Curt Flood deserves induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But he won’t be among the inductees of the 2020 class, which includes Derek Jeter, when they are honored in Cooperstown, New York, on Sept. 8.
Flood is one of the most important pioneers in sports history. He is responsible for Major League Baseball’s free-agency system that has resulted in players earning exorbitant contracts and having the right to change teams. His contributions on the field were also impressive. Flood’s career spanned from 1956 to 1971. During that period, he played for the Cincinnati Reds (1956-57), the St. Louis Cardinals (1958-69) and the Philadelphia Phillies (1971).
The center fielder was a three-time all-star (1964, 1966, 1968), seven-time Gold Glove Award winner (1963–1969), had a lifetime batting average of 293, collected 1,861 hits, 85 home runs and 636 RBI. Playing for the Cardinals with all-time greats, pitcher Bob Gibson and left fielder Lou Brock, Flood was a two-time World Series champion, winning in 1964 and 1967. The following year the Cardinals made the World Series again, losing in seven games to the Detroit Tigers.
After the 1969 season ended, Flood was included in a blockbuster trade between the Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies, ending his 12 years with the Cardinals. But he refused to accept the trade to the Phillies. Flood then fought baseball’s reserve clause in the U.S. Supreme Court. The reserve clause, first adopted by the National League in 1879, contractually bound players to their teams once they signed and restricted them from signing with another team. Therefore, owners could retain players’ rights for their entire Major League career.
Flood demanded that MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn declare him a free agent. In December of 1969, he wrote a letter to Kuhn stating, “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.”
Flood’s refusal to report to the Phillies were reminiscent of the actions of legendary labor leaders A. Phillip Randolph and Cesar Chavez. He further expressed to Kuhn, “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.”
The commissioner denied Flood’s request for free agency. The Houston, Texas born and Oakland, California raised activist then filed a $1 million suit against Kuhn and MLB in 1970, claiming they were violating antitrust law. He sat out the 1970 season fighting for his contractual freedom. Flood became a target of hate mail and death threats.
Flood v. Kuhn was argued in front of the Supreme Court in March of 1972 with the Court ruling 5-3 in favor of baseball in June of the same year. A ninth justice, Lewis Powell, recused himself because he owned stock in the Cardinals parent company Anheuser-Busch. Flood officially retired at the age of 33 in April of 1971 after playing only 13 games for the Washington Senators. He passed away from pneumonia at 59 in 1997.
Flood’s fearlessness and determination, and the tenacity of Marvin Miller, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966 to 1982, led to the league agreeing to free agency in 1976. But Miller was elected to the 2020 Hall of Fame class and will be inducted in September’s ceremonies while Flood’s family still waits for the call.