On the week that Curt Flood was born in 1938 and died in 1997, we remember the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer center fielder’s career-ending decision to challenge Baseball’s Reserve Clause.
The 26th anniversary of Curt Flood’s passing was this past Saturday, January 20. It has been 53 years since he penned his letter to then-Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in a move that changed history. Flood left us too soon, at the age of 59, but not before his one-man stand revolutionized player rights. The former star St. Louis Cardinals outfielder and team Hall of Famer (2015) would also have been 85 years old this past Thursday, as we look back at his monumental decision.
Obtained in a trade with the Cincinnati Reds on December 5, 1957, Flood became one of the best players of his era, though at the time, no one expected the deal to amount to much of anything. The first trade of Bing Devine’s tenure as general manager of the Cardinals was based on potential. Flood, a natural center fielder, had been converted to play third base by the Reds and was learning to ply the leather at second base at the time of the deal. In St. Louis, they already had a third baseman in Ken Boyer and a second baseman in the wings in Julian Javier, but they needed a center fielder. Flood was the answer.
“Flood isn’t a big boy, but he’s strong, fast, a good outfielder and, as some other clubs’ reports show, has a better arm than the average we’ve credited him with,” Devine said. “We figure him probably still a year away, but two other clubs already have contacted us in an effort to make a deal for Flood with the thought they’d play him right now. It would, however, take a real good deal to get him.”
Flood played 12 seasons in St. Louis, from 1958 through 1969. He patrolled center field for three pennant winning teams and helped earn two World Series titles. He played in all 162 games in 1964, when he not only helped lead the Cardinals to the World Series title, but led the National League in plate appearances, at bats, and hits. A three-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove winner, Flood was traded on October 7, 1969, a move that changed the course of baseball history.
Flood’s refusal to report to Philadelphia began the challenge and elimination of baseball’s Reserve Clause. It had kept players indebted to a team even when out of contract. The players’ union supported Flood’s challenge. In a letter to Kuhn, Flood stated unequivocally “After 12 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.”
Eventually, the lawsuit ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices ruled in 1972 in favor of baseball, but the change process had been set in motion. Former Oakland A’s pitcher and World Series hero Jim “Catfish” Hunter was ruled baseball’s first free agent by arbitrator Peter Seitz in 1974.
With Hunter’s free agent signing with the New York Yankees, Flood’s fight was complete. Player movement had become more commensurate with ideals of capitalism. On May 4, 1976, New York Times writer Murray Chass unknowingly foretold the future of baseball with his opening paragraph.
“In these days of free agents and rising salaries, baseball’s club owners have contended that players forever more will see nothing but dollar signs at the ends of their bats, whereas in the good old days. when the game was played purely for fun, they saw only hits and strikeouts. From now on, the owners have suggested, the players will not let any sense of loyalty and integrity interfere with their avaricious ambitions.”
It should also have been added that neither would the owners allow any sense of loyalty and integrity interfere with their avaricious ambitions.
Flood’s stance made baseball a better place for players today. His decision to challenge the status quo demonstrated a love for the game that few players really exhibit outside the diamond. He may have lost his career but he forever changed baseball. As the iconic radio legend Paul Harvey would say, “And now you know the rest of the story.”
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