It’s become almost cliche to say all professional athletes owe a debt of gratitude to Curt Flood, the man who dared to challenge baseball’s reserve clause. But it is undeniable.
Flood’s legacy is secure, no matter how naive today’s stars may be about his efforts to make it possible for them to choose where and for whom they play and, as a result, pave the way for the big-money salaries now commonplace across all sports.
He was a three-time All-Star, seven-time Gold Glove winner and member of two World Series champions, but it’s Flood’s life off the diamond that will always transcend the great feats he accomplished as a player.
His is the story of a young adult confronted by racism he had not known as a child; of an athlete who sacrificed a stellar and lucrative career—Brad Snyder’s 2006 biography of Flood is entitled “A Well-Paid Slave”—for a cause he saw as bigger than the individual; of a man who, after years of smoking, drinking and dealing with the pressures of being the David to baseball’s Goliath, would die from throat cancer at 59.
Flood was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies in a blockbuster seven-player deal in October 1969, but after 12 solid seasons in St. Louis, he declined to report to his new team.
Philadelphia’s often hostile and sometimes racist fanbase was well known to Flood. So was the Phillies’ shoddy performance on the field. In contrast, the Cardinals had been in the World Series in 1967 and ’68.
Two months after the trade, having eschewed repeated attempts by the Phillies to get him to sign a contract, Flood—in a letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn—demanded to be made a free agent:
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 rejected the request and Flood sued baseball. Many players, including Joe Torre and Tim McCarver (the latter was also in the trade to Philadelphia), were privately behind Flood; their union leader, Marvin Miller, was instrumental in getting the players association to pay for the costs of the suit.
There were also a good many players and former big leaguers who opposed the suit on the grounds the status quo was preferable to baseball becoming a game of haves and have-nots if the free-agent floodgates were to be thrown open.
If the pressures of being the public face of this epic battle weren’t intense enough, how must it have felt to Flood when not one active player appeared in court at any time to support him? An aging and ailing Jackie Robinson was there. The maverick owner Bill Veeck was there. But not one active player.
Flood v. Kuhn went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Flood lost a 5-3 decision (with one abstention). Flood wasn’t expected to win, but as Snyder notes in his book, he wasn’t helped by the weak oratory of his lead attorney, former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, who at the time was also running a failed campaign for the governorship of New York as the Democratic challenger to Republican incumbent Nelson Rockefeller.
In 1971, Flood was traded to the Washington Senators, but the drain of the lawsuit, sitting out the previous season and his frequent drinking made him a shell of the player he was in St. Louis. He left the team midseason.
Four years later, the reserve clause was struck down for good when arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally could become free agents after playing the previous season without contracts. So while Flood’s challenge of the clause was ultimately not what got it banished, it was the catalyst that made it happen.
There are those who argue Flood and Miller should be in the Hall of Fame for the historical significance of their crusade. Others begrudge them for shaking the game at its core. But more than 40 years later, no one can argue that their challenge to the reserve clause system was the most meaningful legal game-changer in professional sports history.
This post originally appeared on SportsCouchPotato.com.