Marty Niland: Rickey’s reports set the stage for historic summer in D.C.

Former Senators outfielder Curt Flood “approach(ed) perfection” with St. Louis in 1963. That same year, former Washington slugger Harmon Killebrew was described as strikeout-prone and overpriced as a Minnesota Twin. Former Nationals manager Frank Robinson was “upset” by the changeup as a Cincinnati Red in the spring of 1964.

Those are the professional opinions of Branch Rickey, whose more than 1,750 scouting reports and other baseball-related papers and correspondence have been digitized by the Library of Congress.

Rickey, best known for signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 to break baseball’s color barrier, would go on to become general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1950-55, helping to build the 1960 World Series champions, and a player development consultant for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1962-65, contributing to the 1964 World Series title.

The papers are part of the Library of Congress’ new “Baseball Americana” exhibition opening June 29. Facsimiles from the exhibition, including highlights of baseball in the nation’s capital, are on display at Nationals Park on the main concourse behind home plate.

Rickey was approaching the end of his professional career when he wrote these reports, so they could be dismissed as senile rants, or they could be evidence of how subjective baseball analysis can be.

Flood signed out of high school with Cincinnati in 1956 and was traded in 1958 to St. Louis, where he would become a seven-time Gold Glove center fielder, a three-time All-Star, and a two-time World Series champion, in 1964 and 1967.

Rickey’s report on Flood was filed during spring training in 1963. “Got a good arm,” wrote Rickey. “Knows how to throw. Runs with the ball everytime (sic) he gets it before he throws. Too bad. Otherwise, this boy approaches perfection, meaning that he has pushed his ability to his capacity.”

Flood won the first of his Gold Gloves that season and would excel for the next seven, suggesting that he had not really reached his capacity in the spring of ‘63.

Flood is best remembered, though, for challenging baseball’s reserve clause following the 1969 season, when the Cardinals tried to trade him to Philadelphia. He sued commissioner Bowie Kuhn in a case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, alleging that he had the right to consider contract offers from other teams. The ruling, which did not come until after Flood had retired, went in favor of Kuhn. However, the case allowed the players’ union to pressure owners into allowing salary arbitration, which set the stage for free agency in 1976.

Flood sat out the 1970 season, receiving hate mail and death threats from fans. He was eventually traded to the Senators in 1971, but played only 13 games before retiring.

Rickey’s blunt assessment of Killebrew came on July 24, 1963, when his Minnesota Twins swept a night doubleheader at Cleveland, blanking the home team 6-0 and 5-0. Killebrew was 1-for-5 in the opener and 0-for-4 in the nightcap, striking out three times on the night. So despite Killebrew’s reputation as one of the game’s most feared sluggers, in the midst of a 45-homer, 96-RBI season, Rickey was not impressed. “A big right hand hitter with as much distance power as anyone in the game,” he wrote. “Strikes out a great deal. I would not be interested in obtaining his contract in any kind of possible trade. I don’t want his at the price.”

Killebrew’s salary for 1963 is not available on Baseball Reference, but he earned a reported $20,000 in 1960 and $50,000 in 1965, with the latter salary equivalent to almost $389,000 in 2018. The current major league minimum is $507,500. Killebrew was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984.

Rickey scouted Frank Robinson in a spring training game against the Reds on March 17, 1964, perhaps to prepare Cardinals pitchers on how to handle the future Hall of Famer. “A change of pace pitch upsets Robinson - either a change up off the fast ball , or, particularly the slow curve,” he wrote.

Was Rickey’s book on Robinson a good one? Robinson batted .313 with three home runs and 10 RBIs in 18 games against the Cards in 1964. One of those homers was a walk-off, three-run shot against future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in the first game of a doubleheader on Sept. 19, 1964. He went 1-for-4 in the nightcap, a 2-0 Cardinals win.

Those games set the stage for the incredible three-way NL pennant race of 1964, featuring the infamous Philadelphia “Phold of ‘64,” when the Phillies blew a 6 -1/2 game lead with 12 games to play. Robinson’s Reds and Rickey’s Cardinals both swept them in that span and wound up tied for first with one game left. The Cards won the pennant when they beat the Mets, and the Phillies beat the Reds.

This will be a historic summer for baseball in Washington, and Rickey’s papers and the “Baseball Americana” exhibit can help us appreciate it even more. Here are actual original records and artifacts we can examine for ourselves, kindling the memories of those who can remember and the imagination of younger fans.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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