On Juneteenth, Remembering Curt Flood's Supreme Court Loss OTD in 1972, a Defeat that Forever Altered MLB

John Hickey

Today is Juneteenth, commemorating the day in 1865 when slaves in Texas learned they were free in the wake of the 1962 Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln and the North’s military victory over the South in the Civil War.

Baseball has its own reason to remember June 19 and the sport's version of slavery. It was on this day in 1972 that the United States Supreme Court ruled that Major League Baseball’s reserve clause binding players to teams essentially for life was legal.

Curt Flood grew up in Oakland in the same McClymonds High outfield that produced Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson. Flood, an outfielder, became a three-time All-Star, the winner of seven consecutive Gold Gloves and a two-time World Series winner with the St. Louis Cardinals. But he's most well-known for suing baseball in the person of then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn after the Cardinals traded him to Philadelphia following the 1969 season. 

In a Christmas Eve, 1969, letter to Kuhn, Flood asked be declared a free agent, able to sign with any team.

“I do not believe I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes,” Flood wrote. “I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decision.”

Kuhn denied the request. And while baseball players had chafed against the constraints of the reserve clause for years, Flood actually did something, going to his personal attorney and then to Marvin Miller, the driving force and executive director of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, before finally filing suit.

While Flood sat out the 1970 season, forfeiting his $100,000 salary, the legal arguments got going with Flood’s side comparing the reserve clause to slavery.

In an interview with Howard Cosell, the broadcaster pointed out that Flood was making the then-princely sum of $90,000 per year, which Cosell said, "weren't exectly slave wages." Flood said "a well paid slave is nonetheless a slave."

The case wound its way to the Supreme Court where Kuhn and MLB were awarded a victory in the form of a 5-3 decision. However, Flood actually had come agonizingly close to winning. Justice Lewis Powell felt he had to recuse himself because he owned stock in Anheuser-Busch, the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals.

That left eight men to rule, and they were split 4-4. In the end, Chief Justice Warren Burger, who had sided with Flood originally, switched his vote to avoid a deadlocked vote and to get to the final 5-3 decision. Despite his connection to the Cardinals, Powell was sympathetic to Flood’s arguments, and had he not recused himself, it’s possible that Burger wouldn't have flipped and Flood would have won a 5-4 decision.

The win turned out to be pyrrhic for baseball. The Supreme Court’s decision noted that the antitrust exemption awarded to baseball was an anomaly and not offered to any other professional sport. It was that piece of the Flood v. Kuhn ruling that Miller used to continue the fight against the reserve clause. And in 1976, the ruling by arbitrator Peter Seitz that made free agents out of pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, the reserve clause was effectively dead.

“I think the Supreme Court made a mistake in following precedent in the Flood case,” Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the U.C. Berkeley School of Law, said Friday. “And though Curt Flood lost that case, I think ultimately that lawsuit played a key role in the ultimate decision of the arbiter that led to free agency.

“And the result of ending the reserve clause was the right one.”

While the current generation of players owes plenty to Flood for cracking open the door that led to free agency, none of his peers spoke up for him while the trial was underway. Some didn't agree with his stand. Others were afraid of what possible retaliation from the owners.

The two most notable supporters he had were Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg. Pitcher Jim Brosnan and owner Bill Veeck, both out of baseball by that time, stood with Flood. No active player did, nor did any active player come to sit in the gallery. 

Flood would later tell documentary filmmaker Ken Burns he felt abandoned.

"We lost because my guys, my colleagues, didn't stand up with me. And I can't make any excuses for them," Flood said. "Had we shown any amount of solidarity, had the superstars stood up and said, 'We're with Curt Flood,' ... I think the owners would have gotten the message very clearly."

Flood was on his own, and Cardinals pitcher and Hall of Famer Bob Gibson later would say Flood would average five death threats a day. He would play a portion of the 1971 season for the Washington Senators, but his baseball career was finished at the age of 33.

Miller would say later that he and Flood had long discussions before attacking the reserve clause about what a lawsuit would likely mean – banishment from the sport he’d excelled at.

“I told him that given the court’s history of bias toward the owners and their monopoly, he didn’t have a chance in hell of winning,” Miller said later. “More important than that, I told him even if he won, he’d never get anything out of it – he’d never get a job in baseball again.”

Miller said Flood, who was given the NAACP's Jackie Robinson Award in 1992 for his contributions to black athletes, asked him if his lawsuit would benefit other players, and Miller said he “told him yes, and those to come.”

This would be a good time to say that Curt Flood belongs in the Hall of Fame for the benefits he passed on to those who have followed. And, while we’re at it, so does Marvin Miller. They lost the battle, but the war would be won and eventually the players would be slaves no more.

Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3

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