Upon being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969, Curt Flood, an All-Star center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, wanted nothing more than to stay with St. Louis. But his only options were to report to Philadelphia or retire. Instead, Flood sued Major League Baseball for his freedom, hoping to invalidate the reserve clause in his contract, which bound a player to his team for life.
Flood took his lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court, and though he ultimately lost, his decision to sue cost him his career and a chance at the Hall of Fame. But Floods place in baseball history, like that of Jackie Robinsons, extends far beyond his accomplishments on the ballfield. Just three years later, the era of free agency that all professional athletes enjoy today became a reality.
In A Well-Paid Slave, the first extended treatment of Flood and his lawsuit, Brad Snyder examines this long-misunderstood case and its impact on professional sports. He reveals the twisted logic and behind-the-scenes vote switching behind the courts decision and explains Floods decision to sue in the context of his experiences during the civil rights movement.#
In a February 25, 2008 interview with Jerry Jazz Musician contributor Paul Hallaman, Snyder talks about this story that speaks to fans of sports history, legal affairs, and American culture.
National Baseball Hall of Fame Library
“Floods trade from St. Louis to Philadelphia reawakened latent feelings of unfairness about the reserve system. His eventual decision to act on those feelings led to the first in a series of fights for free agency that altered the landscape of professional sports. Like his hero, Jackie Robinson, Flood had the courage to take on the baseball establishment. In 1947, Robinson started a racial revolution in sports by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers as the 20th centurys first African-American major leaguer. Nearly 25 years later, Flood started an economic revolution by refusing to join the Philadelphia Phillies. The 31-year-old Flood sacrificed his own career to change the system and to benefit future generations of professional athletes. Todays athletes have some control over where they play in part because in 1969 Flood refused to continue being treated like hired help. But while Robinsons jersey has been retired in every major league ballpark, few current players today know the name Curt Flood, and even fewer know about the sacrifices he made for them.”
– Brad Snyder
A Change Is Gonna Come, by Sam Cooke
PH On October 8, 1969, on the verge of a $100,000 contract, St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood — a participant in three all star games and the winner of seven golden gloves — is traded from the Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. He didn’t want to go to Philadelphia but he had no choice. If he wanted to play baseball, he would have to do so in Philadelphia
BS That’s correct. The Cardinals did not consult Flood, he simply got a phone call from a mid-level executive who basically told him he had been traded along with Tim McCarver for Dick Allen, and that they were to report to Philadelphia. They had no choice in the matter.
PH Would you explain the reserve clause and how baseball was able to retain the exemption from the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1922?
BS Baseball’s reserve clause started in the late 19th century because players were changing from team to team and the leagues were folding. In order to create some sort of league stability, they reserved a set number of players for each team. It started out as only a handful of players, but it eventually evolved into entire teams being reserved. That was challenged several times — court cases came down on both sides about whether the reserve clause was an illegal restraint of trade or monopolistic practice.
The Sherman Antitrust Act was enacted in 1890 to prevent contracts or combinations that were a restraint of trade. But in 1922, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that baseball was not interstate commerce, it was intrastate commerce. Holmes wasn’t a baseball fan, and considered the sport to be a series of exhibitions rather than a national business. Television didn’t exist, radio was in its infancy, and there were no minor leagues, so all the interstate workings of baseball weren’t there at that time. Since Holmes said baseball was intrastate commerce rather than interstate commerce, Congress could not regulate it, and baseball was therefore exempt from the Act, which in effect made baseball exempt from the antitrust laws. In 1953, a minor leaguer named George Toolson sued under the antitrust clause. The Supreme Court took the case and ruled that they would not re-examine baseball’s exemption, saying that baseball had an express exemption.
PH Curt Flood came into the story in 1956 …
BS Yes, that was the year he graduated from Oakland [California] Technical High School, and it is when the Cincinnati Reds offered him a $5,000 contract, with no bonus, to play for them during the coming season. Curt signed the contract, but little did he know that when he signed that $5,000 contract, he had also signed his life away, because, in effect, he became a piece of property owned by the Reds forever, and the Reds could do whatever they wanted with Curt’s contract. So two years later, after Curt had two fabulous minor league seasons in the Jim Crow South, the Reds traded him to the Cardinals, but Curt had no say in the matter. He promised that he would never experience that feeling of being traded ever again.
There was no such thing as free agency at the time, and once the players signed their initial contract, they had absolutely no control over where they played, which got even worse in the mid 1960’s, when baseball implemented the draft. Once players were drafted, they had no say regarding which team they signed with. Free agency was a foreign word when Curt Flood was coming into the major leagues.
PH His experiences as a minor-leaguer in High Point, North Carolina influenced him to stand and fight when he was then traded in 1969
BS Curt Flood lived through the civil rights movement. When Dr. Martin Luther King was boycotting the bus system of Montgomery, Alabama, Curt was an 18-year-old kid from Oakland who didn’t know what southern-style segregation was. He was sent across the country to play in High Point, North Carolina, where he was one of the first black players ever in the Carolina League. It was a complete cultural shock for him. He lived apart from his teammates — he would go to the bathroom apart from his teammates, he would sleep apart from his teammates, and was completely alienated from his teammates. After about a month of this he wanted to come home, but Bobby Mattick, the major league scout who had signed him, said that he needed to stick it out, that he was not coming home. This experience really radicalized Curt because it opened his eyes to injustice, not only of the system in baseball, but to what was going on in the civil rights movement.
