TV Review: HBO’s ‘The Curious Case of Curt Flood’

07.13.11 7 years ago
Curt Flood is not enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame and if you just look at his statistics, that seems reasonable enough.
Flood won seven Gold Gloves, which confirms and cements his reputation as one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball history. But Garry Maddox won eight Gold Gloves and didn’t receive a single vote when he became HoF eligible, proving that baseball writers either don’t respect defense (plausible) or don’t respect the value of a Gold Glove (more plausible).
Flood led the league in hits once and retired with a career batting average of .293 (very solid) and an slugging percentage of .393 (downright anemic). He never hit more than 12 home runs in a season or stole more than 17 bases. He was a three-time All-Star and played on two St. Louis Cardinals teams that won World Series titles and one Cardinals team which, perhaps even more famously, lost a World Series title.
Yeah, looking at his statistics, you couldn’t fabricate a reason to support Curt Flood’s case for the Hall of Fame. He was a good player, but not a great player. And yet, one could make an easy and fairly convincing argument that Curt Flood was one of the most important baseball players — heck, one of the most important athletes — of the past 50 years and that he did more to shape the contemporary sports landscape than countless players who were faster or stronger or threw the ball harder. 
The Baseball Hall of Fame is full of players obsessed with numbers, pitchers who stuck around forever to get that magical 300th win or hitters who would call the official scorekeeper between innings to complain that an error should have been ruled a base hit. I’d make sure that my Hall of Fame had room for a guy who, in the absolute prime of his career, decided that taking a stand for the good of all players, present and future, was more important than his next payday. 
But that’s just me.
Check out HBO Sports’ new documentary “The Curious Case of Curt Flood,” premiering on Wednesday (July 13) night and see if you agree.
Full review after the break…
The straight-forward narrative of Curt Flood goes like this: Curt Flood was a star for the Cardinals, a renaissance man and occasional activist, who refused to accept a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies and opted to go to court against Major League Baseball, challenging the sport’s anti-trust exemption and the reserve clause that tied players to their respective teams for life. It was a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Skip over the details… Thanks to Flood, baseball players — and basketball players and football players and hockey players — have free agency and are now, at least somewhat, able to control their own destinies and take advantage of the capitalistic interests of professional sports to become wildly, wildly overpaid, cementing the power of various players’ unions and setting the groundwork for decades of subsequent labor unrest. I may view Curt Flood as a hero and a middle reliever making $10 million for 65 innings per year may agree, but there are plenty of people who would accuse him of ruining professional sports. Like I said, when it comes to influence, it’s tough to beat Curt Flood.
But Curt Flood’s story wasn’t even that simple and the title “The Curious Case of Curt Flood” refers not only to his legal stand, but to the man himself, a striking portrait of noble aspirations and personal demons. 
“The Curious Case of Curt Flood” isn’t exactly awash in point-of-view or artistic adventurousness. This is one of those professionally-made documentaries that lists a pair of executive producers (Ross Greenburg and Rick Bernstein), but no “Director” that I could see. Other than the completely unnecessary decision to open and close the movie with ocean imagery, you get what you expect from “Curious Case,” namely a decently assembled mixture of archival footage and talking heads present with total linearity. But despite whatever aesthetic limitations it may have, “The Curious Case of Curt Flood” manages to tell a solidly complete version of the story over its 90 minutes, resisting the temptation to make this a simple hagiography. 
One might almost have wished a little more of Flood’s darkness could have been explored in the documentary, but there are definite limitations in the available on-camera resources. A child and an ex-wife are present to acknowledge Flood’s drinking problem and his tendency to run farther and farther away when things got rough, but they’re not there to desecrate the guy’s image and nor really should they be. There will be viewers who think Flood’s economic problems and health issues shouldn’t be in this documentary at all, so better not to harp on them. However, interesting wrinkles in Flood’s well-documented secondary art career are introduced, but they aren’t substantiated or debunked with any real energy and I was so fascinated by that brief detour that I almost needed more.
This is an inevitable flaw of having a documentary made by an entity like HBO Sports, rather than a crusading filmmaker with an aching desire to tell a story. There’s no reason for “The Curious Case of Curt Flood” to dig up any new information, because the goal is to evenly present the available story, not reportage, per se. So “The Curious Case of Curt Flood” is what-you-see-is-what-you-get storytelling, of an interesting sort. Does part of me which that somebody like Spike Lee had wanted to do a “30 For 30” documentary on Curt Flood, just so that a storyteller’s passions might have fueled the film? Yes. But oh well.
At least some of the talking heads are very good indeed. 
I loved the side of the notoriously fierce Bob Gibson we get to see here. When a pitcher known for intimidating opposing batters with a mere glare (or a well-timed brushback) observes, “Was I behind Curt? Absolutely. But I was about 10 steps back, just in case there was some fall-out,” that’s a better illustration of the risks Flood was taking than anything in Liev Schreiber’s narration. Gibson, in fact, better than anyone explains Flood’s myriad contradictions and I came away from the documentary hoping that HBO Films makes Bob Gibson the star of his own installment.
And speaking of people whose exclusion from the Hall of Fame is a crime, MLB Players Association legend Marvin Miller’s insight into Flood’s case and how that impacted the actual birth of free agency is indispensable. 
Would I have watched a movie of just Bob Gibson and Marvin Miller talking about Curt Flood, with perhaps the tiniest bit of historical connective tissue? Yes. But that would have been a different thing entirely.
There’s nothing HBO Sports can do about the project’s biggest weaknesses: Curt Flood died in 1997, so it’s an outsider account without nearly enough of its hero’s voice (though Flood conducted many interviews and a good number of his TV appearances are here). The documentary also doesn’t have the voice of its main “villain,” since Bowie Kuhn passed away in 2007. No effort is made to really get a perspective for Kuhn, who was elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously. 
I guess I felt the absence of Flood and Kuhn more because “The Curious Case of Curt Flood” comes on the heels of HBO’s “”McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice,” which succeeded precisely because of how personal a story it was for John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg and how much access they provided. “Curt Flood” produces a feeling of celebration, but also profound sadness and regret for wrong choices and opportunities missed, that felt similar to the sensation I got from “Fire & Ice,” but the absence of new footage of the principles left the longer doc feeling more hollow. 
But it’s stupid to say that “The Curious Case of Curt Flood” fails because Curt Flood hasn’t been with us for 14 years. It doesn’t fail at all and it can’t really be blamed for that absence anyway, now can it? That bottom line is that Flood’s story is so important and so fascinating that even this basic telling of it is well worth your time, whether you know the facts or not.
With football players and basketball players in the midst of labor strife at this moment, Curt Flood’s curious story has never been more worthy of being remembered and acknowledged. Thanks to a type-first, think-later medium like Twitter, we’ve been treated to several athletes comparing their current plights to slavery (Adrian Peterson, I’m looking at you). There are few athletes, and few sports fans, who couldn’t benefit from a refresher course on Curt Flood’s journey. Then we can get to work on the whole Hall of Fame thing.
“The Curious Case of Curt Flood” airs on Wednesday, July 13 at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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