Curt Flood Belongs in the Hall of FameBreaking News
tags: baseball, African American history, labor history, Curt Flood, Reserve Clause
One of the most consequential episodes in the history of American sports began with an All-Star Major Leaguer’s simple wish to avoid the Philadelphia Phillies.
The year was 1969, and not only were the Phillies next-level terrible, but they had signed their first African American player only 12 years ago, in 1957. The team’s fan base also had a reputation for being hostile and racist. So it was no wonder that Curt Flood, a superstar center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, balked when he learned that he’d been traded to Philly. Flood wasted no time in registering his objection with MLB’s commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, writing, “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.”
As uncomfortable as Flood’s allusion to slavery may have made some people feel, the comparison was apt. Frederick Douglass wrote in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, that enslavers often used sports to manipulate enslaved people. Douglass was keenly aware that if enslaved people were rewarded with “holidays” to play ball, wrestle, and run, they would be discouraged from rebelling against their inhumane conditions. He was creating an important narrative: If Black athletes were distracted by sports, then fighting for equal treatment, liberation from bondage, dignity, and respect would become less of a priority. All that was needed to tame a revolution was to give enslaved people just enough occasional privileges. Flood, however, was unwilling to accept financial success in exchange for his silence. His fight for worth and choice was hugely controversial at the time. It ended his career. It also became the foundation on which generational wealth for Black athletes was built.
Flood’s reasoning was logical: He was extraordinarily good at his job, and he deserved to have a say in his career. In a January 1970 interview, the sports broadcaster Howard Cosell asked Flood how he could compare his rift with professional baseball to slavery when he was making $90,000 a year. “A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave,” Flood told Cosell. And in his now-famous letter to Kuhn, Flood said that being traded violated his “basic rights as a citizen” and was “inconsistent with the laws of the United States.” Kuhn denied Flood’s request not to be traded, and Flood responded by suing the league, claiming that the sport’s reserve clause—which meant that a team controlled a player’s rights in perpetuity—violated antitrust laws and enforced involuntary servitude.
Although Flood lost his case in the Supreme Court in 1972, his decision to challenge Major League Baseball changed the sport, and created a wave of momentum for professional athletes to control their career. Three years later, the MLB adopted free agency. Both the NBA and the NFL had their own versions of reserve clauses. In 1970—the same year that Flood filed suit against MLB—the NBA legend Oscar Robertson sued the NBA to revoke its reserve clause.
After six years, the NBA finally agreed to a settlement that brought free agency to pro basketball. However, unrestricted free agency didn’t come to the NFL until 1992. These battles over free agency are still relevant today—what Flood stood for has fortified college athletes who are now fighting for their right to be paid for the work they do.
I’ve frequently returned to Flood’s story, and his tenacity, over the course of my career as a sports journalist—to understand both the power dynamics within professional sports, and the position Black athletes occupy in American culture. Flood’s legacy is also personal for me. Now that I’m venturing into entrepreneurship as a co-owner of a production company and building a Spotify podcast network for Black women, Flood’s struggle to be valued is one that drives me to push for control whenever possible. Ownership doesn’t always come in the form of actually owning a business; sometimes it’s about maintaining control of how one’s talents are used. Flood understood that some level of ownership over his talents was a path toward equality.
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