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This Day in Labor History: December 24, 1969

[ 62 ] December 24, 2013 |

On December 24, 1969, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood wrote a letter to Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn protesting a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies and asking to be declared a free agent. Thus began a process that freed professional sports athletes from total control by the owners and began the period of free agency, when athletes were finally paid fairly for the revenues they generated.

Major League Baseball had long exploited its players. The key tool for this was the reserve clause. This gave owners total control over player labor, allowing the movement of players from team to team only through trade, release, or retirement. In other words, when the owner was ready to dispense with them or the player decided to quit.

Flood referenced slavery in his letter, writing, ”After 12 years in the major leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” This was a shot at the total control white owners had over all players’ labor, who were supposed to be happy that they could play a kid’s game and appreciative of the father figure-owner who gave them the opportunity. This labor of course made owners an incredible amount of money, of which the players saw very little. Flood made $90,000 in 1969, the equivalent of $555,000 today. That’s not nothing, but for a well above-average outfielder in a profession with a relatively short work life, it was not nearly enough for the profits he generated through his work.

Curt Flood

When Kuhn denied his request, expressing some outrage at the slavery comparison, Flood sued for his release. He claimed not only did the reserve clause violate antitrust laws, but also the Thirteenth Amendment, doubling down on the slavery comparison in a time of great racial tension in the United States. The Major League Baseball Players Association was trying to become a real union. It was established in 1953 to provide some level of representation but was weak in its early years. Luckily for Flood, he had an ally at the MLBPA in lawyer Marvin Miller. Hired by the MLBPA away from the United Steelworkers of America in 1966, Miller desperately wanted to turn the organization into a force that would, among other things, destroy the reserve clause. He had won credibility with players by winning a collective bargaining agreement from the owners in 1968 that raised the minimum salary from $6000 to $10,000, which was pretty significant. Miller convinced the other players, many of whom were skeptical and turned off by the slavery rhetoric (the white ones anyway), to bankroll Flood’s case.

Marvin Miller

Miller himself was outraged by the reserve clause. As he put it, “Yes, you’re an American and have the right to seek employment anywhere you like, but this right does not apply to baseball players.” Miller told Flood this would kill his career but Flood was willing to go to the mat in order to improve the lives of baseball players in the future. Flood himself had a long history of activism, including attending civil rights rallies in Mississippi in 1962, a risky move for any African-American but perhaps even more so for an “outsider,” coming from Oakland as Flood did. In 1964, Flood successfully sued a man who had sold Flood his house in the Oakland suburb of Alamo, CA without meeting him; when Flood arrived, the owner pulled a shotgun and refused to let him and his pregnant wife entrance. So Flood, a political man with a great deal of courage, was willing to take this sacrifice and use racially charged language in doing so.

The case cost Flood his career. Although he was beginning to fade in his age 31 season, he likely had at least one more good year in him. He did manage to play 13 games in 1971 for the Senators, but was out of baseball after that. It’s also worth noting the atmosphere of fear Flood faced. When Flood testified in court, not a single other active player showed up because they were terrified of the owners. Only the retired stars Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg attended. In 1972, Flood lost his case before the Supreme Court, 5-3, after the Anheuser-Busch stock owning Lewis Powell, who would have voted in his favor, recused himself from the case and a last second change of mind by Warren Burger. Flood was granted free agency but the baseball antitrust exemption could only be removed by an act of Congress.

In the short-term, the marginal nature of Flood’s victory gave Marvin Miller greater leverage in his battles with owners and he forced them to agree to binding arbitration for grievances. But it was not until 1976 that an arbitrator ruled Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free agents that the reserve clause fell away and the modern era of free agency began.

Of course, owners resisted free agency in all sports as strongly as they could. In baseball, owners colluded in the mid-80s to not bid up free agents, a direct violation of the collective bargaining agreement. This was coordinated by MLB commissioner Peter Uberroth, who wanted the owners to run their teams as a business and not spend millions of dollars for the best players. Between 1985 and 1987, only a few players changed teams. But further lawsuits forced the end of that strategy and player salaries skyrocketed by the late 1980s. The 1994 strike that nearly destroyed the game was the final major battle in this war and the determination of the Yankees to win every year and other new owners willing to spend to catch up with them pretty much ended any concentrated owner resistance to high salaries. The growth of television contracts has only pumped more money into the game, making the salaries of today’s baseball players far beyond the dreams of Curt Flood.

