This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
On Thursday morning, Major League Baseball (MLB)’s owners locked out its players, sending the sport into its first work stoppage since 1994. The owners and the players union were at a bargaining impasse over how to share baseball’s growing revenues and profits. In the five years since the last collective bargaining agreement was signed, players have received a declining proportion of their teams’ revenues, which come not only from ticket sales but also from local and national television deals, real estate development, publicly-funded stadiums, and, most recently, gambling.
A key logjam is the issue of free agency. Currently, players can’t become free agents — which allows them to negotiate with other teams — until they’ve played for six full seasons. The union has accused teams of rigging the system by keeping players in the minors for an extra few weeks or months to deny them eligibility for that threshold. The players want to shorten that time period so younger players can negotiate for better salaries based on their market value.
The owners’ lockout ended ongoing negotiations, which means that players now eligible for free agency or salary arbitration can’t talk to any teams. (MLB has even removed players’ photos from team websites.) It is now up to the owners to decide whether to resume contract talks with the union or risk delaying the start of spring training in February and perhaps cause the cancellation of some regular season games, which are scheduled to start on March 31.
Missing from the stories about baseball’s current labor war is the key role that Curt Flood played in the struggle for free agency. An outstanding hitter and outfielder during the 1950s and 1960s, Flood sacrificed his career to challenge baseball’s plutocratic control over players’ lives and livelihoods. In 1970 he sued baseball to end the reserve clause, which bound players to their teams. For that, he was blacklisted. For the past three decades, he’s also been blacklisted by the Hall of Fame. And now it has happened again this year.
The Hall of Fame’s 16-member Golden Days Era committee will meet in Orlando this Sunday to vote, and then announce, which veterans will earn a plaque in the shrine in Cooperstown, New York. The committee — which includes Hall of Fame players but is typically dominated by baseball owners and executives — considers candidates whose primary contribution to baseball came between 1950 to 1969, who were not selected for inclusion in the Hall of Fame within ten years after they retired, and have been retired for at least 21 years.
This year’s ballot includes nine players (Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Roger Maris, Minnie Miñoso, Tony Oliva, Billy Pierce, and Maury Wills) and one manager (Danny Murtaugh). A candidate needs to get 12 votes (75%) to get inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Each of the ten nominees had outstanding careers, but none of them had Flood’s overall impact on the sport. He was the catalyst for the most important change in baseball economics — the dismantling of the reserve clause, baseball’s form of indentured servitude.
Many baseball observers thought that this might be Flood’s year. In baseball history, Flood is closely tied with Marvin Miller, the longtime (1966-82) head of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) who helped transform it from a toothless tiger into an influential force. The Hall of Fame kept Miller off the ballot until 2003, 21 years after his retirement. Between 2003 and 2017, his name appeared on the ballot seven times, but the Hall’s corporate-dominated board of directors made sure there were enough anti-union owners and executives on the committee to deny Miller the necessary votes. Miller died in 2012, at 95, and he was finally elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2019, a decision that MLBPA’s executive director Tony Clark called “bittersweet.” He was posthumously inducted at a ceremony in Cooperstown on September 8.
Flood, who died of cancer in 1997, was on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2003, 2005, and 2007, but the Veterans Committee (since renamed Golden Days Era Committee) failed to vote him in each time, a victim of the same anti-union corporate baseball establishment that kept Miller out for decades. After 2021’s meeting, the Golden Days Era committee won’t convene again until 2027.
In recent years, there’s been a growing movement to pressure the Hall of Fame to give Flood his due — partly a result of the MLBPA’s effort to educate the current generation of players and the public about Flood’s significance. Last year, the union announced an annual Curt Flood Award, given to a former player who demonstrated a “selfless, longtime devotion” to players’ rights.
Last year and again this year, more than 100 members of Congress signed a letter to Jane Forbes Clark, chairwoman of the Hall of Fame and granddaughter of its founder, urging Flood’s election by the Golden Days Era committee at this Sunday’s meeting.
“Curt Flood sacrificed his own career so players after him could have free agency, leaving one of the biggest impacts on the game to this day,” said Representative David Trone, a Maryland Democrat.
“As a lifelong Cardinals fan, I have always admired the talent he brought to the game and his bravery off the field,” added Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican. “He deserves to be honored with his rightful place alongside America’s greatest baseball players.”
