On October 7, 1969, while most of the sports world was gearing up for the upcoming World Series between the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Mets, a much more significant baseball event was about to unfold. On that date, Curt Flood, the talented centerfielder for the St Louis Cardinals, was part of a seven player trade that would have sent the perennial Gold Glove Winner to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood’s refusal to accept the trade, and his subsequent challenge of Major League Baseball’s reserve clause is the subject of the brand new HBO documentary, “The Curious Case of Curt Flood, “ which makes its debut on Wednesday, July 13 at 9 pm. Produced by Ross Greenburg and Rick Bernstein, “The Curious Case of Curt Flood” tells the story of the man who whose actions would ultimately change the economic foundation of professional sports, but did so at the expense of his own athletic career.
Signed by the Cincinnati Reds in 1956, Curt Flood was traded to the St Louis Cardinals after the 1957 season. By the early 1960’s, Flood had become a fixture in the Cardinals outfield, winning the first of his seven straight Gold Glove awards in 1963, and earning his first All-Star berth in 1964. Playing alongside future Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Bob Gibson, Flood was a key component to the Cardinals success, as the franchise won three National League pennants (1964,’67.’68), during Flood’s tenure, and were World Champions in 1964 and 1967. At the conclusion of the 1969 season, the Cardinals worked out a trade with the Phillies, which was to send Flood, along with catcher Tim McCarver, outfielder Byron Browne and pitcher Joe Hoerner to Philadelphia in exchange for first baseman Dick Allen, second baseman Cookie Rojas and relief pitcher Jerry Johnson. Flood, explaining that he had several reservations concerning the Phillies organization, announced his refusal to cooperate with the deal.
At the time of the Flood trade, Major league Baseball was operating under the reserve clause, a system which made players the virtual property of the teams they originally signed with until they were either traded or released. Under these conditions, professional ballplayers had very little leverage when negotiating their contracts, and in 1969, the average salary for a major leaguer was around $25,000 a year. Curt Flood’s actions were a direct challenge to the reserve clause, which Flood criticized as being “inconsistent with the laws of the United States.” Flood’s request to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn that he be made a free agent was denied, prompting Flood to file a lawsuit against Kuhn and Major League Baseball, sitting out the 1970 season and forfeiting a $100,000 salary in the process. Flood’s case would eventually reach the United States Supreme Court, which ruled against him 5-3. Curt Flood returned to baseball in 1971 as a member of the Washington Senators, but by then his skills had abandoned him, and his comeback lasted only 13 games. Curt Flood died of throat cancer on January 20, 1997 at the age of 59.