Flood’s actions began the modern professional sport labor union movement. The long-term effects has been to unionize each of the four major sports leagues, creating titanic salaries for a few and pretty good salaries for most everybody. The sports unions have had a contentious relationship with the American public who hated to see “their” players leave for other teams and even go on strike. But ultimately, Flood is one of the great heroes of the American labor movement in the late twentieth century.

This is the 85th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Comments (62)

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  1. fourmorewars says:

    ‘Pretty good salaries for most everybody,’ hell yes, including minor leaguers, who are better paid than major leaguers were pre-free agency, and good on ‘em. Didn’t know about Hank Greenberg’s showing up in support of Flood. Awesome gesture.

    • N__B says:

      Greenberg had given similar support to Robinson in ’47. He was a good guy.

      • jim, some guy in iowa says:

        he was usually involved in Bill Veeck’s clubs. that right there takes an interesting kind of guy

        • howard says:

          veeck considered him one of the smartest players he was ever around, and i seem to recall a story from “veeck as in wreck” that late in his career, greenberg would deliberately look bad on a pitch early in the game so that if he came up in a big at bat late in the game, the other team would be inclined to trust that pitch – and he’d nail it.

      • actor212 says:

        Given the fact he was one of the few Jewish players in MLB, him taking up Robinson’s cause seems pretty natural. One can only imagine the abuse he took, right up into World War II. Remember, he refused to play on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Imagine if a Muslim player today refused to play day games during Ramadan.

        • Bartleby says:

          He actually relented and played on Rosh Hoshanah in 1934 (hitting two homeruns in a 2-1 Tigers victory), but stayed true to his word and did not play on Yom Kippur.

          The above is from Wikipedia, and his life was pretty fascinating.

  2. Flood was in many ways a renaissance man.

    On top of being a terrific centerfielder, civil rights and union activist, he was also a very talented artist.

    • Ed says:

      According to the relatively recent HBO documentary, Flood’s paintings were largely the work of others. He would send photos to an artist to be painted and presented the resulting work as his own. He was personally self-indulgent, a deadbeat dad that his ex-wife had to press for child support funds (all of this before his court challenge). None of which takes away from his intelligence, talent, and courage, but the whole “renaissance man” business is not the whole picture.

  3. Emily says:

    In 1964, Flood successfully sued a man who had sold Flood his house in a San Antonio suburb without meeting him;

    The town was Alamo, CA, in the San Ramone Valley on the other side of the Oakland hills from Oakland.

  4. Barry Freed says:

    Thanks for this great post, Erik. I’m not a big sports fan but I found it riveting.

  5. Bill says:

    Nice post. Merry Christmas LGM!

  6. Glenn says:

    Curious, in what sense was Flood “granted free agency”?

    • actor212 says:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flood_v._Kuhn

      Although the Court ruled in baseball’s favor 5-3, it admitted the original grounds for the antitrust exemption were tenuous at best, that baseball was indeed interstate commerce for purposes of the act and the exemption was an “anomaly”[1] it had explicitly refused to extend to other professional sports or entertainment. That admission set in motion events which ultimately led to an arbitrator’s ruling nullifying the reserve clause and opening the door for free agency in baseball and other sports.

      • Glenn says:

        Thanks, but I get that Flood “set in motion” events that eventually led to free agency generally, but my understanding was that Flood himself was traded to the Senators and then retired, i.e., that he himself never got to experience free agency. Erik’s statement suggests I have my facts wrong and I was curious what the scoop is.

        • Jeremy says:

          Well, he was protesting getting traded to the Phillies without having any input in the matter. After his case, he went to the Senators. Maybe that’s what Erik was referring to?

  7. Adam says:

    Definitely recommend reading Miller’s book “A Whole Different Ballgame.” And cliches aside, Miller negotiating with Kuhn really was like chess/checkers, knife/gun fight, etc. Miller had a long term plan to a clear goal and by the time Kuhn knew what was happening, it was way too late.

