Curt Flood knew this probably would cost him his career. That no one — especially a player — went against baseball and its owners and its methods of operation in 1969. And how that held especially true for a Black man.
And that’s exactly why he had to do it.
It’s been more than five decades since Flood, the All-Star outfielder traded to the Phillies against his will, took MLB to court to challenge the reserve clause — one that made players beholden to teams for the entirety of their careers.
And it’s been 50 years since he lost the case, lost his job and lost integral parts of his life — but helped start a movement that led to modern free agency and shaped baseball and labor negotiations as we know them today.
"Dumbfounding," Tim McCarver said in an interview with Newsday this month regarding Flood’s fight. The two were teammates on the Cardinals before being traded to the Phillies together in October 1969.
"No one knew really what a free agent was. No one knew,’’ McCarver said. "All I wanted to do was talk about going to Philadelphia, the team to which I was traded. And that was it. And everybody said, ‘Do you have any thoughts of your own about the trade? Is this [Flood situation] a thing with you?’ And I said, no, no. That wasn’t the way it was always done."
Labor fights are nothing new to baseball — MLB, the owners and the Players Association are embroiled in one right now, with the start of spring training sacrificed and the regular season in peril. But Flood’s case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court before he barely lost, is singular in a few respects.
For one, Flood wasn’t the ideal candidate to fight baseball on the issue because he was well paid and inching toward the end of his career, said historian Lee Lowenfish, author of "The Imperfect Diamond: A history of Baseball's Labor Wars." His desire to do it anyway was born out of a sense of justice honed during the civil rights movement.
For another, Flood’s case is directly tied to then-Players Association head Marvin Miller fighting, and winning, the right to use an impartial arbitrator — something that led to more grievances, more concessions from owners, higher salaries for players and ultimately the advent of modern free agency, which took effect in 1976.
Reggie Jackson, one of the biggest names in the star-studded free-agent class ahead of that 1977 season, felt a challenge to the reserve clause was inevitable once players became more informed.
"Sooner or later, someone with a college education or a high school education, or someone that was inquisitive or wanting to know answers [would do it]. You could talk to your attorney or you could call someone," he told Newsday.
But none of that made it easy.
"When Curt Flood did it for me, I understood what was going on," said Jackson, who signed with the Yankees for $3.5 million in 1976. "Curt Flood was Black, and him being Black made it harder for him."
CIVIL RIGHTS PARTICIPANT
Flood, who grew up in Oakland, spent his time in the minor leagues in the Deep South, experiencing firsthand the virulent racism that spurred the civil rights movement.
As a young man, he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson, according to "The Curious Case of Curt Flood," an HBO documentary, and later grew to be one of the more vocal professional players fighting for civil rights.
In the minors, he struggled to find housing for himself and his family and wasn’t allowed to shower with his teammates or even celebrate in the same hotels as them after a big win.
Eventually, he moved up to the big leagues — a defensive dynamo, quick with his feet and good with the bat — and ran head-first into baseball’s reserve clause.
The clause, which was established in 1879 and was unsuccessfully challenged in the Supreme Court in 1922, said a player belonged to a team for his entire career and that the team could keep him or trade him as it wished up until he was released.
The clause kept salaries down and, after the amateur draft was instituted in 1965, meant players had no say in where they ended up. Even if they refused to sign a contract, owners had the right to auto-renew it.
That became a problem for Flood when, after 12 years with the Cardinals, he was traded in a package for Dick Allen and two others after the 1969 season. But Flood, taking exception to the idea that teams could buy and trade a man for perpetuity, had had enough. He sent a letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn on Christmas Eve asking to become a free agent and, when that was declined, he took Kuhn to court with the help of Miller and general counsel Dick Moss.
"He was part of the period when the civil rights movement — [Martin Luther] King had been killed, Malcolm [X] had been killed and he just felt like he wanted to take it on," Lowenfish said. Miller and Moss "were certainly willing to take a chance on it."
Flood, who was making $90,000 a year, famously compared his situation to slavery, saying "a well-paid slave is a slave nonetheless." And though Jackson didn’t agree with the use of the term, he said he understood Flood’s point — particularly how it related to having no say in your own life for as long as you sought to make a livelihood in baseball.
"I understand what he meant. You’re bound to a team without choice of going anywhere and you can be punished, etc.," Jackson said. "But slavery is a harsh word, and I don’t use it because it’s violent, it’s ugly."
Flood’s case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which voted 5-3 against him in 1972. One justice sympathetic to Flood, Lewis Powell, had to recuse himself because he owned stock in the Cardinals’ parent company, Anheuser-Busch, and another, Chief Justice Warren Burger, changed his mind to vote against him.
All the while, Flood had no active players come out in support of him, though retired players such as Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg did. Players were afraid, Lowenfish said. Some didn’t yet agree.
"We lost because my guys, my colleagues, didn’t stand up with me," Flood told documentarian Ken Burns in his 1994 film "Baseball." "And I can’t make any excuses for them. Had we shown any amount of solidarity, had the superstars stood up and said, ‘We’re with Curt Flood’ . . . I think the owners would have gotten the message very clearly."
McCarver said he and his teammates followed Flood’s trial with keen interest, but in a world in which baseball was so powerful that not even the United States’ antitrust laws could touch it, the lawsuit seemed almost unfathomable. Then there was the very real fact that there were games to play.
