Hall of Fame Intangibles

Can intangibles put a player in the Hall of Fame?

Of course not.

What about a terrific player, whose numbers are a little short of Hall of Fame quality but had terrific intangibles?

You’d probably be thinking: “They would have to be some pretty amazing intangibles.”

The trouble with intangibles, is that, well, they’re intangible. They’re not solid and they’re not measurable statistically.

To me, the greatest intangible is the ability to raise the game of the players around you. It’s when the players around you feel that they’ve got a better chance at winning because you’re in the lineup or manning your position in the field. You might not hit a game-winning home run or perform a highlight reel defensive play that snuffs out a potential rally, but the fact you’re in the game tells them that something is going to happen where your actions will spell the difference between tears of joy and tears of sorrow.

What about an intangible that raises the game as a whole to a whole new level? An intangible that causes the game of others to improve for almost four decades after they’ve left?

Impossible?

No.

Before we get into the intangibles, let’s have a look at the things that could be measured. We’re talking about a superbly talented ballplayer. There was a time that Sports Illustrated referred to him as best defensive CF in major league baseball—at a time where Willie Mays was still dazzling fans around the National League with his defensive wizardry.

How was he with the bat?

Well compared to the Moneyball/silly-ball era where OBP and 50+ HR is king, it might be easy to dismiss this player’s achievements. However in the context of his time, he was pretty good. Unfortunately, ignoring a brief unsuccessful comeback, his career was cut short and he was out the game at age 31.

As you’ve deduced from the Willie Mays’ comment you can safely assume he was a contemporary of the storied outfielder. His game however wasn’t the power game but it was more like another contemporary player … Lou Brock.

Of course Brock stole a lot of bases, but during the great hitting drought—or when pitching was king, depending on your point of view—of 1963-68 (aggregate NL ERA those years: 3.39), both men were close in age. Brock was 24, our player under consideration was 25.

How did they compare?

                      AVG   OBP   SLG   RCAA
Player
Mr. Intangibles      .303/ .347/ .390    65 
Lou Brock            .279/ .328/ .418    35
NL                   .259/ .319/ .383     0 

Brock was a prolific base stealer; however offsetting that our Mr. Intangibles finished top ten in batting every year from 1963-68, except for 1966 (Brock finished top ten in this span just once: 1964), and copped the Gold Glove in each of those six years, whereas Brock did not win any. Each man had a pair of 200-hit seasons in that stretch. While Brock was considered the finest base stealer of his time the other was considered the finest defensive centerfielder in baseball.

In short, you’d be hard pressed to decide which player you’d want on your club.

Happily (for them) the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t have to make that choice, as they enjoyed the services of both men. Brock went on to play until he was 40, knocked over 3000 base hits, set a National League record for stolen bases, and was enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame. The other man? Well oddly it was intangibles that all but knocked him out of the game before his 32nd birthday.

What was this intangible quality?

Courage.

He stood up to the baseball establishment and said: “NO!”

You’ve no doubt surmised that Curt Flood is the man under consideration here. Flood challenged the system and, in effect lost his career. The comparison with Lou Brock was simply to remind you what an absolutely fabulous ballplayer Flood actually was—and what he willingly surrendered by taking on “The Lords of Baseball.” Curt Flood, while with the Cardinals, often clashed with management over his pay. The players literally had no real leverage with respects to their careers. Their choices were this: “play for what WE say, or don’t play at all.” Flood summed up his circumstances thusly: “A $90,000 slave is still a slave.”

We often hear the expression from players that “it’s not about the money.” In Flood’s case, it was literally true; it wasn’t about the money. Flood wasn’t trying to go to another team; he didn’t want to leave his current team, the team he considered his home. If the Cardinals didn’t want him, then he wanted some input as to where he would work at his chosen profession.

We take for granted the multi-million dollar contracts of today. Seeing players shop their talents around the league is something well known to the modern fan and fuels the always enjoyable “hot stove league,” but it wasn’t thus. Back in Flood’s day there was something called the “reserve clause.” It basically made a player the property of his team until the team decided they didn’t want him anymore. It was known as 10A in the standard player contract, which stated:

“On or before January 15 … the Club may tender to the Player a contract for the term of that year by mailing the same to the Player. If prior to the March 1 next succeeding said January 15, the Player and the Club have not agreed upon the terms of such contract, then on or before 10 days after said March 1, the Club shall have the right … to renew this contract for the period of one year.”

