Like most North American boys of my generation, I was much attracted to professional sport. Like most Canadians, my primary love was ice hockey. I also enjoyed Canadian Football as opposed to American Football and I was occasionally attracted to basketball. Yet, it is baseball that’s been my most enduring source of vicarious pleasure. In fact, although I occasionally watch the Canada’s Women’s Hockey team in Olympic competition or the World Junior Championships, I haven’t seen an NHL game since the Toronto Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967, and I have sought to guarantee myself a very long life by vowing not to watch another one until the next time the hapless Toronto team makes it to the Stanley Cup finals.
Baseball is another matter. Although I am unsure whether I actually listened to the game on the radio in “real time” or have just invented the memory out of the countless times I’ve heard it replayed, I became a “fan” of the then-New York Giants on October 3, 1951, when Bobby Thomson hit his miracle home run and the “Cinderella” Giants came back from an enormous deficit, tied for the National League lead in the last game of the season and went on to play (unsuccessfully) against the dreaded and demonized New York Yankees in the World Series.
Ten years later, when I was living and working near San José, California, I made it a point to travel as often as I could to San Francisco’s Candlestick Park where the Giants had relocated to watch them play. And, fifteen years after that, I felt some guilty pleasure when it seemed, for a delightful moment or two, that the Giants might move again—this time to Toronto as Canada won its second and only surviving Major League Baseball (MLB) franchise.
By then, of course, I was no longer the child enjoying grown men playing a children’s game. I’d been a postsecondary educator for a decade. I was quite aware that baseball was a business and I was familiar with its past. I was especially well-schooled in the achievements of Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s “colour bar” in 1947, and I knew about all the fine “Negro” athletes who had followed him—my favourites being Willie Mays and Willie McCovey who played from Mays’ rookie year in 1951 to McCovey’s final season in 1980. That is to say, I understood that the spectacle of baseball—like most aspects of North American society—was grounded in a virulent history of racism from which it has struggled to emerge only in my lifetime.
In this context, I am pleased that Jackie Robinson’s career is still celebrated. Sixty-six years after he first appeared on the field for the then-Brooklyn Dodgers and forty-one years after his premature death at the age of fifty-three, Robinson is paid a tribute every April 15th (the anniversary of his first regular season game in a Dodger uniform), when every major league player honours him by wearing his uniform number (42) wherever they take to the field and for whichever team they perform.
Curt Flood? Not so much, and yet it is arguable that he made as big a difference in the game of baseball as Robinson did, and that his impact on other professional sports was as monumental.
The trouble for Flood is that Robinson was on the right side of history and appeared at an opportune time. On the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, he was one of the first African-American public figures to be fully integrated into the larger culture. He has been the subject of books, television films, feature-length motion pictures (most recently 42 released on April 12, 2013). Curt Flood may not exactly have been on the “wrong” side of history, but his legacy is highly contested.
Today, not only baseball players but many other professional athletes commonly win salaries in the millions of dollars a year. Among MLB players, the current minimum wage is about $500,000 and the average salary is over $3,200,000 a year. Such amounts are paid in compensation for displays of excellence in what are, after all, rather frivolous pursuits. They raise a morally divisive question. The sums are routinely dubbed “obscene” by critics inside and outside the game. Why is it, we ask ourselves, that mere entertainers including athletes, singers and film actors are paid so much more than people who’s work is far more essential to our communal well-being—early childhood educators, sanitation workers, electrical engineers and bakers to name a few? Such compensation is further clouded by the fact that baseball has undergone decades in which some of its star performers wantonly and brazenly used performance-enhancing drugs. Matters have come to a state in which the most recent “scandal” involving dozens of the game’s top performers are facing serious fines and suspensions but the news barely elicits a shrug of dismissal. It is not a pretty story.
How does Curt Flood fit in? According to baseballreference.com, Flood made less than the current MLB minimum wage in his entire fifteen-year major league career. While in the big leagues, he was a three-time all-star, a seven-time golden glove winner for being the best defensive player at his position, and he retired with an admirable lifetime batting average of .293. In short, he was an excellent player, but it was in the courtroom rather than on the playing field that he had his greatest impact on the game.
Flood, of course, was an African-American who suffered discrimination, even after the removal of the colour bar. Contracts for Black athletes were not quite as lucrative as those for Whites. They received fewer “perks.” They suffered in ways that most members of minority groups suffer today. In Curt Flood’s case, however, it was a contract dispute that was the fulcrum for his move from baseball athleticism to civil rights icon.
The issue was the “Reserve Clause” that appeared in players’ contracts. Players’ contracts specified salary considerations and other matters of compensation for a specific period of time. When the baseball club and the player came to an agreement, the details were settled for one, two or more years; however, even when the contracts expired, the club still “owned” the players. The players, after the contract expiry date, did not have the right to seek employment elsewhere in baseball.
