Black History Month: The $90,000 Slave
February 17, 2015
The month of February is Black History Month and it's also when major league baseball teams begin spring training with the arrival of pitchers and catchers. I think every professional athlete owes a debt of gratitude to a former baseball player, the late Curt Flood.
This gentlemen's legacy is every bit as important as trailblazers Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Frank Robinson. Unfortunately his memory usually only gets a corner footnote during Black History Month.
These Trailblazers Affected Social Change
For the casual sports fan, Jack Johnson was the first Black Heavyweight Boxing champion; Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and ended 60 years of segregation in Major League Baseball when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him in 1947; Muhammad Ali was a three-time Heavyweight Boxing champion and the first major athlete of any race to say no when drafted for the Vietnam War. The sitting champion, citing religious beliefs, was stripped of his title, banned from the sport for three years, was found guilty of draft evasion, fined $10,000, and sentenced to five years in jail. He won his case on appeal to the Supreme Court.
The NBA made history when they made Bill Russell the head coach of the Boston Celtics in 1966. Named as one the league's All-Time Greatest Players, Russell played on 11 Celtic championship teams; two of those titles he won as the teams coach.
Another African--American with the last name Robinson, Frank, made baseball history by the becoming the first to manage in the majors with the Cleveland Indians.
In the Big Picture: What If?
The laws of probability say that if Jackie Robinson had not been signed, neither Russell nor Frank Robinson would have been given the opportunity to lead professional franchises. This brings me back to Curt Flood -- no Jackie, no Flood, and no change in the social economics for professional team sports. It all sort of ties together.
A Skilled Player And Leader
Curt Flood was signed by the Cincinnati in 1956 and traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1958. The centerfielder went on to have an incredible career with the Cards, collecting seven consecutive Gold Glove Awards from 1963-1969. In addition those teams won three pennants, two World Series rings, and was a three-time All-Star. He had a career average of .293 and for several years, co-captained the team with Tim McCarver. Quite an honor considering those teams also had two African-American future Hall of Famers in Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. Oh yeah, and an African-American seven-time Gold Glove first baseman in Bill Whiten who would go on to do play-by-play for the Yankees and later become the President of the American League.
As you can see, Flood was not your average ballplayer, but you would not know it based on the lack of ink in sports history books. After some bitter contact negotiations and a subpar season, he was traded in 1969 during the off season to the Philadelphia Phillies. However, Curt Flood refused to accept the trade, referring to it as slavery. He made the statement even though his $90,000 salary was promised to be bumped up to $100,000 had he just joined the Phils.
Baseball's Free Agency Creation Story
Flood sent a letter to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn which stated,
After 12 years in the Major Leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the U.S. and of the sovereign States.
It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decisions. I, therefore, request that you make known to all Major League clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season."
The Commissioner stuck to his guns from the courts' antitrust position concerning Major League Baseball in the 20s and refused his request.
Not only did Flood not go to Philadelphia; he sued baseball over the reserve clause. Simply put, the clause said a player was team property and the only way a player could leave was to be traded, released, or if the player chose to retire. In other words, players were bound for life to one team. At the time all professional major sports teams operated in this fashion.
Major League Baseball got away with Commissioner Kuhn's decision because of its exemption from antitrust laws decided on in the 20s by the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. The first head of the new Players Union, Marvin Miller explained it best: "Yes, you're an American and have the right to seek employment anywhere you would like, but this does not apply to baseball players." Miller warned Flood of what it would do to his career regardless of whether he won or lost his appealed case at the Supreme Court. Keep in mind that the Commissioner of MLB is hired by the owners.
It was a lonely time for Flood, none of his fellow players displayed support and only two former players, Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg, stood by him. To be fair, the players were probably fearful of retaliation by the owners. The righting of wrongs can be costly for those on the front line. The Federal Court ruled against him in 1970. Flood was signed by the Washington Senators but quit after only two months into the season. Apparently the one-year layoff and stress of the court case had affected his skills.
You Are Right, But You're Wrong
On the appeal in 1972, The Supreme Court said in a 5-3 decision against, that yes, he should have a right to be a free agent, but that baseball's antitrust exemption could only be removed by an Act of Congress -- and free agency should be attained through collective bargaining. Flood lost but won the freedom of choice for future athletes.
The Financial 'Flood' Gates Open
Four years later in 1976, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally agreed to play one season without a contract and an arbitrator ruled them as free agents. Thus free agency was born in baseball and spread to all major professional sports. By the way, shortly after his ruling, the owners fired the arbitrator, Pete Seitz.
Team Sport History Changed Forever
Players and coaches in all sports owe a debt of gratitude to Curt Food for increased salaries and freedom of movement. Professional sports became recognized for what it is … a business. Indirectly, Flood made it possible for Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretsky, Shaquille O'Neal and Magic Johnson to become involved in team ownership; gave franchises a chance to win overnight; and players won the opportunity to chase unprecedented wealth. All athletes playing any American professional team sport in the last 40 years should tip their hat to Curt Flood when they cash a check or declare free agency.
Man of Distinction
Flood was given the NAACP Jackie Robinson Award for his contributions to black athletes. He passed away at the age of 59 in 1997.
For more on Curt Flood
For More insight on Black History Month, read Jerry Boulding 'Urbanizing' --