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.
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.
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.
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