Legacies: Lives lived / past progressive – Curt Flood

Curt Flood, outfielder of the St. Louis Cardinals, poses in Tampa, Fla., during spring training on May 16, 1965. (AP Photo)

(Feb. 2) – CURT FLOOD, the all-star centerfielder who was the first major league baseball player to challenge the owners’ control of the game and paved the way for free agency, died January 20 in Los Angeles at the age of 59. He died of pneumonia related to the throat cancer which struck him last year.

Flood spent most of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals, where he was considered the finest-fielding outfielder in an era which included Willie Mays. He set a record, playing 226 consecutive errorless games, and once went an entire season, in 1966, without an error. He won the Gold Glove for best fielding seven years in a row, batted over .300 six times, and played in the World Series in 1964, 1967 and 1968.

In 1969 the Cardinals sought to trade him to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood refused to report, instead filing a lawsuit challenging the “reserve clause” which was then standard in every player’s contract, under which team owners had an absolute right to dispose of their services. As Flood said at the time, players were “treated like pieces of property.” [I have appended the letter below – TS]

The result was that players had virtually no bargaining power and were grossly underpaid compared to the revenues they generated for the owners. Flood, for example, a perennial all-star on a championship team owned by brewing magnate August Busch, never made more than $90,000 a year.

Congress had exempted major league baseball from antitrust laws in 1922, and this exemption had been construed to legalize the reserve clause. A US District Court ruled against Flood after a 1970 trial, and the case was unsuccessfully appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which backed the owners on a 5-3 vote.

A second legal challenge to the reserve clause, brought by California Angels pitcher Andy Messersmith, was ultimately successful, and free agency became the norm for all professional athletes. But this came too late for Curt Flood, whose career essentially ended when he filed his lawsuit. He sat out the 1970 season, then quit the Washington Senators after a few weeks in 1971 and never played again.

While most players of his caliber have been offered positions at one level or another of baseball management after their playing days are over, Flood was a pariah to the owners. He never worked as a scout, coach, manager or instructor. After living abroad for a number of years, Flood returned to the United States and operated a youth center in Los Angeles.


Curtis Flood’s letter

On Dec. 24, 1969, Curtis Flood sent Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn a simply worded letter making his desires clear.

Dear Mr. Kuhn:

After 12 years in the major leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system that 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 from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decisions.

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.


Curt Flood

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