As is the norm, the most recent start to the Major League Baseball free agency period signaled a wave of new signings and huge contracts.
For the past several decades, MLB players have benefitted from the free agent process and been free to sign with the team of their choice.
Of course, that wasn’t always the case.
For decades, MLB’s reserve clause meant that baseball teams could essentially keep their players in perpetuity.
That began to change in 1969 when Curt Flood openly challenged professional baseball.
His desire to find employment with a different team was ultimately rebuffed.
However, he began the discourse which ultimately led MLB to shutter the clause.
This is the story of Curt Flood.
— Jim Hayes (@TheCatOnBallyTV) January 18, 2021
Curtis Charles Flood was born on January 18, 1938 in Houston, Texas.
He was the youngest of six children.
When he turned two, the Flood family relocated to the West Oakland area in California.
Only a few years later, Flood parlayed his athletic ability and burgeoning talent into his role as catcher for a local youth league team.
He also proved to be a bit cantankerous when, at age 10, he stole a truck and crashed it.
Not wanting to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Carl (who struggled with heroin addiction and served jail time), Flood decided to stop the shenanigans after the truck incident.
He turned his attention back to baseball and would eventually find himself in the same McClymond High School outfield with future MLB stars Vada Pinson and Frank Robinson.
Flood would later transfer to Oakland Technical High School after moving in with his divorced sister, Barbara.
While he helped his sister take care of her children while she worked, Flood made a name for himself on the diamond.
After his graduation from high school in 1956, Flood signed a $4,000 contract with the Cincinnati Reds and was sent to their farm system in the American South.
An Education in Racism
Once he signed with the Reds, Flood made his way to Thomasville, North Carolina.
It was in North Carolina that he began to see the depths of unmitigated racism.
Flood helped the High Point-Thomasville squad to a Class B Carolina League pennant on the strength of a .340 batting average, 133 runs, 29 home runs and 128 RBIs.
Curt Flood hit 29 home runs his first season in the minors. He came up to the majors and realized he needed to adjust his swing to hit singles. In today's game he would have kept trying to hit homers for a few seasons an then been dropped#curtflood4cooperstown #STLCards pic.twitter.com/46Fz9nBKuf
— Andrew Stout (@ThomasACStout) November 27, 2020
However, he also experienced the ugly side of playing in the Deep South.
“Imagine that you’re playing this game with your back to a hostile audience who were calling you names, telling you to get off the field, calling you the N-word,” said Judy Pace Flood, Flood’s later wife. “It takes an incredible amount of courage and determination, but that’s what they were going through.”
There were other examples of segregation that Flood endured while toiling away in the minors.
For instance, when his team had to play a double-header, Flood could not shower with his teammates between games.
Instead, he waited for the team to return to the field while he sat in a sweat soaked uniform.
Flood also sat in the team bus while the rest of the Thomasville organization celebrated their championship in a “whites-only” hotel.
In 1957, Flood was sent to the Class A South Atlantic League where he was tried at third base.
He batted .299 and led the league in runs.
Flood played well enough that season to get a three game call-up to the parent club near the end of the year.
It was during this three game stand that Flood got his first big league hit.
Just when it looked like Flood would be joining his former high school teammates, Robinson and Pinson, in Cincinnati, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in December of 1957.
He began the ‘58 season in Triple A Omaha and batted .340 in the first 15 games.
Flood was then called up to the Cards.
From 1958-1960, Flood fluctuated between a .237 and .261 batting average.
He finally cracked the .300 line in 1961 when he batted .322 with a slugging percentage of .415.
— Augie Nash (@AugieNash) November 30, 2021
The following season, Flood hit .296 and crushed a career high 12 home runs.
As St. Louis won 93 games in 1963, Flood helped with a .302 average and five home runs.
He scored a career high 112 runs, which was also good for third in MLB that year.
Not only was he one of the most consistent hitters in baseball, Flood was becoming a slick fielding center fielder.
In ‘63, he would win his first of seven consecutive Gold Gloves.
1964 and a Championship
In 1964, Flood and St. Louis clicked on all cylinders.
The team finished 93-69, the same as in 1963, only this time they finished first in the National League.
Flood hit for a .311 average and five homers.
He also led the NL in at-bats (for the second consecutive year) and finished tied for first with Roberto Clemente for the most hits at 211.
Flood would receive his first All-Star award after the season.
For the first time in 18 years, the Cardinals faced off in the World Series against the New York Yankees.
