Guest post: Curt Flood, the forgotten man

The Curt Flood story is a sad one indeed. It is the story of a proud man who refused to compromise his beliefs. It is the story of a man who took on the baseball establishment with little or no support from his fellow players for the future benefit of all players. It is the story of a man ahead of his times and a rare human being who refused to back down when he knew that what he was doing was right, no matter the consequences. He paid dearly for those convictions and deserved much better than he got.

Flood died January 20, 1997 with only a brief mention from the press and few comments from those who played with and against him. He made his major league debut September 9, 1956 with Cincinnati and finished his career with the Washington Senators in 1971.  His recognition as a legitimate major league star came during his tenure with the St. Louis Cardinals Flood won seven consecutive Gold Glove awards and batted over .300 six times. He was an integral part of the Cardinals championship teams in 1964 and 1967 and their National League champion team of 1968.

The off season of 1969 proved to be the most pivotal of his baseball career and his life. Flood found himself part of a package of players being sent to the then lowly Philadelphia Phillies by the St. Louis Cardinals. Up until this moment, trades were made with no regard to those players involved and players had no recourse to challenge being sent to this city or that. The accepted attitude amongst players, at least publicly, was a quiet acceptance of their circumstances. They had no rights under the laws of baseball and once a contract was signed, a team owned that players for a time period designated solely by the whim of the team. If a player was unhappy about being traded, his only option was to retire from baseball. His ability to earn a living and play a game he loved was completely out of his hands.

Curt Flood tried to change all of that in the winter of 1968-69. Flood at the time was making a salary of $100,000, a salary only the very best in baseball were able to command. $100,000 was a number players sought, not only because of the amount, but because it showed that they were among the best players in baseball. Flood, by his refusal to report to the Philadelphia Phillies stood to lose money and prestige.

After a meeting with then Major League Baseball Players Association president Marvin Miller during which Miller told Flood that the union was prepared to sue baseball over the Reserve Clause, Flood decided to challenge baseball.

On December 24, 1969, Flood wrote the following letter to then baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

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.

It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decision. I, therefore, request that you make known to all Major League clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.

Kuhn refused Flood’s request, and in January 1970, Flood filed a $1 million lawsuit against Kuhn and major league baseball. In a vote of 5-3, the Supreme Court decided to set aside any decision and leave things the way they were (stare decisis). Flood sat out the 1970 season and returned in 1971 to play for the Senators but his career was, in effect, over.

Four years later, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that two pitchers who had followed Flood and sat out an entire season were now considered free agents. The era of freedom for players had finally begun. For Curt Flood, this decision was too little too late. Flood had stood up to the establishment and lost. His legacy was finally acknowledged by Congress in 1997 and legislation the next year was introduced to formally protect baseball players, the Curt Flood Act of 1998. Flood finally won. Sadly, he died before realizing his dream.

4 Replies to “Guest post: Curt Flood, the forgotten man”

  1. One of baseballs great embarrassments and travesties was its treatment of Curt Flood and the aura of intimidation it created for his peers.

    Of note, Former SCOTUS Arthur Goldberg represented Flood at his US Supreme Court Hearing. He was an embarrassment at trial relying on his contacts rather than trial preparation to carry the day. Former colleague and associate justice, Wm Brennan visibly winced during Goldberg’s arguments.

    Thanks for writing this article Doug. My own take during last year’s world series is a little sterner than yours. There are things MLB could and should do to rectify the great wrongs visited upon Flood, but they don’t.

  2. Curt Flood, one of the great players of his generation. was one of the very few black baseball players of his generation to truly be a “Race Man” at the hardest of times. Quite early in his career Flood went down south at the behest of his idol Jackie Robinson to support the civil rights movement at a time when it was not only a possible threat to his career in the majors, but also his life.
    Years later when Flood was all but deserted by his fellow players, Jackie came through for Curt and was a witness on Curt’s behalf during his initial trial.
    Jackie and Curt, two extremely brave men who’s lives were no doubt shortened by the stress and turmoil they went through in their efforts to bring about change.

  3. Says Mr. Bird: “Four years [after the Curt Flood case], arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that two pitchers who had followed Flood and sat out an entire season were now considered free agents.”

    Say I: Only one of the two pitchers in question sat out the 1975 season, most of it, anyway: Dave McNally.

    The lead pitcher in that case, Andy Messersmith, didn’t sit out the 1975 season in question—he pitched without a contract and despite receiving subsequent offers from the Los Angeles Dodgers for bigger money than he’d yet seen over three years.

    McNally sitting it out had little to do with the issue that provoked Messersmith. McNally decided to retire in June 1975, after continuing arm trouble finally got to him. He sat the rest of the season out by medical necessity, but he signed onto the Messersmith case at Marvin Miller’s behest—because Miller wanted a fallback, in case Messersmith ended up signing a new Dodger deal, and Miller remembered McNally’s retirement when he was, technically, an unsigned player.

    McNally had refused to sign the deal Montreal finally offered him, after the Expos lured him into accepting a trade from Baltimore (which McNally had to approve as a 10-5 man) with promises of a two-year deal with a raise only to offer him the same salary for one year he earned in 1974.) McNally was retired but technically an unsigned player when he agreed to sign onto the Messersmith case.

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