On May 29, 1922, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren handed down a unanimous decision stating that major league baseball is a sport, not a business and as such there was no interstate commerce of which would be a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.
In essence the Supreme Court decision gave owners of baseball teams the right to buy and sell players regardless of player objections. Baseball players would stay with one team their entire career unless the team traded or sold them to another team which has become known as the reserve clause in baseball.
Over the next 40 years, several additional legal challenges against the reserve clause were filed and they all ended in failure. Major League Baseball had a lock on players’ careers and the only recourse players had was to accept being a slave to owners or leave the game they loved.
In 1965, a group of players turned to an economist with the United Steelworkers of America union, for help. His name was Marvin Miller. Miller immediately began working with baseball players to help them form their own labor union.
In 1968, Miller worked with the young players’ labor union to negotiate the first collective bargaining agreement in any professional sport. Before the agreement, the minimum salary for a major league player was only $6,000, which is equivalent to around $41,000 a year in today’s dollars. Miller got baseball owners to agree to raise the minimum salary to $10,000, which is equivalent to about $69,000 a year base salary in today’s dollars.
In 1970, Miller also helped players and owners to agree to an arbitration system to resolve grievance.
In 1969, the baseball season and playoffs had ended. The St. Louis Cardinals worked out a deal with the Philadelphia Phillies where the Cardinals would trade centerfielder Curt Flood, catcher Tim McCarver, outfielder Byron Browne and relief pitcher Joe Hoerner to the Phillies for infielder Dick Allen, pitcher Jerry Johnson and second baseman Cookie Rojas. It was pretty much a done deal when Flood objected to the trade. He sent a letter to then baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn requesting to be granted free agency, but Kuhn turned him down.
Flood went to Miller and told him that he wanted to sue Major League Baseball in a challenge of the reserve clause, claiming that he should be a free agent to decide his career for himself. Miller warned him that every attempt had failed, but Flood insisted. Flood asked Miller if he won the case if it would help other players and Miller replied:
“I told him yes, and those to come.”
Miller told Flood that the case would likely end his career but Flood wanted to go ahead for the sake of all baseball players. Flood was not new to being an activist. In 1962, while playing for the Cardinals, Flood moved his family from the Oakland area to Mississippi so he could be closer to his heroes Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jackie Robinson. Flood took part in a number of civil rights protests organized by the NAACP.
The case of Curtis C. Flood, Plaintiff, v. Bowie K. Kuhn, Individually and as Commissioner of Baseball, et al., Defendants. Ended up in the United States District Court, Southern District of New York.
On August 12, 1970, the court ruled against Flood, preserving the reserve clause and owners grip on players’ careers.
On January 27, 1971, Flood and his attorneys argued his appeal before the United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit.
On April 7, 1971, the Court Appeals also ruled against Flood and protected baseballs reserve clause.
On March 20, 1972, Flood’s lawsuit against baseball was argued before the United States Supreme Court. Flood had never been a quitter and vowed to fight to the end for his right to have a say in his baseball career.
On this day, June 19, 1972, the Supreme Court issued their ruling, siding with baseball and the reserve clause. Curt Flood had lost his final bid to overturn baseball’s reserve clause. The three years of legal battles against MLB did destroy Flood’s baseball career. He managed to play 13 games in 1971 for the Washington Senators, but that was the last of his professional baseball career. However, Flood’s case made everyone in baseball aware of the issue of free agency and the reserve clause.
In 1976, Pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally played the season without a contract. At the end of the year, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that the two pitchers were now free agents. From that point on, baseball’s reserve clause fell away to free agency and the face of major league baseball was changed from that point on.
Sadly, the lawsuits and alcohol had taken all of the fight out of Curt Flood. He had been a heavy drinker throughout his baseball career, the drinking increased. Flood moved to Spain where he tried to open a bar in Majorca, that venture was not successful and between the debts he incurred with the bar and unpaid child support, Flood ended up broken and admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital in Barcelona. Receiving money from his sister, Flood returned to the US and remarried.
In 1992, he received the Jackie Robinson Award from the NAACP.
In 1994, Flood delivered a moving speech to MLB players as they were preparing to go on strike.
In 1995, Flood was diagnosed with throat cancer, caused by his drinking and smoking.
On January 20, 1997, Flood lost his final battle and died, just two days after his 59th birthday. There is no doubt that Curt Flood sacrificed himself and his career for the benefit of every baseball player to play the game after 1977.
Sources for the above includes: Flood v. Kuhn, 316 F. Supp. 271 – Dist. Court, SD New York 1970; Flood v. Kuhn, 443 F. 2d 264 – Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit 1971; Flood v. Kuhn, 407 US 258 – Supreme Court 1972; Curt Flood Case Decided; Flood v. Kuhn; History of the Major League Baseball Players Association; How Curt Flood Changed Baseball and Killed His Career in the Process; Today, May 29, 1922: Major League Baseball Wins Supreme Court Case; Curt Flood.