Curt Flood: The Story of a Well-Paid Slave

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Baseball's forgotten man
The man's name is Curt Flood. He spent a majority of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals, winning multiple Gold Gloves for his superb defensive play. He was one of the outstanding baseball players of the 1960s. But when he's remembered nowadays, he's not remembered for his play. He's remembered instead for a soul-draining off-the-field battle that he lost.

But it's this battle he lost that has done more than anything else to change the game of baseball as we know it. Because while he lost, his fellow players, many of whom were too cowardly to support him, gained a right which they'd been denied a century. The right to become a free agent at the end of their contract.

HBO's airing a documentary tonight on Flood, The Curious Case of Curt Flood. I haven't seen it, but it's one I plan on watching because Flood, who was born in Houston and grew up in California, is one of those fascinating, flawed individuals who take unpopular stands and fight for rights because that's the right thing to do while battling demons like alcohol and fraud and being, for the most part, one of the world's worst parents.

Those of you thinking that Derek Jeter is the most important thing to ever happen to baseball -- that means you watch ESPN -- might not know much about Curt Flood. So you probably don't know about his battle, a battle that began when Flood was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies following the 1969 season. Flood was established in St. Louis, a mainstay of a good team. His family was there, and he had multiple businesses in the city. But due to something known as the Reserve Clause, aided by one of the weirdest, most bizarre Supreme Court decisions this side of Bush v. Gore, he was stuck. If he wanted to play baseball, he had to play for the Phillies.

The Reserve Clause bound a player to the team, even after the contract supposedly expired. Unless a player was released or traded, he could not go to another team, no matter how miserable the player was, no matter how underpaid. The Reserve Clause made the team the owner of the player. Flood, in an interview with Howard Cosell, defined the situation as such: "A well-paid slave is, nonetheless, a slave."

Flood being interviewed by Howard Cosell
So Flood, who admired Jackie Robinson, took the unpopular stand. He didn't want to play with the Phillies, and he fought back. He got together with the new, young head of the Player's Association, Marvin Miller, and he filed a lawsuit against MLB, seeking to have the Reserve Clause invalidated. And though I haven't seen the HBO special, the odds are that most of it is centered on this court fight, a fight that his fellow players, the owners, the media and the fans didn't want him fighting.

Flood lost in the lower court, and he lost in the appellate courts, and ultimately, he lost in the Supreme Court. But amazingly, he almost snatched up the win, losing a very close decision that had a majority of justices voting to uphold the Reserve Clause, then reverse it, going back and forth before finally deciding to uphold the Reserve Clause.

Flood returned to baseball in 1971 after the Cardinals traded him to the Washington Senators. His return didn't last long, as the aging centerfielder wasn't able to recover after sitting out an entire season. Flood drifted after that. He lived in Europe. He dabbled with painting. He played the womanizer. He battled the demons of alcoholism.

But while Flood lost his personal war, it turned out to be just a battle for baseball. Miller, backed by a new generation of players who were more in the mode of Flood, and more willing to fight the baseball establishment, used collective bargaining to win the right to have arbitrators not associated with baseball decide matters arising out of player contracts, one such matter being the Reserve Clause. This came about as the owners agreed to the use of an arbitrator as a way to fend off the arguments that Flood was making in his suit.

Following the 1975 season, an arbitrator ruled that the Reserve Clause could only bind a player to a team for one year following the expiration of a contract, meaning that if a player refused to sign a new contract, he would be a free agent a year after the contract expired. Then, in 1976, as part of a new collective bargaining agreement, the players won the right to free agency, meaning they were no longer just well-paid slaves of the owners.

Flood died of cancer in 1997. Many of Flood's former teammates attended his funeral. George Will and Jesse Jackson spoke. But not one active player was able to make it, despite his death occurring in the offseason. And though several then-current players, like David Cone and Tom Glavine, spoke of Flood's contributions to the game, and acknowledged him as the reason they were able to make the money they do, most of the sport seems to have forgotten him.

You won't find Curt Flood in the Baseball Hall of Fame. His number's not retired by the Cardinals. It's doubtful that anybody outside of a few baseball fanatics even remembers him. But along with Jackie Robinson and Marvin Miller, there's no more important person to the history of baseball than Curt Flood. And tonight, at least, HBO remembers that he existed.

P.S.: If after tonight's documentary you want to learn more about Flood, may I recommend Brad Snyder's biography titled A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood's Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports.

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