On October 7, 1969, Curt Flood was “traded” by his employer, the St. Louis Cardinals, to the rival Philadelphia Phillies. He decided that he would not report to his new team. Flood was no lawyer, but he knew enough to understand that a contract is supposed to have a beginning and an end. At issue was the technical question of whether MLB’s Reserve Clause violated federal antitrust legislation. Flood’s wife suggested that he sue. Marvin Miller, the players’ union representative advised him to be cautious. Flood himself was worried: “Something about taking on the kind of people who own baseball teams can be daunting,” he said. “They don’t just own teams. They own everything else …” Nonetheless, on Christmas Eve, 1969, Curt Flood, Black baseball player, wrote a letter to Bowie Kuhn, White MLB Commissioner. This is what he said:
“Dear Mr. Kuhn:
“After twelve 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. I believe that any system that produces that result violates my basic rights a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United 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 known to all the major league clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.”
Flood’s letter left the sporting world aghast. To make the matter clear, the Reserve Clause meant that once a player had signed with a team, he was theirs for life. The specific contracts signed from time to time contained agreements about pay increases (or decreases), a matter in which the owners held dominant power and players depended on management largesse. The only way for players to escape was to be traded or sold to another team (which then inherited the Reserve Clause binding) or to be granted an outright release, which usually happened only when the owners considered the players to be useless because of age or injury, but allowed them to try to find a job with anyone who’d take them. Baseball players were akin to indentured servants.
The backlash against Flood was incredible. The Reserve Clause had been formally adopted in 1879. It had guided professional baseball’s labour-management relations for ninety years. It had been challenged, but it had always been upheld as lawful, despite the fact that it flew in the face of cherished American concepts such as the “free market,” to say nothing of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation which had abolished slavery only sixteen years before the Reserve Clause had been approved.
The economic issue was simple: in a “free market,” people are at liberty to seek the best possible price for their services. If, however, baseball players had this right, there would be intense competition among clubs to hire the best players they could afford and salaries would therefore rise dramatically; it’s old-fashioned “supply” (a few first-rate players) and “demand” (a large number of teams competing for audience support). So, in order to ensure profits for all franchise holders, the owners colluded to keep salaries low by not allowing their employees to leave for a better offer.
The legal issue was simple as well. In 1890, the United States passed the Sherman Antitrust Act. It prohibited rival companies engaging in interstate businesses from collusion to fix prices or rates. It had teeth and occasionally found politicians willing to use it. So, in 1910, the massive Standard Oil conglomerate (or “trust”) was “busted,” and the company was cut into fragments. Thanks in part to the political influence of the franchise owners, however, MLB was exempted from those rules. The justification was that baseball was not a “business,” but an “amusement” which did not fall under the jurisdiction of “interstate commerce.” So, the anti-trust legislation was deemed not to apply.
In One Man Out, Robert M. Goldman applies exceptional legal scholarship to what has been and remains an emotional issue. Arrayed against Flood were not only the owners, but also the media and a substantial proportion of the fan base as well. At the time that the dispute arose, Flood was a star player at the apex of his career. Though paltry by today’s standards (even controlling for inflation) his salary of $90,000 was among the higher wage packets in the game. He was vilified for selfishness and greed, despite the fact that he interrupted his career, sacrificed his salary and, when the matter was settled, returned to play only thirteen more games in the big leagues.
Flood’s litigation failed. Relying on the principle of stare decisis, the US Supreme Court finessed Flood’s complaint. Chief Justice Warren Burger denied what (to me at least) seemed to be a solid appeal. Burger insisted that, although the legal precedent was extremely dubious, the courts were not the appropriate forum “in which this tangled web ought to be unsnarled.” Unlike Jackie Robinson, who was properly treated as a Civil Rights hero, the rest of Curt Flood’s life was far less successful. Family, business, tax and other problems harried him. To many in or near the sport his legacy has been the excessive salaries won by the players (with little mention of the fact that the owners can plainly afford to pay them and keep a little over for themselves) and the annoying labour stoppages that have interrupted the game five times in forty years (four strikes and one lock-out).
Curt Flood’s action nevertheless opened the door for something akin to a free market in baseball and liberated the players from draconian arrangements that made a mockery of America’s commitment to open competition and a free market. Though Flood did not win his case and certainly did not profit from his pains, the effect of his effort was to make free agency (the right of players to sell their labour where they please) a legitimate matter for collective bargaining.
