History treats some people better and others shabbily and for baseball star Curt Flood’s children, they believe their father was given a raw deal and even now. Flood was a gifted and formidable player, who made three World Series appearances, won two World Series championships and was heralded by Sports Illustrated in 1968 as the best center fielder in baseball.
He was the winner of consecutive Gold Gloves from 1963 to 1969 setting a major league record for consecutive chances and games by an outfielder without an error. All of these were sure to make inducting him into the Hall of Fame a forgone conclusion except when he chose to be an activist for the community of players, and also to afford himself the opportunity to ply his trade at where he wanted at the best terms.
What stood in the way was the Reserve Clause which prevented players from selling their talents to the highest bidder. Such a system certainly worked to the owners’ advantage by keeping their labor costs artificially low and their profits artificially inflated.
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“Unless I have misread history, we have passed the stage where indentured servitude was justifiable on the grounds that the employer could not afford the cost of normal labor,” Flood said.
When Flood was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies in a seven-player deal in October 1969 after 12 solid seasons in St. Louis, he declined to report to his new team.
Philadelphia’s often hostile and sometimes racist fan base was not lost on Flood as was their shoddy performance on the field. Two months after the trade, having eschewed repeated attempts by the Phillies to get him to sign a contract, Flood—in a letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn—demanded to be made a free agent.
Flood held that he was not a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of his wishes and that the Reserve Clause violated his basic rights as a citizen.
“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 decision. I, therefore, request that you make known to all Major League clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.”
When Kuhn rejected the request, Flood sued baseball and although many active players privately supported him; they lacked the courage to support him publicly. Other players and former big leaguers also opposed the suit.
No active player appeared in court at any time to support him. It was only an aging and ailing Jackie Robinson who showed up and the maverick owner Bill Veeck.
Flood v. Kuhn went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Flood lost in a 5-3 decision (with one abstention) in 1972. Having turned down the $100,000 salary for 1970 and declined the trade, Flood sat out the 1970 season.
Having sat out the previous season coupled with the drain of the lawsuit, financial troubles and drinking disease, Flood got traded to the Washington Senators, but was a shadow of the stellar player he was and so left the team midseason.
Flood’s resistance was not in vain though. Baseball owners saw reason and agreed to an arbitration system. That system terminated the reserve clause in 1972. Three years later, two white pitchers, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, won arbitration, effectively setting free agency in motion.
Flood’s children Debbie, Gary, Shelly, Curt Jr. and Scott excluding Gary who is late reckon when a free agent signs a lucrative contract, or a star refuses a trade or forces his way out of an undesirable situation, their father’s sacrifice and fight bears fruit.
The curious thing, however, is that baseball has not forgiven Flood for a courageous act of defiance that emboldened previously timid players.
The sprawling baseball establishment resented what Flood stood for. “They hated that he was smart, a free thinker, aware of the world and conscious of the Civil Rights fight that was going on outside of the baseball field,” Scott Flood said.
The Flood children believe their father even in death is still being blackballed, asserting that despite his playing credentials, he’s been denied a Hall of Fame induction even as a contributor.
With the court battle effectively ending Flood’s career at age 32, Flood lived out of the country, mostly residing in Spain and Denmark. The children are extending his legacy through the Curt Flood Foundation, letting more people know about the heroic sacrifice he made decades ago.
Flood was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1995. Chemotherapy and throat surgery left him unable to speak. He died in January 1997 at age 59.
Not always there for his children because of divorce and traveling schedules while playing, Flood’s relationship with his children was rough, which was later fixed.
“He tried to reconcile the relationship with each one of us,” Debbie Flood said. “Some of the discussions were very difficult, but he really did work at trying to resolve all the issues before he left out of here.”