Curt Flood's widow recalls famous federal court trial
Curt Flood had played in three pressure-filled World Series during the previous decade, but the stakes were never higher for the star outfielder than during the trial in federal court in New York from May 19 through June 10, 1970 over his challenge to Major League Baseball's reserve clause.
“You couldn't even use the word nervous. It was completely draining for Curt, mentally and physically,” his widow, Judy Pace Flood, recalled last week. “It was as if his whole world was going to disappear. All that he had worked for, all that he loved, all that he ever wanted to do – those things were hanging in the balance with the outcome of this case.”
The former actress was back in Los Angeles shooting a short-lived television series called The Young Lawyers during the trial, but the couple kept in touch with daily telephone calls. Pace had been with Curt throughout his off-field battle for players' rights and understood perhaps better than anyone the toll it was taking on him.
Pace, who would eventually marry Flood in the mid-1980s, was happy that her brother-in-law, the legendary singer, writer and poet Oscar Brown Jr., and her sister, Jean, were providing support to Flood during his trial. Brown accompanied Flood to court every day and in the evenings Flood would join him at the production of his Broadway musical called Joy.
“It was a devastating situation for Curt, but he knew in his heart that he had to do go through with it,” she said. “It was the principle. He used to say, ‘This is worth more than $100,000 a year' – which was about the amount of salary he was forfeiting.”
The then 32-year-old center fielder was a three-time All-Star who had won seven consecutive Gold Glove awards over a 12-year career when he sued baseball in response to a trade that sent him from the Cardinals to the Phillies on Oct. 8, 1969.
Flood had discussed the matter with his private attorney and with Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Marvin Miller who had invited him to explain his case at the union's board meeting earlier that December in San Juan, Puerto Rico. At the executive board meeting, the players in attendance voted unanimously to support his challenge, including paying for his attorney and legal fees.
“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 letter dated Dec. 24, 1969 to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, requesting the right to consider offers from other clubs. When Kuhn denied his request for free agency, Flood filed his suit, charging that the reserve clause violated antitrust law as well as the 13th Amendment, which barred slavery and involuntary servitude.
Miller followed Flood to the stand on the trial's first day and described the reserve system in baseball. Also testifying on Flood's behalf in the following days were Hall-of-Fame players Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson, as well as former pitcher Jim Brosnan.
“Anything that is one-sided in our society is wrong, and the reserve clause is one-sided in favor of the owners,” said Robinson, the player who had broken baseball's “color barrier” in 1947. “It should be modified to give a player some control over his destiny.”
Judy Pace Flood remembered how much Robinson's testimony and support had meant to Flood, who had made his major league debut with the Cardinals in 1956 – the same year Robinson had retired.
“Curt always thought that the testimony by Jackie was incredible,” she said. “He was moved by the fact that his idol had come to support him. He said he almost began to cry in court when Jackie walked into the room to testify on his behalf.”
Pace also recalled Flood being buoyed by the support he'd received during the trial from
teammates Lou Brock, Dal Maxvill and Bob Gibson, and from other players, like Richie Allen, from around baseball. She said he was comforted by the full-throated support of legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell throughout the proceedings, as well.
“It was very hard on Curt's family, too,” she said. “He was stepping out on the cliff and he knew it was going to affect others, not just him. But Curt knew he was going to go forward with it. He was determined. He knew that this was what he had to do. He felt he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he didn't go through with it.”
Pace said Curt had a feeling of helplessness in a court setting that the star outfielder never felt on a baseball diamond, where at least he could make a defensive play or steal a base or get a clutch hit to help his team win.
“He was in a state of absolute nerves and jitters. He would say, ‘the anxiety is worse than being in the World Series because at least you know what you're up against in the World Series.”
Judy Pace Flood discusses the role the civil rights movement played in late husband's challenge of baseball's reserve clause: