Pro athletes today have Curt Flood to thank for free agency. So, why isn’t he in the Baseball Hall of Fame?
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Baseball’s Opening Day is March 30. This year, like every year, Major League Baseball will go all out to remind Americans that the sport was on the forefront of civil rights. In 1947, trailblazer Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Each April 15—the anniversary of Robinson’s first game—every player wears his uniform number, 42.
What’s typically not mentioned is that most of baseball’s owners at the time opposed integrating their teams and that it took until 1959—12 years later—before all 16 MLB teams had their first Black player. The proportion of Black players on Major League rosters declined from 19% in 1995 to 7% last year. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Dave Roberts and the Houston Astros’ Dusty Baker are the only Blacks among this year’s 30 Major League managers.
Baseball still has a long way to go to live up to the promise of racial justice. One way it can make progress is to elect Curt Flood into the Hall of Fame.
Flood, a Black center fielder who died in 1997 at age 56, sacrificed his career by suing major league baseball over the reserve clause, baseball’s version of indentured servitude. Every professional athlete owes Flood a debt of gratitude.
Instead, the baseball establishment has blacklisted Flood and kept him out of the Cooperstown shrine. But, Flood belongs in baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Flood was deeply influenced by both the civil rights and labor movements. Even before the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA) had any influence, Flood was an eager trade unionist.
“On our first date, over dinner in 1964, he quizzed me about the Screen Actors Guild,” recalled his widow, Judy Pace Flood, a well-known actress during the 1960s and 70s. He was particularly interested in the fact that SAG members had their own agents and lawyers, could negotiate with film studios over salaries and could move to different studios—all things prohibited in Major League Baseball at the time.
Flood, whose first season in the majors was a year after the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, was one of the first ballplayers to get involved with the civil rights movement. “Jackie Robinson was his hero,” Pace Flood told me in an interview. “For Curt, players’ rights and civil rights were part of the same idea.”
When Flood played for a minor league team in Thomasville, North Carolina in 1956, he was prohibited from staying in the same hotels or eating in the same restaurants as his white teammates. He couldn’t use the bathrooms when the team bus stopped at gas stations.
Many Southern fans were not happy with Flood’s presence on the diamonds. “One of my first and most enduring memories is of a large, loud cracker who installed himself and his four little boys in a front-row box and started yelling ‘Black bastard’ at me,” Flood recalled in his autobiography, The Way It Is.
In February 1962, at Robinson’s invitation, then 24-year-old Flood traveled to Jackson, Mississippi to speak at a rally organized by NAACP leader Medgar Evers. He told the crowd of 3,800 that he felt a personal responsibility to fight racial injustice.
Confronting racism as a Black ballplayer
During his playing days, Flood, like other Black ballplayers, faced racist taunts from fans and ostracism from some teammates. Flood knew that bigotry wasn’t confined to the South, but he was shocked by his experience trying to move into an all-white neighborhood in the Oakland suburb of Alamo.
In October 1963, Flood put down a deposit to rent a three-bedroom house for himself, his pregnant wife and their four kids. Once the property owner learned that Flood and his family were Black, he threatened to shoot them if they arrived to integrate the all-white neighborhood. Flood filed suit in Contra Costa County and won a temporary restraining order allowing his family to occupy the home. They arrived accompanied by 11 sheriff’s deputies, several highway patrolmen and two representatives from the state Fair Employment Practices Commission along with many print and TV reporters.
About a dozen white supporters—local women and their children—showed up to welcome the Floods to their neighborhood. After the law enforcement officials determined that the house was safe to enter, Flood addressed the crowd.
“Jackie Robinson was his hero. For Curt, players’ rights and civil rights were part of the same idea.”– Judy Pace Flood, Curt’s widow
“It doesn’t make any difference whether I’m a professional athlete or a Negro or whatever. I’m a human being,” Flood said. “If I have enough money to rent the house, I think I ought to have it.”
He told the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper in 1964, “You don’t do these things if you scare easily, and this time I knew I was legally and morally right.”
After the Floods moved in, white neighbors brought them meals, took them shopping and invited Flood to play golf and bridge, but the Floods continued to get racist phone calls and the Flood children confronted racist taunts.
Flood used his anger at that bigotry to fuel his performance on the field. During his Major League career, which lasted from 1956 to 1969, Flood’s batting average was .293, including the six seasons he batted over .300. (In modern baseball, a batting average of .300 or higher is considered excellent.) He won the Gold Glove Award, as the best defensive outfielder, seven years in a row. He played in three All-Star games and was a catalyst for the St. Louis Cardinals’ three National League pennants and two World Series victories in 1964 and 1967. His teammates selected him as their co-captain each year between 1965 and 1969.
