The Christmas Eve When Curt Flood Changed Baseball Forever
In 1969, star Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood wrote the commissioner of Major League Baseball to bitterly protest the reserve clause. It opened the door to free agency.
In an era when professional athletes have become increasingly outspoken on social issues—especially those with racial implications—there’s a figure who has not gotten the credit he deserves for putting today’s players in a financial position to voice their opinions.
That figure is Curt Flood, a star center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1960s. Nearly 50 years ago, on December 24, 1969, Flood wrote Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, a letter that forever changed professional sports by altering the power team owners exercise over their players.
Flood, a mainstay with the Cardinals, who in his 12 years with the team won seven Golden Gloves for his fielding and hit over .300 six times, was furious at learning in the fall of 1969 that he had been traded to the Philadelphia Phillies.
“After twelve years in the Major Leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought or sold irrespective of my wishes,” Flood wrote Kuhn. “I believe I have the right to consider offers from other teams before making any decisions.”
Flood’s letter was a declaration of war against baseball’s reserve clause, which bound a player to the team that signed him until the team decided to trade or release him. The clause would have been against the law in any ordinary business, but it had been sanctioned in Major League Baseball (then adopted in other sports) by a Supreme Court ruling dating back to 1922.
Flood’s suit against Major League Baseball matched the mood of a period in which civil rights were being expanded in education and politics, and in carrying forward his case, he had as his lawyer retired Supreme Court justice and former United Nations ambassador Arthur Goldberg.
Under Goldberg’s guidance, Flood v. Kuhn went from a Federal District Court in New York in 1970, to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and finally to the Supreme Court in 1972. But there, in a 5-3 decision (Justice Lewis Powell recused himself because he held stock in Anheuser-Busch, whose principal owner, Augie Busch, also owned the St. Louis Cardinals), Flood lost his appeal.
The Supreme Court ruled that Congress had repeatedly declined to treat baseball as a business subject to antitrust law and that it was up to Congress to change its position. The result was a victory for Major League Baseball. But in winning a battle, Major League Baseball lost the larger war: The pressure from players on team owners to come up with a system less plantation-like only grew in the wake of Flood’s legal defeat.
In 1968 the players had negotiated the first collective bargain agreement in baseball history with Major League owners, and by 1976, three years after Flood’s defeat in the court, the players won the right to a new definition of free agency when an arbitrator ruled that, after playing a year without being under contract, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally could be free agents. The stranglehold a team could exercise in perpetuity over a player was at last over.
The result was a triumph for the principles Flood had fought for, although not a triumph he personally enjoyed for long. After staying out of baseball for the 1970 season, Flood signed with the Washington Senators in 1971 for $110,000, but after playing only two months, he suddenly quit the team and left America for Europe.
It was the beginning of a series of difficulties for Flood, who was then in his early thirties and unprepared to be an expatriate. Hurt by alcoholism and later severe depression, Flood returned to America and spent most of the rest of his life in obscurity.
In 1992 Flood received the NAACP Jackie Robinson Award for his contributions to black athletes, and in 1994, he was asked to speak to the players at the start of their 232-day strike against Major League Baseball. But these were isolated moments of recognition in the final decade of Flood’s life.
In 1995 Flood was diagnosed with throat cancer, and in 1997, shortly after his 59th birthday, he died at the UCLA Medical Center, where he had been a patient after developing pneumonia. The Major League Baseball Players Association paid Flood’s final medical bills. It was the least the Players Association could do, given the rise in players’ salaries (from an average of $29,303 in 1970 to $1,071,029 in 1995) that Flood had helped make possible.
In paying Flood’s medical bills, the Players Association did not mention that, although retired baseball stars Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg supported him, not one active Major Leaguer testified on his behalf in Flood v. Kuhn. The silence of the Players Association on this matter is understandable. In Major League Baseball, as in the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, the modification of the reserve clause and the security that modification has brought with it is what has given so many players the belief they can address social issues without ruining their careers. Before the court case that Flood set in motion with his Christmas Eve letter in 1969, such security did not exist at all.