|What Every Baseball Fan Should Know: The Curt Flood Case-Part I - the reserve clause||| Print ||
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on May 28, 2003
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.
****In part II we will discuss who Curt Flood was, and discuss how he found himself in a position which ultimately changed the game of baseball.****