October 7, 1969: Curt Flood refuses trade to the Phillies, setting up legal battle over the reserve clause

On October 7, 1969, the St. Louis Cardinals made the most impactful trade in the history of Major League Baseball when they agreed to send Curt Flood, Tim McCarver, Byron Browne, and Joe Hoerner to the Philadelphia Phillies for Dick Allen, Jerry Johnson, and Cookie Rojas.

Flood refused to report to the Phillies. Instead, he sued to eliminate the reserve clause, Paragraph 10(a) in the Uniform Player Contract, which stated that “the Club shall have the right … to renew this contract for a period of one year.”[1] As a result of this clause, each team had the right to automatically renew each player’s contract the following season for as little as 80% of that year’s salary. Players had no rights to free agency, and if they could not come to a salary agreement with the team that held their rights, they simply didn’t play in the league.

Flood appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and while Flood v. Kuhn was unsuccessful, it drew significant attention to the issue. In 1975, the reserve clause finally was struck down. The following year, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association agreed to a new contract that gave players the right to free agency.

“The fact is the modern player has gotten fat from the efforts of Curt Flood and has returned him no gratitude or any other form of appreciation,” Bob Gibson wrote in 1994. “I’ve often thought of what an appropriate and decent thing it would be if every player in the major leagues turned over 1% of his paycheck just one time to Curt Flood. They certainly owe him that much and more. Failing that, which I know is implausible, I can’t understand why Flood has not been offered a job with the players’ association. As far as I’m concerned, he invented the players’ association.”[2]

Flood already had been traded once in his career, in December 1957, when the Reds dealt him and Joe Taylor to St. Louis for relief pitcher Willard Schmidt and minor-league pitchers Ted Wieand and Marty Kutyna. At the Reds’ request, Flood was playing winter ball in Venezuela and learning to play second base when the trade was made. According to Brad Snyder’s Flood biography, A Well-Paid Slave, the 19-year-old Flood stared at the telegram for 30 minutes upon its arrival, vowing that he would never allow himself to be traded again.[3]

Despite his feelings regarding the trade, Flood found a home in St. Louis. He appeared in 121 games as a 20-year-old in 1958. After Johnny Keane took over as the Cardinals’ manager midway through the 1961 season, Flood became a fixture in the Cardinals’ lineup. He earned the first of seven consecutive Gold Glove awards in 1963, and the following year he hit .311 and led the league with 211 hits. He was named to the all-star game and won a second consecutive Gold Glove while helping to lead the Cardinals to the 1964 World Series title.

Flood remained a star throughout the late 1960s as the Cardinals won the World Series again in 1967 and the National League pennant in 1968. In that ’68 World Series, however, Flood misplayed a crucial fly ball that proved costly in the Game 7 loss.

Ahead of the 1969 season, Flood sought a salary increase from $72,500 to $100,000 but ultimately settled for $90,000.[4] That spring, one day after the Mets’ Bud Harrelson accidentally spiked him at second base, Flood missed a promotional banquet. He said that his medication had caused him to oversleep.

“For my arrogant and thoughtless failure to awaken in time, drag my torn self to the banquet, and pay tribute to season ticket holders galore, I was fined $250,” Flood said. “I protested angrily. I protested more things than one during that horrible season. Each complaint became another nail in my coffin. I was not speaking well of the boss. At $90,000 a year, I no longer looked so good in a hotel lobby. My days were numbered.”[5]

The relationship between Flood and the Cardinals continued to deteriorate as newspapers reported rumors that Flood, McCarver, and Julian Javier could be traded to the Reds for catcher Johnny Bench and second baseman Tommy Helms.[6] That fall, Flood gave an anonymous interview to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in which he accused Cardinals management of ordering manager Red Schoendienst to insert rookies into the everyday lineup, effectively giving up on the season.

Five days after Flood drew a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the 12th inning to give the Cardinals a 3-2 win over the Phillies in their season finale, Cardinals general manager Bing Devine and his Phillies counterpart, John Quinn, agreed to the trade that would have sent Flood to Philadelphia.

