- For a lot of pro sports fans free agency has become nearly as big an obsession as the games themselves.
With so much focus today on players switching teams during the off season.
- Lebron James has been a free agent three times.
He went from Cleveland to Miami, back to Cleveland, and then to Los Angeles.
He's been free to play where he wants, and he's become a symbol of an age where players are taking control of their careers.
- But it wasn't always this way.
Today's pro athletes owe a debt to one player who took a chance and paid a steep price.
His name was Curt Flood.
- He changed the way they do business in the world of sports.
- Curt Flood's legacy is that he gave his life for a lot of baseball players who don't even know who he is.
- It's October 8th, 1969, Curt gets a call in the morning, from not the General Manager, not the owner Gussie Busch, but some middle manager in the front office calls him, and in sort of a monotone voice says, Curt, you and Tim McCarver have been traded to the Philadelphia Phillies.
- [Woman] It was no small trade.
Few ball players ever become as successful and popular as Curt Flood, who was known to fans as a prolific hitter and defensive wizard.
Streaking across the outfield to snare fly ball after fly ball.
By 1969, he'd helped lead the St. Louis Cardinals to three World Series in the previous six years.
- [Announcer] The Cardinals win.
They're the new World Champion.
- Curt's the longest standing member on the team.
He's a three time all star.
He's a huge fan favorite.
- [Woman] Despite his stardom on and off the field the Cardinals had begun to sour on Flood.
- [Announcer] Fly ball Flood, (mumbling), over his head.
- [Woman] He demanded a raise months after slipping on a key play in game seven of the 1968 World Series.
From then on his days in St. Louis appeared to be numbered.
- He liked St. Louis.
He liked playing for the Cardinals, and he just didn't think it was right that he had no say in where he would play.
- [Woman] Since the early days of professional baseball a short clause inserted into every major league contract had given owners complete control over their players, even when the players yearly contract was up the owner could unilaterally renew his contract, essentially binding him to the same franchise for life, allowing him to be paid whatever the owner felt he was worth, or traded on a whim.
- So it wasn't anger, it was more, this is not right.
This just is not my America.
Curt was very much aware of what was going on in the world, and he was very much aware of the fact that he did not have his civil rights.
- Me, as a black man, I'm probably a lot more sensitive to the rights of other people, because I have been denied these rights.
- [Woman] Though Flood had grown up on the West coast, distanced from the civil rights issues roiling the American South, that had all changed when he was sent to the Southern Minor Leagues at the beginning of his professional career.
- He saw these two water fountains, one said colored, one said white.
He said, for some strange reason I thought maybe club soda and cola?
And he said he soon realized, no.
This is not club soda, I'm in the South.
- After one of the first games the players threw their uniforms in a pile.
The clubhouse man came over and he took a broom stick, and he picked up Curt's uniform.
These things have an effect on people.
- What I really want out of this thing is to give every ball player the chance to be a human being, and to take advantage of the fact that we live in a free and democratic society.
- [Woman] For the right to determine his own future as a ball player Flood would have to sue Major League Baseball, and cut to the core of how America's pastime operated.
As the country's first professional team sport, the courts had chosen to view baseball as a game instead of a business.
Decades of rulings had exempted it from anti-trust laws, giving it a special legal status that protected it from competition.
- The line from the owners when Curt sued was, Curt Flood is trying to destroy Major League Baseball.
And a lot of sport writers were buying the line.
They couldn't relate to a guy making $90,000 a year who was rejecting a trade from one team to another.
- Curt would say, "We have been subsidizing the owners."
We just can't even go out and find out what am I really valued at.
What do I need to be paid if I'm getting seven consecutive Gold Gloves?
What is my value?
- [Announcer] This is Curt Flood, baseball's Bolshevik.
- [Woman] Men before Flood had fought baseball's reserve clause, but no modern athlete framed the issue as starkly.
- A master and slave relationship.
- You're a man who makes $90,000 a year, which isn't exactly slave wages.
What's your retort to that?
- Well, Howard, a well paid slave is nonetheless a slave.
- And there were death threats, I meant vicious, nigger this and nigger that, and how dare you, and biting the hand that feeds you.
- The players were so afraid of the fallout of a public endorsement of Curt and his lawsuit.
Even Curt's teammates, when they were in town playing the Mets, didn't show up to the trial.
- The Supreme Court today rejected a suit by ex-outfielder Curt Flood.
- [Woman] In the end Flood fared no better than those who had gone before him.
With the unprecedented backing of the newly formed Players' Union his case went all the way to the Supreme Court, but he could not beat the owners of the game.
- At that point it was devastating because he had given up everything.
- Had the Players Association known how vulnerable Curt was financially, and how vulnerable Curt was with alcohol they would have had some second thoughts.
He was far from the ideal plaintiff.
- Well, I did what I thought was right.
I took it to court.
