THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
There will be a few new plaques hanging in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York as of this weekend but the baseball equivalent of the Smithsonian really is not a complete museum. Unlike the basketball shrine in Springfield, Massachusetts (which included Larry Fleischer who was the first Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association as a builder) and the hockey Valhalla in Toronto, Ontario (a museum which inducted Alan Eagleson who founded the National Hockey League Players Association until he was booted for illegal activities), the Cooperstown museum has no room for perceived enemies of baseball like Marvin Miller, the founder of the Major League Baseball Players Association or Curt Flood who challenged baseball's reserve clause. Miller and Flood were major contributors to the game but perhaps they did it in a negative way. Cooperstown does honor two-bit baseball scribes for their contributions for providing baseball propaganda and inducts them into a special wing very year.
Miller just missed being elected into the Cooperstown shrine this year. Apparently there are still resentments from certain segments of baseball that linger. Flood has never been considered a serious candidate for an inclusion as a player.
Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven were voted into the Hall of Fame by baseball's ultimate sycophants--the Baseball Writers of America- last winter. Pat Gillick, a former General Manager whose stops included a stint with the Philadelphia Phillies was voted in by the veteran's committee. This year's winner of the writer's award goes to Bill Conlin who worked in Philadelphia. Roland Hemond got the Buck O'Neill lifetime achievement award and one time Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins announcer Dave Van Horne gets the announcers award.
Flood challenged the reserve clause which used to literally bind players in perpetuity to a club until the player was deemed by a general manager to be unnecessary.
"Evan, I am so pleased you said that,' was Curt Flood's response to a question back in the early 1990s when asked about the baseball fan's joy of the winter meetings--which is a meat market for baseball teams who trade human beings for others in the hopes that the teams will improve and yet forget that they trade a human being.” You know you kind of have that feeling many many times that at this huge conference table, these wonderful men sit in front of all these contracts and like cards they deal them out, you know.
"You want a shortstop, you want a shortstop, here's a shortstop and unfortunately every time you move a piece of paper and I want you to think about it now. Every time you move one piece of paper from this seat in front of someone else, Mrs. Flood has to find a new school, a new apartment, a new set of friends. Mrs. Flood has to find a new neighborhood. Enormous things happen when you move one player from one town to another when you trade or sell him.
"Sometimes the owners lose sight of that."
Curt Flood was a really good baseball player who began his career in 1956 with the Cincinnati Redlegs (the franchise owners for some reason lengthened the name from the Reds to Redlegs in the 1950s partially in response to America's "anti-Red", anti-communist mood with the Reds name removed from the logo. The name Reds would return in the 1960s). He played some games with Cincinnati and was traded during the December 1957 winter meetings to St. Louis.
Flood spent 12 years in St. Louis and was dealt on October 7, 1969 to Philadelphia along with Tim McCarver, Byron Browne and Joe Horner for Dick Allen, Cookie Rojas and Jerry Johnson. It was on October 7, 1969 that life would not only change for Flood and the other players involved in the deal but the baseball industry as a whole.
Flood refused to report to Philadelphia for a variety of reasons.
"I think it was a decision that came over many, many years of subtle abuses that people under contract have to live with," he explained. "It seems that when a handful of men own the industry, advantages are taking of the employees that under no other circumstances would you sit still for. That was true in baseball before we had the chance to really seriously negotiate the rest of our lives and I guess over the years and over a period of time where I saw men being traded while they drove to the ballpark and they heard on the radio that they no longer worked for the team that they were going to get ready to go suit up for, they were traded in between doubleheaders, they were traded or sold for one reason or another, after enduring that with a lot of my friends, I'd often wonder what the heck would happen if it even happened to me.
"And in 1969 that happened and after great successes in St. Louis, one of the, I can't call them underling, but it certainly wasn't Mr. (Gussie) Busch, the owner, called me on the phone one morning and said hi Curt, you know you have been traded. You know, that was probably the most important conversation in my lifetime and sure as check, the next day, a messenger delivered an envelope with an index sized card in it and it said 'Dear" and someone types your name in, you have been and there are five possibilities. You might not know that. You could have been sold, traded, optioned or whatever, outright, right and traded was checked.
