Curt Flood set off sports' free-agent revolution 50 years ago Tuesday, with a 128-word letter to baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn — two paragraphs that pretty much ended the career of a World Series champion but united a union behind his cause. St. Louis had traded the All-Star center fielder to Philadelphia just after the 1969 season. Flood broke with the sport's culture of conformity and refused to accept the Cardinals' right to deal him, AP reports, becoming a pioneer and a pariah. After weeks of discussions with the Major League Baseball Players Association, Flood challenged the reserve clause in the first shot of a labor war that would consume the sport for more than a quarter-century. "After 12 years in the major leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes," Flood wrote in his Dec. 24 missive. "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." He said that he had an offer from the Phillies but believed he had the right to consider offers from other teams, as well.
Flood and the union lost that fight in a lawsuit that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, but the union's fight went on. "If there had not been the person who was going to step out there and take the bullets, there wouldn't have been anything," Flood's widow, actress Judy Pace, said last weekend. The reserve clause was struck down in 1975 by an arbitrator in the case of pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, and it took eight work stoppages from 1972 through 1995 to achieve long-term labor peace. Flood, a .293 career hitter, was long gone from the field by then. After sitting out the 1970 season, he played briefly for Washington before retiring. His only further major league employment was as an Oakland Athletics radio broadcaster for part of the 1978 season. He died of throat cancer in 1997. "All the groundwork was laid for the people who came after me. The Supreme Court decided not to give it to me, so they gave it to two white guys," Flood once said. “I think that's what they were waiting for." Baseball's average salary has risen from about $25,000 at the time of Flood's letter to just over $4 million this year, a testament to the power of free agency. (One free agent announced he was no longer a team employee as soon as the last game ended.)