When newly minted executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association Marvin Miller read the clause he felt that it only gave the team the right to a player for a single option year. The clubs, on the other hand felt it gave them perpetual options on a player. Their thinking was, that when they unilaterally renewed a player’s contract, that since the renewed contract contained 10A (the reserve clause) the team also had an option for the following year after that and so on.

Obviously there was no such thing as free agency; in fact a player after he retired was still “reserved” by the last club to hold the player’s contract and technically was never released even after he died. Also there was no salary arbitration, or even impartial arbitration in case there was a difference between a team and a player. The final court of appeal to the player was the commissioner. In short, the player was helpless with respect to his baseball career.

Since baseball enjoyed an exemption from antitrust law, teams could get away with this.

After numerous contract disputes with the St. Louis Cardinals, the club dealt Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies—a city not known at the time for embracing outspoken, eloquent black athletes. The deal was made on October 7, 1969: Flood was traded by the St. Louis Cardinals with Byron Browne, Joe Hoerner, and Tim McCarver for Jerry Johnson, Dick Allen, and Cookie Rojas. After Flood refused to report to his new team the Cardinals sent Willie Montanez and minor leaguer Bob Browning in 1970 to complete the trade.

Flood didn’t want to leave the Cardinals because he made St. Louis his home. Since the Cards didn’t want him, Flood wanted a say in determining his next destination. However Flood was in a tough spot. He had no court of appeals—save Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. So Flood contacted Kuhn about exploring his options. Kuhn said no and encouraged Flood to join his new team.

So Flood was boxed in. He had no access to impartial arbitration—there was no provision for that in baseball; so he had to sue via antitrust law. However it was a supreme long shot. Flood had two big strikes against him: one, Flood was bringing an antitrust suit against an organization that wasn’t subject to antitrust law. His second obstacle was: Even if baseball were covered by antitrust law, baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement had no provisions for free agency. Generally, in the courts a CBA is given more weight than antitrust law, because the accord (CBA) was agreed to by both sides (the owners and the MLBPA) in arm’s length bargaining.

History tells us Flood lost big time, losing both his case and his career.

Still, his suit brought some action from baseball ownership. In 1970 Marvin Miller got the clubs to agree to having an impartial arbitrator (rather than the courts) to settle disputes between both parties. With that in place, Miller needed a player to test 10A. The trouble was, owners still held the whip hand on pay. A club could (and did) bring great pressure on a player to sign a contract which included the renewal (or reserve) clause.

Miller needed a player to go through an entire season without signing a contract. Doing so would obligate the club to invoke the renewal option. Miller contended that a player that had played out the option year in his contract was no longer bound [contractually] to his team—making him a free agent. With an impartial arbitrator in place, Miller hoped the arbitrator would read the reserve clause the way he did; that it only gave a team a one year option on the player’s services. Before 1970, a player had to appeal to the commissioner in such a dispute (as Flood did), with as predictable a result as the reply you would get from Bud Selig about whether baseball would be better with a hard salary cap set at $30 million.

Finally in 1975 a player did play the entire season without a contract: Andy Messersmith of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He did not sign a contract for that year, obligating the Dodgers to invoke the renewal option—which they did. After playing out his option year, Messersmith (along with, Dave McNally, who had since retired), filed a grievance with baseball’s arbitrator, Peter Seitz. Messersmith (and McNally) claimed that there was no longer any contractual bond between themselves and their clubs. Seitz agreed and the free agency era was ushered in.

We may not like the current system in baseball, but in fairness, baseball is a multi-billion dollar industry, and without the players, there would be no industry. We cannot give Curt Flood his career back, but we can reward him for making baseball better. Make no mistake, baseball is better because of it. Players can devote themselves year round to improving their games. Their wealth allows them to afford the best in fitness equipment, personal trainers and whatever advances in vitamins and nutrition that come down the pipe. Ownership has more money invested in their players so they make sure they get top-notch medical care. Fences are padded, protective gear is better, the best orthopedic surgeons are available, clubs have medical staffs, rehabilitation facilities and the like all to protect their most valuable assets—the players.

Because of this we get to enjoy watching baseball being played at its highest level ever.

That was Curt Flood’s greatest intangible. He elevated the game of the next several generations of players by his courage and willingness to stick by his belief: that he was not property, but a human being with all the rights and obligations that comes with it.

Even sacrificing and short-circuiting a terrific career to do so.

It’s the Hall of Fame and for his contribution to our beloved sport Curt Flood deserves to be immortalized.

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