"In the 13 years in St. Louis, I don't know. I think on top of all of the other situations that I saw happen over my career span that had to be the last kick in the pants that baseball wanted to give me."
Flood was a very good player and had won seven Gold Gloves as the best centerfielder in the National League between 1963 and 1969. He hit .300 or better six times and set defensive records for a centerfielder. He was part of two St. Louis Cardinals World Series championships and was co-captain of the team. But his relationship with Busch and the Cardinals had fallen apart by 1969. One reason? He asked for $100,000 which in those days was given to just a few players like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Flood’s one time Cardinals teammate Stan Musial.
"I guess a week went by before you say to yourself, this is not a joke, this is serious. You no longer work here. And I guess about a week and I talked to Alan Zerman, who was my attorney then in St. Louis. He said Curt, you know baseball has been doing this to men for 200 years and you are just part of the machinery and there is very little you can do about it. You can challenge this if you want to and it started to germinate then that something illegal had been done to me.
"Something almost inhumane had been done to me. It kind of snowballed from there."
Curt Flood never did report to Philadelphia and filed a lawsuit against Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in January 1970 contending that Major League Baseball had committed an antitrust violation. Flood made $90,000 in 1969 and gave up a $100,000 deal to play for the Phillies in 1970. Instead Flood became immersed in learning about the Sherman Antitrust Act and baseball's history with the legal system. Marvin Miller and the Major League Baseball Players Association picked up Flood's legal bills.
"I learned a lot about the law system," Flood said. "And how it operates. I guess not playing that one year, it is necessary to be damaged in that one year and that would have done that. As I thought about it later on, I wished I had not played that one year in 1971 (with the Washington Senators) and the only thing that made me do it was (manager) Ted Williams, I love him. He was going to manage in Washington and he called me. I was in Denmark and he called up and said can I come up and see you. I thought he was down in the lobby. He said no I am in Washington. He said I will meet you halfway. So him (Senators owner Robert Short), they were both on the phone together and he said, no, no, I am not in the lobby. First of all, Robert Short said I got some guys on this team, I don't know if they can play baseball or not but I know you can and I will send you a contract, you sign it and you fill it in. Hohohoho, now you are talking.
"I said Mr. Short, you know the situation, you know the problems we are having with the reserve clause, all this thing is being litigated now in New York. He said they talked to Arthur Goldberg who then was my attorney, Justice Goldberg said that whatever decision the Supreme Court had made it, it already decided and there is nothing you can do short of jumping off a building, unquote, that would change their mind. So I did, I called Justice Goldberg and Marvin Miller and they said if you want to play again, I don't think there is anything you can do to hurt your case.
"How many times can you turn down $150,000 a year?
"Once there may I tell you.
"So they gave me the opportunity to play again and I wasn't going to turn that down. I'm a nice guy; I think I deserved to play for the Senators."
But Flood was busy litigating in 1970 and the baseball inactivity took its toll on the then 33-year old Flood in 1971. He retired after just 13 games with Washington.
"Seventy was like a long winter. You were always expect that at any moment you were going to go back to (the St. Louis Cardinals spring training site) St. Petersburg (Florida) and start what you really do for a living. After a while all of this kind of settles in and your mind accepts that you are no longer a baseball player," he recalled. "But I spent most of 1970 in Denmark, in Copenhagen, in a little place called Vivek where these wonderful nice Danish people would say what do you do for a living? I'm a baseball player. They would say no no no what do you do? I’m a baseball player.
"How do you feed your family?' he laughed.”They know so little about baseball that you could travel in circles where you could have complete anonymity which delighted me. So, it was not easy.
"It was getting over, cold turkey, something you have done every year for almost 15 years. It wasn't easy. 1970 was not an easy year."
Ultimately the Supreme Court of the United States ruled against Flood and his challenge of Baseball's reserve clause. Baseball had won again in the Supreme Court. In 1922, the National and the American Leagues got a favorable ruling in a lawsuit filed by the owners of the Baltimore team in the Federal League which provided the leagues with protection from the country's antitrust laws.
