Some say it has enhanced sports, while others claim it has destroyed the games we love. Some franchises have used it to better their organizations yet others have foolishly misused it. No matter where you stand on the issue of free agency, it truly has changed the game. But there is one historical fact that no one can argue, every athlete that has benefited from free agency owes a debt of gratitude to the late St. Louis Cardinals Curt Flood.
Most baseball players are known for what they accomplished on the field first and foremost. Flood was a defensive standout who won two gold gloves, led the league in put outs four times and fielding percentage twice while covering the spacious Busch Stadium grounds. He wasn’t too shabby with the bat hitting close to .300 for his career. Yes, he was a five tool player with some impressive stats. But Flood will not be remembered for the stats on the back of his baseball card.
Flood’s impact on the National Pastime goes way beyond stats. Following 1969 season Flood refused to accept a trade to Philadelphia, which set the wheels in motion for breaking down baseball’s long standing reserve clause. That clause restricted any player from moving from one team to another without his existing team’s consent basically making the player in question an indentured servant.
This allowed baseball franchises to treat players as they saw fit regardless of the player’s production. Just to show you how the teams abused this rule, Joe DiMaggio won the MVP one year and the Yankees forced him to take a pay cut the following season. Now if Joe D didn’t have any leverage, how do you think the other players were treated?
Flood refused to report to the Phillies in 1970 forfeiting over a $100, 000 in the process. He had several public confrontations with Cardinals Management during his last season there which many believed that led to him being jettisoned from St. Louis.
After a consultation with Players Union President Marvin Miller, Flood decided to take on the reserve clause in court after the Players Union stated that they would pay for his legal expenses. Miller saw this as the Union’s opportunity to finally challenge the reserve clause. After a written request to declare Flood a free agent was denied by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Miller filed a million dollar anti-trust law suit, Flood v. Kuhn (407 U.S. 258) indicating that the reserve clause limited a players ability to maximize their earning potential according to Flood’s attorney former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg. Jackie Robinson, who faced a similar situation with the Dodgers, baseball legend Hank Greenberg and Chicago White Sox Owner Bill Veeck all testified on Flood’s behalf. It was interesting that none of the active players went to bat for Flood, although a Flood victory would have been in their best interest.
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court which ultimately ruled in favor of Major League Baseball. Three years later, however, an arbitrator Peter Steitz struck down the clause due to the fact that pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally played an entire season without a contract. He ruled that they should have become free agents.
This ruling allowed players, in all professional sports, to move freely to the highest bidder once their existing contract expired. The Yankees George Steinbrenner reaped the benefits as well as the pitfalls of free agency. He rebuilt the fledgling Yankees with the signings of Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter. However, future signings like Ed Whitson and Danny Tartable almost ran the club towards ruins. Jackson and Hunter had the moxy to win and thrived in New York, where as Whitson and Tartable folded under the pressure. The Washington Redskins Owner Daniel Snyder has spent millions on over the hill free agents with nothing to show for it. There is no exact science regarding a team achieving success with this concept. However, one thing is for sure every player has profited from Flood’s sacrifice.
Flood would take that sacrifice to his grave. He would return to baseball in 1971 accepting a trade to the Washington Senators where he would retire at the end of that season. He was basically blackballed from baseball for the rest of life. He did return to baseball as an announcer for the Oakland Athletics in 1978 and would become involved as a partner with the United Baseball League. However, the stress stemming from financial problems and excesses drinking and smoking took their toll on his health. He would succumb to throat cancer in 1995.
After witnessing the behind the scenes dealing of professional sports, I’m all for the players getting as much as they can get from these owners. There are retired athletes in their 40’s and 50’s who can not get out of bed until 12 noon due to injuries they’ve suffered and played through during their careers. Free agency allows them to maximize their earning potential during the short time which they can capitalize on their remarkable skills. I just wish that some of them could think of Curt Flood as they floss and gloss at their introductory press conferences, after they’ve signed their lucrative free agent contracts.