How Curt Flood Changed Baseball and Killed His Career in the Process

Most black baseball stars—Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks—were all but invisible during the Civil Rights movement, so Flood's activism was years ahead of its time. When it came time for him to take a stand on being traded to Philadelphia, he was ready. "I do not regard myself as a piece of property to be bought or sold," he famously told Commissioner of Baseball Bowie Kuhn in a letter in which he requested the right to be a free agent. Kuhn, echoing the court decisions of previous years, replied that he was sympathetic to Flood's feelings but "simply did not see how that applied to Major League Baseball."

Flood's teammates and colleagues were skeptical of his suit and did not support him; on the day he testified only two former players, Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg, stood by him. No active players were there—not even Flood's outspoken teammate Bob Gibson dared to support him, all fearful of retaliation from the owners.

What Miller thought was an impossible goal turned out, heart-breakingly, to be within reach. When the decision was announced in 1972, Flood lost 5-3, but only after Judge Lewis Powell, who was sympathetic to Flood, withdrew from the case because of what he called conflict of interest - he owned stock in Anheuser-Busch, whose principal owner, Augie Busch, owned the St. Louis Cardinals. If Powell had remained, Flood could have won a 5-4 decision, but his withdrawal, combined with Chief Justice Warren Berger's 11th-hour switch from Flood's side to baseball's, killed Flood's case.

In effect, the court ruled that yes, Flood should have the right be a free agent, but that baseball's antitrust exemption could only be removed by an act of Congress and that free agency for players should be attained through collective bargaining.

That is precisely what happened. Because of the pressure that Flood's suit brought to the baseball owners, Miller and the union were able to bargain for binding arbitration on grievances. And, finally, in 1976, when pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally agreed to play a season without a contract, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled them free agents. Overnight, the system that Miller called feudal, the one that had ruled baseball virtually since its professional organs, collapsed.

Prophets of doom and gloom about the future of the game could be seen on every sports page, but in the end, the Players Association worked out things with management, and salaries sky-rocketed—along with profits, it turned out, as fans liked the exciting new era of free agency and the players it brought to their teams.

As Miller had predicted, Flood never benefited from the revolution he helped begin. High-strung and sensitive, Flood had been a heavy drinker practically since the time he became a professional ballplayer, and by the early 1970s he was an alcoholic. His first marriage fell apart in the mid-1960s from the combination of alcohol abuse, long stretches away from home, and the animosities his unwavering Civil Rights stance inspired. After the Supreme Court decision, he was bombarded with hate mail from fans who accused him of trying to destroy baseball; his teammate Bob Gibson estimated "He got four or five death threats a day."

Flood left the country and opened a bar in Majorca, Spain, frequented by American sailors. Plagued by increasingly debt, including unpaid child support, and guilt that he had been a bad father, Flood was finally admitted into a Barcelona psychiatric hospital. His sister sent him the money to return to the U.S. In one of the most moving scenes in the documentary, journalist Richard Reeves says, "Being with him at that time was like poking your finger in an open wound. He was a broken man and bleeding."

And yet, Flood managed to pull some strands of his life back together. He married a former girlfriend, Judy Pace, and reestablished contact with his children.

Recognition came late. In 1992 Flood was given the NAACP Jackie Robinson Award for contributions to black athletes, and in 1994, in perhaps the most satisfying moment of his life, he gave a speech on solidarity to the players as they prepared to go on strike. The players gave him a standing ovation. It was almost 25 years to the day that he had announced his suit against baseball.

Decades of smoking and drinking finally caught up to him. Early in 1995, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. The Players Associating, urged by former legal counsel Dick Moss, paid his medical bills. He died on January 20, 1997, two days after his 59th birthday. Jesse Jackson's funeral eulogy stands as his epitaph: "Baseball didn't change Curt Flood. Curt Flood changed baseball. He fought the good fight."

Presented by

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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