— 1960s Baseball (@Baseball1960s) October 8, 2017
During the first game of the Series, Flood hit a single, a triple and had two RBIs.
The Cards won the game 9-5 and eventually won the Series 4-3.
St. Louis and Flood Win Again
The high of a World Series victory didn’t last long.
For the next two years, the Cards faltered, winning 80 games in 1965 and 83 in ‘66.
Flood batted .310 and had 11 homers in ‘65 and a .267 average with 10 home runs in 1966.
His numbers in ‘66 were good enough to get voted as an All-Star for the second time.
In 1967, St. Louis climbed back to the top of the NL with a 101-60 record.
It was the first time the franchise breached the 100 win mark since 1944.
Flood hit for a .335 average and five homers during the year.
The Cards would meet the Red Sox for the World Series title and win in seven games.
Flood struggled during the Series with a .179 batting average.
However, he helped St. Louis win Game 7 with a single, a run batted in and a run scored.
1968 & 1969
St. Louis nearly repeated as champions in 1968 as their 97-65 record helped them face Detroit in the World Series.
Curt Flood making a leaping catch at Wrigley. Photo was used for the Aug 19, 1968 SI cover. Photo by Herb Scharfman/SI via Getty Images pic.twitter.com/woNfonPx8b
— Baseball In Pics (@baseballinpix) November 29, 2021
This time, it would be the Tigers that prevailed over the Cards in seven games.
After hitting for a .301 average and five home runs during the season (leading to his third, and final, All-Star selection), he added a .286 average with four runs and two RBIs during the Series.
Unfortunately, in Game 7, Flood badly misjudged a ball hit by Detroit’s Jim Northrup.
As he tried to advance on the ball, Flood realized too late that it was going to land behind him.
The ball dropped in for a two-run triple that broke a scoreless tie.
Detroit would score another run during the same inning and eventually win 4-1.
The following season, Flood batted. 285 with four homers as the Cardinals finished at 87-75 and fourth in the NL.
Flood Challenges the Reserve Clause
As professional baseball began to take a foothold in American life in the late 1800s, the sport started to make some money.
In order to profit from their product, MLB owners instituted the Reserve Clause.
By 1891, no player could leave their contracted team unless they were traded, released or retired.
Player contracts were limited to one year and the teams determined whether the player would be re-signed the following season.
The players could only accept their team’s contract offer.
If not, they could hold out for more money while also understanding that the team more than likely would not budge.
Several players had attempted to challenge the clause over the years through the Sherman Antitrust Act.
However, they were turned away when the Supreme Court decided in favor of the owners in 1910.
The court’s reasoning was that keeping the reserve clause kept pro baseball profitable.
The court also believed (as did owners) that if players could negotiate their own deals, player contracts would exceed team budgets.
On October 7, 1969, Flood was traded along with a handful of teammates to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Although he was contracted for $100,000 in 1970, Flood was outraged at the prospect of playing for the Phillies, who had not made the World Series since 1950.
He sought out Marvin Miller, the head of the MLB Players Union who tried hard to encourage Flood to sign with Philadelphia.
“I told him,” recalled Miller in a 2011 interview, “that given the courts’ history of bias towards the owners and their monopoly, he didn’t have a chance in hell of winning. More important than that, I told him even if he won, he’d never get anything out of it—he’d never get a job in baseball again.”
Flood pondered Miller’s take for a bit then asked the union head if challenging (and possibly winning) a lawsuit could benefit other players.
Miller assured him that not only would current players benefit, but future players as well.
“He said, ‘That’s good enough for me,'” said Miller.
The next step was to send MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn a letter demanding that Flood be declared a free agent.
This is the letter Curt Flood wrote to MLB in 1969. Flood's fight paved the way for free agency in baseball.
He would have been 81 years old today. pic.twitter.com/M6qIJADLqr
— Yahoo Sports MLB (@MLByahoosports) January 18, 2019
Flood’s letter was short and to-the-point.
December 24, 1969
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.
Three days later, Kuhn responded that he could not comply with Flood’s request.
With that, Flood retained the services of former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and took MLB to court.
Flood v. Kuhn
Once Kuhn denied Flood’s request, the ballplayer sued the commissioner and MLB for $1 million in January of 1970.
