John Buck learned about Curt Flood, and made sure other players would, too

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Gerrit Cole signed with the Yankees for a massive nine-year, $324 million deal that gave him the largest annual average payout of any deal in MLB. It’s the kind of contract that’s only possible because free agency, as an institution, exists: Cole was allowed to go into the open market, freed from the initial deal he inked when the Pirates drafted him in 2011 and then brought him to the majors in 2013, and agreed to sign with the team he wanted to, for the immense money they had to offer in order to show it wasn’t a one-way desire.

It feels like a given these days that this order of operations exists, but Cole didn’t forget that the existence of free agency is what brought him to this point, and during his press conference introducing him as a Yankee, he thanked the first Executive Director of the Players Association, Marvin Miller, and Curt Flood, who challenged MLB and its longstanding reserve clause, for what they did to allow the moment Cole was in to even exist. On its own, it was an excellent gesture, the kind of thing Miller himself said didn’t happen often enough in his own time guiding the players’ union, but the backstory makes it an even better moment.

Cole’s former teammate on the Pirates, John Buck, used to get rookies like the right-hander to learn about Flood and Miller and labor history. Buck didn’t come from a union-heavy background: instead, he received a similar education  when he first came into the league, and was paying that important work forward when he was a veteran. “When I was younger, I had ‘Super Joe,’ Joe McEwing, on the Royals with me,” Buck told me in a recent phone call. “He was just that grinder guy, and I was kind of that, at the time, the top prospect who just got traded for Carlos Beltrán. So him and Matt Stairs and everybody, they saw, ‘This kid is going to be around for a while,’ and moved me into the player rep role. Which was good, because I had to start paying attention from a players’ union perspective, what it was all about. Coming from Utah, I was really good at sports, but I wasn’t a fan of baseball, necessarily, and my baseball knowledge of history wasn’t very good.”

McEwing set Buck up to learn his baseball history, too, which helped explain to Buck why the union work was important: this context made him better at the player rep role than he would have been otherwise. “So Super Joe, he gets this young rookie who’s shy in front of people, he’s asking me about certain people, and it was actually baseball players he was asking me about.” Buck didn’t know anything about them, and so, McEwing told him to “find a couple of influential people in baseball, and get back to me.” And so the MLB history report was born for Buck.

“When I went back, I was doing a lot of the union stuff, I was learning about Curt Flood and I said, ‘This guy has obviously been influential in baseball,’ and so I did a report for Joe on him. It made me gain a lot more knowledge of what this man did — not just labor law stuff, but what he did, the extent of what he did, what was going on his life. There’s a lot more to the story, and for him to write that letter [to then-MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn; coverage of the letter can be found here], what was going on, that interested me. Hearing that story made me have a lot more respect for what the union was about, and why. Why were we as players winning these cases, and standing up for ourselves? Hearing that personal story just conveys all of it, and what he went through.”

McEwing’s activity stuck with Buck for more reasons than just the knowledge it imparted: it worked, and could be utilized again. Buck used this strategy later in his career when he was no longer the young Royals’ prospect on the team, but someone like Zack Greinke was, and on the Mets (with an assist from teammate LaTroy Hawkins) and Pirates, as well. The Pirates, of course, is where Buck ended up getting Cole to learn about Flood.

“Instead of making them do weird things, we did book reports, team-building things. It was either a funny skit or an educational one, and a lot of the kids that were like Gerrit Cole, you just kind of know they’re headed that way. Cole, Zack Greinke, for those guys who need to know, I just felt like it was a cool tool to always use,” said Buck. Giving a historical presentation might take more work than hazing or what have you, but it unifies the players just the same, without the embarrassment and shame and weirdness that adults hazing young adults entails. And there’s a practical application for it, too, as we’ve seen with Buck in his own career, and with what he believed the presentations achieved for the players and the team:

“When you’re doing those kinds of fun activities on the bus — that I feel are special to uniting a clubhouse — pulling the Curt Flood card is a good one to unite players. One, they get to understand what he did and what it was about, and it’s fruitful and knowledgeable for us as union members, but also… to have what that guy did and the career he did, and the sacrifices he made, learning all of that unites everybody in a unique way inside of a clubhouse. Seeing what Curt Flood stood for, you could see how that would emotionally move people, and how they’d see it was a big deal.”

Buck also discussed his overall time as a player rep, and what that role entailed outside of making sure the Coles of the world were up on their MLBPA history. “In that position, you inform your teammates, and you have the responsibility of keeping up-to-date with your teammates, as you’re kind of looked at as the responsible individual in the clubhouse. You’re going to take the time to lead on these things we need to be united on. Even though our job is to play, at certain times, you have to shoulder that and let people know when we need to be active and proactive and boisterous, or muzzle when we all need to keep quiet. You’re the leader of that ring in that particular clubhouse, you are a kind of an influencer in that clubhouse.” Despite the uniqueness of an MLB clubhouse, at least when compared to non-sports workplaces, the player rep role sounds akin to your traditional union steward. Make sure your union compatriots know the score, know their rights, know when it’s time to make a stand, and when to wait.

“The way I took it, if older guys are having me do this, then they see me as responsible enough or capable enough of running that role.”

Buck’s baseball career is over now, but he’s still keeping an eye on the game, its labor tensions, and the Players Association. His career ended just as MLB’s markets began to shift, as young, inexpensive players became the item teams wanted to collect en masse, often at the expense of veterans like him. Buck understands that the union couldn’t necessarily protect him and other veterans on that market shift, not all at once as it was happening in the moment, but hopes to see changes in that area to address a problem that isn’t going to go away. That, and what to do with the players whose careers are, in fact, over. “The union could probably maybe — and they’ve done this recently,, I think they’ve heard this — transition players into normal life. I think they could do a better job of that, but they’ve recognized that. We’re doing it, but we could do better. We can always do better!”

Besides that, Buck wants the union and its members to pay close attention to name, likeness, and image. You hear more about these areas in, say, a discussion of NCAA players and potential compensation, but likeness deals were what funded the MLBPA back in Miller’s day, when there was no other funding to be had. They’ve obviously only grown since then, and Buck wants to make sure the union knows to keep them close and protected. “We need to be firm and strong on that, moving into this technological age. It could be bad — Boston and Houston have felt that ripple — how technology is changing. When we’re talking about values of players, and bargaining agreements, and union issues, we need to pay very close attention to how much of us as influencers is being used to push the profit for the team, and how much of that is from a player’s name, likeness, and image. Or the quality of the team using all that.”

“I’ve been dabbling in that with the business world, working with the union on that since I’ve walked away. I see that being a very important part of what we need to be aware of. Player-owned companies, union-owned companies: it’s a business. And maybe because I’m not playing now, I have my eyes on that a little more, I’ve been able to dive into there with no reins on me.”

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