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In a nutshell: Curt Flood one of the finest centerfielders of his day took baseball to court and sued them for unfair labor practices. He lost the case and at a huge price, it cost him his career and more. However it opened the door to the modern era of free agency, yet few people understand just what happened.

If you were to ask most of today’s baseball players about who Curt Flood was or what he did for them you’d more than likely get a blank stare, although, it is possible that a few of them may be able to tell you that he was a baseball player. The same would probably hold true if you posed the question to most fans. Ironically, what most of these baseball players and enthusiasts do not know is that Curt Flood may have had more influence on modern baseball than any other individual.

So who was Curt Flood? And how did he influence the game as profoundly as he did?

In order to answer these questions it is necessary to look at baseball’s labor relations for well over a century and maybe even to reminisce about the good old days in baseball. Prior to free agency, which really started in 1975, all baseball players were bound by a clause in their contract known as the “reserve” clause. This clause was created in 1876 by William A. Hulbert, an owner who made his money in coal. Like other robber barons of industry at the time, he wanted to assure that the power rested with the management and not the players.

The reserve clause essentially stated that the teams had the right to renew a player’s contract following each season. In this way all rights to a player’s contract belonged to the team and a player could never escape from that club or seek competing bids from other teams. Players were not even able to invalidate a contract by sitting out for a year and then returning to the game. In essence, the club could buy, sell or trade a player via his contract as if the player were livestock.

The combination of the owners’ reserve system, which prevented players from earning their market value, and a salary cap that was being pushed by Albert Spalding, caused the players to create baseball’s first union. The Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players (BPBBP) was founded with the goal of fighting back against the greedy owners and the reserve clause. Their fight was unsuccessful and within a very short time they abandoned their cause and yielded to the owners. Though there were no official terms of surrender, the writing was on the wall, or perhaps the contract, and the reserve clause became a part of the game of baseball.

The reign of the reserve clause continued for almost another 100 years and was challenged in court several times. In 1922 the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore, Inc. V. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, which challenged the clause as monopolistic and in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The court decided unanimously against the club from Baltimore and for the National League. In his written decision, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes noted that Baseball failed to meet the definition of interstate commerce - despite the transport of players across state lines, which he called “mere incident” to business conducted in individual baseball parks.

In 1946 another player challenged this clause, not by choice, but because he had defied the clause and jumped contract with the New York Giants to play in the Mexican League. The Mexican League did not survive long and owners of the Major League teams punished those players who had “jumped” leagues by blacklisting them for 5 years. The effected players took the owners to court and behind a ballplayer named Danny Gardella, who had never actually signed a major league contract, they sued for damages and free agency. The owners reacted and by using the buzzwords of the day they tainted the players that were suing, calling their demands “communistic.” Few words were more powerful in post WW II America and the pressures against the players began to multiply. With both the owners and the media leaning against him Gardella accepted a settlement, as did many of the other players, and the case was dropped.

Not long afterwards a career minor leaguer named George Toolson brought suit against the New York Yankees, believing that the reserve clause kept him from being picked up by another team and playing in the major leagues. This case was also heard by the U.S. Supreme Court (this time in 1953). The court once again ruled that baseball did not constitute interstate commerce, even though television and radio signals, not just players crossed state lines. In a split decision the appeal was rejected and the courts said that it was up to Congress to modify or overturn baseball’s antitrust exemption.

However while players seethed at the reserve contract, they did it in silence as further insult upon insult piled up. Baseball grew tremendously in the 1950’s and early 1960’s and large streams of new revenue came in, not only at the gate, but from television and radio as well. But the players’ salaries did not grow. Most players still worked secondary jobs in order to survive and the owners put the extra revenue into their own pockets. Players were not represented by agents, but instead were told, how much the team would pay them. They had little choice but to accept the offer or hold out and risk not playing at all. The fans did not understand this and those who held out often became pariahs.

