Before the so-called "Seitz decision," in 1975, brought an end to Major League Baseball's "reserve clause," the individual players, whether they be stars or bench-warmers, were the property of the team. They were, literaly, chattel, or slaves, who had little to no rights to negotiate their salaries nor were they allowed to offer their services to other professional teams.
Now, don't get me wrong here, by the standards of the time, the players were paid relatively well; but their wages were miniscule in comparison to the amount the team owners were raking in. Baseball ownership engaged in blatantly monopolistic business practices; but were protected from the Sherman and Clayton anti-trust acts by the 1922 Supreme Court Ruling, The Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore, Inc. v. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs which basically said that baseball didn't fall under the jurisdiction of anti-trust legislation.
So, despite a number of lawsuits which sought to throw out the reserve clause, no one was able to make a dent in it until Curt Flood chose to become a sacrificial martyr for his fellows. If you aren't an avid baseball fan or aren't from St. Louis, you may be asking, "Who is Curt Flood?"
Curt Flood was, by most standards, arguably the best centerfielder during his playing prime. According to Wikipedia:
A three-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove Award winner, Curt Flood hit .300 or better six times during his 15-year major league career. Arguably the quintessential number two batter, Flood had a lifetime batting average of .293. Lou Brock even called Curt Flood a primary reason for his great success during the prime of his career. As a fielder, Flood was exceptional, and once went 226 consecutive games without making an error.
Curt Flood's greatest years were with the Cardinals. He had a league-leading 211 hits for the Cardinals in 1964, and played on his first of two World Series championship teams that season. Though not usually thought of as a power hitter, Flood had 11 home runs and 83 runs-batted-inWorld Series championship. In 1968, he finished fourth in the balloting for Most Valuable Player on the strength of a .301 batting average and 186 base hits. Ironically, had he not misjudged a Jim Northrup fly ball in the seventh game of the 1968 World Series against the Detroit Tigers, the Cardinals might have won their third championship of the decade. It was ruled a base hit. in 1966. In 1967, he hit for a .335 average in helping the Cardinals to another
Despite the uncustomary gaffe, Curt Flood was a solid contributor in all three World Series the St. Louis Cardinals played in that decade, scoring 11 runs and driving in 8 runs.
However, despite his stellar (and some would argue, Hall of Fame-caliber) performance during his career, Curt Flood's legacy was one of sacrifice. Believing that Major League Baseball's decades-old reserve clause was unfair in that it kept players beholden to the team with whom they originally signed for life, even though players had satisfied the terms and conditions of those contracts.1
It is that sacrifice which was most interesting to me. When he sued Major League Baseball, it became evident that the game had taken advantage of an impoverished, young, poorly-educated, black man. Flood's attorneys were quickly able to show that the reserve clause was nothing more than another form of slavery.
The testimony and arguments were powerful. When Flood v. Kuhn ran its course through the judicial system, Curt Flood eventually lost. But the case opened the eyes of players and the public. The players struck in 1972 and by 1975, the reserve clause was history.
Unfortunately, for Flood, he didn't share in the millions that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have reaped as a result of his sacrifice; but that is the price of martyrdom.
The original article I wrote about Flood for The Journal of the Georgia Association of Historians (v.25, 1997) has been archived online as a PDF file by Colorado State. Click HERE to read the article online.