Curt Flood changed the way baseball is played. It’s as simple as that.
Flood was an outstanding St. Louis Cardinals center fielder from 1958 to 1969, but he sacrificed his career rather than submit to a baseball institution known as the Reserve Clause.
The Reserve Clause had been a part of the standard baseball player contract since 1879: Even after a player’s contract expired, the team retained all rights for the player’s future services — forever. The only escape was if the player were traded or the team waived their rights under the clause. Otherwise, the player was forced to re-negotiate with his team or retire from baseball.
In practice, teams only waived their rights if they believed a player had no future value because of injury, age or lack of ability. In essence, the players were chattel and were discarded when used up.
The clause was ruthlessly enforced by all of the league presidents and baseball commissioners. In 1921, Kenesaw Mountain Landis briefly banned Heinie Groh for demanding a higher salary; Dickie Kerr was banned for four years for a similar offense; and Ray Fisher was banned for life.
Astonishingly, in 1922 the Supreme Court ruled that the Reserve Clause was valid because professional baseball was entertainment and not an interstate business, and was therefore not subject to federal antitrust regulation. (The trial judge was none other than the above-mentioned Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who delayed his decision for the convenience of the major league owners; shortly thereafter they appointed him as the first commissioner of major league baseball and he began banning players.)
In another breathtaking decision 30 years later, the court ruled that Congress had never intended that baseball be subjected to federal antitrust regulation, mainly because it was a sport and not a normal business. In all of American professional sports, only baseball has such a sweeping antitrust exemption, and it still exists.
The signal was clear. Either play along with the Reserve Clause, or don’t play at all.
Curt Flood, who was black, believed that this amounted to slavery because, despite a lapsed contract for which he was no longer being compensated, he was not free to pursue his career as he saw fit.
Flood needed some leverage, and he thought he had it: His quality of play.
In 1958, he averaged more than three assists and putouts per game while the rest of the center fielders in the National League were averaging fewer than two. In 1960, his fielding percentage was an amazing .993, with just two errors in 134 games.
Beginning in 1961, Flood’s batting took off. He batted near or above .300 seven times and he scored 112 runs in 1963. He struck out more often than he walked, but in his best years during the mid 1960s he had about 200 hits per season. He appeared in three World Series for the Cardinals, driving in eight runs and scoring 11 more.
He was a three-time All-Star and finished in the top 25 of Most Valuable Player voting six straight times. He won seven straight Gold Glove awards, from 1963 to 1969. His fielding percentage was routinely well above average, as were his annual averages of combined putouts and assists.
Flood’s career was on a potential Hall of Fame trajectory, which gave him ammunition for his assault on the Reserve Clause.
And so when Flood was traded to the hapless Philadelphia Phillies at the end of the 1969 season, he refused to report. He sued the commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn.
Flood’s case was weakened by the fact that he didn’t challenge the clause until he was traded to a team in a city where he didn’t want to play. As long as he was on the payroll of the Cardinals, he hadn’t complained. In fact, in 1969 he had signed a new contract that contained the clause. Still, Flood and the players’ union saw the lawsuit as a matter of principle, even if many of the players actually sympathized with the owners and feared a free-for-all job market.
The trial judge ruled, in essence, that baseball was above the law. “The game is on higher ground; it behooves every one to keep it there,” the judge wrote.
Flood appealed. He lost again.
In Flood v. Kuhn, the United States Supreme Court ruled, 5-3, that the 50-year-old decision upholding the Reserve Clause, Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, was still the law of the land. The courts would not intervene, and it was clear that Congress didn’t have the stomach to eliminate baseball’s exemption from antitrust laws that the 1922 decision effectively created.
Flood didn’t play in 1970 because the case was in litigation. He was finally traded to the Washington Senators where, oddly, in 1971 he played for a while just a few miles from the Supreme Court building. However, Flood played poorly and retired. The Supreme Court ruling was handed down a year later.
Curt Flood never played professional baseball again, and he died of throat cancer at age 59.
However, the Flood case galvanized the union and established once and for all that any changes to the Reserve Clause would have to be negotiated through collective bargaining with the owners. All other pathways to relief were closed. But how to convince (or force) the owners to negotiate away the foundation of their empires?
