50 Years Later: Curt Flood's historic sacrifice for fellow players
Curt Flood’s widow, Judy Pace Flood, MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark, and Miami Marlins outfielder Curtis Granderson have shared with the Players Association their thoughts and recollections about Flood’s legendary challenge of the sport’s reserve clause and its impact on the game and players’ rights. Although his significant on-field contributions to the game may fade over time, Flood’s heroic personal and professional sacrifices will never be forgotten.
Through the 1969 season, Curt Flood’s last before challenging the reserve clause, he had posted a .302 career batting average and was widely recognized as having succeeded Willie Mays as the game’s best defensive center fielder. He had earned seven straight Gold Glove Awards and set a record for consecutive games without an error by an outfielder.
Flood was known in the game as a soft-spoken superstar on the field, a fast, slender guy who chased down line drives in the gaps and stole hits from them.
It wasn’t until his selfless challenge of the reserve clause – an automatic one-year contract renewal in the standard player’s contract that, in the club owners’ view, tied players to their clubs in perpetuity -- that he also became known to players as their hero.
When Flood was traded by the Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies on Oct. 8, 1969, he balked at the idea that he was a commodity whose rights were owned by others.
Flood consulted with the Players Association’s founding Executive Director Marvin Miller and traveled to the union’s Executive Board meeting in early December where he secured his fellow players’ unanimous support.
Miller and the players on the Executive Board wanted to ensure that Flood fully understood the ramifications of his stance and that he had the wherewithal to stick with his position even though the odds were stacked against him.
Recalled Miller: “He (Flood) thought about that a little while and he said, ‘But if we won the case, wouldn’t that benefit all the other players?’ And I said, oh yes. ‘And all the players to come?’ And I said, oh yes, and he said, ‘that’s good enough for me.’”
When he returned from the Executive Board Meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Flood served notice to Major League Baseball that he would challenge the reserve clause.
“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,” Flood wrote in a Dec. 24, 1969 letter to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, requesting the right to consider offers from other clubs.
Given that Flood came into baseball in the 1960s during the tumultuous civil rights struggles in the United States, it was of little surprise that he and other African-American players emerged at the forefront of the union’s leadership and struggles for player rights.
"He gave it all up for the principle of 'I own me. No one else can own me and tell me where to go and when to go.'"
- Judy Pace Flood
Flood eventually lost his case before the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-3 decision in June 1972. But by then the players were well-attuned to the struggle for free agency – a right taken for granted in any other professional occupation – and were not going to be denied.
Flood forced the door open, which served to inspire and encourage other players to question the status quo in their fight for free agency. Today, 50 years after the trade that would lead to that Supreme Court ruling, Flood’s courage and determination lives on in the lives of all professional athletes who have enjoyed the benefits derived from his sacrifice.
"His character, his understanding, and appreciation of the responsibility that he had, and was willing to take, is something that all of us as players owe a debt of gratitude,” said MLBPA Executive Director, Tony Clark. “I would even go as far as to suggest not just the players in baseball, but the players in other sports, owe (Curt) a debt of gratitude."