Representatives from the MLBPA, as well as from players’ unions in the National Football League, National Baseball Association, and National Hockey League, signed a joint statement on Flood’s behalf. “Curt Flood’s historic challenge to the reserve clause a half century ago transcended baseball,” they said. “He courageously sacrificed his career to take a stand for the rights of all players in professional sports.”
In December 2019, when pitcher Gerrit Cole signed his $324 million, nine-year contract with the New York Yankees, he paid tribute to Flood.
“I just think it’s so important that players know the other sacrifices that players made in order to keep the integrity of the game where it is, and so I hope everybody has that conversation about Curt Flood on the bus.”
During the 2021 season, a number of players — including All-Stars Alex Bregman, Shohei Ohtani, and Whit Merrifield — wore “Flood the Hall” tee-shirts on the field to promote Flood’s candidacy.
But when this year’s ballot was made public, Flood wasn’t on it. The Hall of Fame delegates the task of compiling the ballot to an 11-member Historical Overview Committee sponsored by the Baseball Writers Association of America. The deliberations are secret, but as one committee member, who asked to remain anonymous, told me, the writers primarily look at candidates’ statistics in evaluating their Hall of Fame worthiness. In their eyes, based on the ascendency of such “analytics,” Flood doesn’t deserve a place in the Hall of Fame.
In fact, Flood had an impressive track record. During his career, from 1956 to 1969 — an era of pitching dominance and relatively low batting averages — he batted .293, including six seasons over .300. He had 1861 hits. He won the Gold Glove Award as the best defensive outfielder seven years in a row, played in three All-Star games, and helped lead the St. Louis Cardinals to three National League pennants and two World Series victories in 1964 and 1967. An inspiring player, his teammates selected him as their co-captain each year between 1965 and 1969.
But Flood — whose career was cut short at the age of 31 because he was blacklisted for challenging baseball’s corporate status quo — deserves to be judged by more than what he did on the field.
Flood was shaped by the activism of the 1960s.
“Jackie Robinson was his hero,” said his widow, Judy Pace Flood, a well-known actress during the 1960s and 1970s. “For Curt, players’ rights and civil rights were part of the same idea.”
In February 1962, at Robinson’s invitation, the 24-year-old Flood traveled to Jackson, Miss., to speak at a rally organized by NAACP leader Medgar Evers.
During his playing days in the minors and majors, Flood, like other Black ballplayers, faced racist taunts from fans and ostracism from some teammates. In many cities, Black players couldn’t stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as their teammates. In 1963, Flood put down a deposit to rent a three-bedroom house for his family in an Oakland suburb. Once the property owner learned that Flood was Black, he threatened to shoot them if they arrived to integrate the all-white neighborhood. Flood filed suit and eventually moved in.
Flood was also an eager trade unionist. “On our first date, over dinner in 1964, he quizzed me about the Screen Actors Guild,” recalled Pace Flood. He was particularly interested in the fact that SAG members had their own agents and lawyers, could negotiate with film studios over salaries, and could move to different studios — all prohibited in baseball at the time.
During most of Flood’s career, players had no rights to determine the conditions of their employment. That began to change when the MLBPA hired Miller, who’d been the steelworkers union’s chief economist and negotiator, as its first full-time director in 1966.
Miller instructed ballplayers in the ABCs of unionism: Fight for your rights; stick together against management; work on behalf of players who will come after you; prepare yourself — professionally and financially — for life after playing ball; and don’t allow owners to divide players by race, income, or their place in the celebrity pecking order.
In 1968, the MLBPA negotiated the first-ever collective bargaining agreement in professional sports. In 1970, the union won players’ rights to binding arbitration over salaries and grievances. Disputes would be settled by independent arbitrators rather than the MLB commissioner, who worked for the owners. That year, players also won the right to hire agents to negotiate their contracts.
But each player’s contract still included the reserve clause, which tethered them to their teams. Contracts, limited to one season, “reserved” the team’s right to “retain” the player for the next season. The players had no leverage to negotiate better deals. Each year, the team owners told players, even super-stars, “Take it, or leave it.” Most players had jobs during the off-season to make ends meet. When Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan broke into the major leagues in 1966, he spent the winter months working at a gas station.