  8. Paul Campos says:

    The legal demise of the reserve clause was interesting. The reserve clause in the standard player contract gave clubs the right to unilaterally renew a player’s contract after the contract’s expiration “for the period of one year.” For nearly a century both the owners and the players had assumed that this meant the clubs had the right to this in perpetuity. But when the question was raised before a labor arbitrator in 1975, the arbitrator ruled that the “plain meaning” of the language, from a contract law perspective, was that the reserve clause could only be exercised by a club in regard to a particular player once — that is, the player would become a free agent a year after the club unilaterally renewed his contract.

    The clubs decided not to appeal this ruling, probably because their lawyers told them there was a significant chance they would lose, and that the de facto MLB antitrust exemption justified on pure stare decisis grounds in Flood v. Kuhn would then be defunct.

    • If I remember right, Charley Finley was probably the smartest of the owners, because he said let every player be a free agent at the end of every year, since this would do the most to keep the salaries low.

      Imagine there being, what, about 40+ MLB starters and subs for each fielding position, and 300+ starters and relievers, as free agents every year?

      But the other owners didn’t grasp this concept – thankfully, for the benefit of the players.
      They thought that they’d be paying top dollar for every player, instead of so many players being annually available actually driving salaries lower, or keeping them low.
      Sure, the best players would still do ok, salary-wise, but what about the rest?

      MM and the PU certainly didn’t want that to happen!

      Instead, select players became free agents, and teams paid their best players better salaries at an earlier age, to keep them longer, the yearly minimum salaries kept rising, and so, the whole salary structure went up for all players.

      Marvin Miller was a very great and smart man.
      The team owners, uhm… Not so much.

  9. Gator90 says:

    Flood was an important and admirable figure, but the slavery rhetoric was pretty over the top. Isn’t slavery about the absence of compensation for one’s labor, as distinguished from (in Flood’s case) lucrative compensation? And nobody forced Flood to be a ballplayer.

    • jim, some guy in iowa says:

      well…. one could probably make the case that “room and board” constituted “compensation”

      let’s say your boss told you today that you’ll be working for another company in another city starting Thursday. end of story. would you feel like a person or a thing?

      • Gator90 says:

        I’d probably get another job, though if I were making $555,000 a year maybe I’d learn to like the new city.

        • jim, some guy in iowa says:

          but this profession/trade is set up so that you either work where you’re told or you don’t work at all – at least in what you thought was your chosen field

          • Gator90 says:

            Having to choose between relocating and working in a different field would be a bummer, but it would hardly make my life experience comparable to the antebellum plantation chattels alluded to by Flood.

      • mjtp says:

        Of course players under contract are still subject to that same circumstance, often a lot quicker than “Thursday” – was it Joel Youngblood who hit safely for two teams in two cities in one day?

      • Brien Jackson says:

        Well, in most cases teams are still allowed to trade players with no input from labor.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Actually, no. There are really two dimensions to slavery. One is the unpaid aspect of it, as you point out. And Flood was certainly paid. The other is the inability of the employee to quit and make terms with a different employer. If you can’t quit except to quit the profession, that’s pretty close to the definition of slavery. Certainly free labor Republicans in the 1850s and 1860s were as outraged by the latter as they were the former.

      • actor212 says:

        Or, to sum it up musically “St Peter, don’t you call me cuz I can’t go….”

      • jazzbumpa says:

        They’re called chattel for a reason.

      • Gator90 says:

        I’m not aware of any standard definition of “slavery” that includes having to accept a certain work location as a condition of working in a highly lucrative profession. It was unfair, to be sure, but slavery? That hyperbolic usage is insulting to the experiences of actual slaves.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Talk to Charles Sumner about the definition of slavery. Also, I’m not sure that you can tell Curt Flood, a black man, that he is being unfair to other African-Americans’ experience. I don’t really think you have the right to say that at all.

          • Dilan Esper says:

            That goes a little far. I don’t mind the slavery comparison, but your argument is like saying a Jewish supporter of Israel can’t be criticized for comparing Iran to the Holocaust.

          • Gator90 says:

            When Clarence Thomas compared his Supreme Court confirmation process to a lynching, it was a grotesque insult to the victims of actual lynchings. Would you be unwilling to say so because Thomas is black?

