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Curt Flood (1938–1997)

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Curt Flood in 1969, his last year with the St. Louis Cardinals. When the team attempted to trade him after the season had ended, Flood initiated a lawsuit that eventually led to player free agency.

Curt Flood spent most of his baseball career with the St. Louis Cardinals, playing center field for them from 1958 to 1969. A three-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove recipient, he played on three National League pennant winners, two of which also won World Series titles. Flood is best remembered, however, for his lawsuit challenging Major League Baseball’s reserve clause. Although he lost his case before the Supreme Court in 1972, Flood’s lawsuit paved the way for player free agency, which radically changed the economics and culture of baseball and other professional sports.

Born on January 18, 1938, in Houston, Texas, Curtis Charles Flood grew up in Oakland, California, as the youngest of Herman and Laura Flood’s six children. Far from wealthy, his parents worked long hours in low-paying jobs to keep the family out of poverty. Despite these challenges, they supported Flood when he demonstrated early talent for both athletics and art. Teachers and coaches became important mentors as well, and continued to inspire him long after he had left Oakland.

Flood signed his first baseball contract with the Cincinnati Reds at age seventeen and reported in 1956 for spring training at Tampa, Florida, deep in the Jim Crow South. Expecting a room in the Reds’ upscale hotel, he was instead hurried out a side door and driven to a boardinghouse, where the organization’s black players were forced to live in segregated quarters. More painful experiences awaited him during his minor-league seasons in North Carolina and Georgia, where he faced hostile crowds even at his home ballparks and was barred from restaurants and gas station restrooms when the team’s bus stopped on road trips. Often lonely and miserable, Flood nevertheless excelled on the field, earning late-season call-ups to Cincinnati in 1956 and 1957 to play in his first few major-league games.

After the 1957 season, the Reds traded Flood to St. Louis. Although stung by the unexpected move, he dutifully reported to the Cardinals, a slumping franchise that had not won a pennant since 1946. Among the reasons for the team’s decline was its belated effort to sign African American players. Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color line in 1947, but the Cardinals did not field their first black player until 1954 and still had not acquired an exceptional black player by the time Flood arrived in 1958. Meanwhile, teams with black stars—the Dodgers with Robinson and Roy Campanella, the Giants with Willie Mays, and the Braves with Hank Aaron—had won every National League pennant since 1951. In earning a spot on the St. Louis roster, Flood, joined a year later by first baseman Bill White and pitcher Bob Gibson, would be among the first blacks to succeed with the Cardinals.

The team improved over the next several seasons, and Flood established himself in center field. In 1964 the Cardinals, sparked by a midseason trade for another talented black outfielder, Lou Brock, ended their championship drought in dramatic fashion, finishing atop the National League standings by erasing the Philadelphia Phillies’ six-and-a-half-game lead with just twelve games left to play. They then defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series. St. Louis reached the World Series again in 1967, beating the Boston Red Sox, and 1968, falling to the Detroit Tigers.

Flood reached his peak in these years. Listed at just five feet, nine inches tall and 165 pounds, he was not a home run hitter, but he regularly batted over .300 and became known as perhaps the best defensive center fielder in baseball. Other Cardinals credited him with being a consummate teammate, and he was named a team co-captain in 1966. Flood, they said, was one of the players who did the most to ensure a unified clubhouse characterized by interracial harmony, which may have helped St. Louis finish ahead of other teams that were less cohesive. 

Flood’s civic conscience grew alongside his career during the turbulent 1960s. With other black athletes, he spoke at an NAACP civil rights conference in Mississippi in 1962. He fought his own personal battle with racism two years later when he and his wife, Beverly, overcame opposition in integrating a northern California suburb, Alamo, where the Floods wanted to live in the off-season. The decade’s winds of change swept even into the staid ranks of professional baseball. While the sport thrived, the typical player’s salary was not keeping pace with team owners’ profits. Seeking a stronger leader for their toothless union, the Major League Baseball Players Association, the players hired Marvin Miller, a seasoned United Steelworkers labor negotiator, in 1966. Under Miller’s guidance, the union began to win more concessions from the owners, but conflict grew between the two sides.   

By 1968, Flood and the Cardinals stood at baseball’s pinnacle. Defending their 1967 championship, they cruised to a second straight pennant and then won three of the first four games in the 1968 World Series to stand one victory away from repeating as world champions. But Detroit rallied in the next two games to tie the series, forcing a winner-take-all Game Seven. The seventh game reached the seventh inning with the two teams locked in a scoreless pitcher’s duel when Flood uncharacteristically misplayed a ball in center field. It proved to be one of the costliest mistakes in the Cardinals’ history, allowing the deciding runs to score in a 4–1 Tigers victory.

Hopes of bouncing back in 1969 fell flat as the Cardinals floundered to a fourth-place finish. Flood blamed the team’s owner, August “Gussie” Busch, for crippling morale with a tirade unleashed during a rare meeting with his players before the start of the season. Busch’s fury had been roused by demands from the players and their union. The strong-willed beer executive, who had insisted that the Cardinals become racially integrated after Anheuser-Busch purchased the team in 1953, held less progressive views when it came to labor issues involving the players. His team was the highest-paid in baseball, and he particularly resented the salary demands of several Cardinals, including Flood, whose $90,000 salary was second on the roster only to superstar Bob Gibson’s.

