In 1879, just fourteen years after the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution freed the remaining slaves in the United States, baseball established its first formal reserve clause, a rule that essentially tied a player to his team for life. That sounds a little like slavery. And it wasn’t until 1922 when the U.S. Supreme Court even heard the baseball’s antitrust case in Federal Baseball Club v. National League. Of course, the Court upheld the antitrust exemption, saying, basically, that baseball was a game, not a business. Since it was a game, it wasn’t subject to interstate commerce laws, and thus, not forced to allow its employees the freedom to choose where they would make their livings.
Not surprisingly, the “game” of baseball, with the reserve clause in place, did an incredible job at keeping player salaries down. With players having no choice, and thus owners having no competition for the best players, those owners were free to pay essentially what they wanted for their talent. If you want to know why Nolan Ryan made $1 million, why Roger Clement made $5 million, why Albert Belle made $10 million, or why Alex Rodriguez made $25 million, you can thank Curt Flood.
Flood was upset after a 1969 trade from the Cardinals to the Phillies, justifiably, I think. He thought he should have the right to choose his team. In a letter to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn he wrote, “…I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” That letter was the beginning of Flood’s challenge to baseball’s 90 year old reserve clause. Likening the reserve clause to slavery, Flood lost the Flood v. Kuhn case in 1972. But three years later when arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free agents, the reserve clause was done, and the free agency era arrived.
Curt Flood was heroic. It’s hard to think about that today because most of us can’t fathom earning $1 in a year, let alone the MLB average of $4.4 million or the $32.8 million that Clayton Kershaw is earning in 2016. Flood was a good player, not a great one. He was a black man standing up for his rights, and the rights of all baseball players, by not reporting to Philadelphia in 1970. And he wasn’t exactly at the start of his career. The courage it must have taken him is something I can hardly fathom.
Of course, being a hero at the time was no help to Flood. He received plenty of death threats, which I’m going to argue is largely because he was a black man who so publicly bucked the establishment in 1970s America. And while Flood was influenced by the previous decade’s increase in black consciousness, he really challenged the reserve clause as a baseball player, not as a social statement. He fought for the rights of baseball players. He fought to improve the game you and I so love.
As a player, he was crushed by his actions. He was essentially blackballed from the game, in spite of putting up 3.8 and 4.1 WAR the previous two seasons. Let’s try to play out his career a little bit. In 1970, he’d have been 32. If he had four more seasons left of 3.5, 2.5, 1.5, and 1 WAR, we’d have had a somewhat different conversation about Flood. Well, maybe. He’d move into the top-40 in center field, ahead of Hall of Famers Earl Averill, Edd Roush, and Earle Combs. Even without those seasons, he’s ahead of Hall guys Hack Wilson and Lloyd Waner. If we’re insanely positive and give him six more seasons of 3.5, 3, 2.5, 2, 1.5, and 1 he’d be in a virtual tie with Larry Doby, and we’d definitely have a different conversation about his Hall chances.
For his strength of character, his excellence on the field, and the way he changed the game, I wish Curt Flood would have a plaque hanging in Cooperstown. Like Marvin Miller, he deserves it. For now, he’ll have to settle for the Hall of Miller and Eric.
That’s sixteen inducted into the Pioneer/Executive wing, which means there are twelve more to go. Our next inductee will be announced in two weeks. Please check back then for #17.