Curt Flood had a stellar career in Major League Baseball. The center fielder made the All-Star team three times in his career, won seven consecutive Gold Gloves and had a lifetime batting average of .293. But Flood’s numbers during his career from 1956 to 1971, all but two of them with the St. Louis Cardinals, are not the reason he is remembered. Flood, despite a set of hard challenges, almost single-handedly ushered in the era of free agency in baseball by suing the league. His battle to take control of his own career, rather than essentially being the property of a baseball team, transformed the game.
The Struggles of Free Agency
The legal battle started in 1969, when Flood rejected being traded. But really it all started long before that.
Flood was born in Houston in 1938, but his mother moved the family to Oakland, Calif., to escape the racial prejudices then rampant in the South.
As a young man, schooled by his mother on the Civil Rights movement, Flood traveled in 1962 to Mississippi to join Dr. Martin Luther King in his non-violent protests against racial bigotry. However, in 1964 he ran into prejudice back home in California, when the man he rented an apartment from barred him entry. The man had not known he was black when he rented him the apartment.
Flood had already won a World Series with the Cardinals, but couldn’t enter his own apartment. He sued and won the case, according to The Atlantic, but the experience scarred him.
It also prepared him for the legal battle to come.
Rejecting The Trade
Flood had won two World Series rings as a member of the Cardinals in 1964 and 1967. But at the end of the 1969 season, the Cardinals made a deal to trade him to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood rejected the trade and said he would not go.
He faced an uphill battle. Due to the longstanding “reserve clause,” players essentially were owned by teams. The rules, although hazily written, stated that players play the next season for the team they played for the season before.
Flood went to Marvin Miller, director of the Player’s Association, and said he wanted to sue Major League Baseball. Miller said it would cost him his career and that no team would hire him. Flood said he wanted to do it, anyway.
The Court Case
It’s important to note that Flood stood alone during his court case. No current players felt bold enough to back him, feeling they would lose their jobs. Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg, two former players, were the only two to back him publicly. They both testified for Flood in court, as did former team owner Bill Veeck.
In a letter to then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Flood wrote, “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 sovereign States.”
He asked for the right to consider offers from teams other than the Phillies. Kuhn rejected his idea.
Flood took the issue to court. Eventually, a judge in Federal District Court in New York ruled that players and teams should negotiate the “reserve clause,” which essentially kept a player tied to a team for years and years unless cut or traded. On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Flood lost the case by a 5-3 vote.
However, the district court judge’s suggestion that players and teams negotiate is exactly what happened. By the late 1970s, other players sought to end the reserve clause and seek free agency. Flood had lost the case, but opened the free agency door for future players.
Unfortunately, he reaped no benefits for himself.
Flood, already dealing with alcoholism by 1970, went into a spiral following the case. He received death threats for “trying to destroy baseball.” He sat out of the 1970 season, then joined the Washington Senators for 1971. But he quit two months into the season.
He got divorced, relocated to Spain and opened a bar. Eventually, he landed in a mental health hospital.
However, after returning to the U.S., he re-established a relationship with his children and married again. He also was honored by the NAACP in 1992 for his fight against baseball.
He died, in 1997, of throat cancer at the age of 59.
Much of his story has been captured in the HBO documentary, “The Curious Case of Curt Floyd.” While perhaps not the best-known of players – and certainly not the most beloved during the end of his playing days – Flood had more impact on the game than almost any player. He also forever changed the lives of baseball players, team owners and fans.