Forty years ago this spring, the baseball player's union was just finding its legs. Marvin Miller became the first executive director of the Players Association and would eventually become one of the most influential men in the history of the game. Miller's campaign to educate his constituency and their subsequent efforts to battle the men who ran the game coincided with the most turbulent days of the 1960s. The nascent disputes between labor and ownership would compete with box scores for ink during this period, and no single player embodied this battle more forcefully than Curt Flood.
When Curt Flood was traded by the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies at the end of the 1969 season, he decided to sue Major League Baseball on the grounds that their antitrust exemption -- awarded in the infamous 1922 Supreme Court decision, Federal Baseball -- was illegal. Flood was 31 at the time and presumably still had several productive seasons left in him. He earned $90,000 in 1969 and was offered just over $100,000 to play for Philadelphia in 1970 (only 10 other players in the game earned $100,000 or more in 1970).
When Howard Cosell told Flood that $90,000 a year wasn't exactly slave wages, Flood replied, "A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave." By forcing the issue onto the front pages of the newspapers across the country, Flood exposed baseball's reserve system -- which bound players to their teams in perpetuity -- as antiquated and immoral. Flood's case made it all the way to the Supreme Court by 1972, where it was narrowly defeated. The court conceded that baseball's exemption was "an aberration" and "an anomaly" but wasn't prepared to overturn Federal Baseball.
Several years later, the reserve system did come to an end, but by that time, Flood was far removed from the game. Over the course of time, Flood's impact has faded; his act of courage was like a flare burning brightly in the night only to dissolve into memory by morning. Flood is more than just a footnote however, and deserves to be remembered as an outstanding player and a man with the conviction to stand up for what he believed in.
Flood isn't entirely forgotten but he is often recalled incorrectly. "Curt Flood, he was the first free agent," you will often hear, or "Flood, his case led to free agency, all of these millionaires owe him." Literally speaking, neither of these are true. As historian Bill James has noted, the only thing Flood's case led to in the courts was a legal dead end. But that doesn't mean that Flood's efforts were in vain. He was the most prominent player to ever attack baseball's reserve clause and in doing so revealed the inequities of the system in a way that had never been done before.
"In the long run, the Flood case will prove to be a turning point in the battle against the reserve clause, not a defeat," Leonard Koppett wrote in The Sporting News shortly after the Supreme Court defeat. "It has already accomplished two enormous things for the players. It has been an educational process for players and public, spelling out the real issues and real alternatives, and it has forced the club owners to bargain on the reserve clause, an offer they rigidly resisted until the Flood case began."