How the Game of Baseball Evolved into Big Business

How the Game of Baseball Evolved into Big Business

Curt Flood (Source: The Atlantic)
Curt Flood (Source: The Atlantic)

As the Flood vs Kuhn case turns forty-one years old this week, one of the Supreme Court's most celebrated ruling in the world of sports is also one of its most controversial. The 5-3 decision impacted more than baseball—it raised questions about the court's viability, whether sports are monopolies, and it addressed the issue of labor. However, it also ended the age of innocence for athletes and ushered in a new era of scandals, as well as an arms race for high contracts.

The Flood ruling was a case of unintended consequences. Before free agency was the norm, baseball players were bound to one team. Before 1970, Major League owners banded together and formed an agreement to reserve players. This prevented teams with deep pockets from signing other teams' stars, and it also prevented players from negotiating with other teams. This agreement was known as the reserve clause, a one-year contract with an option for next season. Players could have their salaries reduced at owner discretion, and before each season, players were forced to sign these agreements or be declared ineligible.

There were many challenges to baseball's antitrust exemption. However in 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act which prohibited monopolies and aimed to promote competition. This allowed Congress to regulate interstate commerce, but not intrastate commerce. When the bill was enacted, sports were not considered interstate commerce. 

The first major challenge to baseball was in 1914, when The Baltimore Terrapins of the Federal League formed a rival league. However, the league folded in 1915 and five Federal League owners received compensation. The Baltimore Terrapins demanded that a major league team be put in Baltimore. However, the owners refused and Baltimore sued for damages. In a 1922 case, Federal Baseball Club v. National League, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that baseball was a sport, not a business, and therefore not subject to antitrust laws.

The last major ruling before the Curt Flood case was in 1953, Toolson v. New York Yankees. George Toolson, a minor league pitcher for the Yankees, was demoted to Class A Baseball and refuse to play. He was blacklisted from playing Major League Baseball and sued. The courts ruled 7-2 to uphold baseball exemption using stare decisis—"to stand by things decided"—which meant they weren't going to make a new precedent by reversing a past decision.

In 1966, Marvin Miller became head of the Major League Baseball Players Association. He believed the way to challenge baseball's antitrust exemption was through arbitration rather than legal battles. In 1968, he negotiated baseball's first collective bargaining agreement, and in 1970, he convinced owners into hiring an independent arbiter to settle labor disputes.

However in 1969, Curt Flood, a twelve-year veteran for the St. Louis Cardinals, three-time all star and owner of seven Gold Gloves, was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for three ballplayers.

Flood had several business ties in the St. Louis community, owned a house there, and was an accomplished artist. His trade to the Phillies evoked similarities of his time in Cincinnati when he signed out of high school for $4,000 in 1956, with no agent or advisor.

Flood grew up in Oakland, California, in the 50s, which had less hightened racial tensions compared to the rest of the country at that time. A shy and introverted kid, he was sent to Florida for Spring Training. He was denied sleeping in the same hotels as his white teammates and was sent to a black boardinghouse. He was then sent to Douglas, Georgia, where he had to stay in the colored section. He found no relief playing because rabid fans would spout epithets, death threats, and obscenities.

Because the Reds already had two black all stars in their outfield, Frank Robinson and Vada Pinson, they were reluctant to have three and thus traded him to St. Louis.

By 1968, Curt Flood was a superstar and one of the highest paid players, making $90,000 a year. He was a one-time favorite of Cardinals owner Gussie Busch (president of Anheuser Busch). However, his error in the '68 World Series cost St. Louis the championship, and there were also reports of his infidelities and alcoholism. Flood's career started to decline at age 31.

In 1969, The Cardinals traded to him to Philadelphia, the worst club in baseball. The team was the last to integrate in 1959 and the most unwelcoming towards Jackie Robinson, shouting taunts and threats. Their first black all star, Dick Allen, was virtually ran out of Philly and was glad to be traded to St. Louis for Curt Flood.

Hearing he was being traded, Flood approached Marvin Miller about suing Major League baseball over the “reserve clause”. He felt being traded was a form of servitude and that he should be able to chose with whom to negotiate. After bringing in other players for contentious meetings and negotiations, eventually a union of players agreed to sue Major league baseball.

Flood wrote a letter to acting commissioner Bowie Kuhn declaring himself a free agent, and his request was rejected. On June 19, 1972, his case went to the Supreme Court, where the Court  invoked the principle of stare decisis, and ruled 5-3 in favor of Major League Baseball, citing as precedent the 1922 ruling in Federal Baseball Club v. National League.

Flood returned to baseball in 1972, with the Washington Senators after eighteen games; he then quit and left for Spain. He became an alcoholic, and in 1997, died of throat cancer.

Although Flood lost his case, it significantly furthered the case for free agency within Major League baseball. In 1975, a federal judge ruled that two players, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, were free agents as they had played without a contract for one year. This case finally brought the case for free agency to victory.

Today, whenever a baseball player signs a huge contract, or you have to pay twenty five dollars for an autograph, remember Curt Flood.

His sacrifice may be the greatest act of altruism for athletes.