Recalling Curt Flood’s legal case and baseball legacy

03/31/2014 2:51 PM

04/05/2014 6:00 PM

When Curt Flood, a gold-glove centerfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, refused to be traded to Philadelphia in 1969 and thus challenged major-league baseball’s reserve clause, he stood virtually alone.

“I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes,” Flood wrote in his now famous letter to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

None of his teammates and no other active player spoke up on his behalf. His case went to the Supreme Court, where he eventually lost. But his action no doubt chipped away at baseball policies that Flood had fought on antitrust grounds as well as with an increasing identification with civil rights and political activism. Within a few years, baseball adopted the concept of free agency.

This exercise in baseball history was prompted by an event this week at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. A symposium, “A Supreme Decision,” featured panels of legal and baseball scholars who gathered here to recall and commemorate Flood’s legacy.

In a keynote talk Sunday night, retired Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Jon Gray put Flood’s case in context with a stream of sports litigation stretching from the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 to the recent ruling by a National Labor Relations Board official that football players at Northwestern University could form a union.

Flood’s family laywer, Allan Zerman, and a son, Curt Flood Jr., talked about the case and, to a certain extent, the personal difficulties that ensued for Flood and his family. (Flood died of throat cancer in 1997, just two days after his 59th birthday.) Curt Flood Jr., now a media consultant in Los Angeles, said this was the first time he’d ever really addressed his father and the case in public. When I asked him what he might have told his father all those years ago, given his current profession, he answered: “When you’re in a hole, stop digging. And — stop drinking.”

On Monday, legal scholars from UCLA, Notre Dame, VIllanova, the University of Wisconsin and the University of South Florida, were scheduled to discuss aspects of the case.

Museum President Bob Kendrick and vice president Raymond Doswell, who precipated plans for the symposium, called it the institution’s most significant event to date and vowed to plan more like it.

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