The Real Decision: Curt Flood’s fight against MLB’s Reserve Clause Opened the Door to Free Agency

15 Aug

Last year, millions of viewers were glued to ESPN for LeBron James’ “The Decision.”

Curt Flood's lawsuit against baseball's reserve clause paved the way for free agency in sports

When James, who was a free agent at the time, announced that he was going to join the Miami Heat, his “decision” was met with scorn and derision from sports fans, especially those from Cleveland who thought his departure from his old Cleveland Cavaliers squad was the ultimate betrayal.

Still other sports fans were outraged by him announcing his decision to play in Miami into an nationally-televised spectacle. But I think somewhere in the heavens there was somebody nodding his head in approval for James’ ability to pick and choose his own team.

That was something that the late Major League Baseball great Curt Flood could not do during his playing days with the St. Louis Cardinals. But his valiant, yet unsuccessful fight against the baseball’s reserve clause, in which a player was not free to negotiate with another team, ultimately paved the way for free agency not just in baseball, but in all sports.

The story of Flood’s fight against baseball’s reserve clause and his outstanding career was the subject of a recent HBO documentary, “The Curious Case of Curt Flood.” It’s something that I hope that sports fans of this era can put into a historical context the move that James made to join the Heat even if you weren’t happy with his decision.

What made Flood’s fight for free agency came at the cost to what was an outstanding career. He is one of the top center fielders of his era (1956-1971) when he challenged the legality of baseball’s reserve clause. He was a three-time All-Star, a seven-time Gold Glove winner, and batted .300 or better six times. He left the game with a .293 life-time batting average. As far as I am concerned those numbers definitely warrant Hall of Fame consideration.

The doors to Coopers town for Flood have been closed because he dared to challenge the baseball establishment. It’s also the reason why he should be in the Hall of Fame.

Flood’s place in baseball and sports history goes beyond what he did on the field. His legal challenge against baseball’s system of binding players to just one team for the life of their career galvanized the Major League Baseball Players Association to insist that free agency be included in the collective bargaining agreement with the owners. Five years after Flood challenged MLB in court, the reserve clause was lifted and free agency became the norm in baseball and in all sports.

In October 1969, Flood, along with three other players, were traded to the Phillies for legendary slugger Dick Allen and two other players. Because Philadelphia at the time was a team with a poor record and a fan base with a reputation for being belligerent and racist, Flood refused to report to the Phillies. In a letter he wrote to then MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn:

“After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel 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. . . . “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.”

Rather than play for the Phillies, Flood, 31 at the time, courageously pursued his legal battle against MLB and sat out the 1970 season. In his legal challenge, Flood’s attorneys asserted that baseball’s reserve clause kept wages down and bound a player to just one team and violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act . Kuhn said what Flood was doing was not good for the game.

The case eventually went all the way to U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 5-3 with one abstention in favor of Major League Baseball. Oddly enough, Flood’s challenge of the reserve clause exposed the exploitative relationship that existed between the baseball owners and its player. It spurred people like then MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller tho aggressively push for free agency in baseball.

Flood’s courageous fight against MLB was about athletes having some control over their destiny. His fight was also a reminder to the professional sports establishment that the fans come to see the players perform at a high level and the players should be treated not just as devalued property, but as a viable partner  Athletes like James owe a great deal to Flood because he radically redefined the relationship between players and owners. And that’s the reason that Flood should be enshrined in Cooperstown.

While many of you, especially those who live in Cleveland, may despise James for jilting the Cavaliers, it was ultimately about his freedom of choice to find the best place for him to enhance his career.

That’s something Flood would definitely appreciate.

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