            Did Sumner define slavery as having to accept a particular work location as a condition of working voluntarily in a lucrative profession?

            • Darkrose says:

              Context matters.

              Clarence Thomas referring to his nomination hearings as a “high-tech lynching” was offensive because it was coming from a guy who’d spent his professional life carrying water for the racist Reagan administration, and also because it was coming from a black man–married to a white woman–who was being attacked for sexually harrassing a black woman.

              Curt Flood was a black man at the height of the civil rights movement using a comparison that he knew would resonate. It’s also a comparison that was true: at that time, ballplayers were, essentially, considered property of the team. He was expected to go play for a different team in a different city, one with a reputation for virulent racism, because he had been traded and he had absolutely no say in the matter.

              • Dilan Esper says:

                I don’t like that standard either. It smacks of “only us liberals get to make facile comparisons to oppression”.

              • Brien Jackson says:

                ” It’s also a comparison that was true: at that time, ballplayers were, essentially, considered property of the team. He was expected to go play for a different team in a different city, one with a reputation for virulent racism, because he had been traded and he had absolutely no say in the matter.”

                Again, this is sort of a half truth. It’s certainly true that the reserve clause was indefensible, but the idea that being told he has to go play for a different team and has no right to refuse equates to slavery in this context is at the very least significantly undercut by the fact that, even today in the age of free agency and $200 million contracts, players still have no right to veto a trade of their contract unless they’ve been granted that privilege by their employer or they’re in a pretty narrow class of players with 10-and-5 rights.

                Which is basically to say that Flood’s rhetoric was probably a touch over the top, but there was enough truth to it in the system that dwelling on that is pointless if you’re approaching the question in good faith.

        • Hogan says:

          I’m sure Flood is getting an earful from Frederick Douglass even as we speak.

  10. Great summary with a few details I didn’t know.

    And as always: I love this series. Man, Erik, you’ve got a big stack of these posts now. You should totally start a blog or something.

  11. ChrisS says:

    Those damn Yankees and their determination to win every year. Honestly? Who does that kind of thing in professional sports? Why can’t they just soak up the money like most every other professional sports team and then cry poor?

    Seriously, I don’t blame the Yankees for trying to win, but they haven’t been too successful with championships in the modern free agency era. In the 80s they were the winningest regular season team and no championships. Then, they cratered because the invested too much in veterans and not enough in the minors. In the 90s, their success was almost entirely built on a couple of decent trades and 5 homegrown players that were HOF or near HOF caliber. That doesn’t just happen often. They reverted to the FA/high payroll/veteran model in the 2000s and it’s been mostly meh. A lot of regular season wins, but only 1 championship and a barren farm system as a result. Now they’re doubling down on the free agents and are staring back-to-back ~.500 seasons right in the face.

    • actor212 says:

      Reggie Jackson would like a word.

      So would Dave Winfield.

      Oh, look! David Cone is coming up the walk! And isn’t that David Wells? Or maybe that’s Roger Clemens. It sure looks like Paul O’Neill is bringing up the rear, but it’s hard to tell: Tino Martinez’s hair keeps getting in the way…

      Yes, they had five enormously talented players, but you can argue that the Mets had five equally talented players at nearly the same positions around the same time (Alfonso, Cedeno, Hundley, and Generation K, altho they busted badly). The results are strikingly dissimilar.

  12. actor212 says:

    And yet, he is not in the Hall of Fame, even if he nearly single-handedly created the modern major leagues and reshaped the entire game itself.

  13. Brien Jackson says:

    While I appreciate the sentiment of the retrospective narrative building given the extent to which Flood was essentially shit on and shunned at the time…the Flood case did basically nothing at all to bring free agency about.

    • James E Powell says:

      Similarly the Dred Scott case did basically nothing to bring about the end of slavery.

    • Ed says:

      Correct. What the Flood case did show was that the courts couldn’t be relied on to defeat the clause. No doubt the Flood case did publicize the situation and encourage player activism, but it did not lead directly to anything except a dead end. Flood took a great risk and fought the good fight, for which he deserves much credit, but these days it’s all too easy to get the mistaken impression that he was the first to challenge the clause and that his case led directly to free agency.