Despite everything he was experiencing in the South, he hit .340 in the Carolina League and was named the league’s player of the year. Following the season in High Point, he went to Savannah, Georgia, where he experienced more Jim Crow. When he got traded following that 1957 season, he experienced the injustices of the reserve clause.
He struggled as a young player with the Cardinals, but even during these struggles he fought to integrate the spring training facilities in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the black players were staying in private homes, apart from their white teammates. For a time he played for a manager, Solly Hemus, whom he and his best friend on the team, Bob Gibson, considered to be racist. Years later, in 1964 — a year in which he played in the World Series — he needed police protection to move into an Alamo, California neighborhood after the realtor who sold him the house had been threatened with a shotgun. This was in a community in which Curt didn’t think discrimination existed. So, these were all very radicalizing experiences for Curt, and he felt very strongly about standing up for himself, and for standing up against injustice, and by the time he was traded from the Cardinals to the Phillies in 1969, he was prepared to speak out.
PH Which is when he consults with the attorney Marvin Miller …
BS Yes. He decided that rather than face the decision of having to either be traded or quit the game, he would sue baseball over the reserve clause. At the suggestion of St. Louis attorney Allan Zerman, they contacted Marvin Miller, who had been executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association for about three years — he was really just getting his feet wet in baseball. They met in New York, where Marvin proceeded to tell Curt every horrible thing that was going to happen to him if he did this, that he wouldn’t ever get another job, that he would be black-balled from the game, that he will never get a job coaching, and that his association with major league baseball will be over forever. He then told Curt that, given the Supreme Court decisions of 1922 and 1953, his lawsuit was a million-to-one shot, and that even if here were to win the case, he would never see a dime because the court would not give him retroactive damages for all the contracts he signed under the reserve clause. But Curt felt that this lawsuit would benefit future players, and that was good enough for him. So, even though he knew he would lose his career over this, the inspiration he got from watching Dr. King, from the events of the civil rights movement, and from everything he experienced both in and out of the game, made him want to do go forward with the lawsuit.
PH Despite what Miller told him, Flood sent a letter to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, telling him that he didn’t feel as if he were a piece of property that could be bought and sold
BS Yes, but one very important thing happened first. In December of 1969, Curt went to Puerto Rico to discuss his plans for the lawsuit with the player representatives, who voted 22-0 to support Curt’s plan. They also agreed to pay for his legal counsel. This was a smart move on Marvin’s part because he knew that this lawsuit would affect the future of the Union, so he wanted some sort of control over how it would be managed. Curt and Marvin worked together on that letter to Kuhn, which was basically the emancipation proclamation of the major league baseball players. After Kuhn received the letter from Curt that said he didn’t feel he was a piece a property to be bought and sold irrespective of his wishes, Kuhn wrote back and basically said that it’s too bad, that is the way it has always been.
PH Right, and there is nothing you can do about it. I recently read a piece written in 1888 by John Montgomery Ward, a lawyer, player and one of the founders of the Players League, in which he said that he didn’t want to be treated as chattel. Yet 80 years later, this system remained the status quo
BS It is quite different for John Montgomery Ward, who described himself as “chattel” in 1890 as a white, Columbia-educated lawyer. It is a whole different ball of wax, when Curt Flood, on January 3rd, 1970, is asked by Howard Cosell, “What’s wrong with a guy making $90,000 a year being traded from one team to another? Those aren’t exactly slave wages.” And Curt’s response is, “A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave.” What this basically did was connect him to the civil rights and black power movements, and turned reactionary white America against Curt Flood.
PH Given the complexities of the era, it is understandable that people would be enflamed by that kind of language.
BS Absolutely. Curt Flood was playing in Richard Nixon’s America, with Phillip Roth satirizing both Nixon and Flood in “Our Gang.” Earl Warren’s Supreme Court was dead and gone at that point, so it is possible he may have had a more receptive Court, or a more receptive America, in 1964 or 1965. But by the end of 1969 and the beginning of 1970, America was tiring of the civil rights movement — they were basically saying that enough was enough, and that is what they said to Curt as well.
PH So Cosell’s comment about Flood’s salary reflected the common man’s view
BS That’s right. The common man’s view at the time was, “I’d play major league baseball for free.” Well, you really wouldn’t — everyone needs to make a living. Curt ushered in a change in baseball, but also a different way in which our society would operate. During the time of Curt’s lawsuit, people wrote for the same newspaper or the same radio station, and worked at the same job for 30 or 40 years. People would only have one or two jobs in their entire lifetime. Curt really ushered in the dawning of free agency for all of us. In A Well-Paid Slave, I quote Loren Steffy of the Houston Chronicle as writing, during the 2005 World Series, “We may not want to admit it, but there’s a little Curt Flood in all of us. If baseball is an analogy for life, then we have become a society of free agents.” People today are always looking out for a better job — why should it be any different in baseball? That is what Curt was saying, but it was a hard concept for people to grasp, especially for a major league baseball player in 1970.