Thursday, January 16, 2014

January 16, 1970: Curt Flood Versus Baseball

On January 16, 1970, with the support of the Major League Players Association, Curt Flood formally filed suit against Major League Baseball as he challenged baseball's reserve clause. The clause basically took all freedoms from a player after they had inked a deal with their respective team, while the team could trade, sell, or release a player whenever they felt it to be in their best interest. In the eyes of Flood he felt it to be unjust and that a player should have a right to choose where he would play. It was a fight that Flood did not necessarily win but it was a battle that would forever change the landscape in baseball.

The wheels were set in motion the moment the Cardinals decided to trade Flood in October of '69, it was a package deal that sent Tim McCarver, Byron Browne, and Joe Hoerner to Philly for Dick Allen, Cookie Rojas, and Jerry Johnson. After Flood refused to report to Philly the Cardinals would end up sending Willie Montanez and a minor leaguer by the name of Jim Browning in his place. However, the can of worms had been opened. On Christmas Eve in '69 Flood wrote a letter to Kuhn stating that he believed he should have a choice in the matter and that all clubs should be able to bid for his services. Kuhn refused to grant Flood his wish saying that the trade would stand as it should since he was under contract. Flood thought otherwise and a lawsuit was imminent.

The names in the Federal lawsuit included all 24 owners, the presidents of both the National and American League's, as well as the commissioner of baseball Mr. Bowie Kuhn. It would end up costing the embattled centerfielder a year in his career as the suit worked its way through the legal system before ending up in front of the Supreme Court. The nation's highest court heard the case on March 20, 1970, it took more than two years for a ruling and Flood returned to baseball following the '70 season. He was traded by the Phillies to the Washington Senators and would appear in just 13 games in with the team before deciding to retire at the age of 33.

On June 19, 1972, the court ruled in favor of Major League Baseball, and it looked like a baseball score with Flood losing his fight 5-3. The court upheld a ruling from 1922. While he had been defeated a change was on the horizon, not that it did much for Flood himself. After the decision he saw a marriage fall apart, battled alcoholism, and was looked at by many as an enemy in the world of baseball. While many will remember him for the fight he took on, nobody but those closest to him could tell you about the toll it took on not only him but his family as well.

On a nice summer day this coming year, I will be sure to tell you about one of the great games that Flood played in a career that is to be admired. Today, I will give you a quick summary of his career in a Cardinals uniform. In December of '57 the Reds shipped him to St. Louis, the next season the 20 year old cracked the big league roster.  He developed quickly into what many consider the best centerfielder of his generation. He won 7 consecutive Gold Gloves beginning in 1963 and he could hit as well. A .293 career hitter, Flood hit over .300 six times, he was a key component in two World Series Titles in '64 then again in '67 and on many summer days in the city of St. Louis he gave fans a reason to cheer. Unfortunately some chose to remember an error during Game 7 of the '68 World Series that might have just cost the Cardinals a championship. The error ended up leading to three runs for the Tigers who won that game 4-1. It truly is unfortunate. Flood, a normally sure handed outfielder, who at one point had set a record by going 568 chances without an error which spanned over a record setting 226 games. Each of those records has since been surpassed but it does give you a glimpse into just how good he was.

Flood came into the '69 season looking for a raise, he had made $72,500 in '68 and came to Gussie Busch asking to be paid $90,000. He did get the money but he had also severed a tie with the owner of the ballclub who considered him to be ungrateful. After that season ended it looked like the time had come for Flood and the Cardinals to part ways and the trade was engineered. Flood might have wanted to get paid what he felt he was due, but he did not want to leave the City of St. Louis. The choice he made to take on baseball's reserve clause did not only end his days in St. Louis, it also led to the premature end of an absolutely great career.

As the old saying goes "We might have lost the battle, but we did not lose the war" this can be true in the case of Curt Flood if the word we was removed in the latter part of the saying. He lost the battle while others won the war. In 1975, Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith were granted free agency after a federal arbitrator upheld the individual bargaining rights of the players and granted them free agency. With the owners seeing the writing on the wall they agreed to essentially end the reserve clause in the next collective bargaining agreement. The war had been won.

As stated before, Flood was considered by many to be the best centerfielder in the game for more than a decade. He had helped the team achieve great success while having great success of his own. His battle did forever change the landscape of baseball and in my humble opinion he deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame. I do understand statistical arguments but I do think that when we talk Hall of Fame that a player's impact on the game on and off the field should be recognized. For me, it is a travesty that his family has not been able to celebrate that day when he is recognized among those that will be immortalized forever. There is no doubt that Flood will also be immortalized as his story will be told to future generations to come but until he has his rightful spot in Cooperstown, New York, the Hall of Fame will be missing a key piece that played a huge part in the history of the great game that we call baseball.

If that day comes and the powers that be get it right, I know for fact that his family will appreciate it more than I could ever tell you. I would think it would be a bittersweet moment since Flood passed away in 1997 at the age of 59. I'm sure the tears would flow for his daughter and many others who have tried to argue the case that Curt Flood belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Today we hear and read about players signing contracts that are beyond the stars. As we sat back and watched Albert Pujols pack his bags for Anaheim after the 2011 season many looked down upon his decision to do so. Personally, in the name of Curt Flood I could not do that. By celebrating the life of Curt Flood and the battle he fought it is important to realize that each and every player is their own man, nobody owns anyone. If a player chooses to take more money elsewhere it is their choice, much like it is my choice to change employers at my discretion. I would feel like a hypocrite if I celebrated the life of Curt Flood then disparaged those who were able to use the rights that he had fought so hard for. I do realize this might not be the popular opinion but it is my opinion nonetheless. I hope that every time a free agent picks up a pen that is a signature away from making him rich beyond his wildest dreams they are aware of the battle that Curt Flood fought.

I usually try to stay away from these becoming opinion pieces but I feel strongly about Curt Flood and his contributions to the game. If I see the day when he is inducted I might just make the trip.

If you would like an in depth look at the definition and history of the reserve clause take a look at this: http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/reserve_clause

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