"I was flabbergasted because I am an American and I thought like an American and I thought that everyone could see that baseball players were getting the short end of a very short stick," Flood said more than two decades after the decision.
"However I was trying to explain this to men who would give their first born child to wear this uniform for a minute. Just let me touch it, you know, for me to tell them in this culture look at you how you too would have loved to have worn that uniform for me to say there is something wrong in baseball is like defiling the flag.
"The Supreme Court, I guess they felt the same way that being a baseball player is the best of all worlds and I ought to sit down someplace and shut up. The Supreme Court did not say that, they said they were going to leave this decision to someone else."
That someone else would be an arbitrator named Peter Seitz who ruled against baseball's reserve clause in 1975 after two pitchers, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, played without contracts that season. Both became free agents following the 1975 season and were free to pursue contracts with other teams in 1976.
"I was disappointed (in the Supreme Court decision), I really was," Flood said. "When you look at the issue and the issue is this. Should a man be able to work wherever he wants to? Everyone is shaking their heads yes except if you are a baseball player. If you are a baseball player you have all those fans there who love you. You ought to stay in St. Louis until the owner wants to trade you.
"So I was caught up in the fact that this is America and this is probably the greatest country in the world and you can work in quotes any place you want to with the exception at that time in baseball. Now it's come around (early 1990s) where players are starting to make a fair share of the revenue being made in baseball and that delights me. The press seems to think I had a little to do with it and that pleases me."
Six year minor league players can today opted out of major league organizations and seek a chance elsewhere. Six year major league players can become free agents. Flood was the first player to challenge the reserve clause and before his death in 1997 he talked about whether players like him and Jim Bouton (whose book Ball Four made him the bane of baseball and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's existence) were still lepers in the baseball community.
"No, no no. Well, you see there is a whole new ownership now but they still feel the pinch of the first and 15th (paydays) that may resent me a little. Many of the things I learned in first few days, when you said what was the first week like, in the first week I learned this," Flood explained. "That you will never be a manager (there was no African-American managers in Major League Baseball's modern history through 1969), you will never be in the Hall of Fame and you probably never play baseball again. There are three important points you have to know if you go through with this lawsuit against baseball and now in retrospect those things have never happened. And for me to say that is the reason why would be to get into the heads of ownership which I cannot do."
Flood did say back in the 1990s he was welcomed back to St. Louis. ”One of my teammates (Dal Maxvill) is the General Manager, one of my teammates (Joe Torre) is the manager and many of my greatest friends in the world that I made over 13 years that I was in St. Louis are in some position with the Cardinals there. Joe Cunningham is still with the Cardinals, Ted Savage is still with the Cardinals so of course I am welcomed there," he said.
Curt Flood was never really embraced by baseball. He was hired by another Bowie Kuhn enemy, Oakland A's owner Charles Finley, to work on Athletics radio in 1978 and was the Commissioner of the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association, an entity that lasted two years. Flood became involved with the United Baseball League, an idea that never got beyond the let's do it stage after Rupert Murdoch's FOX Sports merged with Liberty Media. Murdoch had a deal with Major League Baseball at the time.
Flood's lawsuit was filed more than 40 years ago and changed the game. In the 1960s athletes were in some cases activists. Billie Jean King has been marginalized in the 21st century but she fought for equal pay and equal educational opportunities for women in an effort to break the college quota system. The Title IX legislation signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon in 1972 was not a sports act rather an education law which gave women equal access to classes and majors in colleges and universities accepting federal funding. Muhammad Ali stuck to his principles in refusing to go into the armed forces in 1967. John Carlos and Tommie Smith staged a black power protest on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics which drew the ire of International Olympic Committee head Avery Brundage. All of those athletes were vilified in one way or another in those days. Flood has not been recognized by Cooperstown but his legacy is lasting.
The Curt Flood Act of 1998, signed into law by President Bill Clinton gives baseball players the same rights under American antitrust laws that basketball, football, hockey and soccer players enjoy.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition" is available at bickley.com, Barnes and Noble or amazonkindle.