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February 28, 2022

Curt Flood fought for free agency, changed pro sports

Credit: Fox Sports, RJ Young

On Dec. 18, 2019, shortly after signing his nine-year, $324 million contract to pitch for the New York YankeesGerrit Cole stood at a podium at Yankee Stadium and thanked Curt Flood.

Cole told the assembled media at his introductory news conference that he first learned who Flood was as a rookie while riding the team bus with then-Pirates teammate John Buck.

“One of his favorite things was he would call you up to the front of the bus after a few pops, and he would get in your face, and he would ask you, ‘Who’s Curt Flood?’” Cole recalled of Buck. “‘Tell me about Curt Flood! Why is he so important?’

“I hope that goes on on every bus. I want everybody to know, because challenging the reserve clause was one of the first stepping stones to ultimately the system we have today, which I believe brings out the most competitive — you know, genuine competitiveness — that we have in baseball.”

Flood is not only a man Cole has come to admire but also a historic figure to whom he owes a debt of gratitude. So, on the occasion of signing of one of the richest contracts in baseball history, a white guy from Newport Beach, California, told anyone who would listen how much he admired a Black man from Oakland.

“I just think it’s so important that players know the other sacrifices that players made in order to keep the integrity of the game where it is,” Cole said. “I hope everyone has that conversation about Curt Flood on the bus. As John Buck would say, excuse my language, ‘Get your f—ing book reports ready, kids. I want to hear about Curt Flood.’”

In 2019, Cole led the American League in ERA, strikeouts and colorful stories about the man he owes an unpayable professional debt.

I assumed Major League Baseball and, more importantly, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America would do right by Flood.

I just assumed that a quarter-century after his death, the most consequential figure in the history of sports labor law and one of the best players of his generation would have been a shoo-in for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

But after appearing on the ballot for a full 15 seasons, Flood never received more than just over 15% of votes. The threshold for admittance is 75%.

Flood was removed from the ballot in 1996 and died in 1997. He was made a candidate for the Hall thrice more — in 2003, 2005 and 2007 — by the Veterans Committee. Then, in 2021, he was considered by the Golden Days Era, one of four Era Committees that consider players who have been retired for more than 15 seasons. The Golden Days committee is responsible for selecting worthy candidates from between 1950 and 1969.

In 2020, Flood even had congressional support.

“Curt Flood changed the game of baseball when he courageously spoke truth to power in the name of what was right,” said Congressman David Trone, a Maryland Democrat. “Flood sacrificed his own career so players after him could have free agency, leaving one of the biggest impacts on the game to this day. It’s about time we all come together to recognize these distinctly American actions and induct Curt Flood into the Hall of Fame.”

Trone organized a bipartisan and bicameral coalition to foster Flood’s induction. He and 101 Congressmen signed a letter in February 2020 urging the BBWAA to induct Flood to the Hall. The letter was supported by players’ associations representing the MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS and NFL.

The players’ associations released a joint statement pleading for his induction: “Curt Flood’s historic challenge of the reserve clause a half century ago transcended baseball. He courageously sacrificed his career to take a stand for the rights of all players in professional sports, bringing the issue of free agency to the forefront of national discussion. His accomplishments on the field and off warrant induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.”

The Golden Days committee did not meet in 2020, due to the pandemic, but did in 2021. Despite another year for the committee to think through Flood’s case, he still was not selected. He will not be eligible for election again until 2026, when the Golden Days committee meets for quorum at the MLB Winter Meetings.

In all, Flood has been passed over 19 times.

After Brad Snyder’s 2006 Flood biography “A Well-Paid Slave,” the trendy hashtag #FloodToTheHall, the T-shirt campaign in 2021 and his widow, Judy Pace Flood, and son, Curt Flood Jr., going on record about what it would mean to them for Curt to enter the Hall, I thought the man would get his due, if only posthumously.

I was let down, but not shocked, to find out I was wrong.

No one holds a grudge like baseball’s establishment. Just ask Barry Bonds, Pete Rose or Roger Clemens.

While those men all have cases on the field that make them fit for admission to Cooperstown, gambling and the use of performance-enhancing drugs have made it easier to discount their accomplishments.

