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Wild Pitch: The Story of Curt Flood and The Path to Free Agency

wild-pitch-the-story-of-curt-flood-and-the-path-to-free-agency

Major League Baseball is the United States oldest and most cherished sport. However, Baseball has had a questionable history especially in the labor department area. The game has had 9 lockouts since its creation of the Major Leagues and one World Series in 1994. However, their is a name that gets mixed up in all of the mess. His name was Curt Floyd and he tried to break a tradition that had been in place for almost 80 years, the Reserve Clause. Flood sacrificed his career to change it and his case went all the way to the Supreme Court. This is Curt Flood’s story and how “Catfish” Hunter became Major League Baseball’s first free agent.

What is the Reserve Clause and why is it important?

wild-pitch-the-story-of-curt-flood-and-the-path-to-free-agency

Dating back to the beginning of baseball and really all professional major sports the Reserve Clause is something that was always added onto a player’s contract. It guaranteed that the team owned the rights to a player until the contract expired. The stipulation was that players that where held under these contracts were not free to enter into other contracts with other teams. Free Agency was not allowed which is why too often players ended up playing for a single team their whole career. Only the team could trade you, sell you or release you. Seems a bit unfair right. Well it was, because players did not have agents and where not allowed to have any type of representation of any kind.

At the time the only way a player could show their disappointment with their contract was a “hold-out” where they could sit out but they would not be paid. Keep in mind, players made more than the average working man, but there were no millionaires in baseball until the 1980s. Only a few players made more than just there contract because of ads and advertisements that they were involved in. Babe Ruth was the first celebrity athlete and even he had no freedom to leave the New York Yankees if he wanted too.

The Reserve Clause is important to baseball because baseball is the sport that kept it in place the longest. Baseball had a Players Association and had been trying to remove this Clause for decades but to no avail. A man sacrificed his career to help push things forward in the game and he became a legend for it.


Who is Curt Flood?

Curt Flood

Curt Flood

Curt Flood was raised in Oakland, California. He played high school ball in the same outfield as Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson who would later be his teammates with the Cincinnati Reds. Flood was recruited by the Reds in high school and with the development of the Farm System it was easier for High School players to get drafted into the Major Leagues. Flood made little impact in his first two seasons as the Reds favored Pinson and kept him. Flood was considered to be expendable and was soon dumped to the Cardinals where he would play most of his career. Flood struggled offensively early on but his defense was his real strength. Finally the early 1960s where when he began to shine. In 1961, he batted .322 and in 1963 he batted .302. His defense still being the strongest point of his game, Flood earned his first Gold Glove in 1963 and would win 6 more until his last one in 1969.

In 1964, Flood was selected as an All-Star, his first of 3. That year with the help of Bob Gibson throwing heat, the Cardinals won the World Series. He was tied with Roberto Clemente with hits at 211 on the season. 1966 was more of the same as Flood made the All-Star team again and that year did not commit a single error. His record of 226 games without an error still stands in the National League. Flood and the Cardinals again won the World Series in 1967 despite Flood hitting a dismal .167 for the series. That would be the end of Flood’s fun times with the Cardinals.

After the season was over, the Cardinals had to work on negotiations with Flood to keep the team together. However, Cardinals President, Gussie Busch, offered him a $5,000 raise. Per Flood, the team was supposed to offer him a $90,000 season salary. Flood came off as a prima donna because he felt that he had made some contributions to the teams success. He was not wrong in saying that because his gold gloves spoke for themselves. Busch was considered friendly by most of the players and always stressed that he had their best interest. Well, Flood felt that his All-Star appearances were being underappreciated. To make matters worse, in 1969, the team boycotted Spring Training briefly and received a harsh talk with Busch which Flood felt he was being called out for in the process for organizing it. Flood was viewed within the management as being a trouble starter and was traded following the 1969 season. Flood became a journeyman and what happened next changed the game forever.


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Challenging Tradition

Ted Williams with Joe Dimaggio

Ted Williams with Joe Dimaggio

Flood was traded along with TIm McCarver and several others to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood was outraged for being traded but more than that, he did not want to play in Philadelphia. The Phillies were known for racism and racial discrimination despite the game being open to African-Americans. Just looking at what the fan base did to Jackie Robinson back when played and how Ben Chapman scolded him with racial epithets in front of 20,000 people, Flood was aware of how Philly was and refused to play there. Flood learned that he had been traded from reporters, the team didn’t even have the decency to tell him.

Flood decided that based on his skin color as well as being a disgruntled employee of the system that he played under that he would challenge the Reserve Clause.

Flood requested free agency but was denied by Commissioner Kuhn. As a result, Flood filed a lawsuit against the Commissioner for $1 million dollars. Flood was the only player to step forward in the lawsuit and defend himself. The trial went before the Supreme Court and Flood lost. The Court decided 5-3 in favor of Major League Baseball. Flood ended up losing his entire career after the lawsuit. He was blackballed from the game permanently. However, a rule that bears his name was created stating that after a player plays 5 years with a team and 10 overall he has the right to consult regarding a trade.

This was a first step towards getting rid of the clause. Flood left the game in 1971 having played his last season, lost his case in 1972 and the clause was reversed in 1975. Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally where both players who played one year in the Major Leagues without a contract. This was the final step that was needed to cancel the clause permanently.


Baseball’s First Free Agent: Catfish Hunter

Catfish Hunter as a Yankees Pitcher.

Catfish Hunter as a Yankees Pitcher.

James “Catfish” Hunter played for the Oakland Athletics who were on their way to being the team of the decade. They won World Series in 1972,1973, and 1974. Hunter was a big part of their World Series victories but due to not making enough money in his opinion for his victories he decided to take his talents elsewhere. Hunter decided that the Yankees could meet his demands. Months later he signed a contract for 5 years, 3.25 million. Catfish Hunter became apart of two more World Series teams in 1977 and 1978 with his former teammate Reggie Jackson.

Hunter became baseball’s first free agent and started the era where massive contracts could be extended to players who could leave if they were re-negotiating. Because of people like Hunter, the offseason went from small contracts to long-term extensions like Mike Trout's 13-year $340 million deal. Catfish Hunter made history without even realizing it.


What Happened to Curt Flood?

Flood during his Supreme Court Trial in 1972.

Flood during his Supreme Court Trial in 1972.

After never playing baseball again, Flood went and tried to use his money to start several businesses, most of which went under. He ended up in debt with the IRS and took various roles in baseball including briefly working as a broadcaster for the Athletics in 1978. Flood tragically passed away in 1997 at 59 years old of pneumonia but had been diagnosed with throat cancer in 1995. Flood’s loss was heartbreaking but he still remains a member of the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame and one of the greatest outfielders to ever play the game.

Legacy

How we look at free agency today is because of the pioneering efforts by Curt Flood. His case ended tragically in him never being allowed to play at a high level again. However, his impact was forever felt on the game afterwards. Remember that whenever you hear the sports talking heads discussing baseball’s winter meetings that a part of that always includes Free Agency and players get massive extensions or get traded thanks to Curt Flood’s sacrifice.

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