Sunday, August 3rd, 2014

Curt Flood and Baseball’s Reserve Clause

The inspiration for a story can come from the most unlikeliest of places. On my recent trip to Maine, I happened to pick up the Bangor Daily News and read a very compelling editorial (see entire text and link below) that described how Curt Flood’s landmark struggle to overturn baseball’s time-worn reserve clause has opened up unprecedented financial opportunities for athletes such as Lebron James of the NBA’s Miami Heat.

In 1969, Flood, after being traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Phillies, took exception with baseball’s belief that an individual team owned his contract for life–the reserve clause.  Flood believed that he should have the opportunity to “shop” his services to the employer of his choosing. The restrictiveness of baseball’s reserve clause has been an issue between players and owners as far back as the the 1890s.  As an example, Branch Rickey, known as a shrewd businessman, stockpiled players in the minors and was particularly tight-fisted with pay raises he gave players who had no leverage in their negotiations other than to stop playing baseball. 

Flood eventually took his fight all the way to the US Supreme Court where he lost a 5-3 decision with one judge recusing himself.  However, the loss brought intense scrutiny and visibility to the inequity of the reserve clause and eventually players, led by Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith, were allowed to become free agents.

I am humbled to admit that, until recently, my knowledge of Flood was sketchy and mostly tainted by his unsuccessful stint with “my” Washington Senators during their last season prior to their abrupt relocation to Texas.  In addition, during this period in American history, opinionated black athletes like Flood and Muhammad Ali, with his opposition to the Vietnam war, were generally broad-brush-painted as “trouble makers” or “malcontents” because they dared challenge the status quo. 

Fortunately, time has softened the rough edges from our collective memories and re-viewed these contributions in a much more noble light.   With respect to Curt Flood, it is also fair to point out that he had flaws, some of which detracted from his legitimate legal pursuits.  However, on balance, Flood’s contribution to the more equitable treatment of athletes remains his lasting legacy and, in my opinion, an underappreciated one.

There is a recent book on Flood that tells the entire story–Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports by Brad Snyder

Link to Snyder’s book website

Snyder, a lawyer and baseball writer, gives an account of St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood’s failed though influential suit against Major League Baseball, offering both a sturdy revision of Flood’s biography and a polemical defense of the pro-player fight of which Flood was a part. Benefiting from a lawyer’s pen, the intricacies of the terms “reserve clause” (which bound players “to their teams for life”) and “baseball’s anti-trust exemption” are quickly and clearly explained, as the world of 1960s Major League Baseball is brought to life. Before “free agency,” players had few rights; after the 1969 season Flood fought being traded to Philadelphia, taking his battle to the Supreme Court. While the narrative drags at points, the stories of those central to Flood’s case (like Marvin Miller, director of the Player’s Association, and Arthur Goldberg, Flood’s chief lawyer) are vividly rendered. Most compelling, however, is the portrait of Flood’s humble upbringing (in working-class Oakland) and the racism he experienced during his early years on the field (“name-calling, segregated facilities, and second-class citizenship”). This account both serves to explain why Flood was “serious about sacrificing his playing career to sue baseball” and helps reposition Flood as a successor to Jackie Robinson’s “lifelong battle against injustice.”  Publishers Weekly

Below is an excerpt from wonderful blog post about Curt Flood by Mark Anthony Neal.

Though Curt won his seventh Gold Glove, in October of 1969, after his twelve years with the team, the Cardinals decided to trade Flood and three teammates to the Phillies under baseball’s standard Reserve Clause. The reserve clause was a part of players’ contract that bound the player, one year at a time, in perpetuity, to the club owning his contract. So began the battle that made Flood, the “father of free agency.” In a dangerous career move, Flood famously resisted the trade, sacrificing a $100, 000 salary and the continuation of his storied career. After consulting with the Players’ union, Flood submitted a landmark manifesto to baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, demanding that he be declared a free agent: He stated, “It is my desire to play baseball, in 1970 . . . I have received a contract from the Philadelphia Club but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs.

Here is the entire article from the Bangor Daily News, 7/13/10 p. A6

Before ‘The Decision’7/13/10

Before “The Decision,” the July 8 ESPN show in which Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player LeBron James announced he would sign a contract with the Miami Heat, there was another decision. Almost 40 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case that pitted St. Louis Cardinal outfielder Curt Flood against Major League Baseball. Though Mr. Flood did not win the case, he helped turn the tide so NBA stars like Mr. James are able to weigh $100 million offers from a half-dozen teams.

Mr. Flood, who played from 1956 to 1971, was a three-time all-star and seven-time Gold Glove winner whose lifetime batting average was a respectable .293. After playing for the St. Louis Cardinals for 11 years, the team traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies. In an unprecedented act of defiance, Mr. Flood refused to report to the Phillies. But this was not the act of a spoiled and petulant professional athlete.

It’s important to understand the relationship between players and teams in those days. In baseball, team scouts found prospects in high school, college and in semipro leagues, and signed them to contracts. Once the player signed, he was bound to the team for his professional life, unless he was traded or retired. Professional football and basketball teams drafted players from college; those players, too, had not choice but to sign with the team that drafted them and stay for the duration.

After refusing to report to the Phillies, Mr. Flood wrote MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in late 1969, demanding to be declared a free agent: “After 12 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. 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.”

The commissioner denied the request, Mr. Flood sued claiming MLB had violated anti-trust laws, and the case ended up in the Supreme Court. The court ruled 5-3 (one justice who owned stock in Anheuser-Busch, which owned the Cardinals, did not vote) to uphold the existing arrangement. No active players supported Mr. Flood during his battle, and after he returned to baseball in 1971, he was harassed by some of them.

Yet a decisive blow had been struck. Four years later, when two pitchers who hadn’t come to terms with their team played an entire season after their contracts had expired, an arbitrator ruled they could become free agents. This spelled the end of the reserve clause in professional athlete contracts, enabling players to opt-out after a prescribed number of years as free agents.

In 1998, Congress approved the Curt Flood Act, which banned baseball’s anti-trust exemption that allowed the reserve clause. For that, and for Curt Flood, LeBron James and the other big-ticket free agents should be grateful.

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