In 1966 things came to a head. Together Dodgers star pitchers Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax approached owner Walter O’Malley with the plan of negotiating for a fairer amount of money. They also intended to use agents to handle the negotiations. O’Malley’s reaction was an uproar and he would have none of it. In the end Koufax and Drysdale felt that they had no other choice but to sign for a lot less money than they had wanted and without the representation of agents.

Along with the failure of owners to live up to commitments to pay agreed upon moneys into a players pension plan, the players decided that they had enough. The call was made to form a union but unlike previous unions this one needed to have teeth. Finally they found a leader in the Chief Economic Advisor to the United Steelworkers of America - Marvin Miller. Miller was more than battle tested and had fought for the rights of steelworkers. According to Curt Flood “The moment we found out that the owners did not want Marvin Miller, he was our guy.”

The players now needed someone to challenge the owners and the reserve clause. It was set to be a nasty battle since the myth of baseball was firmly entrenched and the owners and the media would be a nightmare to deal with, putting pressure on the players to back down. Whoever it was, would be challenging not just the owners, but their created myth about the “good of the game” and the perception that a player lucky enough to be able to play the game needed to protect that game - even if it meant accepting the reserve clause and a lower salary. Baseball was waiting for a player to become the great emancipator of all players, black and white. They waited for 4 additional years for that man to come forward. His name was Curt Flood.
So who was Curt Flood?

Curt was the last of 6 children and was born in Houston Texas although he spent most of his childhood in the ghettos of Oakland, California. Unlike many of the kids in the area, including his brother, Curt managed to stay away from gangs and crime by immersing himself in art and baseball. He distinguished himself in both areas. Although small at 5’ 7” and weighing less than 150 pounds, Flood was a hell of a ballplayer - and the scouts though dubious noticed.

In 1956, though both small and black, which was a strike against would be players at that time, the Cincinnati Reds signed him for $4000. Flood finished high school and then flew to Tampa to join the Reds farm system. He was not expected to do well considering what was against him - blatant racism, playing in the south, and the rigors of playing against the “real” professionals. Curt however was filling out, getting stronger and was fighting through the problems facing him. In his first season he had a .340 average and hit 29 home runs. Towards the end of the season he saw some time with the major league team.

Curt expected a nice pay raise, but was more than a little bit cowed in negotiations when General Manager Gabe Paul told him that expenses were out of hand and that it would be best for Flood to renew his contract at the previous salary and to accept a promotion to a higher minor league. Flood accepted because he had no choice, unless he was willing to walk away from the game - the reserve clause held him there. It happened again the next season. However in 1957 Flood’s contract was traded to the Cardinals.

St. Louis was the premier franchise to play in if you were black in that day and age and Flood soon found himself playing in St. Louis with the big team along with greats like Roger Maris, Orlando Cepeda, Bill White and Bob Gibson. He would play there for the next 12 years where he would become part of the heart and soul of one of the greatest teams St. Louis ever fielded.

During that time he won 7 gold gloves, hit over .300 six times, including a career high .335 in 1967, was a three time All-Star and set a major league record of 227 games (568 chances) without an error. He also served as the St. Louis team captain from 1965-1969 when the Cardinals won two pennants and a World Series. In 1968 the cover of Sports illustrated dubbed curt Flood as “The Best Centerfielder in Baseball.” A high honor indeed when a man named Mays was still patrolling centerfield for the San Francisco Giants.

Perhaps the straw that broke the figurative camel’s back however came in 1969. Augie Busch decided to set his players straight and stop all the grumbling about salaries that was coming from the rank and file. He decided to dress his players down and to make matters worse, he invited the media to the big show. Busch raved about how the players had become more concerned with salary than the fans and the game. Perhaps he had hoped that his tirade would quell the grumbling and get the team focused on baseball but all it did was to demean and dispirit a team who then stumbled to a fourth place finish.

