In part I of this article we explained the history of the reserve clause and set the table for the understanding of what was to be a battle similar to that of David and Goliath. Part II explained just who Curt Flood was. Now we will examine the events that lead up to and the motivation that caused Curt to challenge the reserve clause.
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.
In what may not actually be the final part (part IV) of this article we will discuss the actual court battle that ensued when Curt fought the injustice of the reserve clause (see part I) and the results and repercussions for baseball in the years that followed.