By Tony Shupenko
The name Curt Flood is one all current Major League Baseball players, and fans should know about. On the field, Curt was a talented Centerfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1958 to 1969. A career .293 hitter, winner of seven Gold Glove awards, and 3x All-Star.
However, what Curt is most remembered for was his contribution to the game of baseball off the field. Curt challenged baseball’s old reserve clause that dated back to the 1800s.
In short, the reserve clause was part of a player’s contract in which even if the player's contract was complete, they could not become a free agent. The team still held the rights to the player. The player only had two options, sign for whatever money the team felt fit or sit out. There have been many times players have sat out because they didn’t like their contracts. Joe DiMaggio, Don Drysdale, and Sandy Koufax, for example. The only way a player could play for a different team is if they were traded, sold, or released.
On October 7, 1969, Flood was traded by the Cardinals to the Phillies. Curt Flood was not happy about the trade. He considered St. Louis home at this point after 12 seasons with the team.
Flood felt he should be a free agent and sign with any team he wanted that wanted him. Commissioner Kuhn denied Flood’s request, citing the reserve clause. This led to Flood filing a $1 million lawsuit against Kuhn and Major League Baseball alleging violation of antitrust laws on January 16, 1970.
Flood compared the reserve clause to slavery. Among testifying on his behalf were former players Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson, and former owner Bill Veeck; no active players testified although he was supported by Marvin Miller and the players union
The case was argued in front of the Supreme Court, but unfortunately, they ruled in MLB’s favor 5-3 invoking the principle of stare decisis (to stand by things decided) also bringing up the old 1922 ruling in Federal Baseball Club v. National League.
Flood, after the court loss, sat out the 1970 season. He received vicious hate mail and death threats. Curt Flood was eventually traded by the Phillies (whom he never played a game for) to the Washington Senators in 1971. Flood played only 13 games hitting .200 before calling it quits.
Four years later Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally won an arbitration case. This nullified the reserve clause and opened up free agency to the players. The League also adopted "The Curt Flood Rule" which allowed players to veto any trade once they had spent ten years in the Major Leagues.
Baseball's antitrust exception has never been completely overturned by Congress or the courts. However, Flood's legal battle laid the groundwork for players to have more leverage at the negotiating table.
Decades later The Curt Flood Act of 1998 was signed into law by President Clinton. This law states: "Curt Flood Act of 1998 - Amends the Clayton Act to declare that the antitrust laws apply to the conduct, acts, practices, or agreements (conduct) of persons in the business of organized professional major league baseball relating to or affecting employment of major league baseball players to play baseball at the major league level to the same extent that such laws apply to such conduct of any other professional sports business affecting interstate commerce."
looking back on the reserve clause it is important to learn and understand how instrumental Curt Flood was in the battle for free agency. While SCOTUS ruled in Commissioner Kuhn's favor. Legal commentators have criticized the decision of Flood v. Kuhn over the years.
A strong argument can be made that Curt Flood got the ball rolling regarding free agency not only in professional baseball but in all professional sports.