According to some sources, Flood took this attack very personally and it may have set him on his course to confront the reserve clause. His protests, cynicism and anger were becoming more and more noticed in the Cardinal front office and it might have been thought that he was just fomenting trouble within the team. However Curt’s resentment at the treatment just simmered all season. It reached the boiling point just following the season when the Cardinals, either for baseball reasons or just to get rid of a “troublemaker”, traded Flood to Philadelphia in a package deal.

Flood was irate and perhaps feeling like his color was a factor in his trade to Philadelphia, which he called the “Northernmost Southern city.” In fact Philadelphia was a particularly racist market as far as northern teams went, and according to many, the fans in the stands were among the worst in terms of insults and name calling of any fans in any major league city. But that racism was one of the things that inspired Flood to take up the flag and march into battle versus the management and ownership of baseball. So Curt Flood refused to report to Philadelphia.

Curt Flood in his own way was an activist who saw the world changing around him except in the realm of baseball, where the owners power and fiefdoms were still inviolate. What drove Curt to challenge them?

There is no question that Curt Flood was a true child of the 60’s; he was young, idealistic, and was very aware of the social changes going on around him. Being a black man who had faced prejudice, both on and off of the field, he realized that the shift in attitudes and social justice had been noticeable off of the field but nothing was changing on the field.

When the Cardinals slapped Curt’s face by trading him to a non-contending team, in what he considered a racist city, he made the decision “to have it out in public with the owners of organized baseball.”

So why was Flood so driven to change the game? It was not just what occurred in baseball itself, but in society.

The 1960’s were a time of upheaval, awakening and change in the United States and Curt was swept along in it. He was influenced not just by the movements but also by the activists of the day. He was friends with several activists including Johnny and Marian Jorgensen, who were very active against the war in Vietnam and he even did a painting of Martin Luther King Jr., which is still owned by the King estate.

Perhaps more than many can understand he was also influenced by the color of his skin. In an era when segregation and racism were coming to a head, black militism was at its peak. Curt realized that he was only a member of a team when he was in his uniform. He had to eat in separate dining rooms, drink from separate water fountains, and often stay in hotels that were separate from the white members of the team. The prejudice however was so ingrained that it was not even noticed by many of those in power; Augie Busch the Cardinal’s owner did not even know about the segregated training facilities that his team used until he conversed with Flood one time.

Curt’s feelings about racism had to have been shaped by the outside world, but it was the racism inside baseball that really showed him how unjust the reserve clause was. Curt asked for a $10,000 raise for the 1970 season and he was turned down flat. After being told there was no more money for him in contract negotiations, Flood was shocked to learn that a white teammate had received a raise. When confronting the General Manager he was told that the white player got the raise “because white people required more money to live than black people.” Because of the reserve clause there was no way for a player to protest such treatment.

During the time that Flood spent with Cardinal Bill White and the Jorgensens he learned a lot about personal responsibility, living with dignity and the respect that goes with it. Curt was determined to conduct his life that way and when the insults reached a point that he could no longer bear, he stepped to the plate in a figurative fashion.

He refused the trade before that 1970 season, something he legally could not do and instead on Christmas Eve 1969 he sent a letter to Bowie Kuhn. In the letter he told Kuhn that he refused to be treated like a piece of property and that the reserve clause was (at least in his mind) unconstitutional and akin to slavery. He said that he wanted to play for other teams next season and asked Kuhn to declare him a free agent.

Kuhn refused and stated that he did not see how Flood’s claims applied to the situation; the reserve clause was not slavery. Curt refused to report to the Phillies. With this decision in hand Flood decided to give up his $90,000 a year salary and retire from baseball. However his friends pressured him to consider suing baseball instead. Initially Curt refused but after giving the situation much consideration he decided to consult an attorney. Soon after he spoke with the head of the player’s union, Marvin Miller, and informed him that, “He wanted to go out with like a man instead of a bottle cap.”

