Former major-league outfielder Curt Flood, who put his career on the line to challenge baseball's reserve clause, died yesterday of throat cancer at the age of 59.
Flood, a three-time All-Star and a seven-time Gold Glove winner, was one of the best center fielders in the game when he sued baseball in 1970 in a vain attempt to overturn a long-standing provision in the Major League Agreement that bound each player to his team for the length of his career. He sat out a season and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, but the reserve clause was not struck down until Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally successfully challenged it five years later and ushered in the free-agent era.
For his efforts, Flood became the object of scorn and -- by some accounts -- the victim of an industry freeze- out after his playing career came to a premature end, but he is recognized as a pioneer in the baseball labor movement.
"Baseball players have lost a true champion," said Major League Baseball Players Association chief Donald Fehr in a statement released last night. " Perhaps more than any other player, Curt Flood brought to the nation's attention the basic injustice of baseball's reserve system. All players know that Curt's effort was critical to establishing the rights they now enjoy, and they will always be in his debt."
His battle against the status quo began in 1969 when the St. Louis Cardinals traded him along with Tim McCarver, Byron Browne and Joe Hoerner to the Philadelphia Phillies for Dick Allen, Cookie Rojas and Jerry Johnson. Flood disapproved of the deal and asked baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn to declare him a free agent. When that request was denied, he filed suit on Jan. 16, 1970, contending the reserve system violated federal antitrust laws.
"At the time Curt Flood decided to challenge baseball's reserve clause, he was perhaps the sport's premier center fielder, and yet he chose to fight an injustice, knowing that even if by some miracle he won, his career as a professional baseball player would be over," said former union head Marvin Miller.
The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, where the justices ruled in favor of Major League Baseball. Flood came back to play briefly for the Washington Senators in 1971, but retired just weeks into the season.
He had likened the reserve clause to slavery, but that analogy fell flat with the average fan, who couldn't see past his $90,000 salary. Baseball players got a taste of what he was up against when opinion turned against them during the four-year labor dispute that ended in November.
"I think a lot of players can appreciate what it must have been like to take on all those forces," said MLBPA associate general counsel Gene Orza. "During the strike of '94, you saw how much power they [the owners] were able to show. The press' treatment of Curt Flood was not one of the high points in the journalistic history of this century. The vilification he had to endure was incredible."
The case all but overshadowed Flood's great playing career. He led the National League with 211 hits and helped lead the Cardinals to the World Series in 1964. He batted .335 for a 1967 Cardinals team that won the world championship. He had another big season in 1968, but is better remembered for misjudging a fly ball in the seventh game of the World Series against the Detroit Tigers.
He ended his 15-year career with a .293 batting average, but will forever be known as the diminutive (5-foot-9) center fielder who took on a corporate giant.
"Every major-league baseball player owes Curt Flood a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid," American League player representative David Cone and NL player rep Tom Glavine said in a joint statement. "With the odds overwhelmingly against him, he was willing to take a stand for what he knew was right."
Flood became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1976, but never came close to getting enough votes for induction. His name has since dropped off the ballot.
"Few praised him [for his crusade], then or now," Miller said. "There is no Hall of Fame for people like Curt."
Pub Date: 1/21/97