Flood, though, is the only player in the sport who quite literally changed how the game works and how the players are treated, as valuable employees with certain labor rights. He accomplished that feat by risking everything and gaining nothing.

For that reason, the Baseball Hall of Fame remains incomplete without him.

On Jan. 3, 1970, at ABC studios in New York, Flood sat opposite broadcaster Howard Cosell and explained why he was suing Major League Baseball in federal court to challenge its “reserve clause.”

“I don’t think there is anything more damaging to a person’s ego as a human being than to be traded or bought and sold like a piece of property,” Flood told Cosell on “Wide World of Sports.”

“It’s been written, Curt,” Cosell said, “that you’re a man who makes $90,000 a year, which isn’t exactly slave wages. What’s your retort?”

“A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave,” Flood replied.

And he stuck to that belief the rest of his career, the rest of his life.

In the Nov. 25, 1970, edition of the Washington Post, Flood said, “I have been told that my choice of words wasn’t accurate when I said I was a slave. But I think a slave is a slave if he is bought and sold outright. I believe a man should have the option to control his career at some point in his career.”

The reserve clause had been a part of baseball since 1879. It started with an agreement: National League clubs agreed to allow each of the eight teams to “reserve” players, preventing them from signing with rivals. By 1903, inserting the reserve clause into Uniform Player Contracts was standard.

In 1969, Major League Baseball allowed clubs to reserve 40 players — 25 major-leaguers and 15 minor-leaguers — making them unable to sign with other teams for the entirety of their careers.

The reserve clause stated that a team had the right to renew a player’s contract annually, and a team could automatically renew a contract for 80% of the previous season’s salary. That amounted to a one-year contract with a club option in perpetuity, with the constant threat of a 20% decrease in salary.

On Oct. 8, 1969, Flood, a St. Louis Cardinals co-captain, learned he’d been traded to the Philadelphia Phillies along with six other Cardinals via a 4 a.m. phone call from a sportswriter. It was the final straw for Flood, who had been traded once before.

While playing winter league baseball in Maracaibo, Venezuela, in 1957, Flood, suffering through dysentery, learned via telegram that he’d been traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Cardinals. After sitting in shock for half an hour, he silently vowed he would never allow himself to be traded ever again.

In January 1956, Flood signed his baseball life away for $4,000 in salary — no signing bonus — and an invitation to attend spring training with the Reds. He was 18.

His life had yet to be truly sullied by racism. But when Flood got off the plane in Tampa, Florida, for training camp a month later, he caught sight of two water fountains at baggage claim. One was marked “White” and the other “Colored.”

“For a wild instant,” Flood wrote in his 1971 autobiography “The Way It Is,” “I wondered whether the signs meant club soda or Coke.”

After spring training, he was shipped to the Carolina League, which was notorious for its racist fans. 

Flood led the league with a .340 batting average and 388 putouts as the team’s center fielder, hit a team-record 29 home runs, tied for the league lead with 190 hits, accounted for 128 runs batted in, walked 102 times and stole 29 bases.

He was the Carolina League Player of the Year. But he was made to feel like anything but. He lost 30 pounds that season.

Baseball wasn’t fun then. It was his job.

Between games, he ate, used the bathroom and slept apart from his teammates. The team bus dropped him off in the Black part of every town, and Flood was left to fend for himself.

When he played on the road, he’d break down and cry. Flood’s letters home were heartbreaking.

“It’s hell down here,” he wrote, according to a March 1965 article in Sport magazine titled “Curt Flood in the Midnight League.” “I didn’t know that people could act like this. The home fans are swell to me, but on the road, they are all on me all the time. … I don’t know how long I can take it.”

He poured out his sorrow to his sister, Barbara. “I wanted to be free of these animals whose 50-cent bleacher ticket was a license to curse my color and deny my humanity. I want to be free of imbeciles on my ball team.”

Flood was facing what his hero, Jackie Robinson, had faced, and Flood was beginning to understand that being among the first to follow a pioneer wasn’t much better. What was supposed to be a game became a test of his measure to put up with the worst treatment white people could heap upon him. While playing as a Hi-Tom — an unfortunate team nickname — he wore Robinson’s No. 42 like a family crest.