Curt Flood filed a lawsuit vs MLB baseball 1/16/70 challenging them to treat players as humans vs property. He didn’t think it was right that he had no say in where he played. MLB won the lawsuit, but Flood v. Kuhn laid the groundwork for free agency. #hotstove #freeagent pic.twitter.com/sAGzqVykL1
— The Other Boys Of Summer (@NegroLeagueFilm) January 17, 2021
The basis of the suit centered on violation of federal antitrust laws.
Not surprisingly, the case lost at the trial level and was appealed.
As both sides began preparing for the appeal (which would also be lost), Flood did not play in 1970.
Instead, he received hate mail from baseball fans daily.
Some pieces of mail went much further than mere anger.
“He got four or five death threats a day,” said former teammate Bob Gibson.
In 1971, Flood was able to suit up for the Washington Senators after being assured that his play wouldn’t jeopardize his case.
However, he would only appear in 13 games and hit for a .200 batting average and seven hits.
The man who fought the commissioner (Flood v. Kuhn), the last 30-game winner, and the last .400 hitter.
— Alex Cheremeteff (@AlexCheremeteff) July 24, 2018
Finally, on March 20, 1972, the Supreme Court heard arguments for Flood v. Kuhn.
Perhaps a telling move about the power of owners rights at the time, no active ball players testified to defend Flood.
The only two players that showed support for Flood were Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg.
Both players had been long retired.
Arguing on Flood’s behalf, Goldberg explained to the court that the reserve clause effectively depressed wages for players and also limited players to one team for life.
MLB argued that Kuhn had acted for the good of the game.
Eventually, the Supreme Court upheld the lower courts by a count of 5-3.
One judge, Justice Harry Blackmun, explained that baseball was an exception to antitrust laws.
After a three-year fight, Flood had lost his opportunity for free agency.
However, the reserve clause issue was far from over.
Although only 34 by the time the trial ended, Flood knew he was blackballed from playing by MLB owners.
As we are just over 12 hours from a possible MLB lockout, every MLB player should be educating himself about this man: Curt Flood. A sticking point in MLB-MLBPA negotiations has been the length of the reserve clause. But for Curt Flood, players wouldn’t have clout in this fight. pic.twitter.com/19fa3KVDga
— Alicia Jessop (@RulingSports) December 1, 2021
Despite the owners not overtly admitting to keeping Flood unsigned, the response to his suit was obvious.
“It would be difficult to come back,” Flood said at the time. “And besides, I don’t think I’ll be getting the opportunity to play again. As big as it is, baseball is a closely-knit unit. I doubt even one of the 24 men controlling the game would touch me with a ten-foot (3 m) pole. You can’t buck the Establishment.”
Flood retired and moved to Majorca, Spain to open a bar.
During 15 years, Flood had a lifetime batting average of .293 with 1,861 hits, 85 home runs, 851 runs, and 636 RBI.
Miller and the MLBPA weren’t finished with the reserve clause, however.
In 1975, with players Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith at the helm, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of the players and MLBPA.
By 1976, both the union and baseball owners struck a deal to allow free agency in baseball.
Life After Retirement and Death
While in Spain, Flood’s health took a turn for the worse.
Alcoholism had plagued him for most of his life.
It was made worse by the pressure of the case, an IRS lien, bankruptcy, divorce, unpaid child support and the guilt from being absent from his children.
Flood eventually checked himself into a hospital in Barcelona and then returned to the States.
Slowly, he began to put his life back together.
Flood remarried, reconnected with his kids, painted, and worked in baseball as a broadcaster and administrator.
Unfortunately, Flood’s former demons returned in the form of throat cancer in early 1995.
The MLBPA helped pay Flood’s medical bills and he was able to keep the disease at bay for a while.
After developing pneumonia in early 1997, Flood passed away on January 20, 1997, just two days after his 59th birthday.
1969 was the year that started it all for Curt Flood and how he forever changed the game of major league baseball. Sign the petition in our bio to get Curt Flood's legacy into the Baseball Hall of Fame! #FloodTheHall pic.twitter.com/Oe6OTkNv3G
— 108 Stitches (@108Stitches) April 28, 2021
During Flood’s funeral, the Reverend Jesse Jackson paid his respects to Flood.
“Baseball didn’t change Curt Flood. Curt Flood changed baseball. He fought the good fight.”
Flood’s legacy to the sport of baseball has been summed up by current MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark.
“His character, his understanding, and appreciation of the responsibility that he had, and was willing to take, is something that all of us as players owe a debt of gratitude,” said Clark. “I would even go as far as to suggest not just the players in baseball, but the players in other sports, owe (Curt) a debt of gratitude.”