50 years ago today, Curt Flood challenged MLB’s reserve clause

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On December 24, 1969, Curt Flood sent a letter to then-MLB commissioner, Bowie Kuhn. The letter was to let Kuhn know that Flood did not believe he could be traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies, that the rights the Cardinals had over Flood — rights he had agreed to by signing with them — should not immediately transfer over to the Phillies, a team he did not agree to play or relocate for.

It was the start of something significant, and also, in essence, the end for Flood in Major League Baseball. He knew that going in, though, knew that by sending this letter to Kuhn, and later fighting MLB in the courts over his right to free agency, that even if he won, he had lost something. Flood knew all of that — executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association Marvin Miller made sure, repeatedly, that Flood knew the score in this regard, and wrote at length about that in his memoir — and yet, he sent the letter and challenged MLB in the courts, anyway. We don’t talk about Curt Flood enough, you know.

Here, 50 years to the day after the sending of that letter, we can be sure to talk about Flood and his fights, though. He wasn’t some random player with nothing to lose from challenging MLB’s reserve clause, which, at least in the minds of MLB’s owners and in practice, gave them perpetual control of the players they signed for as long as the teams wanted them. He was a quality defender in the outfield, and while his career at the plate started slow — Flood became a regular at 20 years old but didn’t truly settle in offensively until he was 23 — the end result was impressive enough. He had amassed over 42 wins above replacement, per Baseball Reference’s calculations, through 1969, his age-31 season. Jim Rice, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009, managed 47 WAR before retiring following his age-36 campaign. J.D. Drew, who will never enter Cooperstown without buying a ticket first, finished his career in his mid-30s with 45. Flood was pretty close to those figures in his early 30s, and was coming off of a nearly four-win season at the time he was traded to Philly.

Despite this, despite the fact Flood made pretty decent money for the time,the system did not sit well with him, and he intended to fight it. It was the right thing to do, and that’s not always the easy thing to do. Flood himself said that, with regards to his fight against MLB, that “a well-paid slave is, nonetheless, a slave.”

The letter itself is brief, but memorable. If you’ve never read the whole thing, you likely know portions of it just from hearing or seeing them in writings elsewhere. The whole thing is available to read in archives around the internet, but I’m going to include the text here as well:

Dear Mr. Kuhn:

After twelve years in the Major Leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.

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.

Sincerely yours,

Curt Flood

Short, powerful, and of course, all of that was ignored by Kuhn. The commissioner’s response contained his usual strategy of expressing bewilderment in order to avoid making him seem like anything besides a neutral arbitrator located at the exact midpoint between the interests of the players and the owners:

Dear Curt:

This will acknowledge your letter of December 24, 1969, which I found on returning to my office [on December 29].

I certainly agree that you, as a human being, are not a piece of property to be bought and sold. That is fundamental in our society and I think obvious. However, I cannot see its applicability to the situation at hand.

You have entered into a current playing contract with the St. Louis club which has the same assignment provision as those in your annual Major League contracts since 1956. Your present contract has been assigned in accordance with its provisions by the St. Louis club to the Philadelphia club. The provisions of the playing contract have been negotiated over the years between the clubs and the players, most recently when the present Basic Agreement was negotiated two years ago between the clubs and the Players Association.

If you have any specific objection to the propriety of the assignment, I would appreciate your specifying the objection. Under the circumstances, and pending any further information from you, I do not see what action I can take and cannot comply with the request contained in the second paragraph of your letter.

I am pleased to see that you desire to play baseball in 1970. I take it this puts to rest any thought, as reported earlier in the press, that you were considering retirement.

Sincerely yours,

Bowie Kuhn

The fundamental disagreement here is that Flood believed the system was both rigged and broken, and somehow exempt from upholding his basic human rights. Flood was not just a ballplayer, but an artist who had spent years building a network in St. Louis — notice the “Curt Flood Studios” letterhead his letter to Kuhn was typed on. Now, without any choice in the matter at any stage outside of his initially signing on to play pro ball as a teenager, he was not going to be allowed to be that person in St. Louis anymore, because the town’s baseball team was finished with him and could sell off his perpetual rights elsewhere. Kuhn, who worked for the owners despite his feigned bipartisanship, obviously saw no issues with the system that allowed this, which is why he didn’t find Flood’s citation of his rights as a human being applicable, and where all the extreme “You KNOW I am sensitive to the Holocaust. BUT!” energy in his second paragraph comes from.

In short, Flood’s argument was about what was wrong with the system and right for a person. Kuhn’s argument was about what was legally permissible. The two were never going to agree with each other on this, and even if Kuhn did actually agree, his career choice as a management tool would never allow him to admit as much on the record.

The disagreement in these letters would inevitably take the form of Curt Flood v. Bowie Kuhn, which challenged MLB’s antitrust exemption and reserve clause in early 1970, but ultimately failed. Still, it brought the matter further into the public consciousness, and helped set the stage for the successful challenge of the reserve clause by Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally just a few years later. Kuhn, in his response to Flood above, cites the first collective bargaining agreement as an implied approval of the reserve clause system by the players, but the truth was that Marvin Miller and the union knew the reserve clause was unjust and needed to be dealt with. The problem was just that they didn’t have everything they needed to win that battle just yet, and that there were dozens of other disputes for the early MLBPA to focus on, too: Flood was the first attempt at directly challenging the reserve clause, Messersmith and McNally the second.

Flood, of course, should be in the Hall of Fame for his actions that helped pioneer the landscape of MLB and players’ rights as we know them. That obviously was never enough to sway voters, not even in conjunction with an impressive career cut short. Like with Marvin Miller, who was only recently inducted into the Hall of Fame, the system doesn’t want to reward those who challenge it, and challenging the system, more than his playing career, maybe more so than with any other player, is why you know the name of Curt Flood all these years and decades later.

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