Flood spent the next season in the Sally League. Henry Aaron integrated it at great personal cost in 1953, but the league kept its reputation for being the most hostile minor league in the country. Flood was not thrilled when he arrived to play in Savannah.

“When I saw how uptight the Black community was, and how hostile whites were,” Flood wrote in “The Way It Is,” “I realized that Cincinnati had arranged another full dose for me.”

A local law made it illegal for Flood to dress in the same clubhouse as his teammates. The team equipment manager sent his clothes to be laundered by Black folks 20 minutes from the clubhouse. He once sat alone, naked, waiting for his uniform as his teammates went about playing the game.

As was the case in North Carolina, between games Flood ate, used the bathroom and slept apart from his teammates.

Despite his struggles, he hit .299 and made two Sally League All-Star teams. At the end of the 1956 season, the Reds called him up to the big leagues. Flood’s first hit in the majors was a two-run homer off Chicago Cubs right-hander Moe Drabowsky down the left-field foul line.

After the season, the Reds forced Flood to play winter ball in Venezuela to learn to play second base. The idea was that he’d try to make the big club’s roster in the spring of ’57 as a second baseman. 

Then came the trade. But it wasn’t Flood’s play that spurred the deal. It was that the Reds didn’t have the stomach for the vitriol that would follow if he couldn’t play second.

Flood faced racism again with the Cardinals. One igniting incident occurred in spring training 1961, when star Black player Bill White saw a list of players invited to a “Salute to Baseball” breakfast at a local yacht club sponsored by the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce. 

Not a single Black player had been invited, but outfielder Doug Clemens, who had played in exactly one game in his entire major-league career and had recorded not a single at-bat, had been. White found Associated Press reporter Joe Reichler and unburdened himself.

“When will we be made to feel like humans?” White was quoted as saying in the March 9, 1961, edition of the St. Petersburg Times. “They invited all but the colored players. Even the kids who never have come to bat once in the big leagues received invitations — that is, if they were white. 

“How much longer must we accept this without saying a word? This thing keeps gnawing away at my heart. I think about this every minute of the day.”

Flood took the grievance to Cardinals owner and beer magnate Gussie Busch, even mentioning that he and other Black players were not allowed to stay at the St. Petersburg Vinoy Park Hotel with their white teammates. The Black players had to stay in various boarding houses in the Black part of St. Petersburg.

Flood recounted a conversation he had with Busch for Ken Burns’ landmark documentary series, “Baseball.”

According to Flood, Busch said, “Do you mean to tell me that you’re not staying here at the hotel with the rest of the fellas?”

“Mr. Busch,” Flood said, “don’t you know that we’re staying about five miles outside of town in the Negro section?”

On July 31, 1961, the MLB Players Association sent a resolution to the owners demanding that Black players be treated as “first class citizens” everywhere Major League Baseball had business. The Cardinals did not return to the Vinoy Park Hotel in 1962, and Busch found integrated housing for his team at the Skyline Motel and Outrigger Hotel for spring training in St. Petersburg. 

It was Flood’s first real taste of being an activated Black man in the Civil Rights Movement, and he stayed active in the movement.

The next year, 1964, Flood became a tidal force on the diamond. He batted .311, led the National League with 211 hits — his second season of 200 or more hits — won his second consecutive Gold Glove, earned selection to the first All-Star team of his career and helped the Cardinals win the World Series.

Over the course of his career, Flood hit .293, made three All-Star teams and won three NL pennants and seven Gold Gloves. In 15 years in the bigs, he batted over .300 six times, helped the Cardinals win the World Series in ‘67 and ‘68 and was on a pace to be recognized as one of the best defensive outfielders in the game’s history.

He was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1968 with the title “Baseball’s Best Centerfielder,” and he was paid in the neighborhood of the game’s best.

In 1969, Flood ranked among the 15 highest-paid players in the game, making $90,000. Willie Mays was the game’s highest-paid player, at $135,000.