"The reason players weren’t more involved than they were is that we weren’t supposed to be involved," McCarver said. "We had a season to go through just like we always did. I was with a new team, the Philadelphia Phillies. I was hopeful for Curt, but I don’t think that any of us had time to talk about it. Everyone says ‘didn’t you get into the swing of what Curt was doing’ or something like that, but we didn’t have time. The season was on. We wished Curt well."
Flood, though, felt the repercussions of his fight long after the trial was over. He received constant death threats, sat out the 1970 season because of it, and believed himself to be blackballed. By the time he returned in 1971 with the Washington Senators — managed by Ted Williams — he wasn’t the player he used to be. He had 35 at-bats that season and retired in April.
Additionally, he battled mental health issues, struggled with alcohol abuse and faced grave financial concerns before eventually dipping his toe back into baseball in various roles. He died in 1997 at 59 of pneumonia and also was fighting throat cancer.
EVENTUALLY, A HUGE IMPACT
But though Flood’s career was over and his life was what Lowenfish described as tragic, the spirit of his fight lived on.
In 1970, Miller won the right to an impartial arbitrator — in the past, the commissioner would serve as arbitrator; now it was a three-person panel — opening the door for the Players Association to file grievances against the league. In 1974, an arbitrator found Athletics owner Charlie Finley to be in breach of contract, making Catfish Hunter the first true free agent (there had been free agents previously, but those were little-known players who earned the designation after being released).
Finally, in 1975, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally were able to successfully challenge the reserve clause. Both didn’t sign contracts, meaning that, under baseball’s rules, they had been renewed without their input. Miller challenged that the clause indicated that a franchise could auto-renew a contract for only one year and that the wording left room for a player to become a free agent after that.
The wording had always been there, but this was the first time an independent arbitrator would get to rule on it. The arbitrator agreed with Miller and both players became free agents, though McNally’s intention was always to retire. Further tweaks to free agency were made with ensuing collective bargaining agreements.
"Free agency changed my life in 1977," Jackson said. "I had many times like that that changed my life," but choosing to go to the Yankees — and even having the opportunity to say no to teams such as the Expos and Padres, who offered more money — helped shape his career.
"I needed to be involved in a team that had a chance to win a championship," he said. "The choice wasn’t really about the money. I didn’t chase the money. The money would make you rich regardless. In that time, if you could get yourself ahold of $2 million, you would be set for life in that era."
Of course, Flood got to experience none of that, though he was honored in other ways and was presented the NAACP Jackie Robinson Award in 1992.
In 1998, a year after his death, president Bill Clinton signed the "Curt Flood Act" into law — a provision that says major-league players have the same rights as other professional athletes despite the protection baseball has under federal antitrust regulations.
Flood’s influence also helped bring about the 10/5 rule, which states that a 10-year veteran with five years on the same team has the right to reject a trade.
For most, though, he’s remembered as a catalyst in baseball labor negotiations and a sign that owners aren’t as all-powerful as had been thought.
"Flood’s suit was, from my perspective, more symbolic than anything, but it certainly added to the fuel that ultimately led the players to get the big gains they got," Lowenfish said. "Flood’s case was part of the patient planning that went on to ultimately give free agency to the players after the ’76 season."
Before that, "the players, most of the players, were either so glad to have a job and to be part of the national pastime, and they knew if you made waves — especially frontal waves like this — the consequences could be very serious, but by that time, he didn’t care."
The consequences were, in fact, serious. And baseball was never the same again.
Curt Flood: A chronology
Jan. 18, 1938: Born in Houston.
Sept. 9, 1956: Major-league debut with Redlegs (now Reds).
Dec. 5, 1957: Traded to Cardinals, with whom he played center field for 12 seasons, setting major league record for consecutive games without a fielding error.
October, 1963: Wins first of seven consecutive Gold Glove Awards.
October, 1964: Helps to lead Cardinals to World Series victory over Yankees.
Oct. 7, 1969: Traded to Phillies, along with Tim McCarver, Byron Browne and Joe Hoerner, for Dick Allen, Cookie Rojas and Jerry Johnson. Flood refuses the trade, citing the Phillies’ poor record, a dilapidated Connie Mack Stadium, and what he believes to be a racist fanbase. Flood has subsequent meeting with players’ union head Marvin Miller, who tells him that the union is prepared to fund a lawsuit. Flood decides to pursue his legal option.
Dec. 24, 1969: Sends a letter to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn expressing his desire to become a free agent. Kuhn denies the request, citing the propriety of the reserve clause and its inclusion in Flood’s 1969 contract.
Jan. 16, 1970: Files $1 million lawsuit against Kuhn and MLB, alleging violation of federal antitrust laws.
1970-75: Sits out 1970 season while Phillies and Cards work out the trade. Spends most of his time in Europe, interrupted by a short, failed comeback with Senators in 1971 before retiring.
March 20, 1972: Flood v. Kuhn is argued before the Supreme Court. Flood’s attorney is former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg.
June 19, 1972: Supreme Court, invoking the principle of stare decisis (“to stand by things decided”), rules 5–3 in favor of MLB. Justice Harry Blackmun notes that baseball’s antitrust immunity is an “aberration,” but says he feels bound by history to vote against Flood. Although Flood loses, the case paves the way for full-fledged free agency in 1976.
1978: Returns to baseball for one season as radio announcer for the Oakland Athletics.
Jan. 20, 1997: Dies of pneumonia at age 59 while also battling throat cancer.
SOURCE: Newsday research