The owners inadvertently gave away the store in 1973 when they agreed to a proposal from the Players’ Union for binding salary arbitration. Only the Cardinals and Oakland A’s objected; the A’s grossly underpaid their outstanding championship staff and feared a free job market, and the Cardinals didn’t want to show weakness to the union following their hard-won Supreme Court victory. The other owners saw arbitration as a harmless safety valve to reduce tensions created by the Flood case and display to the public a willingness to right past wrongs.
Arbitrations held in 1974, the first year under the new collective bargaining agreement, seemed to make everyone happy. Then all hell broke loose.
In December 1975, Peter Seitz, a labor arbiter, reluctantly ruled that pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally were free agents because their contracts had lapsed for a full season. Although not actually voiding the Reserve Clause, Seitz created such a huge loophole that everyone — except the owners — could see that the end was near.
(Some owners did see the threat, but were powerless to stop it. In November 1975 the Montreal Expos tried to bribe McNally into dropping out of the case. He refused, despite knowing that his playing days were most likely over because of an injury.)
The outraged baseball owners immediately fired Seitz and locked the players out of 1976 spring training. McNally had retired a few months earlier, but Messersmith persisted and eventually signed a $1 million contract with Ted Turner’s Atlanta Braves.
Meanwhile, the union offered to re-negotiate the Reserve Clause to create something less onerous for players while still protecting the teams from the chaos of unrestricted free agency, but the owners refused. Fueled by their absolute victory in the Flood case and a complete disregard for public sentiment, the owners again sought protection from the courts. They were rebuffed at every turn; since they had voluntarily submitted to binding arbitration, the owners had effectively waived their federal antitrust exemption.
In the 1976 collective bargaining negotiations, the union demanded that the Reserve Clause be dropped for all players who had accumulated six years of experience. The owners, with little remaining leverage and with public opinion quickly souring, agreed. Salaries almost immediately began to soar, and true free agency was born.
Still, the baseball owners colluded on salaries and engaged in various sordid conspiracies over the next decade, but subsequent arbiters would have none of it; the owners were penalized and free agency flourished.
Change came fast. Without the Reserve Clause, the newly created designated hitter position became a vehicle for hired guns. Veteran players could negotiate with any team, and vice-versa, so paychecks multiplied a hundredfold. Ticket prices soared to pay for the higher salaries. Marketing deals and even partial ownership of teams became negotiating chips. Pitchers, especially, became vagabonds; older players could squeeze in a few months at the end of a season to help a contending teams make the final push for the pennant.
After a few painful years of confusion for fans, players and team owners, baseball emerged with many of its hallowed traditions gone or revised. Teams such as the Florida Marlins could come into existence and be immediate contenders. All it took was money, and more money.
Even the century-old minor league system nearly died, and it took nearly a decade for some owners to realize the foolishness of allowing that to happen. Such was the effect of free agency that even the mighty New York Yankees had to change the way they did business.
The New York Yankees dynasty was broken in the late 1960s under CBS’s poor corporate ownership; when new owners routinely ponied up big money for star free agents in the 1970s, the Yankees’ minor league system suffered. The flow of talented minor-league replacements slowed to a trickle, severely reducing the team's staffing options. Don Mattingly, a fine first baseman, joined the parent club full-time in 1984 and became the first prospect in nearly a decade to work his way through the Yankees’ minor league system all the way from Class A. Such a lapse would have been unthinkable before free agency.
We can speculate about what Curt Flood’s career statistics would have been had he not fought the Reserve Clause. He was approaching Hall of Fame numbers, but his career ended too soon. There is another argument for his membership, however.
Since the late 1880s, only a handful of players have fundamentally changed the course of baseball both on and off the field; in the 20th century, Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson had profound effects. So did Curt Flood, and he certainly had a longer-lasting impact than most of the league and team executives who are in the Hall of Fame.
Curt Flood’s membership in the Hall of Fame (as a baseball pioneer, of all things) should be as inevitable as was the death of the Reserve Clause.