On Oct. 7, 1969, 12 years after the Reds traded him with a telegram, the Cardinals dealt Flood to the Phillies. He’d been a Cardinal since 1958 — all but eight games of his major-league career. He learned he was traded from a reporter seeking comment on his becoming a Phillie.

“If I had been a foot-shuffling Porter,” Flood wrote in “The Way It Is,” “they might at least have given me a pocket watch.”

He didn’t want to be traded, certainly not without his say-so, but there was no such thing as a no-trade clause — only the reserve clause. Everyone got traded then, from Jackie Robinson to Henry Aaron to Willie Mays.

But Flood decided, no, I’m a man, and I’m no man’s property.

He called his personal attorney and asked what he could do. Allan Zerman told him the only way to void the trade was to fight it in federal court. Two weeks after the “Miracle Mets” won the 1969 World Series, Flood called Marvin Miller, the executive director of the MLB Players Association.

“I would like to talk with you about the reserve rules,” Flood told Miller, according to Miller’s autobiography, “A Whole Different Ball Game,” “and the possibility of a lawsuit against baseball under the antitrust laws, or any other options I might have.”

“When I hung up the phone,” Miller wrote, “I knew Flood wasn’t fooling around. That much was evident from the grave tone in his voice. No, clearly, he was a man on a mission.”

Along with MLBPA general counsel Dick Moss, Miller met with Flood and Zerman on Nov. 25, 1969, at New York’s Summit Hotel. Miller, an economist by trade, laid out the facts Flood faced if he challenged MLB.

After the passing of the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act, created to ban monopolies and promote competition, MLB held the last legal major monopoly in America, holding an antitrust distinction created by the U.S. Supreme Court based on three cases and a colorful reading of the U.S. Constitution. 

Miller recounted his conversation with Flood for Snyder: “It’s a million-to-one shot, but even if that million-to-one shot comes home, you’re not going to get any damages retroactively to a ballplayer.”

Flood would be throwing away nearly $300,000 in future earnings, and the court was not likely to reach a decision until he was 34 years old — if his case even made it to the Supreme Court.

“But it would benefit all of the other players and all the players to come, wouldn’t it?” Flood asked.

When Miller said it would, Flood replied, “That’s good enough for me.”

The 25 player representatives for the players’ association voted unanimously to support Flood on Dec. 13, 1969, agreeing to pay his legal fees as long as the association got to pick his attorney in the case and Flood committed to see the suit through to the end — no settling out of court.

Miller hired former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg to represent Flood, and Goldberg argued on Flood’s behalf at the federal level, court of appeals and Supreme Court. Jackie Robinson testified on Flood’s behalf, as did former MLB owner Bill Veeck.

But none of the game’s other great Black players chose to support — let alone testify for — Flood and stand against the reserve clause, which was layered with 13th Amendment undertones in the case called Flood v. Kuhn et al. Kuhn was MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

At trial in Flood v. Kuhn, Goldberg asked Robinson his thoughts on the reserve clause. “Anything that is one-sided in this country is wrong,” Robinson said, “and I think it certainly should at least be modified to give a player an opportunity to have some control over his destiny. Whenever you have one-sided systems, in my view, it leads to serious, serious problems, and I think that unless there is a change in the reserve clause, that it is going to lead to a serious strike in terms of ball players.”

Robinson was right. In 1973, the players went on strike, in part due to the reserve clause.

But at the time of the trial, the public was on the side of baseball ownership: 69% of Americans polled by the Washington Postin October 1970 believed the reserve clause was necessary. When Flood’s trial ended on June 11 after three weeks, 21 witnesses and 2,078 pages of transcript, Irving Ben Cooper, judge for the Southern District Court of New York, ruled in favor of baseball.

Following his suit, Flood fled to Vedbaek, Denmark, where he hoped to be left alone, Instead, he was hounded about returning to play.

Washington Postreporter Leonard Shapiro managed to get him on the phone and informed him that Bob Short, owner of the Washington Senators, wanted to sign him. Flood was interested but knew he couldn’t play and still stand a chance of his case winning on appeal and being picked up by the Supreme Court — unless baseball stipulated a clause saying his play wouldn’t prejudice the case. But that was a gamble, too. The Supreme Court dealt only with cases in which real damage was done. If Flood signed, baseball could argue that his case was academic.

Still, Flood asked Goldberg and Miller to see if a deal could be brokered. He wanted to play, and he needed the money after putting his career on hold. Among those he owed were an ex-wife and the IRS, for back taxes resulting from failing photography and art businesses in St. Louis.

Goldberg tendered a two-page Uniform Player Contract with four crucial points: a no-cut clause, a no-trade clause, automatic free agency at end of the contract and, as Snyder noted, “an agreement by the owners that the contract did not prejudice Flood’s lawsuit.”

Short agreed to every stipulation and offered Flood a two-year contract worth $100,000 annually, but commissioner Kuhn refused to allow Short to enter into the contract as it was written. He didn’t want Flood to be the first player to sign a Uniform Player Contract without a reserve clause in it.

Short, who really wanted Flood to be a Senator, worked out a trade with the Phillies, made a verbal agreement with Flood, Miller and Goldberg to not cut or trade Flood and added an extra $10,000 to his offer. “Do you think I’m going through all this to trade him?” Short said, according to a story titled “The Man Who Begs, Buys and Borrows Trouble” in the May 1971 edition of Sport Magazine. “I’d have to be an idiot.”

Kuhn approved this deal between all parties while crucially adding a statement that this agreement didn’t prejudice Flood’s lawsuit against baseball. Flood still felt bad about playing, and he didn’t want Miller to think he was leaving him in the lurch.

“I wouldn’t do this if I weren’t in a financial bind,” Flood told Miller, as recounted in Snyder’s book.

On the field in the spring of 1971, Flood struggled, and his teammates couldn’t help noticing.

“I was expecting him to be the second coming of Lou Brock,” Senators catcher Dick Billings told Snyder in “A Well-Paid Slave.” “He looked like kind of a regular player, a rookie who wasn’t quite sure of himself.”

“He was a speed guy, and he didn’t have the speed anymore,” outfielder Del Unser said.

“You hear about guys who have lost a step or two; he lost three,” ace Dick Bosman told Snyder.

In the first game of a doubleheader against the New York Yankees on April 11, Flood misplayed a sinking line drive off Curt Blefary’s bat. The ball landed three feet in front of a diving Flood and rolled past the seven-time Gold Glove winner all the way to the center-field wall at RFK Stadium. Blefary scored an inside-the-park home run. It was the only run in the game. 

In the eighth inning, after Flood grounded out for the fourth time, Senators manager Ted Williams unceremoniously replaced him with journeyman Richie Scheinblum. 

“You can’t handle a seven-time Gold Glove winner like Curt Flood like you handle a Tom McCraw,” teammate McCraw told Snyder. “But Williams did, and it devastated Flood.”

A former All-Star hitter, Flood managed just three hits in his first 20 at-bats, and two of those three were bunt singles. Meanwhile, his salary made him the second-highest paid player on the team by a large margin. 

On April 20, before a game at Yankee Stadium, Flood found a black wreath hanging in his locker. “Whoever it was had to have some clout to drag this funeral wreath in,” he told Sport in a December 1986 story. “Scared the s— out of me.”

A week later, Flood booked a one-way flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Barcelona, Spain. The flight departed at 8 p.m. He sent a telegram to Senators owner Short on his way to the airport. It began “I TRIED …”

In Spain, Flood fell into a lifestyle made famous by Black artists fleeing American racism and finding something like sanctuary in another country, including many of my heroes: Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Jack Johnson, Richard Wright, Paul Robeson and, of course, James Baldwin.

But Flood was broke when he arrived, having spent most of the money he could keep out of the hands of creditors on flights, hotels, food and alcohol in Portugal, Spain and Denmark. 

He requested access to his pension from Miller and the players’ association but found out he wasn’t entitled to it until exactly one year from his retirement date: April 27, 1971. In 1979, recounting his life abroad, Flood told the San Francisco Chronicle that when he once told a Spanish woman he was a baseball player, she replied, “Yes, but what do you do for money?”

