The former St. Louis Cardinals’ outfielder Curt Flood sacrificed wealth and health in his fight for player freedom. What else should you know?
To most St. Louis Cardinals fans, Curt Flood is just “that guy who refused to be traded and sued baseball.” Fifty years ago, on Jan. 16, 1970, Flood filed a lawsuit challenging baseball’s reserve clause, which allowed teams to trade players, including 10-year veterans, regardless of their wishes. Here are eight things to know about the selfless crusader who took on the baseball establishment:
Flood “was a better ballplayer than everybody thought he was,” ex-manager and Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst said of the diminutive (5-9, 165) center fielder who played for the Cardinals from 1958 to ’69. Bob Gibson, Flood’s long-time road roommate, agreed. “I would venture to say that if it hadn’t been for all the stuff involved in him suing baseball … he would have had a good chance of being in the Hall of Fame.” A three-time All-Star who usually batted second, behind Lou Brock, Flood hit .293 with a .342 on-base average and 1,861 hits. He was even more noted for his center field brilliance, which resulted in seven Gold Gloves.
Flood and Tim McCarver, Cardinals co-captains, were packaged with two others in an October 1969 deal for three Phillies players, including superstar Dick Allen. A poorly run organization coming off a 99-loss season, the Phillies and their white fans had a reputation, deserved or not, for racism. Black Hall of Famer Roy Campanella said that white Philly fans “spewed racial hate” in the 1950s, and Allen, the team’s first African-American standout, wore a helmet in the field to protect from objects thrown at him in the ’60s. Flood called Philadelphia America’s “northernmost southern city,” but it was the fact of being traded, not the location, that disturbed him.
Although his suit sought lost pay and $1 million in damages, baseball union leader Marvin Miller told Flood to expect no remuneration from the courts. “Even “a win at the Supreme Court still meant a loss for Flood,” wrote Brad Snyder in A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports (2006). “But it would benefit all the players and all the players to come, wouldn’t it?” Flood asked Miller, who affirmed it would. “That’s good enough for me,” Flood said.
Many scribes objected to Flood’s use of the word “slave” in relation to the reserve clause. When broadcaster Howard Cosell, who was sympathetic to Flood’s case, asked how someone making $90,000 a year could be a slave, Flood said, “A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave.” Snyder wrote that Flood’s “‘well-paid slave’ remark turned America against him. The media seized on it. The public vilified him for it.” Widely read New York Daily News sports columnist Dick Young, the UPI’s Milton Richmond, and Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Dispatch were particularly hostile to Flood, although the nation’s two most respected sports columnists, Red Smith and the Los Angeles Times’ Jim Murray, backed the ex-Cardinals’ cause.
While the players’ union voted unanimously to support Flood, some other players worried that the lawsuit, if successful, would be detrimental to baseball. White stars Carl Yastrzemski, Frank Howard, Gaylord Perry and Ron Santo opposed Flood’s actions, as did ex-players Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Ralph Kiner and Bob Feller. Flood received support in court from his hero, Jackie Robinson, as well as Hank Greenberg and former (and future) owner Bill Veeck. Flood was hurt that no contemporary players attended any of the trials, not even his good friend Bob Gibson.
On June 19, 1972, the Supreme Court ruled for Kuhn and the owners by a 5-3 margin, with chief justice Warren Burger voting for the owners after initially expressing support for Flood. The ex-player may have been undercut by the poor performance of his attorney, Arthur
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Goldberg, who admitted that his argument before the High Court “was the worst argument I’ve ever made in my life.” (from page 281 of “A Well-Paid Slave by Brad Snyder). But the baseball-owner’s victory was a hollow one. John Gaherin, the owners’ chief negotiator, said, “After the Flood case, it wasn’t a question of if the reserve structure would be restructured or annihilated, but when.” In December of 1975, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, who had played the previous season without signing new contracts, were free to sign with any team they wanted, curbing the reach of the reserve clause and introducing the free agent era. Marvin Miller wrote that, “I can’t help but think both Hunter and Messersmith/McNally had to, at the appropriate time, have been influenced by the courage of a Curt Flood.”
Flood had a drinking problem that worsened with retirement, the stress of his trials, and financial setbacks — Curt Flood & Associates, his art business, went bankrupt in 1970, he had lawsuits pending against the corporation, and he was earning no steady income. He briefly returned to baseball, playing 13 games with the Washington Senators in 1971, but the time off and the drinking had corrupted his body and eroded his skills. “Flood has to have the oldest 33-year-old body I’ve ever examined,” Senators team doctor George Resta said. Flood received hate mail and death threats for his lawsuit against baseball, and one day found a black funeral wreath, a symbol of death, hanging in his locker. Later, broke, he struggled to find employment in baseball. “Although he denied it at the time, he had been blacklisted,” Snyder wrote. Within a few years of the Supreme Court decision, his crusade for player freedom was largely forgotten. Many young players had no idea who Curt Flood was and what he’d sacrificed.
Flood received a much-needed boost to his psyche when a Busch Stadium crowd gave him a standing ovation on June 9, 1978. “Cardinal Nation loved Flood,” Snyder wrote in A Well-Paid Slave. “And Flood loved the Cardinals.” For years, Marvin Miller had told players whom they had to thank for the 10-and-5 rule (any player with 10 years of major league service and five years with the same team could not be traded without his consent), their high salaries, and various other benefits. “Curt Flood got you these things,” he’d say. In 1986, Flood finally got sober. On Dec. 6, 1994, he met with 80 striking players in Atlanta and received another standing ovation from a crowd that included Paul Molitor, Eddie Murray and Kirby Puckett.
When he died too young (barely 59) of throat cancer in 1997, Flood received eulogies at his funeral by political columnist George Will and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, among others. “Don’t cry for long, Curt Flood is the winner,” Jackson told the 300 people in attendance. “Baseball is better. And people are better … Thank God that Curt Flood came this way.”