Despite his outstanding playing career, Flood's principal legacy developed off the field. He believed that Major League Baseball's decades-old reserve clause was unfair in that it kept players beholden for life to the team with which they originally signed, even when they had satisfied the terms and conditions of those contracts.
On October 7, 1969, the Cardinals traded Flood, Tim McCarver, Byron Browne, and Joe Hoerner to the Philadelphia Phillies for Dick Allen, Cookie Rojas, and Jerry Johnson. Flood refused to report to the moribund Phillies, citing the team's poor record and dilapidated Connie Mack Stadium, and its belligerent—and, he felt, racist—fans. Some reports say he was also irritated that he had learned of the trade from a reporter; but Flood wrote in his autobiography that he was told by midlevel Cardinals management and was angry that the call did not come from the general manager. He met with Phillies general manager John Quinn, who left the meeting believing that he had persuaded Flood to report to the team. Flood stood to forfeit a lucrative $100,000 ($598,458 as of 2012) contract if he did not report; but after a meeting with players' union head Marvin Miller, who informed him that the union was prepared to fund a lawsuit, he decided to pursue his legal options.
In a letter to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Flood demanded that the commissioner declare him a free agent:
- December 24, 1969
- After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.
- It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decision. I, therefore, request that you make known to all Major League clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.
Flood was influenced by the events of the 1960s that took place in the United States. According to Marvin Miller, Flood told the executive board of the players' union, "I think the change in black consciousness in recent years has made me more sensitive to injustice in every area of my life." However, he added that what he was doing in challenging the reserve clause was primarily as a major league ballplayer.
Flood v. Kuhn
Commissioner Kuhn denied Flood's request for free agency, citing the propriety of the reserve clause and its inclusion in Flood's 1969 contract. In January 1970 Flood filed a $1 million lawsuit against Kuhn and Major League Baseball, alleging violation of federal antitrust laws. Even though Flood was making $90,000 at the time, he likened the reserve clause to slavery; it was a controversial analogy, even among those who opposed the reserve clause. Among those testifying on his behalf were former players Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg, and former owner Bill Veeck; no active players testified, nor did any attend the trial. Although players' union representatives had voted unanimously to support Flood, rank-and-file players were strongly divided, with many fervently supporting the management position.
Flood v. Kuhn (407 U.S. 258) eventually went before the Supreme Court. Flood's attorney, former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, asserted that the reserve clause depressed wages and limited players to one team for life. Major League Baseball's counsel countered that Commissioner Kuhn had acted "for the good of the game."
Ultimately the Supreme Court, invoking the principle of stare decisis ("to stand by things decided"), ruled 5-3 in favor of Major League Baseball, citing as precedent a 1922 ruling in Federal Baseball Club v. National League (259 U.S. 200). Justice Lewis Powell recused himself owing to his ownership of stock in Anheuser-Busch, which owned the Cardinals.
In 1970 the owners and the MLBPA agreed to the "10/5 Rule" (sometimes called the "Curt Flood Rule"), which allows players with ten years of Major League service, the last five with the same team, to veto any trade.
Aftermath and post-baseball life
Flood sat out the entire 1970 season. The Cardinals sent two minor leaguers to the Phillies in compensation for Flood's refusal to report. One of them—centerfielder Willie Montañez—went on to a 14-year major league career. In November 1970 the Phillies traded Flood and four other players to the Washington Senators. He signed a $110,000 contract with Washington but played only 13 games of the 1971 season, with a .200 batting average and lackluster play in center field. Former teammate Gibson later wrote that Flood once returned to his locker to find a funeral wreath on it. Despite manager Ted Williams's vote of confidence, Flood retired. He had a lifetime batting average of .293 with 1861 hits, 85 home runs, 851 runs, and 636 RBIs.
Later that year Flood published a memoir entitled The Way It Is in which he spelled out in detail his argument against the reserve clause. Four years later, in what is now remembered as the Seitz decision, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that since pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally played for one season without a contract, they were entitled to become free agents. The ruling essentially nullified the reserve clause and opened the door to widespread free agency.