Though Flood refused to report to the Phillies, his days as a Cardinal were over.

“I loved the Cardinals, was proud to be one, and recognized that Curt Flood and Tim McCarver were two of the biggest reasons why,” said Gibson, who counted Flood as his best friend on the team. “With them gone, being a Cardinal would never mean quite the same thing.”[7]

Flood learned of the trade at 4 o’clock the next morning when he received a phone call from a reporter.[8] A few hours later, Jim Toomey, the Cardinals’ public relations director, called to officially deliver the news.[9] When Devine called, Flood told his now-former general manager that he was exhausted and wished Devine had shot him down last offseason.

“When you say, ‘shot me down,’ what do you mean?” Devine asked.

Flood replied that if Devine had offered him anything less than $90,000 in their contract negotiations, Flood would have retired and chosen not to play the 1969 season.[10]

“I didn’t take it seriously at first,” Devine wrote in his 2012 autobiography. “But I should have realized it was serious, because Flood was a strong-thinking personality.”[11]

Indeed, he should have. Flood soon released a press release of his own announcing his retirement.

“For the past year or two it has been increasingly difficult to stay in top physical shape; as you know I’ll soon be 32 years of age,” he said in the statement. “In addition, with my playing days nearing an end due to physical considerations alone, I’ve had to think of my own and my children’s future. Consequently, I’ve felt that I should give more time to the Curt Flood Photo Studio franchise business, as well as a large backlog of oil portrait commissions.

“I then told Mr. Devine that the trade to Philadelphia has caused me to make a personal decision that I have been putting off for some time. If I were younger, I certainly would enjoy playing for Philadelphia. But under the circumstances, I have decided to retire from organized baseball, effective today, and remain in St. Louis where I can devote full time to my business interests.”[12]

The statement was interesting not only due to the nature of Flood’s announcement but also because of his stated reasons. After all, he could make more money playing baseball “unless he’s better than Rembrandt,” former Cardinals general manager Frank Lane noted.[13]

More interesting, however, was the nature of Flood’s portraiture business. Though he had presented Cardinals owner Gussie Busch, the governors of Missouri and Illinois, the archbishop of St. Louis, and even Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King, with portraits that he claimed to have painted, Snyder writes in A Well-Paid Slave that Flood didn’t actually paint any of the portraits. Instead, Flood sent photos of his subjects to an artist in California who enlarged the photos, painted over them, and shipped them back to Flood. Flood then signed his name to the portraits and presented them to their new owners.

“Your painting comes closest to depicting the dignity and reverence – and especially the live – which characterized his life,” Coretta Scott King wrote to Flood after receiving the portrait he claimed to have painted of her late husband.[14]

In November, Quinn met with Flood to convince him to come to Philadelphia. He explained that the Phillies were building a new ballpark and that Philadelphia was home to a rich culture of art and history. With four or five seasons in Philadelphia, Flood could increase his recognition as an artist, Quinn said.[15]

Though Quinn believed the star center fielder would choose to play in Philadelphia, Flood was not convinced. On December 24, 1969, he sent Major League Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn a letter requesting that he be made a free agent. “After 12 years in the Major Leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes,” Flood wrote. “I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.

“It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract 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 it known to all the major league clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.”

Three days later, Kuhn declined Flood’s request. In January 1970, with the financial support of the players’ association, Flood filed suit against Kuhn and Major League Baseball. Ultimately, the Supreme Court sided with baseball in 1972, but Marvin Miller and the players’ association challenged the reserve clause again in 1975 after the Dodgers’ Andy Messersmith and Orioles’ Dave McNally played that season without a contract. On December 23, 1975 – almost exactly six years after Flood sent his letter to Kuhn – arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled against the reserve clause. Soon thereafter, free agency became part of baseball’s collective bargaining agreement.

By that time, however, Flood’s career was over. His refusal to play for Philadelphia cost him the entire 1970 season. To compensate the Phillies and complete the trade, the Cardinals sent Willie Montanez and Jim Browning to Philadelphia.

