How Curt Flood ‘Ruined’ Sports

By David Steele
Updated: October 8, 2009

WASHINGTON — Wednesday was the 40th anniversary of what seemed like a fairly big, but hardly earthshaking, baseball trade: Curt Flood, Tim McCarver and two others to the Philadelphia Phillies; Dick Allen and two others to the St. Louis Cardinals. Pretty cut-and-dried.

Until Flood refused to report and then asked the commissioner to make him … a free agent. We all know what happened after that, and if you don’t, check out a series of stories on Fanhouse, including a pair that I wrote.

And then check out some of the comments on those stories, then decide whether you agree with them. Flood is, in fact, the Father of Free Agency … and four full decades later (technically, three and a half, because it wasn’t fully granted for baseball players until 1975), it’s still held as gospel by a stunning percentage of fans that free agency “ruined baseball.” Or, more comprehensively, “ruined sports.” You know the arguments; you may have made them, and might be making them at this moment. Players are getting paid millions to play a kids’ game that most of us would play for free.

Teachers and firefighters are struggling to survive, yet A-Rod and Kobe and T.O. make more for each game than any of them will ever be paid in their lifetimes.

Heck, Joe DiMaggio and Bronko Nagurski never got paid like that, and they were real stars, not like these stiffs today. If some .220-hitting shortstop can make millions, what would Mantle be worth – forget it, he’d own a piece of the team!

And loyalty? Forget it, these punks chase the dollars and that’s it. Nobody cares about winning or keeping a team together or staying faithful to the fans of a city that adores them, the way they did in the old days, when a star would play for the same team his whole career.

Agents now come in and drive up salaries and blackmail teams and bleed them dry; they have more power than anybody, and things were way better when the Vince Lombardis of the world would just throw them out of his office and trade any player who tried to use one.

Then these greedy, jealous bums have the nerve to go on strike, as if they’re not the luckiest people walking the earth to be making that kind of money without having to have real jobs.

Meanwhile, we keep getting charged more for tickets and paying $8 for a beer at the ballpark, and $30 to park, and now the games aren’t even on TV for free anymore, all because of these damn high salaries.

Did ya know you used to be able to sit in the bleachers for 50 cents?

Blah blah blah freaking blah.

Fans this blissfully ignorant and willfully uninformed are like gold to owners, and have been for more than a century. The truth is summed up in something Jim Bouton, the author of the legendary Ball Four, said years ago: players don’t deserve all that money, but owners don’t deserve it more.

The idea that sports, leagues, franchises and owners wouldn’t have soaked the public if players didn’t start demanding a fair share of the money they generated is beyond preposterous – it’s a flat-out lie.

So is the idea that pro sports is in some sort of terrible condition today because players now have a piece of the pie they had been denied for, again, more than 100 years, before Flood finally called baseball out on it.

Meanwhile, the very same people who would never accept the kind of limits on where they could work, for how much and for how long, that athletes did before Flood, except under the most desperate and poverty-stricken conditions, are the ones who complain longest and loudest about players picking where they want to play and how much they’ll accept to do it.

Folks are doing that right now, in fact, being laid off by companies for no other reason than it helps out the board members’ stock value or the CEO’s profit margins – and simultaneously enraged at CC Sabathia getting to go play for the Yankees because Cleveland and Milwaukee didn’t want to pay him as much.

There is simply no way to watch, say, Tuesday’s Twins-Tigers playoff game, as transcendent a moment as sports on any level has ever produced, and whine about how everything was so much better 50 years ago before free agency.

Baseball is better now. Every sport is better now.

It’s just as exciting as it ever has been, and everybody’s being treated better in it. And everybody got to see it, as more people have gotten to see more games more often than ever before.

You just wonder why fans are so compelled to continually parrot the same arguments made since the 1870s by owners working solely for their own self-interest.

Why players getting rich offends them so much more than, for example, Jerry Jones or George Steinbrenner getting rich. Why pure selfishness (you don’t want your favorite player to ever leave town) can be such a dominant motivation for your feelings about the games.

Why you would never swear off watching movies because of what Jim Carrey earns per picture, but curse the entire landscape of professional sports because of what Manny Ramirez makes.

Why, in fact, it means so much to your personal happiness how much any player makes, and whether the envy and bitterness cultivated toward them is really worth it.

Seriously, what’s it all about? Curt Flood liked St. Louis and didn’t want to go to Philadelphia just because August Busch ordered him to. For that, he and every player since have your everlasting disgust?

Flood died young, in 1997, but he took sports into the 21st century.

It’s time for fans to join it there.