely rankled more than a few feathers in the Cardinals organization, but Simmons was also a budding superstar, and that took precedent. After a shaky 1970, his first as the team’s primary starting catcher (Tim McCarver, the greatest catcher in franchise history up to that point, was included in the same trade which sent Curt Flood to the Phillies; the irony that the emergence of Ted Simmons likely played a role in Curt Flood being traded should not be lost on anyone), Ted Simmons took off in 1971. He hit .304, good for 12th in the National League, and in what was just his age-21 season, Simmons received MVP votes.
And Ted Simmons wanted a raise, one which club owner August “Gussie” Busch and general manager Bing Devine were unwilling to provide. This was not an environment hospitable to Simmons’s demands–in February of 1972, the Cardinals traded future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton to the Phillies over a $10,000 salary dispute, and two months later, a contract dispute (in conjunction with a dispute over a mustache) saw St. Louisan Jerry Reuss, a future winner of 220 MLB games, traded away as well. So Simmons used the only power he had–he didn’t sign a contract for 1972. The reserve clause indicated that, because he had signed a contract in 1971, the Cardinals therefore had the exclusive rights to him in 1972, which Simmons did not contest, nor did he threaten to boycott any games, but the precedent set in other professional sports suggested that Simmons could therefore become a free agent after the season.
This was a risky gambit–while Ted Simmons was certainly underpaid relative to his worth to the Cardinals, they were his only option as a professional baseball player prior to free agency. But in 1972, Ted Simmons reached another level of play. He added some power (16 home runs) to his already-high batting average and was named to his first All-Star Game; he would finish the season 10th in National League MVP voting. The Cardinals did not want to risk losing Simmons, and perhaps more significantly, Major League Baseball did not want to risk losing their existing leverage over players. In July, Simmons accepted a two-year, $75,000 contract with the Cardinals which, while miniscule by modern standards, far exceeded what he was offered during Spring Training.
Could Simmons have accomplished more had he held out until the end of the season? Maybe, but given the Flood v. Kuhn decision which was barely a month old, I can’t begrudge any player, in a sport which had been so hostile to them, taking what they can get, clinching life-changing money that they are not otherwise guaranteed to receive. And the capitulation of the Cardinals sent a clear message to Marvin Miller, who ultimately sided with Simmons throughout and following the process, that owners were terrified of losing the reserve clause. Three years later, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally challenged the reserve clause, and this time, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that they were indeed free agents after playing 1975 without a contract.
In 2019, thirty-one years after his retirement from professional baseball and twenty-five years after receiving just 3.7% of votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, Ted Simmons was elected via the Veteran’s Committee to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was a decision rooted not likely in his labor activism but rather in his stellar play–by his combined JAWS score for Hall worthiness derived from both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, he is one of the ten greatest catchers of all-time and in the top half of the sixteen catchers currently enshrined in Cooperstown based on their performance in the National and/or American Leagues. Another inductee from that cycle, however, was undisputedly elected on off-field merits–Marvin Miller. While Miller, who died in 2012, had expressed somewhere between apathy and hostility at the prospect of being elected, Simmons took the opportunity to speak reverentially of Marvin Miller, stating, “I couldn’t be prouder as a newly elected member to be going in with him. I can’t pick anyone I’d rather go in with.” Despite wishes across the political spectrum, Curt Flood is not in the Hall of Fame. Although a very good player, lingering for fifteen non-consecutive years on the BBWAA ballot, Flood never exceeded 15.1% of votes. His most likely route to a well-deserved posthumous induction to Cooperstown is not as a player but as a pioneer.
Curt Flood does hold a mildly dubious honor based entirely on his playing merit–by Wins Above Replacement, he is the greatest player in St. Louis Cardinals history to not have his number retired. There are a few caveats involved–this does not include Rogers Hornsby, whose playing career predates uniform numbers (he is honored alongside the retired numbers on Busch Stadium’s left field wall), nor does it include active players Albert Pujols, whose number will absolutely be retired, and Adam Wainwright, who passed Flood in Cardinals WAR last season. I have long advocated for the Cardinals to retire Flood’s #21, a move that could be deemed defensible strictly on on-field accomplishment. But ultimately, WAR does not define Curt Flood. It also does not define the previous title-holder of Greatest Cardinal Without His Number Retired–Ted Simmons, who held the “honor” prior to July 31, 2021, when his number 23 was retired by the Cardinals in recognition of his induction to the Hall of Fame. You know whose number the Cardinals had no issue retiring? The “number” of August Anheuser “Gussie” Busch Jr., for whom the number 85 is retired by the Cardinals in recognition of his age at the time of its retirement–the man who had traded Curt Flood against his wishes in a system in which Flood had no leverage and who refused to give a well-earned raise to Ted Simmons in 1972.
Ultimately, I don’t root for the Cardinals because Curt Flood and Ted Simmons, guys who retired from the sport before I was even born, were cool. I don’t root against the Cardinals because Gussie Busch (who, to be clear, was absolutely not a uniquely miserly owner relative to his era) held back his players. I root for the Cardinals for the same reason most of you do–a desire to ascribe meaning to my dumb regional loyalties. And that’s fine–both players and owners make a lot of money off that feeling. But to not recognize the history of these men is a disservice not only to them but to the present day and to the future. All owners, even the least evil among them, are perpetually looking for an edge. But it took guts for players to earn what they have. And Curt Flood and Ted Simmons deserve as much credit as I can give them for that.