CHANGING THE RULES
JANUARY 21, 1997
Curt Flood, who died yesterday at the age of 59, was a star center fielder in his day. A three time all-star player, he set records for error-free fielding during his 12 years with the St. Louis Cardinals. But he will be most remembered for his challenge to the way the business of baseball operated. Margaret Warner discusses the impact of Flood on the game with sports author John Feinstein.
MARGARET WARNER: In 1969, the Cardinals' owner traded Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies, but Flood in an unprecedented step refused to go. Instead, he began a legal fight that would ultimately change baseball and American sports forever. In the 1994 PBS series Baseball, Flood described how he felt when told he was being traded.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
November 27, 1996:
A new labor agreement between baseball owners and players has given home for a comeback for America's game.
October 24, 1996:
During the World Series the NewsHour took a look at the recent ups and downs of baseball.
Browse the NewsHour index of Sports coverage.
ESPNET has a good run-down on the life and legacy of sports labor pioneer Curt Flood.
CURT FLOOD: I often wondered what I would do if I were ever traded because it happened many, many times, and it was "part of the game." And then suddenly it happened to me. I was leaving probably one of the greatest organizations in the world to at that time what was probably the least liked, and by God, this is America, and I'm a human being. I'm not a piece of property. I'm not a consignment of goods.
MARGARET WARNER: For more now on Curt Flood and his legacy we're joined by sports author and commentator, John Feinstein. Welcome back, John.
JOHN FEINSTEIN, Author: Thanks Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: First, before we talk about Curt Flood explain this so-called reserve system that he took on that he just described here.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, basically what it did was it tied an athlete not just in baseball but in all sports, but it started with baseball, to a team for life. The only obligation was really on the player. The owner owned your rights, could trade you, and you could only play for that team for your entire life. The example, if you work for a law firm and somebody offered you triple the money, you just go to that other law firm, but in sports you couldn't lead because your obligation was to the owner of the team forever.
MARGARET WARNER: Your only recourse would be to just walk.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Your recourse would be to not play. You played for that team, or you didn't play at all, and if you didn't accept the contract that you were offered, even if it was for less money, you didn't play.
MARGARET WARNER: So how did Curt Flood's challenge develop and how did it unfold?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, when he got traded, as he said in that clip, he decided that he didn't want to go to the Phillies, and he asked Bouey Kuhn, who was the commissioner of Baseball--Major League Baseball at the time--to declare him a free agent. There was really no such thing as a free agent at the time. Kuhn, who worked for the owners, naturally turned him down, so he went to the union which was run by Marvin Miller at the time, and said, I want to challenge this legally, and Miller told him, you have very little chance to win, but we will support you if you want to do this. He ended up losing in the Supreme Court in 1972 on the basis of baseball's antitrust exemption in a close vote, five to three. His career was already over by then. He tried to come back with the Washington Senators in 1971, played 13 games and retired, but he fought it to the Supreme Court and that's what got the union involved and eventually led to the decision in 1975 by an arbitrator that created free agency.
MARGARET WARNER: And so what impact has that had now on baseball and all sports?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Sports has completely been turned up side down because now players when they sign a contract, their only obligation is for the terms of that contract, whether it's one year or two years or five years. At the end of that contract, they can leave and go to another team just like anybody in any other business. Some fans don't like this because they say the players don't have loyalty and that you can't tell the players without a scorecard anymore, but in 1994, less players changed teams in Major League Baseball than in 1934. The only difference was that now the players have a right to decide where they play, as opposed to the owners deciding where they play.
MARGARET WARNER: And of course the owners get much huger salaries now.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: It's gone through the roof. I mean, there's obviously--what Curt Flood was making in the 1960's would today be well into the millions and back then he made less than $100,000 a year.
MARGARET WARNER: Now you mentioned he did pay a very high personal price for this. Was he ostracized, or did his game just fall apart? What happened?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: His career essentially ended. He was only 31 years old when he was traded. He sat out the 1970 season because he wouldn't play for the Fillies. He did sign with the Washington Senators in '71 but his skills had deteriorated during the year off, and because of what he had gone through in the legal battle, and it really ended his career. He's a prime example to me of someone who was a leader who took chances, who put himself at risk. And today's athletes don't even understand in most cases what Curt Flood did for them. Most of them, if you walked into a locker room today, probably couldn't tell you who Curt Flood was?
MARGARET WARNER: Why wasn't he offered a job as say a coach if he was such a great fielder?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Because he was ostracized by Major League Baseball. In fact, some players and former players testified against Curt Flood at the time because they thought that losing the reserve clause would ruin Major League Baseball. The irony is that Joe Garagiola, who became a close friend of his through the Baseball Assistance Team, in his last days was one of those who testified against Curt Flood in the 1970's.
MARGARET WARNER: Now there also are some quotes from him in later years that suggest he saw himself not just as breaking ground for players but for black players as part of the struggle. Where did it--for blacks in the sport--where did he fit into that?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Remember, that Curt Flood came up in Cincinnati in the 1950's and played in St. Louis in the 50's and 60's, which were not at that time exactly a great place for an African-American to be, and he learned from that and developed as a person through much of that, from everything that I've read, and he felt that the Supreme Court decision was racial; that the reason that Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally got the ruling in their favor three years later was because they were white players. Now, remember, the Supreme Court back then, the only African-American was Thurgood Marshall. It was a relatively conservative court. Nixon was at the height of his popularity and yet it was still only a five-three vote, so maybe he had a point.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it has anything to do with why he didn't go on to any other kind of career in baseball?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: There's no question that he was left out of the fermament of the game, if I can say that word, but the union did stand by him.
Marvin Miller and Richard Moss to this day, who ran the union then, and Don Fear who runs it now, have said before and say now that he was a hero and should be a hero, and unfortunately what will happen now is in--now that he's dead people will start to notice what a hero he was. I think that he belongs in the Hall of Fame because he was a very good player, and even though his numbers don't merit it, he went beyond it off the field.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, thanks, John, very much.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: My pleasure.