In October 1960, the New York Yankees returned to the World Series. Having missed the fall classic in 1959, for only the third time in thirteen years, the Yankees won the American League pennant by eight games and coasted into the Series. Order had been restored to baseball.
The 1950s had been a tumultuous time for the game that placed a premium on tradition. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and Major League Baseball spent the better part of a decade coming to terms with integration. The Red Sox did not field a black player until Pumpsie Green joined the roster in 1959, but by then most of the other teams had made considerable progress toward integrating their squads. And many fans looked forward to America’s pastime being free of controversy in the coming years.
But nothing about the 1960s was controversy free—and baseball was no exception.
Curt Flood was one of baseball’s superstars in 1969. For many African Americans, his career seemed one of the great success stories of the post-Jackie Robinson major leagues. Raised in the tough streets of Oakland, he escaped the crime-scarred fate of his older brother by signing a contract with the Cincinnati Reds in 1956. The next year he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals where he quickly broke into the starting lineup. By the mid 1960s, he was the captain on a team that won three pennants and two World Series titles. His batting average hovered near .300, and his stellar work in center field earned him Gold Glove after Gold Glove. In 1968, Sports Illustrated named him “The Best Center Fielder in Baseball.”
But the 1969 season was a disappointing one for the Cardinals, and so management decided to shake things up. Flood, Tim McCarver, Byron Browne, and Joe Hoerner were traded to the Phillies for Dick Allen, Cookie Rojas, and Jerry Johnson. The other players packed their bags, but Flood had no interest in going to Philadelphia—a town he described as America’s “northernmost southern city.” But the reserve clause in the contract of every ball player granted team owners lifetime rights over their players. Faced with this fact, Flood contemplated retiring. But further reflection led him to question the justice of any organization exercising such absolute control over a person’s career. The reserve clause left players with virtually no power over where they worked or lived. It just did not seem right, especially in a country that was quickly re-thinking many of its traditional practices. “By God, this is America, and I'm a human being,” Flood concluded. “I'm not a piece of property. I'm not a consignment of goods."38
So Curt Flood sued Major League Baseball. Invoking the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, he argued that the reserve clause perpetuated a modern-day form of slavery. More subtly, contending that the reserve clause depressed wages and denied ballplayers the benefits of a competitive market, he charged baseball with breaking antitrust laws.
Flood secured the legal services of one on America’s top legal minds––Arthur Goldberg, a former Supreme Court Justice. But baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn was not intimidated; he flatly rejected all arguments that the reserve clause perpetuated a form of slavery. He further suggested that free agency—the alternative to the reserve clause—would turn “teams” into constantly changing collections of one-year mercenaries. Salaries would skyrocket and large-market teams with big budgets would be able to dominate baseball by stockpiling all the best players.
With neither party willing to budge, Flood’s case went to trial; and in 1972, their case reached the United States Supreme Court.
Some observers expected the Court to respond sympathetically to Flood’s argument. In recent years, the Court had issued several landmark decisions expanding civil and personal rights. Flood’s claim that he was entitled to greater professional liberty seemed consistent with the spirit of the times and the legal thinking of the Court. But Flood knew that he had lost his case the moment Justice Harry Blackmun began reading his decision. “It is a century and a quarter since the New York Nine defeated the Knickerbockers 23 to 1 on Hoboken's Elysian Fields,” Blackmun waxed. In Blackmun’s ensuing trip down memory lane he paid homage to “the many names, celebrated for one reason or another, that have sparked the diamond and its environs and that have provided tinder for recaptured thrills, for reminiscence and comparisons, and for conversation and anticipation in-season and off-season: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, Walter Johnson . . .”39
In short, despite the character of the times—or maybe because of it—the Court responded to Flood’s attack on baseball’s lifetime control over players with a ringing endorsement of traditionalism. It agreed with the lower court that baseball held a “unique place in our American heritage.” And therefore the nation’s antitrust laws did not apply.
For Flood, the decision marked the end of his legal battle and the end of his career. He sat out the next season, and although he signed with the Washington Senators in 1971, he simply was not the same player. After a short comeback attempt, he retired.
Just three years later, however, two other players, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, challenged the reserve clause within their contract dispute. This time, an independent arbitrator ruled that the reserve clause unduly restricted their options. In a curious decision, the arbitrator held that the clause only guaranteed owners one additional year of service from a player, not a lifetime. Technically, the reserve clause still existed, but for all practical purposes free agency had arrived.
Today, baseball free agency is governed by a complex set of rules worked out between the owners and the players’ association. Most fundamentally, a player with six years of major league service can file for free agency and sign a contract with a new team. To a certain extent, free agency has resulted in some of Kuhn’s fears being realized. Player salaries have grown enormously; in the first year of free agency, players earned roughly eight times the average salary of working Americans. By 1994, they were earning 50 times the average wage.40 Players have become more mobile and team rosters have become more fluid, and large-market teams with higher payrolls have been able to sign a disproportionate share of the free agent talent up for grabs each year.
Intuitively, free agency has transformed the game. But exactly how much is more difficult to measure. Fortunately, baseball fans are obsessed with statistics, and they have diverted some of their number-crunching energies from box scores to salary and player-mobility analyses. For example, J. C. Bradbury employed regression analysis to determine the exact benefit of a large fan base and concluded that teams earn 1.58 wins for every million people in their market.41 Another analyst has determined that free agency has increased player mobility. Prior to 1975, players averaged 2.8 teams over the course of their careers; today they average 3.4.42
But, of course, statistics have never captured the entirety of baseball, and subsequently the full impact of free agency, increased player mobility, large markets, and high payrolls are perhaps impossible to assess. The Yankees, with the largest market and the highest payroll are indeed the dominant franchise in baseball. But the Chicago Cubs have the third largest market and the third highest payroll; yet they have not been to the World Series since 1945. (They have not won since 1908). And as recently as 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays, with the second lowest payroll in baseball, edged out the Yankees and the Red Sox––large market teams with the highest ($209 million) and fourth highest ($133 million) payrolls––to win the American League East. Meanwhile, over in the National League, the Brewers edged out the Mets for the wild card, even though the Mets outspent the Brewers by more than $50 million.43
So has free agency hurt the game? Has it turned America’s pastime into a different sort of “business?” The jury is still out. And according to some, the impact of free agency on “the game” is of secondary importance. In 1994, Curt Flood was asked why he did what he did, and his answer revealed that his vision transcended baseball. “I'm a child of the 60s. I'm a man of the 60s. During that period of time, this country was coming apart at the seams. We were in Southeast Asia...Good men were dying for America and for the Constitution. In the Southern part of the United States we were marching for civil rights and Dr. King had been assassinated, and we lost the Kennedys. And to think that merely because I was a professional baseball player, I could ignore what was going on outside the walls of Busch Stadium [was] truly hypocrisy, and now I found that all of those rights that these great Americans were dying for, I didn't have in my own profession."44
In 1997, Curt Flood died of throat cancer. In 1998, Congress passed the Curt Flood Act legislatively ending the reserve clause and bringing Major League Baseball into alignment with the nation’s antitrust laws.