Curt Flood and Free Agency – The End of the Reserve Clause

When Derek Jeter reaches 3,000 hits in May or June of 2011, it will be something we, as a viewing public, might not see again in our lifetime. Today, one rarely sees a player play their entire professional sports career with one team. Player movement has been brisk since the mid 1970s.  And, most likely, it will continue to be in the future. Although the 1969 court case of Curt Flood failed to win him his own freedom, Flood began a three year journey to escape from a contract that never set him free. The case, however, would pave the way for others to take their talents to the highest bidder.

Curt Flood in his heyday

Curt Flood signed with the Cincinnati Reds at the age of 18 in 1956. Two other players from his high school team would make it to the majors; Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson. In those days, every player was a free agent to start their career. There was no amateur draft in 1956. Flood saw little action in the majors his first few years. In 1958, Flood was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. He was only 20 years old. The next few years saw Flood develop into a top flight defensive center fielder for the Cardinals. From 1963-1969, Flood won seven straight gold gloves for his defensive prowess and appeared in three all-star games. His hitting improved from year to year although he never did display much power in an era dominated by pitching.

1969 was a pivotal year for Flood. Flood was traded that winter to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood did want to report to the Phillies. Flood began to explore his options. Feeling like a slave tied to a contract that had expired, he felt he was free to go wherever he could ply his trade. Unfortunately, the Reserve Clause forbid it. The reserve clause, standard in sports contracts, stated upon the expiration of a contract the player had two choices:
1. Negotiate a contract for the same team
2. Ask to be released or traded
The Phillies did not wish to trade or release Flood. Instead, Flood wrote Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn the following letter:

December 24, 1969

After twelve 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.

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.

Kuhn said no to Flood’s request. Flood sued Kuhn for his freedom. The case lasted three years. In 1970, Flood did not play for anyone. In 1971, Flood played his final season for the Washington Senators following a trade there. It was not a good one. The court case continued to its way through the court system. At the heart of the matter, Flood just wanted to do what average Americans could. Any employee could apply with another employer and find a new job elsewhere to improve wages, working conditions, or improve conditions for his/her family. The reserve clause prevented such freedom for athletes.

In 1972, the case made it to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Baseball and the commissioner. The court sided with the league’s anti-trust exemption. In a 5-3 vote, Flood was financially devastated. The case had taken most of his finances. He would struggle to make ends meet the rest of his life.

Flood and Union Chief Marvin Miller

Despite Flood not gaining his own contractual freedom, he paved the way for many others. In 1975, less than three years later, a federal judge ruled that since two players, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, played without a contract for one year, they were free agents. And the era of free agency officially began. Flood’s case may have not benefited himself financially, but today’s athletes owe their millions to Curt Flood.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton and Congress passed the Curt Flood Act of 1998.  Its purpose was to state that “major league baseball players are covered under the antitrust laws.” Clinton stated:

October 27, 1998

Today I am pleased to have signed into law S. 53, the “Curt Flood Act of 1998.” This legislation is the successful culmination of bipartisan efforts to treat employment matters with respect to Major League Baseball players under the antitrust laws in the same way such matters are treated for athletes in other professional sports.

It is especially fitting that this legislation honors a courageous baseball player and individual, the late Curt Flood, whose enormous talents on the baseball diamond were matched by his courage off the field. It was 29 years ago this month that Curt Flood refused a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. His bold stand set in motion the events that culminate in the bill I have signed into law.

The Act appropriately limits baseball’s special judicially created antitrust exemption by expressly applying the antitrust laws to certain conduct of Major League Baseball; the applicability of the antitrust laws with respect to all other conduct is unchanged. The Act in no way codifies or extends the baseball exemption and would not affect the applicability of those laws to certain matters that, it has been argued, the exemption would legitimately protect (including franchise relocation rules and the minor leagues).

The Act does not in any way limit the standing of the United States to bring an antitrust action. The antitrust laws protect the public’s interest in the efficient operation of the free market system, thereby protecting consumers, and the United States has standing to sue to enjoin all violations.

It is sound policy to treat the employment matters of Major League Baseball players under the antitrust laws in the same way such matters are treated for athletes in other professional sports.

William J. Clinton The White House, October 27, 1998

Resources

Books

Alex Belth: STepping Up

Robert M. Goldman: One Man Out: Curt Flood versus Baseball

Brad Snyder: A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports

Newspapers

NO CHANGES NECESSARY, SAYS KUHN
Chicago Tribune; May 29, 1970

Supreme Court to Hear Flood’s Suit
GLEN ELSASSER
Chicago Tribune; Oct 20, 1971

FLOOD TO SUE FOR RESERVE CLAUSE TEST
Chicago Tribune; Dec 30, 1969

U.S. Delays Decision in Flood Suit
Chicago Tribune ; Feb 4, 1970

Court Denies Flood’s Injunction Request
Chicago Tribune; Mar 5, 1970

U. S. Judge Rules Against Curt Flood
Chicago Tribune; Aug 13, 1970

Flood Case in Court
Chicago Tribune; Mar 21, 1972

Journal Articles

http://scholarship.law.marquette.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1428&context=sportslaw

Reconsidering Flood v. Kuhn; Ross, Stephen F.

http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/WCPD-1998-11-02/pdf/WCPD-1998-11-02-Pg2150.pdf

Websites

http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=407&invol=258

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/law/supreme_court/blackmun/blackmun_opinions.html

http://espn.go.com/classic/biography/s/flood_curt.html

http://money.cnn.com/2006/11/20/commentary/sportsbiz/

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/13/sports/baseball/the-curious-case-of-curt-flood-revisits-a-suit-against-baseball.html?_r=0

http://congressionalresearch.com/98-820/document.php?study=Curt+Flood+Act+of+1998+Application+of+Federal+Antitrust+Laws+to+Major+League+Baseball+Players

http://clinton6.nara.gov/1998/10/1998-10-27-statement-by-the-president-on-curt-flood-act-of.html

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13 thoughts on “Curt Flood and Free Agency – The End of the Reserve Clause

  1. Pingback: Spencer Haywood v. NBA – A Turning Point for the Draft | The History Rat

  2. Pingback: Is Free Agency in Baseball Dead? | The History Rat

  3. Mr. Johnson,
    would you be able to answer a few questions over email about Curt Flood. This is for a school project that I am creating.

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