Curt Flood let the free-agency genie out of the bottle

Courtesy of Wikipedia Curt Flood

Baseball’s free agency now is in full mode, and players are inking their names on huge money contracts. How many of them know how they gained the right to do so?

Curt Flood (1938-1997) was a star centerfielder for 15 MLB seasons (1956-1971), a seven-time Gold Glove winner, three-time All-Star, two-time World Series winner, and he finished behind Willie Mays and Richie Ashburn for most games played in center field.  

He also became a pivotal figure in baseball’s labor history and fought for free agency when he flatly refused a trade after the 1969 season, fighting it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Flood unsuccessfully challenged baseball’s reserve clause and demanded that then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn declare him a free agent, something unheard of at the time in pro sports. When Kuhn refused, Flood sued him and MLB and sat out the 1970 season. 

He later returned to baseball in 1971 but played only 13 games with Washington before retiring.

Flood v. Kuhn reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972, and the Court ruled 5-3 in favor of MLB. Three years later in 1975, the reserve clause was struck down and MLB and the players union agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement that introduced free agency in 1976.

The repeated narrative for decades is that today’s major leaguers don’t know, or care, or respect, or recognize who Flood was and what he did, journalist David Steele recently tweeted.  But Merrill College Journalism Professor and veteran journalist Kevin Blackistone pointed out, as moderator of the Nov. 16 Shirley Povich virtual Symposium, that current MLBer Gerrit Cole publicly thanked Flood when he signed a big deal with the New York Yankees.

Flood sparked “an economic revolution,” said Georgetown Law School Professor Brad Snyder. He, along with Flood’s teammate Tim McCarver, MLB journalist and Hall-of-Famer Claire Smith, former baseball player David Cone, and Flood’s son Curt Flood, Jr., discussed the late major leaguer’s impact on the game.  

“This was a man of high principle,” said Snyder of Flood.

Added Blackistone, “He lost the case in the Supreme Court but he won the battle.”

Cone recalled when Flood, nearly three years before his death due to cancer at age 59, spoke to players on solidarity as they prepared to strike. “I had the great honor of being there when Curt Flood came to speak to the players. He said, ‘Don’t let them put the genie back in the bottle,’ and I never forgot how he delivered in that moment.”

Save for a few—namely former players Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenburg and former owner Bill Veeck, who testified on his behalf—Flood stood alone in his fight. “Curt made it perfectly clear that he was going to do it by himself,” said McCarver, who admitted that he wished he would have spoken out more back then in support of Flood.  

“Of all the people that we know, Curt was the ideal player who could do what it required… who would give up a salary of $90,000 to $100,000,” added McCarver.

Smith said the reporters at the time opposed Flood’s actions. Snyder added, “You had a lot of White sportswriters and columnists who were unsympathetic. To be frank about it, they were in the owners’ pocket.”

Like many others who bucked the system and sacrificed their careers to make their sport better for those who would come later, Flood should be better recognized, said his son. “It’s such a shame that he’s not [in the Hall of Fame] given his contribution to the betterment of the sport.”