  14. howard says:

    just for the record, the reserve clause was totally wrong and curt flood was very courageous to risk his career to challenge it, but the owners were not making an “incredible amount of money.”

    the fact is, revenues were very low in major league baseball: very few teams were making an “incredible amount of money” (the braves, for example, in their early years in milwaukee, were said to have made some serious bucks).

    now i’m not saying asset values never changed, but most owners were cheapskates partly because that was how they viewed the world and partly because there wasn’t that much money to throw around.

    to get a sense of the way a typical team operated in the reserve clause period, i strongly recommend reading bill veeck’s “veeck as in wreck.”

    • jim, some guy in iowa says:

      I think Bill Veeck would have been insulted by the thought he ran a “typical” team

      but yeah, the utter glee he took in wheeling and dealing players was probably just a more… charming, maybe… version of the meat market attitude the other owners had. he certainly had enough instances of selling players to pay the bills

      • howard says:

        well, jim, i agree with you there, but the picture you get from veeck is what it’s like to operate in a low-revenue environment, which is the “typical” part. obviously, he was worst off in st. louis, but tv and radio money was pretty modest at the start, and really, you were primarily funded by ticket sales: lots of teams didn’t even draw a million.

        speaking of veeck, i believe it’s in the “hustler’s handbook” that he discusses a plan in the talking stage to buy the phillies during world war ii and then stock it with negro league stars and dare mlb to stop ‘em.

        • jim, some guy in iowa says:

          oh, I didn’t mean to argue. Veeck’s books are great reading and really instructive as to how the business end worked. Veeck’s biggest problem was he was trying to make the clubs work without having a gum company or other family fortune behind him

          • howard says:

            exactly, but that’s the point: baseball wasn’t a big money-maker.

            doesn’t justify either the reserve clause or the way that so many owners behaved towards players, but the money didn’t start to grow until the ’50-’60s: bill james made the point a few years ago that based on his experience in interacting with management, what really surprised ownership was just how much revenue there was to be gotten.

    • jazzbumpa says:

      (the braves, for example, in their early years in milwaukee, were said to have made some serious bucks

      I believe the Milwaukee Bucks play a different sport.

  15. Crunchy Frog says:

    Speaking of the reserve clause et al, it is very interesting how differently the American public views sports labor versus, say, Europe. And I think it says a lot about the general challenges facing labor in the US.

    Think about football: you play for a pittance for 4 years in “college”, then have no choice which of the 32 professional teams you play for. Your salary for the next several years is set based on your draft position. If you are still playing well at the end of your indentured servitude period the team can still prevent you from leaving using a number of mechanisms. Eventually, at an age in your life where over half of all pro football players are retired, you can sign a free agent contract. Even then the rules are against you – the team can cut you at any time (granted you keep the signing bonus, unless they find “cause” for termination which includes arbitrary rulings from the owner’s representative, the commissioner) but you can’t leave until the contract ends.

    Thus Russell Wilson is a “bargain” for Seattle while Matt Flynn cost Seattle and then Oakland a king’s ransom.

    For some reason, American sports fans just accept that this is how it should be. Even now, 30 years after the fact, you still hear people bitching about John Elway refusing to play for Irsay in Baltimore. Yeah, everyone acknowledges the owner was a crazy asshole and his team a perpetual disaster, and yeah Elway effectively asked not to select the team he played for but instead to veto just one team, but many fans think Elway was wrong.

    Try to explain this “draft” concept to fans of sports in other countries and they’ll look at you funny.

    • James E Powell says:

      It is especially curious when we compare attitudes toward pro athletes with attitudes toward TV and film stars – those who are most like pro athletes in how they make money.

  16. Jordan says:

    I’d also like to know more about how the NBA process went, because it sounds like there are some interesting plotlines.

    A barely averted wildcat strike during the middle of the all-star game!

    TWO groups of asshole owners scheming both against the players in general and each other!

    One of the top forwards of all time trying to jump leagues, being blocked from doing so, and as a result spending a season as the play-by-play announcer for the team he wanted to play for!

  17. [...] December 8, 1886–American Federation of Labor founded in Columbus. December 24, 1969–Curt Flood sends letter to Major League Baseball demanding free agency. December 30, 1969–Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act signed. January 1, 1892–Ellis [...]

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