Flood, Curt 1938—
Curt Flood 1938—
Retired professional baseball player, executive
Although he amassed an impressive record as an outfielder and hitter while playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, Curt Flood is known more today for his precedent-setting challenge of major league baseball’s reserve clause in 1970. Flood’s suit against major league baseball over the rights of players to determine their own value on the open market opened the door to greater player rights in the decades that followed.
Flood came into baseball in the mid-1950s during an era when blacks were still relatively uncommon in the major league ranks. After entering the minor league system of the Cincinnati Reds, he faced discrimination as the only black on his team in the Carolina League. While playing in the South, Flood was denied entry into gas station restrooms and faced other indignities because of his race due to Jim Crow laws. “I used to break into tears as soon as I reached the safety of my room,” he said of this era in The Hard Road to Glory. “I felt too young for that ordeal.”
After being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1956, Flood improved steadily to become one of the mainstays of the team. By 1964 he was considered by many to be one of the best center fielders in the major leagues. Armed with other high-quality players such as pitcher Bob Gibson and outfielder Lou Brock, the Cardinals won the National League pennant that year and defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series.
Helping to maintain the Cardinals as a contender during the 1960s, Flood generated exemplary statistics as a fielder. During one stretch he set a major league record by playing 223 consecutive games without an error, for a total of 568 flawless fielding chances in a row. The Cardinals won the pennant again in 1967 and 1968, and beat the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 World Series. During those seasons, Flood finished fourth and fifth in batting in the league, with averages of .335 and .301. In 1968 Flood’s status as a player was well publicized by his appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which declared him the best center fielder in the major leagues.
Although Flood did not become actively involved in the rising black militancy in sports in the late 1960s, he supported the trend. “Few of us black ballplayers have time to be actively militant,” he said in the June issue of
Born Curtis Flood, January 18, 1938, in Houston, TX; five children. Education: Attended College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland, CA.
Signed first major league contract with the Cincinnati Reds; traded to St. Louis Cardinals, 1956; studied commercial painting, 1959–1961; led National League in at bats, 1963, 1964; played in World Series, 1964,1967, 1968; became accomplished portrait artist; set up own photographic art business; sued major league baseball over reserve clause, 1970; sat out entire baseball season, 1970; played briefly for Washington Senators, 1971; retired from baseball with a career batting average of .293, 1971; became radio broadcaster for Oakland Athletics, 1979; served as commissioner of the Fantasy Major League Slo-Pitch Softball League, Florissant, MO, late 1980s; became vice president of the United Baseball League, early 1990s. Author, with Richard Carter, of The Way It Is, Trident Press, 1970.
Selected awards: Set record for consecutive fielding chances without an error (568); received Rawlings Gold Clove Awards for fielding excellence, 1963–69; led National League in runs (112), 1963; led National League in hits (211), 1964; named to National League All-Star team three times.
Addresses: Office—c/o United Baseball League, 575 Madison Ave., 3rd FI, New York, NY 10022.
Ebony in 1968. “We aren’t organized so we don’t stand for any position on an issue. But some of us support the militants. I know I do but I can only speak for Number 21.”
Flood had demonstrated some talent in drawing as a child, and he had worked in an engraving firm in his home town of Oakland, California. After taking some art training in the late 1950s, he honed his artistic talent into a marketable skill as a portrait painter that earned him the nickname of “Rembrandt” among his fellow players. His artistic sideline really took off after he did a painting of August Busch, Jr., the Cardinals owner, which Busch displayed in his yacht. By the late 1960s Flood was rendering three to four portraits every two weeks, at a price tag of $250 to $300 per painting. Many of his portraits were of his fellow players and their families.
“Baseball and painting make a good balance,” he told Ebony. “Baseball is virile. It’s rough and tough. Painting is sensitive, quiet. It’s an outlet to overcome tension.”
After the 1968 season, the Cardinals offered Flood a new annual salary of $77,500, which was rejected by the center fielder. Flood demanded a salary of $90,000, which the club agreed to after he held out for a short time. By his lofty standards, Flood had a sub-par year in 1969 when he batted only .285 and the Cardinals dropped to fourth place in the league. Still smarting from the salary dispute before the season, Cardinals owner August Busch, Jr., decided to trade him that fall to Philadelphia with some other players. Flood had been with the team since 1958 and had a variety of business interests in the St. Louis area, and he did not want to be forced to leave. “There ain’t no way I’m going to pack up and move twelve years of my life away from here,” he told a friend, according to Lords of the Realm.
The reserve clause that gave team owners total control over a player’s professional life had been a sore point for years with players, and the Major League Players Association had already made attempts to change it. Flood and his lawyer, Allan H. Zerman, approached Marvin Miller, director of the Association, to see if the Association would support Flood’s rejection of the clause. Flood’s position was that the clause represented involuntary servitude, and was therefore unconstitutional.