Accordingly, in 1975 two starting pitchers, Andy Messersmith of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Dave McNally of the Montréal Expos, launched a grievance against the automatic renewal of their one-year contracts. Both refused to sign the agreements and claimed the right to negotiate and sign with other teams. The grievance was submitted to arbitration and on 23 December, 1975 (six years less a day from the date that Flood wrote his unprecedented and courageous letter). Arbitrator Paul Seitz ruled that the two players were free to bargain with other teams since MLB could only impose a contract for one year after the previous contract had expired. For his troubles, Seitz was immediately fired by John Gaherin, the chair of the baseball owners’ Player Relations Committee, thus proving once again that no good deed goes unpunished.
MLB, of course, appealed the arbitration decision to the district court for Western Missouri and on to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals (Kansas City Royals Baseball Corp. v. Major League Baseball Players Ass'n, 409 F. Supp. 233, 261 (W.D. Mo. 1976) aff'd, 532 F.2d 615 (8th Cir. 1976). MLB lost.
The eventual consequence was that rules (some rather complicated) have been negotiated which, while not wholly overcoming the early treatment of players as chattel, have opened the system to considerable flexibility. For example, players who have completed six years in the major leagues are now able to become “free agents” and to sign with any team that wants them. Curt Flood’s aspirations have largely been met and the players’ interests have been served.
Curt Flood’s expressed motives were echoed by Messersmith: “It was less of an economic issue at the time than a fight for the right to have control over your own destiny.” That is as may be, but I am not unaware of the belief that “when someone says it isn’t about the money, it’s about the money.” How much personal dignity factored in is a matter of opinion, but I prefer to think pure thoughts about the men who fundamentally altered labour relations in America’s pastime. Such thoughts, however, are of relatively minor importance in comparison with the institution of MLB itself.
The time for change had plainly come. If the names of the men in the headlines had not been Flood, Messersmith and McNally in 1969 and 1975, there would have been others and not much later. This is not to denigrate the integrity, audacity and bravery of the three players at the heart of the story. It is merely to say that, like the American Civil Rights Movement a decade earlier, reform could no longer be resisted.
Now, apart from my guilty secret of being a baseball aficionado, why have I chosen to bring this book to the attention of College Quarterly readers? There are three reasons.
The first is to provide an example of our collective and, more importantly, our selective social amnesia. Lots of people remember Jackie Robinson, whose image is regularly paraded before the public as a champion in the struggle for freedom. Few contemporary baseball players, never mind baseball enthusiasts or members of the general public, even recognize the name of Curt Flood. Yet, it was he who set professional baseball on its present course which, like it or not, treats professional baseball players as workers with rights.
When asked how he dared to challenge a system that had afforded him a wage that he’d probably never have achieved outside the game, Curt Flood replied that he was, indeed, a “well-paid slave,” but that he was a slave nonetheless. At the time, many of his fellow players did not support him. Today, few players understand that they owe their personal wealth largely to him. In thinking of Curt Flood, we need also to remind ourselves that both our current living conditions and our memories of how we got to live as we do are largely under the control of others. Our relationship with our employers may be personally and even professionally satisfactory; however, it is also inherently adversarial as long as we are denied actual professional status. We also must keep in mind that the courage to promote change does not guarantee the admiration of the people we fight for, though it certainly ensures the enmity of those whose power is at risk.
Second, I hear a great deal these days about the difficulty in encouraging young people (especially young men) to read much of anything. As a result, teachers concerned with literacy often recommend sparking interest in reading by getting students to read about things in which they are already interested. Sports, of course, is a preoccupation of many young men (though probably not as many as were fans in the 1950s) and young women (and probably somewhat more than were fans in the 1950s). Combining sports and the struggle for social justice might accomplish two things: improve reading skills and promote literacy as a path to concern for social justice. As a primer for teachers and as an excellent resource for the brighter students, Robert M. Goldman’s account of the Curt Flood case is a good beginning.
Finally, One Man Out details the legal and human rights elements that played the main part in a personal struggle over changing labour conditions in a changing economy. Neither we nor more than an infinitesimal percentage of our students are apt to become professional athletes; but we are all facing a massive economic transformation in which our ability to earn a livelihood is threatened on all sides. Whether by the effect of globalization on manufacturing and commercial industries, in the devastation of the skilled trades and professions by innovative, labour-destroying technological devices, or in our own little niche as college educators, there is a sea change taking place and we are almost awash.
Curt Flood was a beacon to the future and, despite enormous opposition at the time and the “enormous condescension of posterity,” he was a singular figure in the fight for professional athletes’ rights to collective bargaining. Teachers face tremendous opposition as well, as we try to achieve goals such as academic freedom and to maintain secure employment in colleges and universities. What Curt Flood did to bring dignity to his own life and to those of his often ungrateful colleagues should be an inspiration.
Incidentally, I mentioned that Jackie Robinson died at the age of fifty-three. Curt Flood died at the age of fifty-nine. Heroes sometimes die young.
Howard A. Doughty teaches political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at email@example.com.