Why this is the year baseball should correct its mistake and put Curt Flood in the Hall of Fame
Credit: The Washington Post, James E. Clyburn and David Trone
We write as baseball fans with a fondness for the game during the 1960s, when it provided a great escape in that turbulent time. In particular, we share an admiration for former St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood. He won seven consecutive Gold Glove awards, was a three-time all-star and played an instrumental role in the Cardinals’ winning three National League pennants and two World Series titles.
Flood might have been on track for a Hall of Fame career if it hadn’t been cut short because he took a principled stand on Oct. 7, 1969, and refused to be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Baseball never forgave Flood for asserting his rights and challenging the long-established order. He played only 13 more games in the big leagues. But his inspiring example has echoed down the years and helped shape the way today’s players are compensated and treated.
The induction of Flood into the baseball Hall of Fame is long overdue. The organization’s Golden Days committee should vote to induct Flood when it meets in December. The committee exists to consider those who made significant contributions to the sport between 1950 and 1969, including players no longer eligible for election by baseball writers. Flood certainly merits a plaque in Cooperstown.
It is difficult to exaggerate the stunning effect of Flood’s refusal to be traded on Major League Baseball. The late 1960s were a stirring time of African American athletes making powerful statements — heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali in 1967 refusing the military draft for the Vietnam War, citing his religious beliefs and going to jail instead; Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in the Black Power salute at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City in 1968. Now, here was Flood insisting on his right not to be treated like a commodity.
Since 1922, when a congressionally mandated antitrust exemption was decided by the Supreme Court, professional baseball players had been bound to their teams by a contract “reserve clause” that essentially bound them to a single team, with no negotiating rights. Players could be discarded or traded at will.
Flood was 31 and could probably play for only a few more years at the highest level, but he nonetheless dug in for a long fight. In December 1969, he wrote a scathing letter to MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, demanding free agency. “After twelve years in the Major Leagues,” Flood wrote, “I do not feel that 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.”
Backed by baseball players union leader Marvin Miller, Flood filed a lawsuit in January 1970 challenging the reserve clause. The suit reached the Supreme Court in 1972, where Flood lost in a 5-to-3 decision. The justices acknowledged that the suit had merit, but the antitrust exemption prevailed.
Flood might have been rebuffed by the court, but he had shaken up baseball — and emboldened other players to challenge the status quo. Three years later, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Andy Messersmith and Montreal Expos pitcher Dave McNally, again with Miller’s guidance, challenged baseball’s reserve clause. A labor arbitrator sided with them, and in that instant, the major leagues were transformed and Flood’s dream realized: free agency for players, unshackled from the reserve clause.
The impact of Flood’s efforts reverberate today. Last December, half a century after Flood sent his letter to Kuhn, pitcher Gerrit Cole appeared at a news conference announcing his signing with the New York Yankees a nine-year contract for $324 million. Cole went out of his way to praise Flood, saying, “I want everybody to know, because challenging the reserve clause was one of the first stepping stones to ultimately the system we have today.”
Cole also tipped his cap to Miller — long reviled in baseball’s front offices, who less than two weeks earlier had been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. When this December rolls around, it will draw to a close a year when the nation recognized as never before that Black lives matter and Black legacies should be honored. Inducting Flood into the Hall of Fame would be a fitting tribute to an African American player who stood up for what was right, even though he knew there would be consequences for him. It took courage and guts — something we could use more of today.