Wednesday, November 15, 2017
November 15, 2017: AthleteStudying: Curt Flood
[November 12th marked the 125th anniversary of the signing of America’s first professional football player, William “Pudge” Heffelfinger. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Pudge and other groundbreaking professional athletes, leading up to a weekend post on Trump and sports!]
On three documents that together help tell the story of the athlete whose stand for players’ rights changed professional sports forever.
1) Flood v. Kuhn (1972): At the end of the 1969 season, Flood’s 12th in his highly successful Major League baseball career, the St. Louis Cardinals traded him to the lowly Philadelphia Phillies. Angered by the total lack of control that professional athletes had over their own careers and destinies, and (he told the players’ union) emboldened and inspired by “the change in black consciousness in recent years,” Flood refused to go along with the trade, instead writing a letter to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in December 1969 requesting that he be declared a free agent. Kuhn denied his request, Flood sued Kuhn and Major League baseball for violating federal antitrust laws, and the case eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court. In its June 1972 decision, the court ruled 5-3 in favor of Kuhn and MLB, citing as predecent 1922’s Federal Baseball Club v. National League. But the case and Flood had set irrevocable forces in motion, and they would lead to numerous changes in both baseball and professional sports, including the creation of precisely the free agent category for which Flood had argued.
2) The Way It Is (1971): Unfortunately, Flood himself was never able to benefit from those changes. Blacklisted from baseball following his lawsuit, he sat out the entire 1970 season (receiving what teammate Bob Gibson estimated were an average of “four or five death threats a day” during that time); the Cardinals then traded him to the Washington Senators, and he played 13 games for them in 1971 before retiring from the sport. Later that year, he published a groundbreaking memoir, The Way It Is, that linked his own story and life to impassioned arguments against the reserve clause and other elements of baseball’s anti-player policies. Flood’s text is rarely highlighted on lists of either American autobiographies or baseball books; while it’s not particularly compellingly written, it certainly offers a new and important perspective on both professional sports and (among other categories) African American identity and life, and deserves to be more widely remembered and read today.
3) The Curt Flood Act of 1998: Changes such as free agency took place and evolved over time, but it took twenty-five years before Flood’s legacies for professional sports and players’ rights were cemented at the most national and legal level. That happened with two Congressional laws, 1997’s Baseball Fans and Communities Protection Act (in the House) and 1998’s Curt Flood Act (in the Senate). Together, these laws established once and for all that major league baseball was subject to the same antitrust laws as all other American corporations, and that players were thus protected by those antitrust laws as well. Both laws were crafted in honor of, and the Senate’s law was named in overt tribute to, Flood, who had passed away from complications from throat cancer in January 1997 (just two days after his 59th birthday). While he thus tragically did not live to see the most sweeping results of his stand and activism, I hope and believe he knew how much he had changed professional sports, and the lives of professional athletes, through his courage and commitment.
Next AthleteStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other athletes or related histories you’d highlight?