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A Flood of Change

by Robb Reel

It is impossible to be a sportswriter and not mention Curt Flood on Labor Day.

Anyone who doesn't is selfish, lazy or ignorant.

[Photo: Flood in court, ca. 1971, via Wikimedia Commons] 

Of course, Flood himself was accused of all those things as he stood up to battle baseball's reserve clause.

Flood had already spent 12 years in the majors, won seven Gold Gloves and two World Series.  He was an accomplished center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals when he and a number of teammates were traded to the terrible Philadelphia Phillies.  Rather than play on a moribund team in a dilapidated stadium for [what he believed to be] racist fans, Flood felt he had earned some say in where he and his career went.  He refused to report and sat out the 1970 season as he petitioned Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to become a "free agent."

[Photo: Flood as a Cincinnati Redleg in 1957, via Wikimedia Commons]

Even a lot of sports fans remember the story wrong.  They forget he started in Cincinnati.  They remember that Flood filed suit against the commissioner but don't realize he lost.  It was a later ruling -- the Seitz decision -- that struck down the reserve clause.  Flood did return to baseball in 1971, albeit for only 13 games, with the incarnation of the Washington Senators that became later the Texas Rangers.  Flood is not remembered enough for his greatness on the field, nor is he reviled enough for his dreadful lack of business acumen that included bankruptcy and severe tax turmoil that led to an exile in Majorca for a few years.  Scant sports fans ever knew he was a gifted painter.

So when you lament how much professional -- and occasional "amateur" athletes [Johnny Manziel] -- get paid, think back to Curt Flood.  He struck the first blow to break the bonds of what was basically indentured servitude to owners who made even greater riches off players than they do now.  When you complain about greedy unions grandstanding for greedier players, think back to Curt Flood.  He gave a voice to an entire class of workers who never had one before.  When you have a choice in your own life -- of where to work, for whom or for how much -- think back to Curt Flood.

Happy Labor Day.

[Photo: Flood's letter to Kuhn, ca. Dec. 1969, via Wikimedia Commons]