Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Tribute to Curt Flood (One of my Heroes)

(This article appears in the LA Sentinel, 2/25/10 Issue)

Curt Flood’s Supreme Court case paved way for free agency in all sports

By Evan Barnes
Sentinel Sports Editor

After Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, there might be no more influential athlete in the 2nd half of the 20th century than Curt Flood.

Michael Jordan? Arguably the greatest basketball player ever and opened doors for Black athletes as corporate pitchmen. But tell me what he did off the court that was as risky as Flood suing Major League Baseball 40 years ago?

For better or worse, Flood was the father of creating free agency in baseball and all sports. It was a giant step forward from Robinson fighting to get in the door to Flood demanding he and all players have a say inside.

But it cost the St. Louis Cardinals centerfielder his career, reputation, baseball life, Hall of Fame chances and precious years off his life.

It all stemmed from him being traded in 1969 to the Philadelphia Phillies and refusing to report, citing the Phillies’ poor stadium and fans who had a history of being racist toward Black players.

Flood’s resume at that point was without peer. Seven consecutive Gold Gloves in the same era as Willie Mays. A key factor in two World Series rings (1964, 1967) and a third trip in 1968. Hailed as the best centerfielder in baseball by Sports Illustrated and two seasons removed from a 4th place finish for the National League MVP.

Now at 31 years old, he was gone from the city that he had known all his life. He felt disrespected as the team’s co-captain to find out about the trade not from the team owner or general manager, but a sportswriter and what he called a “middle echelon coffee drinker from the front office.”

It was a reminder of the times. Thanks to the Reserve Clause, Flood and every baseball player had no say in where they wanted to play. No matter how well they were paid, they were bound to a team for life unless they were traded at the owner’s whim.

Flood, who made $90,000 in the 1969 season, likened it to being a “well-paid slave” in a 1970 interview with ABC’s Howard Cossell. It was a charged statement coming on the heels of the civil rights movement but for a man of principle who idolized Jackie Robinson, it was not impulsive.

In his now-famous letter to then Commissioner Bowie Kuhn dated on Christmas Eve 1969, Flood stated his opposition to being traded like a pawn in the owner’s chess match without any input:

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.”

He stated that he would retire instead of being traded. After consulting with MLB Player’s Union Representative Marvin Miller, he changed his mind and decided to sue Major League Baseball for violating antitrust laws.

Showing his deep conviction, Flood convinced the union that he was fighting not just for himself, but for all players. He wanted to take power away from the owners and abolish the reserve clause which he saw as inhumane.

He immediately shot down any chance of money changing his motive – he was in negotiations with the Cardinals to make $100,000 in 1970, the sign of his worth as one of the best players in baseball.

“I can’t be bought off,” he told union representatives from every team. “Someone has to do it…I feel I’m qualified and capable of doing it.”

Part of it was Flood influenced by the civil rights movement. But as he told the players’ association, it only made him more sensitive to injustice that affected not just Black people but all people. This was not an issue about race but dignity in giving players more power than the men who determined their moves.

In that moment, he showed himself as not just a frustrated ballplayer, but a man well aware of his surroundings. It led to unanimous support from the association.

He fought against a system that was barely 25 years removed from barring Black players on its field. He found few friends in the press, who overwhelmingly supported Major League Baseball. But among his supporters were the Black press, ABC commentator Howard Cossell and respected sports columnists Red Smith and Jim Murray (LA Times).

Flood filed his lawsuit in January 1970 and in May, he got his trial against Major League Baseball and the reserve clause. The next three weeks, however, saw no active players appear in court to support him or testify on his behalf. Worse, he was ill-prepared as a witness, one of several blunders made by his legal team – led by former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg.

But a high point came when his hero, Jackie Robinson, testified on his behalf. It was a moment of pride as one pioneer in the sport helped another because Robinson recognized the continuation of his goal for equality and recognizing one’s dignity.

He fought for the chance to play with everyone else. Flood, who reaped that benefit, now wanted the chance to negotiate his terms as a player. It brought tears to Flood’s eyes – the man who he played and lived to honor was now in his corner.

But that joy was short-lived. His case in the Second District court of New York went in favor of Major League Baseball. An appeal to the Second Circuit of Appeals affirmed the decision but in 1971, the Supreme Court ruled to hear the case.

By that time, Flood had sat out the 1970 season. He played briefly with the Washington Senators in 1971 but the stress of the proceedings plus missing a season in his 30’s made his tenure short and his career was finished.

He lived in between the United States, Spain and Copenhagen, Denmark. He was running low on money, lost his relationships, and falling into alcoholism. All he had was the hope his case would be heard and his sacrifice would be worth it.

In 1972, Flood v. Kuhn was argued before the Court, one that included Thurgood Marshall. Flood’s argument was defeated 5-3 but the debate over free agency and the clause would intensify. Three years later, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally – both White players – officially became the game’s first free agents.

It is because of Flood’s efforts that baseball players and all athletes are able to receive huge free agent contracts. The NBA free-agent bonanza this upcoming summer would not have been possible without Flood taking his challenge to baseball public.

After the case, he repaired his life and family in Los Angeles in the mid-1980’s –marrying actress Judy Pace after dating previously. His fiery passion never died and despite never getting a job in baseball, he remained tied to the sport – supporting the players in the 1981 and 1994 strikes.

He died on January 20, 1997 at 59 years old of throat cancer. No coincidence that he passed on Martin Luther King Day, a man whose fight for equality for all men embodied what Flood did 27 years earlier.

In 1999, he was named one of Time Magazine’s 10 most influential athletes of the 20th century alongside Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan. It’s noted that of the 10, he is the only one named for what he mainly did outside of the playing field.

His spirit lives on in an ongoing lawsuit by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, who is suing the NCAA over their use of the images of former student athletes for commercial purposes without compensation.

As we conclude Black History Month, Curt Flood remains a forgotten figure by most. Yet his contributions are seen in every big payday for an athlete and in every free-agent signing that leads to a world championship.

It is a reminder of the cost of being a revolutionary and the price he paid for standing for his principles and attacking the hand that feeds you. Shunned while alive, appreciated just before and after your passing but forgotten by the masses today.

And few sports figures embody that word revolutionary more than Flood – a man who fought for the right to play on his terms and paved the way for others to have that chance.

(I received a phone call from Judy Pace today regarding the story. Needless to say I was pretty touched that Flood's wife would call to be pleased with this story and happy her husband got more recognition that he deserves. I'll let you all know how that goes)

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this gem. You're right. All athletes should give thanks to Curt Flood on a daily basis.