On June 19, 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court rules against Curt Flood in Flood v. Kuhn, denying Flood free agency as a baseball player. Flood was trying to break the reserve clause that had tied baseball players to one franchise since the establishment of professional baseball.
Curt Flood was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies following the 1969 season. The Cardinals were among the premiere franchises in baseball, and they had won the World Series in 1964 and 1967 with Flood patrolling centerfield. A career .293 hitter, Flood hit .300 six times in his 10 seasons with the Cardinals (1959-1969), and won a Gold Glove Award for fielding seven consecutive years (1963-1969). He was a star player, and he was loath to leave St. Louis for Philadelphia to play for a second-rate team with a reputation for racism among the home fans.
Flood consulted Marvin Miller, executive director of the Player’s Union and a savvy negotiator and labor expert who had already successfully introduced collective bargaining to the major leagues. Miller was convinced that Flood would lose his battle in court in addition to his baseball career. Still, Flood decided to move forward, and in a December 1969 letter to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, he stated his desire to become a free agent, which would give him the power to decide for which team he would play. Kuhn ignored the letter.
Flood v. Kuhn was argued in May and June 1970 in the southern district of New York. Flood was represented by Arthur Goldberg, a legendary labor lawyer who later became a U.S. Supreme Court justice, but a heavyweight attorney was not enough. After losing in U.S. District Court and then the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, the case was argued in front of the Supreme Court beginning in March 1972. The opinion, delivered by Justice Harry Blackmun, affirmed the 1922 Federal Baseball Club v. National League opinion of Oliver Wendell Holmes that baseball is a sport and not a business, and therefore exempt from anti-trust law. The blistering dissent by Justices Thurgood Marshall, William Brennan and William O. Douglas maintained that the ruling was incorrect because baseball was and is a business, and a big business, packaged with liquor sales, broadcasting and many other industries.
As Miller predicted, Curt Flood never played baseball again. Three years later, in 1975, an independent arbitrator ruled in a similar case brought by Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally that the men were free of their contractual obligations and could file for free agency. Today, free agency is as much a part of baseball as Cracker Jack and hot dogs.