After the 1969 season, the Cardinals owners decided to trade Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies, but he didn’t want to move to what he called “the nation’s northernmost Southern city.” The Phillies offered him a $100,000 salary for the 1970 season, a $10,000 boost from his Cardinals pay. But for Flood, it was a matter of principle, not money. Flood said that “a well-paid slave is, nonetheless, a slave.”
Flood asked Miller’s advice about suing MLB. Miller warned that the odds were against him. Even if he won the lawsuit, the owners would blacklist him as a player and as a future coach or manager. In his autobiography, A Whole New Ballgame, Miller recalled: “Curt, to his everlasting credit, said, ‘But would it benefit all the other players and future players?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘That’s good enough for me.’”
On Christmas Eve, 1969, Flood wrote a letter to MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn explaining why he refused to accept being traded.
“I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes,” Flood wrote. “It is my desire to play baseball in 1970 and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer 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.”
Kuhn denied Flood’s request. Miller and superstar Roberto Clemente persuaded the players union to support the lawsuit, which argued that MLB’s control over players’ employment violated federal antitrust law and workers’ rights. Jackie Robinson, maverick owner Bill Veeck, and Hall of Fame slugger Hank Greenberg testified on Flood’s behalf. But in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Flood in a 5-3 vote. In the majority decision, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote that baseball’s exemption from federal antitrust laws — the court’s excuse for not directly addressing Flood’s complaint, based on the notion that the MLB was a game, not a business engaged in interstate commerce — was an “aberration,” and declared that it was up to Congress, not the court, to fix the situation.
Flood paid a huge financial and emotional price for his defiance. After leaving baseball, he spent years traveling to Europe, devoting himself to painting and writing, including his autobiography, The Way It Is. When he returned to the United States, he briefly found a job overseeing baseball programs for the Parks and Recreation Department in Oakland, his hometown.
Although he didn’t win his lawsuit, Flood’s case opened players’ eyes about the unfairness of the reserve clause. His legal battle also persuaded many skeptical journalists about the injustice of the reserve clause, leading to columns attacking the court’s decision.
In 1975, Miller found a loophole in the reserve clause language that didn’t require going to court. He persuaded pitchers Dave McNally of the Montreal Expos and Andy Messersmith of the Los Angeles Dodgers to play the entire season without signing contracts. When the season ended, they filed grievances, claiming the right to free agency because there was no contract for their teams to renew. That December, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of the players, ending the reserve system.
Thanks to Miller and Flood, players’ wages, benefits, pensions, and working conditions have improved dramatically. They have won better per diem allowances, improvements in travel conditions, and better training facilities, locker room conditions, and medical treatment. In 1975, before the reserve clause was overturned, MLB’s minimum salary was $16,000 ($82,256 in today’s dollars), while the average salary was $44,676 ($229, 681). By 2019, the minimum salary had jumped to $555,000 and the average salary to $4.4 million. The average is inflated by the mega-salaries of a handful of superstars. Moreover, the typical ballplayer only plays in the majors for five years. The owners’ current lockout is an effort to tip the balance even further against the players.
Baseball’s 30 team owners — at least 20 of whom are billionaires — have persistently complained that the union has undermined baseball’s financial condition. But since 2011, the average value of the teams increased from $523 million to $1.9 billion.
“Curt Flood’s historic challenge to the reserve clause a half century ago transcended baseball,” observed MLBPA head Tony Clark, a former player. “He courageously sacrificed his career to take a stand for the rights of all players in professional sports.”
“If the Hall of Fame recognizes the individuals with the biggest impact on our game, it is undeniable that Curt should be in the Hall of Fame,” said Clark.
As a 17-year old high school senior in 1972, Dennis Eckersley — who later won the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards during in his illustrious 24-year Hall of Fame career — wrote a term paper for a social studies class about Flood’s challenge to baseball’s status quo.
“Little did I know I was going to be a big leaguer and be able to take advantage of free agency,” Eckersley said in a recent interview.
Eckersley believes that Flood deserves a plaque in Cooperstown.
“I’m all for Curt Flood,” said Eckersley, who twice served on Hall of Fame committees evaluating veterans. “He had the guts. He made things better for the rest of us.”
Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College and author of “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.”