During most of Flood’s career, the MLBPA, the players’ union, was a toothless tiger. Players had no rights to determine the conditions of their employment. That began to change when the MLBPA hired Marvin Miller, who’d been the steelworkers union’s chief economist and negotiator, as its first full-time director in 1966.
Miller instructed ballplayers in the ABCs of trade unionism: Fight for your rights; stick together against management; work on behalf of players who will come after you; prepare yourself—professionally and financially—for life after playing ball; and don’t allow owners to divide players by race, income, or their place in the celebrity pecking order.
Two years after Miller took the union’s reins, the MLBPA negotiated the first-ever collective bargaining agreement in professional sports. Then, in 1970, the MLBPA established players’ rights to binding arbitration over salaries and grievances. From that point on, disputes would be settled by independent arbitrators rather than the MLB commissioner, who worked for the owners. That year, players also won the right to hire agents to negotiate their contracts, a topic Flood had discussed with his future wife years earlier.
Every MLB player had a “reserve clause” in his contract that tethered them to their teams. Contracts, which were limited to one season, “reserved” the team’s right to “retain” the player for the next season. The players had no leverage to negotiate better deals. Each year, the team owners told players, ‘Take it, or leave it.’ Even superstars went hat-in-hand to owners at the end of the season, begging for a raise. Most players had jobs during the off-season to make ends meet. When future Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan broke into the major leagues in 1966, he spent the winter months working at a gas station.
Flood’s battle with MLB
Flood’s battle with MLB started after the 1969 season, when the Cardinals traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies. He didn’t want to move to what he called “the nation’s northernmost Southern city.” The Phillies offered him a $10,000 boost from his $90,000 Cardinals salary. But for Flood, it was a matter of principle, not money. “A well-paid slave is, nonetheless, a slave,” he said.
Flood wanted to sue for his freedom. Marvin Miller, the head of the MLBPA, cautioned him that even if he won a lawsuit, the owners would blacklist him as a player and as a future coach or manager. In his autobiography, A Whole Different Ballgame, Miller recalled: “Curt, to his everlasting credit, said, ‘But, would it benefit all the other players and future players?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘That’s good enough for me.’”
“I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes,” Flood wrote to MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn on Christmas Eve 1969, explaining why he refused to accept being traded. “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 decisions. I, therefore, request that you make known to all the major league clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.”
After Kuhn denied his request to let him negotiate with other teams, the players union backed Flood’s suit against Kuhn and Major League Baseball, arguing that the league’s control over players’ employment violated federal antitrust law and workers’ rights.
In 1972, Flood’s suit reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against him 5 to 3. In writing the majority decision, Justice Harry Blackmun deferred to a previous Supreme Court ruling in 1922 that declared professional baseball was “entertainment” and not a business, and thus exempt from the Constitution’s Commerce Clause. Blackmun argued that it was up to Congress, not the courts, to decide whether baseball was an interstate business. Even so, he described the earlier ruling as an “established aberration.”
Flood’s defiance—with the financial backing of the players union—threatened the owners. As Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley—who joined the major leagues in 1975 and was one of the first players to benefit from the dismantling of the reserve clause—said in an interview with me, “Marvin had the know-how, and Flood had the guts.”
When he challenged baseball’s feudal system, Flood was only 31 and in his prime. And for his protest, he paid a hefty financial and emotional price. It destroyed his career. After leaving baseball, he spent years traveling to Europe, devoting himself to painting and writing, including his autobiography. When he returned to the United States, he worked for a year as a broadcaster for the Oakland Athletics, then briefly found a job overseeing baseball programs for the Parks and Recreation Department in Oakland, his hometown.
Although he didn’t win his lawsuit, Flood’s case educated Major League players about the unfairness of the reserve clause, opening their eyes to the reality that something they took for granted could be overcome. Flood’s legal battle also persuaded many skeptical members of the press about the injustice of the reserve clause. Many influential sports writers and editorial writers attacked the court’s decision.
In 1975, Miller found a loophole in the reserve-clause language that didn’t require going to court. He persuaded Montreal Expos pitcher Dave McNally and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Andy Messersmith to play the entire 1975 season without signing contracts. When the season ended, they filed grievances, claiming the right to free agency because there was no contract for their teams to renew. That December, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of the players, ending the reserve system.