At a meeting of player representatives held in Puerto Rico in December of 1969, Flood got unanimous support for his quest. For Flood’s counsel, Miller secured the services of Arthur Goldberg, who had previously been a secretary of labor and an associate justice of the Supreme Court. On Flood’s behalf, Goldberg challenged baseball’s antitrust exemption, which had been upheld by the Supreme Court back in 1922.
The opening salvo in Flood’s attack was a letter to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn demanding an end to the reserve clause. When Kuhn denied the request, Flood sued him, the presidents of the National and American Leagues, and all 24 major league clubs. The case came to trial in New York City in May of 1970, while Flood was forced to sit out the season as the trial progressed. In August Flood’s position was shot down by District Court Judge Irving Ben Cooper. Flood’s legal team then appealed the case to the Supreme Court.
Despite the fact that his case was pending at the time, in 1971 Flood agreed to sign a traditional contract with the Washington Senators because he was eager to play baseball again. However, his best years were behind him, and he retired at the age of 33 after playing in only 13 games that year and managing just a .200 batting average. Among the impressive statistics he had logged during his career were six seasons with a batting average over .300, three appearances on the National League All-Star team, and seven consecutive Rawlings Gold Clove Awards for fielding.
In 1972 the Supreme Court ruled against Flood’s suit in a 5-3 decision, claiming that baseball was a sport and therefore not accountable to the same laws as businesses. Despite the decision, it took only a few years for Flood’s challenge to help change the status of professional players. In 1975, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally filed successful grievances that allowed established players to sell themselves on the open market. These landmark events heralded highly competitive bidding by teams that sent the salaries of quality players soaring.
In 1979, Oakland Athletics owner Charles Finley hired Flood to broadcast the team’s games on radio. Flood later served as the commissioner of the Fantasy Major Slo-Pitch Softball League, an indoor, eight-team league started in 1987 that played inside the Jamestown Sports Complex in Florissant, Missouri. Flood helped to recruit former major league players to play in the league.
During the protracted baseball strike of 1994 and early 1995, Flood made his opinion of the situation clear. “Baseball can only win its fans back if it doesn’t try to force replacement players on its public,” he said in The Sporting News in 1995. “I think it would be unfair of Major League Baseball to invite anyone into their stadiums and not offer the highest caliber of player possible. I think that’s asking too much of the fans.” “You know what the real problem is?” continued Flood in the article. “Baseball has become a corporate holding. There are too many men outside of the game who make the most critical decisions. Baseball has become an industry for lawyers.”
Flood’s disgruntlement over the evolution of major league baseball was a key motivation to his getting involved with the planned formation of the United Baseball League. He aired his justification for a new league in the April 1995 issue of Sport. “The American baseball fan deserves one,” he wrote. “For no other reason than to prevent what has happened to baseball from ever happening again. Too often the fans have been subjected to whims and abuses that occur when a handful of men monopolize and control an industry.”
According to Flood, the aim of the United Baseball League was to set up an equal partnership between owners and players in both the profits and equity of the clubs. He hoped that this sharing would prevent the combative relationship that took over in major league baseball. Flood also said that the new league would promote equal opportunity for different racial groups at all levels. “In truth, the owners have always had an adversarial relationship with their players as well as each other,” said Flood in Sport.
Flood felt that this relationship was made even worse by the fact that most investors in baseball were from industries outside baseball, and that these investors think of players as laborers who can be easily replaced. “Finally, I need an alternative league,” he continued in Sport.” I, too, am a baseball person, and it breaks my heart to see the grand old game get sucker-punched by gambling, drugs, collusion, corporate takeovers, strikes, greed and power plays. I can’t sit idly by and acquiesce. My family and I owe baseball a huge debt. It’s payback time.”
Curt Flood has had a double impact on baseball, with his sterling performance as a player and by his resistance against the status quo that paved a more lucrative path for the next generation of players. As Mark Portugal of the Houston Astros told Sport in 1994, “He [Flood] was the first free agent. He set a precedent for free agency. Players back then weren’t making as much money.…Today’s players should be very grateful for what he did.”
Ashe, Arthur, Jr., A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete Since 1946, Volume 3, Amistad, 1988, pp. 20–22.
Flood, Curt, and Richard Carter, The Way It Is, Trident Press, 1970.
Helyar, John, Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball, Villard, 1994, pp. 107–110, 246.
Schlossberg, Dan, The Baseball Catalog, Jonathan David Publishers, 1980, p. 301.
Solomon, Abbot Neil, Baseball Records Illustrated, Chartwell Books, 1988, pp. 151–152.
Ward, Geoffrey C., and Ken Burns, Baseball: An Illustrated History, Knopf, 1994, pp. 339, 410.
Ebony, June 1968, pp. 143–145; July 1968, pp. 70–76; March 1970, pp. 110–111.
Encore, July 1973, pp. 62–63.
Jet, July 13, 1972, pp. 56–57.
Sport, February 1988, p. 79; January 1994, p. 12; April 1995, p. 43.
Sporting News, January 15, 1990, pp. 37, 40; January 2, 1995, p. 32.
Sports Illustrated, June 8, 1992, p. 68.
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