He eventually found work as a part-time sports anchor for an English language radio station and tended bar as his case against baseball was being heard in the U.S. Supreme Court on March 20, 1972.

He had quit the Senators 18 games into the 1971 season. He was eviscerated in newspapers, on radio, on television and even in a Philip Roth novel.

Flood managed to scrape together enough money to buy ownership in a bar in Majorca called Rustic Inn, a joint frequented by U.S. servicemen. He operated it with a woman he referred to as his wife but who legally was his girlfriend. The closest he ever came to playing pro baseball again was in softball games with the servicemen. It didn’t last.

Spanish police closed his bar after too many servicemen turned into ruffians. Flood was unemployed when he gave his World Series rings to a couple from Texas as collateral on a loan for just a few thousand dollars. (Later, a friend wrote on his behalf to ask for the rings back, and the couple sent them in the same cigar box he put them in. They never wanted to keep them. They only wanted to help him.) 

He squandered that money in Andorra, was arrested and ended up in a psychiatric facility in Barcelona, where he was treated for alcoholism. He couldn’t afford to pay the $300 bill when he was discharged. 

The Spanish government contacted the U.S. State Department, which contacted the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which contacted Flood’s father. In November 1975, Flood’s father paid for his son to fly home to Oakland. When he landed, he carried everything he owned in a small duffel bag. He moved in with his 76-year-old mother.

He made attempts to break into MLB as a manager or in a club’s front office. But the closest he came was as commissioner of the Senior Professional Baseball Association in 1989, meant to be baseball’s senior PGA. The league lasted just two years.

After Flood fainted in his hotel room at the 1995 All-Star Game in Arlington, Texas, doctors discovered a lump in his throat. He was diagnosed with throat cancer after smoking a pack a day from 1943 — beginning at age 15 — to 1979 and drinking until 1986, when he got sober. 

He died on Jan. 20, 1997. It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

Flood had just turned 59.

Curt Flood quit playing baseball in 1971, but he did not quit on its players. If he had declared bankruptcy, he could have kept his salary as a Senator. But if he had declared bankruptcy, MLB owners would have been allowed to enter into settlement negotiations with a “court-appointed receiver.” His attorney would not have been allowed to dictate terms, and his suit would never have reached the Supreme Court. 

He’d promised the MLBPA that he would see his suit through to the end without settling for personal gain. 

He kept his word, sacrificing his game, his livelihood, his personal relationships. He missed the funeral of his hero, Jackie Robinson, who died of a heart attack at age 53 in October 1972. Flood left his life in America, believing that his country would one day keep its promise of dignity.

And he lost that, too.

For the third time in its history, the Supreme Court upheld the reserve clause. Flood was in Majorca and spoke to Newsweek shortly after learning that the Court voted 5-3 in favor of affirming baseball’s reserve clause. “Baby,” he said, “I gave them one hell of a fight.”

That fight landed several blows that would eventually prove fatal to the reserve clause.

“The problem with the reserve clause is that it ties one man to one owner for the rest of his life,” Flood said in that 1973 interview with Howard Cosell. “There is no other profession in the history of mankind except slavery in which one man was tied to another for life.”

In 1973, Miller and the players’ association used negotiations on the basic agreement to change the sport forever. While agreeing to keep the reserve clause in place for the next three years, the union won the 10-and-5 rule. Under that rule, players with 10 years’ service in the major leagues and five years with the same team could not be traded without their expressed consent. This rule would have prevented Curt Flood from being traded to the Phillies.

In 1975, an arbitrator struck down the reserve clause in the cases of two pitchers, leading to MLB free agency. As a result, salaries in baseball have skyrocketed. Mike Trout was the highest-paid player in 2021, at $37.1 million, because 50 years ago, Curt Flood fought for his right to control his destiny.

In 1999, Time magazine called Flood “one of the ten most influential athletes of the century.”

Charles Barkley famously wrote in his book “I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It”: “How can anybody drawing paychecks in sports today not know about Curt Flood? How did his contributions get so overlooked? Athletes had no say in where they played until Curt Flood stood up and refused to be traded.”

And still, Curt Flood isn’t in the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

For shame.