The Saga of Curt Flood, 'A Well-Paid Slave'

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With spring training starting up this week, what better time is there to look back at the one man who did more to transform the sport, and all professional sports, for that matter, than a native Houstonian by the name of Curt Flood. Odds are that most people, most Houstonians, most baseball fans, don’t remember this man named Curt Flood. It'll actually be surprising if most professional athletes now playing even know Curt Flood, and their riches are largely the result of his efforts.

Born in 1938, Flood spent most of his early life in California before becoming a Major League outfielder from 1956 to 1971. While playing centerfield for the St. Louis Cardinals, Flood turned into one of the game’s best players, winning seven straight Gold Gloves, going to three All Star Games and anchoring the outfield of one baseball’s best teams of the 1960s.

Following the 1969 season, Flood, along with catcher Tim McCarver and several other Cardinals, was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood had established his family and ran a business in St. Louis, and he didn’t want to go to the Phillies. But in the 1960s, players had no control over their careers — they played where they were told to play. They weren’t allowed to negotiate new contracts, weren’t allowed to choose what teams to play for and they were bound to the team even after contracts expired.

Flood refused to accept the trade. He met with Marvin Miller, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, and asked for Miller’s help to stop the trade. Miller essentially told Flood that, even if he won, he’d never play in the majors again, but Flood chose to fight, not just for himself but for his fellow players.

The plan Miller developed was to sue Major League Baseball on antitrust grounds, stating, essentially, that the reserve clause was an illegal contract clause held in place by way of improper collusion by the baseball owners, all of them agreeing to turn a blind eye and not pursue players whose contracts had otherwise expired but for the enacting of the reserve clause. Major League Baseball was not subject to antitrust laws because of a bizarre Supreme Court decision in the 1920s that held that baseball was not a single business that took place throughout the country. Miller's belief was that if he could get the antitrust clause applied to Major League Baseball, he could then get the reserve clause stricken from the books and baseball players would then be allowed to become free agents upon the expiration of their contracts.

Flood received little support from his fellow players, and he received almost no support from the public. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, where once again, in another of the most bizarre opinions ever written, Flood lost by a 5-3 vote — the essence of the Court's opinion was that the reserve clause was illegal but that since MLB wasn't subject to antitrust laws, it was powerless to do anything. The Court opinion advised Flood and Miller to lobby Congress to take away the sport's antitrust exemption, or to go the route of collective bargaining and attempt to get rid of it that way.

(Flood was actually close to winning the case. Justice Lewis Powell, who was favorable to Flood/Miller's cause, recused himself from the case because he owned Anheuser-Busch stock, and Anheuser-Busch owned the Cardinals. And Chief Justice Warren Burger reportedly switched his vote at the last minute, going from a pro-Flood vote to a pro-baseball vote. Thus Flood went from winning 5-4 to losing 5-3).

Flood sat out the 1970 season, but attempted a comeback in 1971 after the Phillies traded his rights to the Washington Senators. But he was never able to get back into playing shape, and he and manager Ted Williams clashed time and time again. Flood’s comeback ended after ten games, and he was out of baseball and quickly forgotten.

Marvin Miller took what he learned from the Flood defeat and, through the use of collective bargaining, earned free agency for baseball players in 1976. Soon after, free agency hit the NBA, the NHL and, to a lesser extent, the NFL. Players started to earn huge salaries, attendance and TV ratings soared, and more and more teams suddenly found it possible to play for championships. And as Miller said often, none of this would have been possible but for Flood risking his career.

At the height of his battle, Flood spoke to sportscaster Howard Cosell. When Cosell noted that Flood was making $90,000 a year, much more than lots of the fans, Flood told Cosell, "A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave." But Cosell, who was sympathetic to Flood's argument (as he had been with Muhammad Ali when Ali became a Muslim, then went to the Supreme Court to prevent being drafted into the Army), reminded Flood that he couldn't generate fan support while he and his fellow players were making what most people considered to be generous salaries.

Flood was a man of strong opinions who strongly believed he was right. He'd stood on the lines in the Deep South with Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson, and he'd fought his own individual battles for equal rights in the civilian non-baseball world. So when Cosell continued pushing him on the slavey and fan support topic, Flood pushed back, responding that if "people think slavery is all right as long the money's okay, then maybe [the players] won't [earn that support]."

(Quotes come from page 104 of Brad Snyder's A Well-Paid Slave, which documented Flood's fight with Major League Baseball.)

Flood moved to Europe after he lost his battles with baseball, owning a bar for a short time in Spain. .But there his demons caught up with him. A heavy drinker while a player, he quickly became an alcoholic. At one time he'd been celebrated as a portrait painter, but it later came out that the paintings were done by someone else, with Flood being allowed to take the credit. While in Europe, he stopped paying child support. And for a while he was even committed to a psychiatric hospital. 

But by 1992, Flood was back in the United States, had defeated the demons and he finally received some well-earned recognition when he was awarded the NAACP’s Jackie Robinson Award for contributions to black athletes. He died in January 1997 after being stricken with throat cancer, but his medical bills were paid for by the Players Association that he had helped to make so powerful.

Jackie Robinson is still remembered, rightly, every year for his battle to integrate baseball. Muhammad Ali fought racism and religious bigotry. Michael Jordan is perhaps the greatest basketball player ever. There’s Jim Brown and Magic Johnson and LeBron James and Reggie Jackson and Willie Mays. But if you think about it, sports as we know them today would be far different if Curt Flood had never pressed for the freedom to choose where he could play.

There was a book about Flood’s fight, A Well-Paid Slave, that came out about a decade ago. And HBO did a documentary on Flood back in 2011. Yet it still seems that Curt Flood, his life, his career and his battle with MLB have either been forgotten or are seldom considered.

Curt Flood wasn't the great baseball player that Willie Mays or Hank Aaron or Frank Robinson was, but only he dared to do what those giants of baseball wouldn't. He took on the powers that be of Major League baseball and professional sports. He may have lost his battle, but he set the stage for the players who came after him and won the war. 

The reserve clause is no more. Free agency is commonly accepted, and the huge sums of money earned each year by the likes of Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz and Clayton Kershaw might never have happened if Flood had just backed down and accepted a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies.

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