The Plight of Curt Flood

By Tony McClean
Updated: February 11, 2005
Curt Flood

NEW HAVEN, Ct. — When baseball historians conjure up the name Curt Flood, several images jump into one’s head. Gold Glove outfielder is one.

Perennial All-Star is another. However, the one thing that jumps into your mind when mentioning Flood’s name is “the reserve clause”.

On January 16, 1970, Flood, an African-American outfielder with the St. Louis Cardinals shocked the baseball world and America by suing Major League Baseball and its “reserve clause.”

Baseball had faced legal challenges in the past, but never had a player of Flood’s caliber attempted to attack the game’s sacred provision that kept a player and his contract to a team for life.

Playing for the Cardinals, Flood had earned three All-Star appearances, seven Gold Gloves, and a pair of World Series championships. After 12 years with St. Louis, Flood was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. On December 24, 1969 Flood, requested to the commissioner, to be declared a free agent.

Later writing that he (Flood) after twelve years in the major leagues did not feel that he was a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of his wishes.

He further wrote,”I believe any system that produces that result violates my basic right as a citizen and inconsistent with the laws of the United States.

Although Flood earned $90,000 a year he accused baseball of violating the 13th amendment, barring slavery and involuntary servitude. In 1969, there was no free agency.

Players were bound to their contract with their original team. This was known as the reserve clause. Flood decided to sue rather than take the trade to Philadelphia.

To no one’s surprise, the public and the media reacted to Flood’s action with disbelief, singling out the outfielder an ingrate, a destroyer and troublemaker. Flood’s case went to the way to the Supreme Court.

Flood’s lawyer, Arthur Goldberg, gave evidence that baseball’s reserve clause violated by depressing wages and limiting a player to one team. Baseball’s argument dealt with such ideas as tradition and “the good of the game.”

There were many within the black community who said at the time Flood’s arguments for reform were similar to those of the Civil Rights Movement. Through the course of the case, Flood gained more of the public’s sympathy, as the nature of the reserve clause became known.

On June 18, 1970, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of baseball 5-3, not on the strength of their case, but with a belief that baseball simply should stay the way it is.

The court’s decision, at least the way Flood and his council saw it, should have been easy. In the case, Goldberg presented no revolutionary argument. Flood’s lawyers did not call for a radical reinterpretation of the Constitution.

They merely asked, in players’ union head Marvin Miller’s words, that the court “face up to the logic of its own decision in other cases and begin applying that logic to baseball.”

As the Justice began to read the Court’s decision, all in attendance realized the myth of baseball and its seemingly unconstitutional labor practices would remain intact.

The decision, more a verse to baseball greatness than a legal document, began with a list of 88 baseball legends, from Cap Anson to Babe Ruth. Before dropping phrases such as “the Sherman Anti-Trust Act” or “the 13th amendment”, the final ruling ended with the court’s 5-3 decision against Flood.

A lifetime average of .293 earned one of the best centerfielders of all-time unemployment from the game he loved so much in 1970. Flood would return the following year with Washington, but after tremendous rejection in the clubhouse he would quit after 18 games never to play major league baseball again.

However, as is the case in many Supreme Court decision’s it takes someone to stand up to system and take a loss as Flood did, so others may benefit.

In 1975, pitchers Andy Messersmith (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Dave McNally (Baltimore Orioles) filed grievances against the reserve clause. The case eventually reached arbitration and Peter Seitz.

With Flood’s arguments now well established and much more accepted throughout America, Seitz ruled in favor of the players and against baseball — stating that the reserve clause only kept players with their team for one year.

While still anomalously legal, the reserve clause’s reign had ended. The decision would help lead to the level of free agency that has become so prevalent even to this very day in Major League Baseball.

However, some of the very players who were helped by Flood’s action remain ignorant about the man and the stand he originally took. By the time of Flood’s death in January, 1997, the press almost uniformally heaped praise upon the former centerfielder.

Some even trumpeted Flood for the Hall of Fame.

In one of his last interviews, Flood was asked if he had any regrets. Flood stated, “I lost money, coaching jobs, a shot at the Hall of Fame. But when you weigh that against all the things that are really and truly important, things that are deep inside you, then I think I’ve succeeded.”

NOTE: The African-American Registry contributed to this story.