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Flood v. Kuhn changed the world

Brian Young's picture
Jul 31, 2015

This year, marks the 45th anniversary of a player willingly putting their career on the line to help their fellow players have a better quality of life.   While these union members can thank their respective Player’s Associations for instituting player safety regulations, a pension, and healthcare baseball players often look to one player who stood up to the bosses and changed the game forever, Curt Flood.

In the 1960’s Curt Flood hit over .300 6 times and won 7 Gold gloves during his 12 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals.  The lifetime .292 hitter helped to lead the Cardinals to 1 World Series Championship and helped make the Cardinals a powerhouse in the 1960’s.  That made it all the more difficult for Flood when on October 7th 1969 he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies.  The Phillies of the 1960’s were a bad team, in a beat up stadium, with extremely tough fans.  Flood did not want to leave the perennial playoff powerhouse Cardinals to play for a cellar dweller, but had little recourse due to Major League Baseball’s reserve clause.  The reserve clause said that after a player’s contract expired, the team still owned the rights to the player, meaning that players could not go out and sign their own contracts with other teams and had no recourse to block a trade.  They belonged to the team until they were traded or released. 

Flood, angered by the trade, contacted the MLB Commissioner’s office and demanded that he be made a free agent.  After Commissioner Bowie Kuhn denied his request, Flood was faced with a choice to report and play or sacrifice his $100,000 (roughly $607,000 in today’s dollars) salary.  With the support of Marvin Miller, President of the MLB Players Association, and the union agreeing to cover the cost of the lawsuit, Flood sued Major League Baseball for the right to choose which team he played for. Flood knew the consequences of what might happen, but he was still willing to take a stand.  From an excerpt in The Atlantic:

When Flood came to Miller, his mind was already made up. "I told him," recalls Miller, "that given the courts' history of bias towards the owners and their monopoly, he didn't have a chance in hell of winning. More important than that, I told him even if he won, he'd never get anything out of it—he'd never get a job in baseball again."

Flood asked Miller if it would benefit other players. "I told him yes, and those to come.

He said, 'That's good enough for me.'" When Miller realized that Flood understood the odds against him and was still determined to go ahead with the case, he told him, "You're a union-leader's dream."

The case, which became known as Flood V. Kuhn, made its way to the Supreme Court who in 1972 sided with Major League Baseball in a 5-3 decision ruling that because MLB had a previous anti-trust exemption, they could continue to create these restrictions on players’ movement.  The decision, which was seen as quite controversial, seemed like a loss for Flood and the players union, but their fortunes changed in 1973. 

In 1973, the National Labor Relations Board decided to look at the case and ruled that MLB was in fact under their purview.  3 years later, the board ruled, in the Seitz Decision, that players could become free agents after playing for 1 year without a contract.  This led to a new rule in the 1976 Collective Bargaining Agreement, which allowed player who had played 6 years to become free agents.

At this year’s Hall of Fame ceremony, Curt Flood was once again remembered. Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins, "With the sacrifice he made, basically losing the end [portion] of his career by not playing and then having a problem with a lot of lawyers, he made a lot of these ballplayers millionaires with free agency. I think he is one of the individuals who changed the game."  As part of the ceremony, the Hall of Fame honored Curt Flood a player who may never make it into the Hall but one who has contributed more to the players and the game than most people who were elected.  Tony Clark, MLBPA Executive Director, delivered the remarks saying "We are fortunate that our game and our foundation has been laid on the backs of giants," Clark said. "And if we understand and appreciate and respect that, and understand and appreciate the sacrifices that were made, we'll understand and appreciate the sacrifices that Curt Flood made. We will all be better for it." 

45 years later, Major League Baseball has not crumbled, but they have become a multi-billion dollar business.  The players are now able to peddle their wares to whomever they want and salaries are reaching some of the highest levels ever seen.  As Hall of Famer Rod Carew said “I hope all the young kids understand what Curt did for us. He gave us the opportunity to get better payment. The kids today especially should understand what Curt went through for them.” 

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