|What Every Baseball Fan Should Know: The Curt Flood Case||| Print |||Send|
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on May 28, 2005
In a nutshell: Curt Flood one of the finest centerfielders of his day took baseball to court and sued them for unfair labor practices. He lost the case and at a huge price, it cost him his career and more. However it opened the door to the modern era of free agency, yet few people understand just what happened.
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.
Curt was the last of 6 children and was born in Houston
Texas although he spent most of his childhood in the ghettos of Oakland,
California. Unlike many of the kids in the area, including his brother,
Curt managed to stay away from gangs and crime by immersing himself in
art and baseball. He distinguished himself in both areas. Although small
at 5’ 7” and weighing less than 150 pounds, Flood was a hell
of a ballplayer - and the scouts though dubious noticed.
In 1956, though both small and black, which was a strike
against would be players at that time, the Cincinnati Reds signed him
for $4000. Flood finished high school and then flew to Tampa to join the
Reds farm system. He was not expected to do well considering what was
against him - blatant racism, playing in the south, and the rigors of
playing against the “real” professionals. Curt however was
filling out, getting stronger and was fighting through the problems facing
him. In his first season he had a .340 average and hit 29 home runs. Towards
the end of the season he saw some time with the major league team.
Curt expected a nice pay raise, but was more than a little
bit cowed in negotiations when General Manager Gabe Paul told him that
expenses were out of hand and that it would be best for Flood to renew
his contract at the previous salary and to accept a promotion to a higher
minor league. Flood accepted because he had no choice, unless he was willing
to walk away from the game - the reserve clause held him there. It happened
again the next season. However in 1957 Flood’s contract was traded
to the Cardinals.
St. Louis was the premier franchise to play in if you
were black in that day and age and Flood soon found himself playing in
St. Louis with the big team along with greats like Roger Maris, Orlando
Cepeda, Bill White and Bob Gibson. He would play there for the next 12
years where he would become part of the heart and soul of one of the greatest
teams St. Louis ever fielded.
During that time he won 7 gold gloves, hit over .300
six times, including a career high .335 in 1967, was a three time All-Star
and set a major league record of 227 games (568 chances) without an error.
He also served as the St. Louis team captain from 1965-1969 when the Cardinals
won two pennants and a World Series. In 1968 the cover of Sports illustrated
dubbed curt Flood as “The Best Centerfielder in Baseball.”
A high honor indeed when a man named Mays was still patrolling centerfield
for the San Francisco Giants.
Perhaps the straw that broke the figurative camel’s
back however came in 1969. Augie Busch decided to set his players straight
and stop all the grumbling about salaries that was coming from the rank
and file. He decided to dress his players down and to make matters worse,
he invited the media to the big show. Busch raved about how the players
had become more concerned with salary than the fans and the game. Perhaps
he had hoped that his tirade would quell the grumbling and get the team
focused on baseball but all it did was to demean and dispirit a team who
then stumbled to a fourth place finish.
According to some sources, Flood took this attack very
personally and it may have set him on his course to confront the reserve
clause. His protests, cynicism and anger were becoming more and more noticed
in the Cardinal front office and it might have been thought that he was
just fomenting trouble within the team. However Curt’s resentment
at the treatment just simmered all season. It reached the boiling point
just following the season when the Cardinals, either for baseball reasons
or just to get rid of a “troublemaker”, traded Flood to Philadelphia
in a package deal.
Flood was irate and perhaps feeling like his color was
a factor in his trade to Philadelphia, which he called the “Northernmost
Southern city.” In fact Philadelphia was a particularly racist market
as far as northern teams went, and according to many, the fans in the
stands were among the worst in terms of insults and name calling of any
fans in any major league city. But that racism was one of the things that
inspired Flood to take up the flag and march into battle versus the management
and ownership of baseball. So Curt Flood refused to report to Philadelphia.
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.
“It was difficult for the fans to understand my problems with baseball. I was telling my story to deaf ears, because I was telling my story to a person who would give their first-born child to be doing what I was doing.” - Curt Flood
On January 16, 1970, just over two weeks after it was announced by the NY Times, Curt Flood filed a $4.1 million lawsuit against Major League Baseball and the legality of the reserve clause. In doing so he turned his back on playing baseball, his $90,000 a year salary and his hopes of being considered for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame as one of the best players of his day. He knew full well that he was challenging legal precedent, the scorn of owners and a public who only perceived baseball and its players as larger than life, perfect institutions.
In order to stand a chance Flood and his attorney Arthur Goldberg realized that they needed to chop down the metaphoric cherry tree and go after the myths of baseball itself. Baseball could not be left untarnished with its myths of perfection being seen as the truth. Instead Flood needed to show what really went on behind the scenes - the drugs, the sex, drinking, debauchery and crudeness. He exposed the ugly realities to the light and many fans recoiled - but many failed to believe him. To them Curt Flood was an enemy trying to destroy the game.
