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Flood fought player reserve clause

Flood of free agency
By Nick Acocella
Special to

"I said to Curt -- unless some miracle takes place and the Supreme Court reverses itself -- you're not going to win. And Curt, to his everlasting credit, said, 'But would it benefit all the other players and future players?' And I said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'That's good enough for me,' " says Marvin Miller on ESPN's SportsCentury series.

A superlative centerfielder on three pennant-winning St. Louis teams in the 1960s, Curt Flood hit better than .300 six times and won seven Gold Gloves in his 12 seasons with the Cardinals. A productive leadoff and No. 2 batter who had at least 200 hits twice, his lifetime batting average was .293.

But his baseball legacy is fated to have little connection with his accomplishments on the field.
Curt Flood won seven Gold Gloves in his 12 seasons with the Cardinals.
Flood is best remembered for his courage in challenging the reserve clause, a move as crucial to the economic rights of players as Jackie Robinson's was to breaking the color barrier.

In 1969, the Cardinals sent Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies as part of a seven-player trade. Flood had several problems with the deal. He didn't appreciate hearing about it from a front-office underling. He didn't like Philadelphia, a losing team in a rundown ballpark with hostile fans in a city he regarded as racist. But, most important, he didn't think he should be treated like a commodity.

Refusing to accept the trade, he wrote a letter asking Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to declare him a free agent. When Kuhn refused, Flood decided to retire, but then changed his mind. Instead, he declared war on the reserve clause, filing an anti-trust suit.

And baseball hasn't been the same since.

Flood was born on Jan. 18, 1938 in Houston, the youngest of six children of hardworking but poor parents. The family moved to California when Flood was two. By seven, he could outrun other kids in his West Oakland ghetto neighborhood. By nine, he was the catcher for the Junior's Sweet Shop team in a local midget league.

Following in the footsteps of an older brother Carl, Curt was 10 when he stole a truck and crashed it. Carl would later serve a prison term for bank robbery and struggle with heroin addiction. After this incident, though, Curt mended his ways.

Early in 1956, Flood graduated from Oakland Technical High School, where he had transferred from McClymonds High after moving in with his divorced sister Barbara so he could care for her children while she worked. Despite his size (5-feet-7, 140 pounds), he was signed by the Cincinnati Reds to a $4,000 contract and shipped off to the Deep South.

Flood led High Point-Thomasville of the Class B Carolina League to a pennant, leading the league with a .340 average and 133 runs. He also hit 29 homers and drove in 128 runs. Called up to the Reds, he went 0-for-1.

Earning promotion to Savannah of the Class A South Atlantic League in 1957, Flood was moved to third base. While his average dropped to .299, he again led the league in runs. In three games with the Reds at the end of the season, he stroked his first major league hit, a homer off the Cubs' Moe Drabowsky, in three at-bats.

Instead of joining neighborhood friends Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson in the Reds' outfield the next season, Flood was traded to the Cardinals on Dec. 5, 1957, with outfielder Joe Taylor for pitchers Marty Kutyna and Ted Wieland. The deal ended the experiment of Flood as an infielder.

In 1958, after hitting .340 in only 15 games at Triple A Omaha, Flood became the Cardinals' centerfielder and part of the core of a St. Louis team that finished above .500 in every season but one in the 1960s.

He didn't hit above .261 in his first three seasons, but he blossomed in 1961, when he batted .322. In 1963, he won the first of his seven consecutive Gold Gloves and scored a career-high 112 runs (third most in the majors). The next year, he batted .311, leading the National League in at-bats for the second straight season and tying for tops in hits with Roberto Clemente at 211. He was instrumental in the Cardinals winning their first pennant in 18 years.

In the World Series against the New York Yankees, his triple, single and two RBI helped the Cardinals win the opener, 9-5. St. Louis went on to win the Series in seven games.

Flood hit .310 in 1965 before slumping to .267 the next year. But he bounced back with a career-high .335 in 1967, when St. Louis again won the pennant. He contributed to the Cardinals' 7-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox in Game 7 of the World Series with a single, a run scored and a run batted in. While Flood batted just .179 in the seven games, he protected Lou Brock sufficiently to allow him to steal seven bases, a Series record.

The following year, Flood had his last .300 season, batting .301 as the Cardinals repeated as National League champions. He also had his best hitting World Series, with a .286 average, four runs and two RBI. But in Game 7 against Detroit, he suffered his most inglorious failure.

With two on and two outs in the seventh inning of a scoreless game, the Tigers' Jim Northrup lofted a seemingly easy fly to center. But Flood broke in on the ball before realizing he had misjudged it and sprinted back. The ball landed for a two-run triple and, before the inning was over, the Tigers scored another run on their way to a 4-1 victory and the world championship.

After hitting .285 in 1969, Flood was traded to the Phillies on October 7 with catcher Tim McCarver, pitcher Joe Hoerner and outfielder Byron Browne for first baseman Dick Allen, second baseman Cookie Rojas and pitcher Jerry Johnson.

May 21, 1970: Curt Flood (right) and Marvin Miller (second from right) enter a Federal Court House.
At first, Major League Players Association executive director Marvin Miller tried to dissuade Flood from suing baseball, pointing out that an unsatisfactory ruling would end his career. But Flood believed that, despite his $92,000 salary, the reserve clause was not unlike slavery. On Jan. 16, 1970, he filed his an anti-trust suit, known as Flood v. Kuhn.

At the trial, Jackie Robinson, Bill Veeck and Hank Greenberg were among those who testified on Flood's behalf. But not one active player would testify, fearful of being blackballed from the game.

Flood, who sat out the 1970 season, lost at the trial level, and then waited out the appeals in Copenhagen. Importuned by Washington owner Bob Short to return to baseball, Flood signed with the Senators in 1971 for $110,000 - but only after being assured his signing would not jeopardize his case. He appeared in 13 games and batted only .200 before jumping the team and going to Majorca, a Mediterranean island.

In June 1972, the Supreme Court upheld the trial and appellate courts that had ruled in baseball's favor. Although Flood lost his case, the language used in the Court's 5-3 decision (with one abstention) upholding baseball's exemption from anti-trust laws was riddled with rationalizations. In his majority opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun asserted that baseball is a business engaged in interstate commerce. But Blackmun went on to call baseball "an exception and an anomaly" and an "established aberration."

The contradictory nature of the decision invited a closer look at the sport's status and set the stage for the 1975 Messersmith-McNally arbitration and the advent of free agency. But the demise of the reserve clause didn't help Flood professionally, as he never played in the majors again.

In his career, the 5-foot-9, 165-pound Flood had 85 homers with 636 RBI (with a high of 83 in 1965) and 851 runs.

After baseball, Flood achieved some success as a portrait artist. He returned to the Oakland area in 1976 and two years later, after beating a battle with alcohol, he broadcast A's games for a season.

In 1996, Flood learned he had throat cancer and on Jan. 20, 1997, two days after his 59th birthday, the man who had turned utility players into millionaires died in Los Angeles.

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