- [Woman] To demonstrate the unfairness of the existing system Flood had sat out the 1970 season, forfeiting his income for the year.
By the time he joined the Washington Senators in 1971 he was no longer the same player on the field, or in the eyes of the public.
- Somehow or other, someone got into the clubhouse with a huge, black, funeral wreath with his name on it in front of his locker.
That was scary.
You now are walking around, how do I play center field with my back to people?
- [Woman] Flood played only 13 games for Washington before abruptly sending the team's owner a telegram from New York's JFK airport announcing he was quitting.
He would never play Major League Baseball again.
Though it ultimately failed, Flood's case laid the legal groundwork for players to settle the issue at the negotiating table.
- We lost the case, but it was nevertheless very important because people got to know what was going on, and why Curt Flood was doing this.
- [Woman] Three years later, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally won an arbitration case that found owners could no longer renew players' contracts in perpetuity, opening free agency to all veteran major leaguers.
- Big league baseball owners have maintained a grip on their players so strong that it has amounted to almost total control of their careers.
Now that absolute power may be ending.
- [Woman] The league also adopted what some called the Curt Flood rule, allowing players to veto any trade once they've spent 10 years in the major leagues, including five with their current team.
But it was too late for Flood himself.
Beset by financial and drinking problems he exiled himself to the island of Majorca.
- He would spiral down into alcoholism.
Worked in a bar, which is maybe the worst thing an alcoholic could do, and ran out of money, and came back to Oakland, California in 1976, really, a broken man.
- What amazes me about Curt Flood's case is that some of the other great baseball players sat silently on the sidelines and said nothing.
That's hard to imagine, that's hard to imagine.
In basketball we knew what Curt Flood was trying to achieve, and we thought he was right.
- [Woman] Three months after Flood had filed his lawsuit in 1970, Oscar Robertson and 13 other professional basketball players sued to abolish the reserve clause in the NBA, following an earlier failed attempt by star, Rick Barry.
Six years later they reached a settlement to bring free agency to their sport.
- The awakening was happening, but you could only tell after the fact.
Free agency has been a wonderful sun coming up over the mountains, warming up the whole valley.
- [Announcer] On March 1st, free agency came to the National Football League.
- [Announcer] Wayne Gretzky has signed a contract with New York's hockey team.
- [Woman] Though in many cases real power remains with the owners, free agency soon began to shift the balance across American professional sport.
- [Announcer] Meet the new King of LA, Lebron James says, goodbye Cleveland, hello Hollywood.
- [Woman] In the summer of 2018, free agent NBA star, Lebron James, set the sports world on fire when he chose to take his talents to the storied Los Angeles Lakers franchise.
- This is a seismic shift in the league.
The best player in the NBA going from the East to the West.
- [Woman] It wasn't the first time James made a splash in free agency.
- And this fall I'm gonna take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.
- [Woman] His previous stop in Miami, and his returning to his hometown of Cleveland.
- [Announcer] It's over.
Cleveland is a city of champions once again.
- [Woman] Have made his career arc a shining example of the ability of today's players to craft their own narrative.
- This is such a bigger play for him than just basketball and winning.
His entertainment company going to Hollywood, in a lot of ways it is the logical next step.
- Free agency is a crazy game now.
It's a wild, wild story.
- Breaking news on The Jump Free Agency Special.
Oh yes, nobody is waiting til six o'clock eastern.
Kevin Durant, is in fact, headed to Brooklyn to join Kyrie Irving and Deandre Jordan.
- [Woman] What James pioneered is now the norm, with star players changing teams more and more.
- [Man] Kemba Walker to the Boston Celtics, Jimmy Butler to the Miami Heat, and Al Holford to the 76ers.
- [Woman] And the question of where the superstars will choose to play once they become free agents now consumes and excites sports fans year round.
- [Announcer] Ladies and gentlemen, the deal, apparently, is done.
Kawhi Leonard has made his decision and he's heading to LA.
- They have a means to have a voice now, more so than they've ever had in the history of sports.
- Not only was Kawhi Leonard able to facilitate his arrival in LA, but he did so by ensuring that Paul George arrived with him.
Unbelievable move on Kawhi Leonard, unbelievable power play.
- I think they, in a lot of ways, will control and decide what kind of voice they have when they make decisions.
- The players run the show.
They control where they want to go and who they want to be with, and if they're not happy in a situation they can get out.
- It's just the coming of age of sports.
All the fights that we undertook, and also Curt Flood, it's the reason that they can do this today.
The question I ask is, what happened to Curt Flood if this is all going on now.
- [Woman] A few years before his death Flood was finally given his 7th Gold Glove trophy.
The one he'd earned in the 1969 season, but was never awarded.
By then he had gotten his life together.
- In years to follow he saw what happened, he understood the game had changed, and he knew he was the reason why.
- Can a man work in America wherever he decides that he wants to work?
Forget that it's baseball.
And the easy answer's, of course he can.