The date was January 16th, 1970.
A lawsuit was filed against Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn and MLB, alleging violation of federal antitrust laws. And the person who filed the lawsuit?
St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood.
In 1972, Flood v. Kuhn went to the Supreme Court, where the judges ruled 5-3 in Kuhn’s favor. And while Flood was still an active player, the case essentially led to him being blackballed from Major League Baseball for the remainder of his life. However, the case also changed the landscape of free agency, labor agreements, and reserve clauses forever.
And on this edition of The Cooperstown Case, it’s time to delve into the case of the man who stood up to the system and in doing so, made a significant change. Not so much for being a player, but for being a contributor to the game.
Flood was born on January 18th, 1938 in Houston, Texas. His MLB debut came on September 9th, 1956, for the Cincinnati Redlegs (later to be known against as the Cincinnati Reds). His tenure with the Redlegs was nothing to get excited about, and eventually, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals.
That’s where his career really took off.
He batted .293, notched 1,861 hits, 636 RBI’s, turned out to be a three-time All-Star, and, as the top centerfielder for the Cardinals, won Gold Glove seven consecutive seasons, from 1963-1969. He was on three pennant-winning teams with the Cardinals and earned two World Series rings (1964, 1967). During those championship seasons, Flood played alongside future Hall of Famers Lou Brock, Bob Gibson Steve Carlton, Orlando Cepeda, and Red Schoendienst. In1968, dubbed “The Year of the Pitcher”, Flood actually finished fourth in the MVP voting. The award would be given to his teammate Gibson.
As 1969 rolled around, things began to change. Flood had clashes with management multiple times, and his overall production dipped. Nevertheless, he was still a constant part of the Cardinals’ team during the season.
Following the 1969 season, the Cardinals traded Flood, along with Tim McCarver, Byron Browne, and Joe Hoerner, to the Phillies for Dick Allen, Jerry Johnson, and Cookie Rojas. Back then, it was simple: you play for a team, then you play for that same team the next season (unless traded). Free agency was not a thing, and players accepted their fate(s) and went to their new teams, minding their own business.
Flood would have none of that.
He sent a letter to commissioner Kuhn detailing his wishes and frustrations:
December 24, 1969
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.
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.
The commissioner denied his request, and Flood, who compared the situation to slavery, sued MLB (as stated above).
Flood v. Kuhn (407 U.S. 258) was argued before the Supreme Court on March 20, 1972. Flood’s attorney, former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, asserted that the reserve clause depressed wages and limited players to one team for life. On the other side, Major League Baseball’s counsel countered that Commissioner Kuhn had acted for “the good of the game”.
On June 19, 1972, the Supreme Court, invoking the principle of stare decisis (“to stand by things decided”), ruled 5-3 in favor of Major League Baseball, citing as precedent a 1922 ruling in Federal Baseball Club v. National League (259 U.S. 200). Justice Lewis Powell recused himself owing to his ownership of stock in Anheuser-Busch, which owned the Cardinals.
After the lost case, Flood played for the Washington Senators in 1971, but then his career faltered. Also stated above was the after-effect that him taking MLB to the Supreme Court really did… among other things, it blacklisted him from baseball. Not many players testified in court on behalf of Flood, possibly owing to their own potential risk of blacklisting. Some, such as Joe Garagiola, later in life expressed regret not standing by Flood’s side.
Despite losing the case, all was not lost in regards to free agency. In 1976, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally won their arbitration cases and became free agents.
He spent the last part of his life dealing which throat cancer and pneumonia, eventually succumbing to the illnesses in 1997 at the age of 59.
On October 7th, 2020, James Clyborn and David Trone from The Washington Post wrote an editorial about how Flood should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame owing to his contributions as aa game-changer off the field (you can read it here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/10/07/curt-flood-baseball-hall-of-fame/). In addition, in 2020, 102 members of the U.S. Congress wrote a letter to the Baseball Hall of Fame, which was co-signed by the Players’ unions from the NFL, NHL, NBA as well as MLS, petitioning for Flood to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Although he is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame, he was recognized in 2015 as the newest inductee into the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame. Decades later, Flood’s courage and determination to make a change against injustice remains an inspiring motion by an athlete.
(PHOTO: Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images)