Fifty years later, Curt Flood’s sacrifice should still be celebrated
Supreme Court’s rejection of Flood’s challenge to MLB’s reserve clause on June 19, 1972, coincides with the Juneteenth observance
On Sunday, the nation will celebrate Juneteenth, the date when slaves in Texas were told they were free. For me, June 19 also represents a significant event in sports history.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court rejecting Curt Flood’s suit that sought to liberate MLB players from the reserve clause.
Both dates are troublesome in their own way. Juneteenth celebrates a long overdue end to exploitation. On June 19, 1865, Union troops arrived and announced to more than a quarter-million illegally enslaved Black people in places such as Galveston Bay, Texas, that they had been free — for the past two years. Juneteenth is the celebration of an overdue freedom.
Flood’s loss at the Supreme Court level in 1972 was a stinging rebuke to a courageous player who dared to attack a deeply entrenched system of sports bondage. Under the reserve clause, players were tied to their teams until the clubs decided otherwise. Baseball players eventually won their freedom. In 1975, an arbitrator ruled that two white pitchers, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, could negotiate with any team as free agents. While Messersmith and McNally were hailed, the hero of free agency was Flood.
I was a Curt Flood fan. After Willie Mays, Flood was my favorite center fielder.
In 1968, Sports Illustrated called Flood baseball’s best center fielder. He started for 10 seasons in St. Louis, including the Cardinals’ World Series-winning teams of 1964 and 1967. Flood was a genius-level defensive player and at one point carried a 223-game errorless streak.
But Flood’s greatest contribution to the game was challenging MLB power structure and status quo.
After the 1969 season, Flood was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood refused to accept a trade but the terms of baseball’s reserve clause required him to play for Philadelphia. The reserve clause said that once a player was drafted, that player became the sole property of team ownership and therefore had no ability to negotiate a contract and was not entitled to any bargaining rights. A player could refuse to play, but then he was forbidden from playing for any other team.
Flood, backed by the Major League Baseball Players Association, sued commissioner Bowie Kuhn and MLB, arguing that the reserve clause reduced competition and thus was an antitrust violation.
Flood’s famous letter to Kuhn in December 1969 was the opening assault on baseball’s chokehold on the players. He 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 several States.”
Flood added: “It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decision. 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.”
Recently, I looked through the transcripts of a 1991 interview with Flood recorded for a documentary I wrote called The Journey of the African American Athlete. During the hourlong interview, Flood offered a number of eye-opening insights about this period of his life in baseball. I understood why baseball put him on its permanent “no-fly” lists.
He compared the MLB under the reserve clause to sharecropping: “The same system that they used in the South where the plantation owner owned all the houses that you live in. And you worked for him and you shopped in his store and you never got over the hump.”
Flood was largely on his own. While the players’ association supported Flood financially, no major current players would openly support Flood. Retired baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson testified on Flood’s behalf.
Still, on June 19, 1972, the Supreme Court rejected Flood’s argument.
During that same interview, Flood said that he was crushed. He called the decision “A very sharp knife into very tender places in my heart.”
Flood lost the case, but his bold stance encouraged other players to fight for free agency.
During the interview, Flood said he had mixed emotions about the arbitrator’s ruling. “It pleased me that it was finally falling on the side of the baseball player who truly gives up his body for this profession,” he said. “But it disappointed me because I argued the same issues.”
Flood hinted that had he been white, he may have prevailed. “It disappointed me that I didn’t win, but I had to feel that somewhere in that equation, America was showing its racism again,” Flood said. “They were just merely waiting for someone else to win that case, and that’s kind of too bad.”
Flood took on baseball and paid the price. Marvin Miller, the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, warned Flood that if he went ahead with the suit, he would never manage and there would be no Hall of Fame.
“As an organization, and as a player fraternity, we’ve been fortunate to have trailblazers that have been willing to challenge the status quo, even if challenging the status quo wasn’t necessarily going to benefit them,” Tony Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said Tuesday.
Clark said even the Supreme Court decision against Flood was useful. He also said the association would continue to champion Flood for the Hall of Fame.
“That challenge of the status of the quo set the stage for everything that has happened since,” Clark said. “Continuing to have that conversation, continuing to make that point and continuing to campaign on Curt’s behalf, has value and will always have value if for no other reason than to make sure he stays in the forefront of the conversation about how good things are and why things are the way they are.”
At the risk of being called the king of the lost causes, I will continue to champion the elevation of Flood to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The omission of Flood in the Hall of Fame is an embarrassment to baseball, at least it should be. But the gatekeepers — members of the Veterans Committee — remain steadfast in their apparent commitment to keeping Flood out.
Flood was a game-changer. His act of courage in 1969 was one of three significant acts of defiance by Black athletes at the time. In 1967, Muhammad Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army; in 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos demonstrated on the victory stand at the Mexico City Games. Each of those athletes sacrificed their careers to try to advance the cause of human rights.
Flood’s courageous stand in 1969 cracked baseball’s foundation, and in 1975 the walls came tumbling down. All this because Flood stood up and said, “enough.”
When he took on the MLB, Flood was elevated, in my eyes, to Ali-like stature for risking a career for principle. During that 1991 interview, Flood said that over time he began to realize the impact that his sacrifice had made.
“The longer that I’m away from the game, the more I know what I did was truly a wonderful and great thing for the athlete and for baseball itself,” Flood said. “Looking back on it, it was truly worth it.”
Flood died in 1997 at the age of 59 from throat cancer. Free agency transformed baseball, indeed all sports, for the better.
Juneteenth celebrates a wrong that was righted; the Supreme Court ruling reminds me that a wrong has not yet been corrected. One day, Flood will be enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame. When that day comes, like Juneteenth, we will celebrate the bestowment of a right withheld and long overdue.