Miller was cautious and went over with Curt point by point the many things he could expect to have to face by mounting such a challenge while also testing Flood’s mettle in being willing to stay the course. He found Flood determined and ready, and asked Curt to come to meet with all of the player’s representives. Curt’s friend Tim McCarver asked Curt if he realized he was going to lose his career and any future job in baseball by doing this - and Curt said he was aware of it.

Flood met with the players’ reps and was subjected to a long and grueling session in which he was questioned about what he would do in many scenarios - including public pressure, pressure from the commissioner’s office, pressure from the owners and the possibility of an offer of a lot money to drop the case. Finally convinced that Flood would not crumble or be bought, Tom Haller of the Dodgers asked a particularly poignant question. He asked how much of what drove Curt was race, especially during this time of black militance?

Flood admitted that part of his reason for the challenge was race, that black players had it harder, and often worse than white players did. However he insisted that what he was doing was as a ballplayer and for all baseball players. It was time to take the battle to the owners and challenge the rules in a profession where the players were deprived of true value for their services and had less control than any other profession in the United States.

The players union, though badly under funded decided to back Flood’s lawsuit and his challenge of the reserve clause. It was to be a turning point in baseball’s labor relations. Never before had the reserve clause been challenged by a star, a man willing to walk away from a $90,000 salary and a career. Curt’s sacrifices and dignity added a weight to the lawsuit that told the world that it was a challenge of conviction. He was not the only one who had that conviction about the injustice of the reserve clause, including some of the media, and the man who eventually became his attorney in the case, former Supreme Court justice Arthur J. Goldberg. Together they would test the “invulnerability” of baseball.

“It was difficult for the fans to understand my problems with baseball. I was telling my story to deaf ears, because I was telling my story to a person who would give their first-born child to be doing what I was doing.” - Curt Flood

On January 16, 1970, just over two weeks after it was announced by the NY Times, Curt Flood filed a $4.1 million lawsuit against Major League Baseball and the legality of the reserve clause. In doing so he turned his back on playing baseball, his $90,000 a year salary and his hopes of being considered for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame as one of the best players of his day. He knew full well that he was challenging legal precedent, the scorn of owners and a public who only perceived baseball and its players as larger than life, perfect institutions.

In order to stand a chance Flood and his attorney Arthur Goldberg realized that they needed to chop down the metaphoric cherry tree and go after the myths of baseball itself. Baseball could not be left untarnished with its myths of perfection being seen as the truth. Instead Flood needed to show what really went on behind the scenes - the drugs, the sex, drinking, debauchery and crudeness. He exposed the ugly realities to the light and many fans recoiled - but many failed to believe him. To them Curt Flood was an enemy trying to destroy the game.

And that was how the owners painted him too. Still by exposing the truth, the game became less pure and the facade of baseball began to crack. In 1971 Flood published a book “The Way It Is” while his case was still on its way to the Supreme Court. It was not a pretty book about the myths and niceties of baseball, but an ugly one that shocked a lot of people (We’ll review it in a few weeks) and changed the perception of baseball forever.

He also reached out to the common man and tried to draw comparisons that everyone could understand - that of the good company man who worked his tail off to make the company succeed and then only got shown the door without even a thank you, for all he had done. These were comparisons that the common laborer could understand - and it made them mad. Curt’s vocabulary over the months reinforced his case, referring to the players, as “sheep,” “goods,” ‘poultry” or even as a “car” which could be transferred from owner to owner upon a whim without any thought whatsoever to the “sheep” being transferred.

The arguments that Goldberg and Flood furnished were strong. They argued that both the Sherman anti-trust act and the 13th amendment to the Constitution of the United States were violated by the reserve clause. They paraded economists to testify that the reserve clause illegally suppressed the free market system and held down wages. They spoke of players who crossed swords with the game as being blacklisted, blackmailed and of owner collusion and so much more. They brought players to testify, though not many - even former players were afraid of being blacklisted. Still there were courageous baseball men who took the stand believing in the truth of Flood’s words - including the outspoken but respected Jackie Robinson.

