Curt Flood challenges MLB reserve clause

On this day in 1969, center fielder Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals writes a letter to Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of major league baseball, protesting the Cardinals’ decision to trade him to the Philadelphia Phillies and asking to be made a free agent.

In 12 seasons with the Cardinals, Flood was a three-time All Star, won seven Golden Gloves,and batted over .300 six times, contributing to his team’s World Series wins in 1964 and 1967. His batting average slipped during the 1969 season, however, and on October 7, the Cardinals announced they were trading Flood (along with Tim McCarver, Byron Browne and Joe Hoerner) to the Philadelphia Phillies for first baseman Dick Allen, Cookie Rojas and Jerry Johnson. Unhappy with the trade, Flood consulted with a union representative and decided to write his historic letter to Kuhn challenging baseball’s so-called reserve clause, which prevented players from moving to another team unless they were traded.

“After 12 years in the major leagues,” Flood wrote, “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” He wished to play in the 1970 season, the 31-year-old insisted, but not with Philadelphia, and he believed he had “a right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decision.” When Kuhn denied his request, Flood sued him and Major League Baseball, alleging that the reserve clause violated antitrust laws as well as the 13th Amendment, which barred slavery and involuntary servitude.

Flood v. Kuhn went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Flood’s case was backed by the testimony of former players, such as Jackie Robinson. No active players agreed to testify, however, and the court ruled against Flood in a 5-3 decision in 1972. By that time, the Phillies had traded Flood to the Washington Senators, for whom he played only 13 games before retiring in 1971. Although unsuccessful, his historic challenge paved the way, for federal arbitration of salary demands, which the MLB organization agreed to in 1973. Two years later, an arbitrator effectively reversed the court’s 1972 verdict, throwing out the reserve clause and opening the door for the modern free agency that exists today.

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