Flood reshaped the landscape of profession sports in a similar way that Jackie Robinson did.
By Jason Lewis
Sentinel Sports Editor
Jackie Robinson is universally celebrated for reshaping professional sports when he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947. He opened the door for blacks to play in all of the professional sports leagues in the United States.
Another black baseball player reshaped the professional sports landscape in a similar fashion, even though he is not celebrated, and he is nearly forgotten.
Without Curt Flood, Shaquille O’Neal would have never come to the Lakers to win NBA championships. Drew Brees would not have ended up with the New Orleans Saints to lead them to a Super Bowl championship. The New York Yankees would not have a good amount of their star players.
Flood was the athlete who stood up, and stood up by himself, to force free agency. He felt that because he did not have rights to control where he played baseball, and that the system of reverse clauses was similar to a form of slavery.
The reserve clause, contained in all standard player contracts during that time, stated that, upon the contract’s expiration the rights to the player were to be retained by the team to which he had been signed. Practically, this meant that although both the player’s obligation to play for the team as well as the team’s obligation to pay the player were terminated, the player was not free to enter into another contract with another team.
Teams were able to retain the rights to players as long as they wanted too, even after the contract expired, and the players did not have any say in where they would play. Teams held the rights over where the athlete played.
One of the purposes of the reserve clause was to keep the salaries of the players down. Owners felt that if players had control over where they played, a bidding war could happen and the salaries would be driven up.
Football and basketball leagues had similar clauses in their contracts.
Flood was a seven time Gold Glove center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, and he batted over .300 six times. Flood was selected to three All-Star games and helped the Cardinals win two World Series.
Despite Flood’s outstanding play, the Cardinals decided to trade him to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969.
Flood did not want to go for various reasons. The Phillies were a horrible team at the time, they played in a dilapidated stadium, and Flood felt that their fan base was racist.
Flood refused to report to the Phillies, and wrote a letter to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. The letter stated:
“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.”
Kuhn declined Flood’s request, so Flood decided to take legal action.
Major League Players Association executive director Marvin Miller tried to dissuade Flood from suing baseball, pointing out that a judgment against him could end his career. Miller recalls a conversation with Flood.
“I said to Curt – ‘unless some miracle takes place and the Supreme Court reverses itself — you’re not going to win.’ And Curt, to his everlasting credit, said, ‘But would it benefit all the other players and future players?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘That’s good enough for me,’”
Some players sided with management, while others sided with Flood, but when the trial started in 1970, none of the current players showed up to support him.
Flood was supported by Jackie Robinson, who testified on his behalf.
The judgment went against Flood, as well as the 1972 Supreme Court ruling, but it was the first step in gaining free agency for the players. Flood’s case set the stage for the 1975 Messersmith-McNally arbitration and the advent of free agency.
Flood played one final season for the Washington Senators in 1971. He passed away from lung cancer at his home in Los Angeles in 1996.
Flood never received the credit for dramatically changing sports, but his legacy was remembered in Congress via a bill, the Baseball Fans and Communities Protection Act of 1997; numbered HR 21 (Flood’s Cardinals uniform number) and introduced on the first day of the 105th Congress in 1997 by Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Michigan), removing baseball’s controversial antitrust exemption with regards to labor. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced similar legislation in the Senate that year, called the Curt Flood Act of 1998 (SB 53).
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