The counterpoint to Flood was the established myth of baseball, presented as pure, innocent and vital not just to the owners’ pockets but to America itself. Baseball paraded its good company men - players who believed that baseball would be irreversibly damaged by the abandonment of the reserve clause. Baseball could pick and choose its spokesmen - and they did it well. They brought up players and owners to speak of the “good of the game.” They explained that the reserve clause could not be a violation of the 13th amendment because baseball players could always find other forms of employment and were not bound to the game.

However the “Good of the Game” was the crux of their arguments. They put forward that baseball would be destroyed by free agency and that the game, as it was known to our fathers, grandfathers, and their grandfathers, would be lost forever. They realized some truths - that baseball would be changed, that the richest teams would monopolize the best players, and that the best players would always be changing teams and seeking the best offer - and they presented it as a nightmare.

On top of it, they talked about the money, which was perhaps the most important factor in the case to the owners. They compared Flood’s salary to that of the common man to illustrate that the players lived high on the hog. How, they argued, could a man make that much money and be considered under the thumb of ownership and not a free and lucky man?

Perhaps even without the eloquence of baseball’s attorneys the case would have been one sided, justice had a predisposition towards the mythology of baseball, or perhaps the judges were afraid that their rulings might make them destroyers of the game. Time after time they found themselves unable, despite clear-cut legal footing, to create new laws when it came to the game of baseball.

On August 12, 1970 Federal Judge Ben Cooper ruled against Curt Flood, upholding the reserve clause and dismissed the lawsuit - but he noted that players and owners need to negotiate the issue. Soon afterwards, Flood appealed to a higher court and again lost in the US Circuit Court of Appeals. Shortly after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. On June 18, 1972 in a 5-3 decision they too ducked making a change in the fabric of the national pastime and passed the buck, saying that Congress needed to be the ones to amend the anti-trust exemption which baseball enjoyed.

Curt accepted the loss and tried to play ball again in 1971, but played only 13 games for the Washington Senators before retiring and moving to Denmark. He felt hated and persecuted for his lawsuit and chose not to return to the United States until late in the ‘70s. He died in 1997 of throat cancer.

However, even in defeat Flood had changed the American sport beyond belief. The Supreme Court had ruled for baseball, but on a technicality and they had made that clear. Baseball only escaped because it was an aberration under the law, but that the law SHOULD be rewritten - and the Supreme Court could not do that.

More than that however, Flood had aired baseball’s dirty laundry, and while in 1969 the average fan had no idea of baseball’s labor and negotiating policies at the end of Flood’s suit they certainly did. By and large the public was strongly against the reserve clause by a margin of close to 9:1. Because of this pressure the owners agreed to allow arbitration but kept the reserve clause alive.

Three years later however, arbiter Peter Seitz struck down the reserve clause when Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally filed grievances over it. They did it for money but it was done on the groundwork that Curt Flood had laid. Free agency had finally been achieved. An angry Flood felt the color of McNally and Messersmith’s skins had been a deciding factor in striking down the clause - and baseball’s not seeking to fight it.

Curt Flood never benefited from free agency, but instead paid a terrible price in lost coaching/managing jobs, the end of his career and any chance he would have had at the Hall of Fame. Still his courage in challenging baseball and showing the public what went on behind closed doors - opened them to succeeding generations of players who’ve come to enjoy free agency.

While the premise of free agency can be challenged as to whether it has added to or detracted from the game, the courage that Flood showed could not. Upon his death he was eulogized on the floor of the US Congress. However his legacy would not die there. In 1998 Congress passed what is known as the “Curt Flood Act of 1998”. In it they clarified and changed baseball’s anti-trust exemption to state that professional baseball players would be covered under the general and accepted anti-trust laws without in any other way effecting baseball’s anti trust exemption.