And that was how the owners painted him too. Still by exposing the truth, the game became less pure and the facade of baseball began to crack. In 1971 Flood published a book “The Way It Is” while his case was still on its way to the Supreme Court. It was not a pretty book about the myths and niceties of baseball, but an ugly one that shocked a lot of people (We’ll review it in a few weeks) and changed the perception of baseball forever.
He also reached out to the common man and tried to draw comparisons that everyone could understand - that of the good company man who worked his tail off to make the company succeed and then only got shown the door without even a thank you, for all he had done. These were comparisons that the common laborer could understand - and it made them mad. Curt’s vocabulary over the months reinforced his case, referring to the players, as “sheep,” “goods,” ‘poultry” or even as a “car” which could be transferred from owner to owner upon a whim without any thought whatsoever to the “sheep” being transferred.
The arguments that Goldberg and Flood furnished were strong. They argued that both the Sherman anti-trust act and the 13th amendment to the Constitution of the United States were violated by the reserve clause. They paraded economists to testify that the reserve clause illegally suppressed the free market system and held down wages. They spoke of players who crossed swords with the game as being blacklisted, blackmailed and of owner collusion and so much more. They brought players to testify, though not many - even former players were afraid of being blacklisted. Still there were courageous baseball men who took the stand believing in the truth of Flood’s words - including the outspoken but respected Jackie Robinson.
The counterpoint to Flood was the established myth of baseball, presented as pure, innocent and vital not just to the owners’ pockets but to America itself. Baseball paraded its good company men - players who believed that baseball would be irreversibly damaged by the abandonment of the reserve clause. Baseball could pick and choose its spokesmen - and they did it well. They brought up players and owners to speak of the “good of the game.” They explained that the reserve clause could not be a violation of the 13th amendment because baseball players could always find other forms of employment and were not bound to the game.
However the “Good of the Game” was the crux of their arguments. They put forward that baseball would be destroyed by free agency and that the game, as it was known to our fathers, grandfathers, and their grandfathers, would be lost forever. They realized some truths - that baseball would be changed, that the richest teams would monopolize the best players, and that the best players would always be changing teams and seeking the best offer - and they presented it as a nightmare.
On top of it, they talked about the money, which was perhaps the most important factor in the case to the owners. They compared Flood’s salary to that of the common man to illustrate that the players lived high on the hog. How, they argued, could a man make that much money and be considered under the thumb of ownership and not a free and lucky man?
Perhaps even without the eloquence of baseball’s attorneys the case would have been one sided, justice had a predisposition towards the mythology of baseball, or perhaps the judges were afraid that their rulings might make them destroyers of the game. Time after time they found themselves unable, despite clear-cut legal footing, to create new laws when it came to the game of baseball.
On August 12, 1970 Federal Judge Ben Cooper ruled against Curt Flood, upholding the reserve clause and dismissed the lawsuit - but he noted that players and owners need to negotiate the issue. Soon afterwards, Flood appealed to a higher court and again lost in the US Circuit Court of Appeals. Shortly after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. On June 18, 1972 in a 5-3 decision they too ducked making a change in the fabric of the national pastime and passed the buck, saying that Congress needed to be the ones to amend the anti-trust exemption which baseball enjoyed.
Curt accepted the loss and tried to play ball again in 1971, but played only 13 games for the Washington Senators before retiring and moving to Denmark. He felt hated and persecuted for his lawsuit and chose not to return to the United States until late in the ‘70s. He died in 1997 of throat cancer.
However, even in defeat Flood had changed the American sport beyond belief. The Supreme Court had ruled for baseball, but on a technicality and they had made that clear. Baseball only escaped because it was an aberration under the law, but that the law SHOULD be rewritten - and the Supreme Court could not do that.
More than that however, Flood had aired baseball’s dirty laundry, and while in 1969 the average fan had no idea of baseball’s labor and negotiating policies at the end of Flood’s suit they certainly did. By and large the public was strongly against the reserve clause by a margin of close to 9:1. Because of this pressure the owners agreed to allow arbitration but kept the reserve clause alive.
Three years later however, arbiter Peter Seitz struck down the reserve clause when Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally filed grievances over it. They did it for money but it was done on the groundwork that Curt Flood had laid. Free agency had finally been achieved. An angry Flood felt the color of McNally and Messersmith’s skins had been a deciding factor in striking down the clause - and baseball’s not seeking to fight it.
Curt Flood never benefited from free agency, but instead paid a terrible price in lost coaching/managing jobs, the end of his career and any chance he would have had at the Hall of Fame. Still his courage in challenging baseball and showing the public what went on behind closed doors - opened them to succeeding generations of players who’ve come to enjoy free agency.
While the premise of free agency can be challenged as to whether it has added to or detracted from the game, the courage that Flood showed could not. Upon his death he was eulogized on the floor of the US Congress. However his legacy would not die there. In 1998 Congress passed what is known as the “Curt Flood Act of 1998”. In it they clarified and changed baseball’s anti-trust exemption to state that professional baseball players would be covered under the general and accepted anti-trust laws without in any other way effecting baseball’s anti trust exemption.