Flood had a solid season in 1969, winning his seventh Gold Glove, but at thirty-one he had reached an age when many players’ physical abilities soon start to decline. Off the field, he was burdened by growing personal troubles. He was now divorced from Beverly, and in following his artistic aspirations, Flood had overextended himself with an off-season portrait painting business and a photography studio, both of which were soon struggling. One of his biographers later offered evidence that the portrait business was fraudulent—the paintings Flood signed may have been the work of a California artist whom he was paying in secret. Accounts of his life at this time also suggest the beginnings of a problem with alcohol that would grow worse in the following years.

His troubles increased after the 1969 season when, having worn out his welcome with Busch, he was traded along with three other Cardinals to Philadelphia. Flood had been traded once before, but he had changed in the twelve years since his arrival in St. Louis. He had put down roots in the city and honed a conscience that could not accept being forced to leave it for a place he had not chosen. This time he would not go quietly. Rejecting the trade, Flood instead approached Marvin Miller and the players’ union, which agreed to support him in a lawsuit against Major League Baseball.

In Flood, the union found what it had been looking for: someone willing to challenge baseball’s reserve clause. A standard provision in every player’s contract, the clause allowed each owner to reserve players for his own team, renewing their contracts for another season each time the current contracts expired. A player therefore could never negotiate with other teams: he accepted his owner’s contract offer, or no offer at all. But while a player could not sign with another team, an owner could trade a player, and the new team then held all the same rights over the player’s contract. The reserve clause was a special exemption from antitrust law, established in a 1922 case in which the US Supreme Court sanctioned the owners’ argument that tight control over the movement of players was necessary to prevent the wealthiest teams from outbidding everyone else for the best players. Subsequent court challenges had exposed weaknesses in that argument, but the reserve clause remained intact.        

Flood’s lawsuit, filed on January 16, 1970, contended that the reserve clause violated constitutional protection against involuntary servitude by imposing unjustifiable restraints on his freedom to choose his own employer. Flood controversially likened his situation to slavery, causing a backlash among fans and sportswriters whose image of a slave did not extend to someone making $90,000 a year to play baseball. But his case was seen by many others as an extension of battles fought by the civil rights movement. A representative of the players’ union even asked Flood if he was suing baseball because he was black. Flood replied that although his experiences might have made him more sensitive to injustice than the average white player, he was bringing suit as a major-league baseball player, not as a black man.

Federal district and appellate courts ruled against Flood in 1970 and 1971, but his attorneys continued to appeal the case. Meanwhile, he sat out the 1970 season. With no baseball salary and his other businesses failing, Flood’s financial difficulties mounted. His contract rights were acquired from Philadelphia by the Washington Senators, and Flood, in need of money, signed with the Senators in 1971. But his return to the field was a disaster: his skills had faded, and after playing in just thirteen games, Flood quit, ending his major-league career.

In 1972 the Supreme Court heard Flood’s case, but its June 19 decision upheld the lower court rulings. Yet the majority opinion in Flood v. Kuhn (named for Bowie Kuhn, baseball’s commissioner) rested merely on reluctance to overturn legal precedent and all but invited new legislation to resolve the growing conflicts between players and owners over the reserve clause and other issues, which had led to a players’ strike that delayed the start of the 1972 season. To avoid legislation, the owners were forced to accept independent arbitration in settling contract disputes. In 1973 the two sides also agreed to a compromise, later known as the “Curt Flood Rule,” which protected players who had been with their current team for at least five years and in the major leagues for at least ten from being traded without their consent.

The final blow to the reserve clause came in 1975 when an independent arbitrator ruled in favor of two players who had again challenged its legality. A federal appeals court upheld the ruling, and in 1976 Andy Messersmith became baseball’s first free agent, able to negotiate with any team that wanted to employ him. Baseball players had won a basic freedom held by workers in other professions. Despite fears that free agency would harm the sport, Major League Baseball remained broadly competitive in the years that followed, with twelve different teams winning the World Series in the fifteen seasons from 1976 to 1990. Attendance increased and broadcasting revenues expanded, more than covering the rising cost of player salaries, which grew nearly twenty-five times larger over the first twenty years of the free agency era.      


For Flood, who did not personally share in these gains, the victory came at a price. Cut loose from baseball, he struggled to make a living and descended into alcoholism. Yet after a lost decade in the 1970s, Flood steadied himself, undergoing rehabilitation, remarrying, and finding work promoting youth baseball in his hometown of Oakland. By his death on January 20, 1997, Flood had lived long enough to begin receiving accolades that had been slow in coming. “Too late to benefit him,” wrote columnist George Will in 1993, “his cause prevailed. The national pastime is clearly better because of that. But more important, so is the nation, because it has learned one more valuable lesson about the foolishness of fearing freedom.” After his death, Flood was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2013 and the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2015. Although he is not enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, he is widely recognized as a pivotal figure in the history of professional sports.