Black History Month: Curt Flood Broke A Different Barrier

Curt Flood was a star player, who spent 12 seasons patrolling center field for the St. Louis Cardinals’ after being traded from the Cincinnati Reds following the 1957 season. During his career he was a three time All Star and won seven Gold Gloves. He was not a power hitter, but did a little bit of everything, and did it all well. Despite his accomplishments on the field, Flood’s most important contribution to baseball is his challenge of the game’s vaunted anti-trust exception, and how he helped usher in a new era of player rights and rising salaries.

The Cardinals won 87 games in 1969 with the 31 year old Flood as their longest tenured player and still producing at a high level. Therefore, it was with great surprise when it was announced on October 7, that Flood had been traded with several other players to the dreadful Philadelphia Phillies for a package highlighted by the mercurial Dick Allen. While the Cardinals got back a star player in Allen, the trade was shocking for the way it jettisoned their senior leader.

Flood didn’t want to go to Philadelphia for several reasons. After spending 12 seasons with the Cardinals, he had established his home, family, and business ventures, and felt he should have a say if asked to relocate. The Phillies were also coming off a 99 loss season and played their home games at the ancient Connie Mack Stadium, which had a rough field that would have not been kind to Flood’s knees. Additionally, Flood, an African American, never forgot brushes with racism he experienced during his career in Philadelphia.

Flood refused to accept the trade, a move which defied 100 years of control professional baseball had over its players. After determining that he would be backed by the player’s union, he officially refused to report to the Phillies and petitioned to become a free agent. He sent a letter to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, stating pointedly- “After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.”

To nobody’s surprise, Kuhn denied Flood’s request. He maintained Major League Baseball’s rights to have exclusive contractual control of the players. In his response to Flood, Kuhn wrote, “I certainly agree with you that you, as a human being, are not a piece of property to be bought and sold. That is fundamental in our society and I think obvious. However, I cannot see its applicability to the situation at hand.”

The request of free agency was something that many players had previously wished was an available option, but was something owners had always fought hard against to maintain their control. They were aided by baseball’s reserve clause, which was an exception to the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 that prevented business from creating monopolies. In 1922 the Supreme Court ruled that Major League Baseball was not interstate commerce, making them exempt from the law and allowing them to control their players with an iron fist. Major League Baseball fought for such ruling to prevent rivals like the Federal League from raiding their rosters. It meant that baseball players who wanted to play professionally for a living would play on the major leagues’ terms, or not at all.

Any player who didn’t abide by baseball’s labor rules could expect their career to end quickly. One excellent example of this was pitcher Hal Trosky, Jr., who refused to sign a contract with the Chicago White Sox organization in 1961 because he knew he didn’t figure in the big league team’s plans. He asked to be released or traded so he could seek a better opportunity, and when the White Sox refused his request, he declined to sign his Chicago contract. The White Sox never officially released Trosky until 1972, more than a decade after he had thrown his last pitch; ensuring he never played professional baseball again.

Flood knew his request to Kuhn would be denied, but he was prepared to fight. He filed a $1 million lawsuit against Kuhn and Major League Baseball, alleging they were violating federal antitrust laws. For Flood, it was not a matter of black and white, but of principle. Baseball’s union chief Marvin Miller later said that when Flood was asked if he filed the suit because of perceived racism, the player replied, “I wish it was, but we are dealing with an issue that affects every player. Color has nothing to do it.”

The case immediately placed Flood in the national spotlight. With race being such a hot button issue at the time of the suit, many people did believe his action was a result of black power. Therefore, it’s not surprising that his comparison of baseball to slavery became quite polarizing. His lawyer, Arthur J. Goldberg, told the press, “Flood decided he cannot play under an illegal system- and I agree… He is not willing to be sold into servitude.”

Flood went further, stating, “The problem with the reserve clause is that it ties a man to one owner for the rest of his life. There is no other profession in the history of mankind except slavery in which one mad was tied to another for life… In slavery, men were shipped from one plantation to another and in baseball, players are shipped from one franchise to another.” The notoriety of the suit redefined Flood within the context of baseball. He was no longer the star outfielder, but rather the face of resistance and labor rights.

Although Flood’s suit had the official unanimous support of the player’s union, many players were actually divided on the issue, with a good number even supporting the owners. While former players like Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg testified on Flood’s behalf, no current players took the stand or even attended the trial. With such a contentious issue, no player wanted to endanger their own career by sticking up for Flood.

Flood’s case went before Supreme Court, which in 1972 ruled 5-3 in favor of Major League Baseball, in a type of decision known as a “stare discisis,” or leaving things the way they were. It wasn’t a total loss for Flood, because in the meantime the owners had agreed to the “10/5 Rule,” or “Curt Flood Rule,” which gave players with 10 years of major league experience, with the last 5 or more with the same team, the right to veto trades.

Flood sat out the 1970 season because of his case and his refusal to go to the Phillies. Finally, in November, 1970, the Cardinals relented and sent two minor league players to the Phillies to complete the earlier trade. Flood was then traded to the Washington Senators, where he agreed to report while awaiting the adjudication of his case. Flood struggled mightily and experienced reprisals because of his suit. Fans sent vicious and racist hate mail, and before one game at Yankee Stadium, he found a black wreath, the symbol of death, hung in place of his uniform in his locker. Many players avoided him and he was a pariah amongst the owners. His Washington manager, Ted Williams, was reputed to have derided him frequently because of his actions.

All the negativity made Flood withdraw into himself, and after 13 games, where he hit .200 with 2 RBI, he decided to retire. He finished with his career with a .293 batting average, 1,861 hits, 85 home runs, and 636 RBI. Being only 33 when he hung it up, it is likely that the reaction he received because of his lawsuit hastened the end of his career which you can view more here. A very good playing career may have been one that was Hall of Fame caliber if he hadn’t felt the need to retire so early. It wasn’t until 1975 that Flood’s sacrifices and principles fully paid off for all major league players. That year baseball’s reserve clause was abolished, opening the door for free agency, higher salaries, and more player rights. While he hadn’t won his case, Flood had succeeded in changing the opinion of many fans and players about the importance of player rights. Marvin Miller used momentum from Flood’s case to make such gains, saying of the lawsuit, “Once we had that, it was only a question of a year or two before we were able to get rid of the reserve clause.”

In addition to the prominent role Flood played in changing the labor landscape of baseball, he was also a great player. Like many other agents of great change, his sacrifices paved the way for the comfort and success of others. Curt Flood should be remembered as much for his selflessness and stubbornness as much as his ability as a baseball player. As President Bill Clinton said after Flood’s death in 1997, he was a man, “whose achievements on the field were matched only by the strength of his character.”

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