Flood spent that year in Denmark, drinking heavily. In November 1970, the Phillies traded him to the Senators, where owner Bob Short hoped Flood would attract attention to a club that won just 70 games and finished last in the American League East that season. Short gave Flood a $110,000 salary, with half of that total paid in advance.

Senators manager Ted Williams, who hit .342 and won the American League MVP Award after missing three seasons due to military service, publicly supported his new center fielder but was concerned about Flood’s conditioning.

“Flood has to have the oldest 33-year-old body I’ve ever examined,” Senators team doctor George Resta said.[16]

Flood’s return to baseball proved to be short-lived. On April 20, before a game against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, he found a black funeral wreath hanging in his locker where his uniform should have been.[17]

That proved to be the final start of Flood’s career. On April 26, after just 13 appearances for the Senators, Flood didn’t show up for the team’s game against the Twins. Instead, he booked a one-way flight out of the country. From JFK Airport, he sent Short a telegram:

I TRIED A YEAR AND A HALF IS TOO MUCH VERY

SERIOUS PERSONAL PROBLEMS MOUNTING EVERYDAY

THANKS FOR YOUR CONFIDENCE AND UNDERSTANDING

FLOOD[18]

Flood’s major-league career was over after 15 years and 1,759 games. Over that span, he batted .293 with 85 homers, 636 RBIs, and 851 runs scored.

“You always have a little selfish thing in the back of your mind which asks, ‘Did I give up too much to do this?’” Flood said. “I’ll never know.”[19]

Flood continued to battle alcoholism after his playing days ended. He briefly served as a color commentator for Oakland A’s radio broadcasts in 1978, but his contract was not renewed after the season. He owned and operated a public relations firm and remained active in youth baseball, serving as an American Legion and Connie Mack coach and Little League commissioner in Oakland.[20]

In 1995, Flood was diagnosed with throat cancer. He passed away on January 20, 1997. The following year, the U.S. Congress passed the Curt Flood Act, which eliminated baseball’s antitrust exemption. In 1997, Time magazine named him one of the 10 most influential athletes of the past century.

“It’s sad,” Lou Brock said after Flood’s passing. “Most of the pioneers wind up with an arrow in their backs, and he certainly was one of those who had an arrow in his back. As a pioneer, he never got his just due. God will amend that.”[21]

Flood was inducted into the Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2015; however, he has not yet been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“Curt was a fighter, but he also sacrificed quite a bit so that today’s player can be where he is financially,” Cardinals first baseman Bill White said. “It’s too bad that most of these players today, probably 99%, don’t know that.”[22]


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[1] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Kindle Android Version, Page 2.

[2] Bob Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler (1994), Stranger to the Game, New York; Penguin Books USA, 221.

[3] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Kindle Android Version, Page 4.

[4] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Kindle Android Version, Page 6.

[5] Peter Golenbock (2011), The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns, HarperCollins Ebooks, Page 506.

[6] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Kindle Android Version, Page 7.

[7] Peter Golenbock (2011), The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns, HarperCollins Ebooks, Page 507.

[8] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Kindle Android Version, Page 1.

[9] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Kindle Android Version, Page 1.

[10] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Kindle Android Version, Page 7.

[11] Bing Devine (2012), The Memoirs of Bing Devine: Stealing Lou Brock and Other Winning Moves By a Master GM, Kindle Android Version, Location 1916.

[12] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Kindle Android Version, Page 8.

[13] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Kindle Android Version, Page 9.

[14] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Kindle Android Version, Page 9.

[15] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Kindle Android Version, Page 14.

[16] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Kindle Android Version, Page 216.

[17] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Kindle Android Version, Page 226.

[18] Brad Snyder (2007), A Well-Paid Slave, Kindle Android Version, Page 231.

[19] Mike Eisenbath, “An Artist: Flood Brought Range Of Talent To Game, And Life,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 26, 1997.

[20] Mike Eisenbath, “An Artist: Flood Brought Range Of Talent To Game, And Life,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 26, 1997.

[21] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals Recall Flood Excelling On, Off The Field,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 21, 1997.

[22] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals Recall Flood Excelling On, Off The Field,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 21, 1997.