A new era for players’ rights
Thanks to Miller and Flood, players’ wages, benefits, pensions and working conditions have improved dramatically. They have won better per diem allowances, improvements in travel conditions, and better training facilities, locker room conditions and medical treatment.
In 1975, before the start of free agency, MLB’s minimum salary was $16,000, or $92,000 in 2023 dollars, while the average salary was about $45,000 (roughly $257,000 today). This year, the minimum salary is $720,000, although many players who move between the majors and minors during the season don’t earn close to that amount. The average salary is $4.2 million, but that is skewed by the huge salaries of a handful of superstars. The median salary is closer to $1.1 million.
Major League Baseball’s 30 team owners—24 of whom are billionaires—persistently complain that the players’ union and the dismantling of the reserve clause has undermined baseball’s financial condition. But, those teams are currently worth an average $2.3 billion—an all-time high and 12% increase over last year. Teams’ values range from the Miami Marlins’ $1 billion to the New York Yankees’ $7.1 billion, according to recent Forbes Magazine rankings.
For years, many sportswriters and Hall of Fame players have argued that MLBPA leader Miller belonged in the Hall of Fame. But he was kept off the ballot until 2003, 21 years after his retirement. Between 2003 and 2017, his name appeared on the ballot seven times, but the Hall’s corporate-dominated board of directors rigged those elections to keep Miller out, making sure there were enough anti-union owners and executives on the committee to deny him the necessary votes. Miller died in 2012, at 95, and he was finally elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2019, a decision that MLBPA’s executive director Tony Clark called “bittersweet.” He was posthumously inducted at a ceremony in Cooperstown in September 2021.
Now that Miller has a plaque on the wall at Cooperstown, what will it take to get Flood in the Hall of Fame?
The long road to Cooperstown
Flood died of cancer in 1997. Posthumously, he’s been a Hall of Fame candidate three times (in 2003, 2005 and 2007), but the Veterans Committee—stacked with owners and executives—failed to vote him in each time, a victim of the same anti-union corporate baseball establishment that kept Miller out for decades.
In recent years, however, there’s been a growing movement to pressure the Hall of Fame to give Flood his due—partly a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, and efforts by the players’ union to educate the current generation of players and the public about Flood’s significance. In 2021, the MLBPA created an annual Curt Flood Award, given to “a former player, living or deceased, who in the image of Flood demonstrated a selfless, longtime devotion to the Players Association and advancement of Players’ rights.”
In 2020 and 2021, over 100 members of Congress—Democrats and Republicans alike —signed a letter to Jane Forbes Clark, Hall of Fame chairwoman, urging the Hall to elect Flood.
Representatives from the MLBPA, as well as from players’ unions in the National Football League, National Basketball Association, and National Hockey League, signed a joint statement on Flood’s behalf.
“Curt Flood’s historic challenge to the reserve clause a half century ago transcended baseball. He courageously sacrificed his career to take a stand for the rights of all players in professional sports,” said the MLBPA’s Tony Clark.
“Challenging the reserve clause was essential to the blossoming sport we have today, which I believe brings out the genuine competitiveness that we have in baseball,” Cole said. He added: “I just think it’s so important that players know the other sacrifices that players made in order to keep the integrity of the game where it is, and so I hope everybody has that conversation about Curt Flood on the bus.”
Last year, Los Angeles Dodgers star Mookie Betts honored Flood on Twitter: “You stood for US ALL, you changed not only baseball, but all sports! I am forever grateful for your selflessness!”
For Flood to gain entry, the Hall of Fame’s Historical Overview Committee, composed of 10 sportswriters, has to put him on the ballot. Then, 12 of the 16 members of the Hall’s Classic Baseball Era committee (responsible for reviewing figures from the period before 1980) have to vote for Flood. That group won’t convene again until December 2024. But, the Hall has made exceptions to its rules before. It should do so for Flood, especially while his widow, now 80, is still alive.
In addition to reviewing his outstanding batting and fielding statistics, they should base their decision on Flood’s overall contribution to baseball.
The players union should ask all current and retired players, including the 70 living Hall of Fame players, to sign a public letter demanding that Flood be elected to the Cooperstown shrine.
America is in the midst of an escalating struggle against persistent racism and an upsurge of labor activism. Flood was an All-Star player in both those battles, as well as in the game itself.
“If the Hall of Fame recognizes the individuals with the biggest impact on our game,” said the MLBPA’s Clark, “it is undeniable that Curt should be in the Hall of Fame.”