Flood was an All-Star for three seasons and Gold Glove winner for seven consecutive seasons. He batted over .300 in six seasons. He led the National League (NL) in hits (211) in 1964 and in singles, 1963, 64, and 68. He also led the National League in putouts as center fielder four-times and in fielding percentage as center fielder three-times. Flood retired with the third most games in center field (1683) in NL history, trailing Willie Mays and Richie Ashburn.
Flood became one of the pivotal figures in the sport's labor history when he refused to accept a trade following the 1969 season, ultimately appealing his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although his legal challenge was unsuccessful, it brought about additional solidarity among players as they fought against baseball's reserve clause and sought free agency.
Born in Houston, Texas, and raised in Oakland, California, Flood played in the same outfield in West Oakland's McClymonds High School as Vada Pinson and Frank Robinson. Flood signed with the Cincinnati Redlegs in 1956 and made a handful of appearances for the team in 1956–57 before being traded to the Cardinals in December 1957. For the next twelve seasons, he became a fixture in center field for St. Louis; although he struggled at the plate from 1958 to 1960, his defensive skill was apparent. He had his breakthrough year after Johnny Keane took over as manager in 1961: He batted .322 and followed by hitting .296 in 1962 with 11 home runs. He continued to improve offensively in 1963, hitting .302 and scoring a career-high 112 runs, third most in the NL; he also had career bests in doubles (34), triples (9) and stolen bases (17) and collected 200 hits in an NL-leading 662 at bats. In that year he received the first of his seven consecutive Gold Gloves.
He earned his first All-Star selection in 1964. He batted .311. His 679 at-bats led the NL again and were the fifth highest total in league history to that point, setting a team record by surpassing Taylor Douthit's 1930 total of 664; Lou Brock broke the team record three years later with 689. He tied for tops in hits with The Pittsburgh Pirates' Roberto Clemente with 211. Batting leadoff in the 1964 World Series against the New York Yankees, he hit only .200 but scored in three of the Cardinal victories as the team won in seven games for its first championship since 1946. In 1965 Flood had his greatest power output with 11 home runs and 83 runs batted in while hitting .310. He made the All-Star team again in 1966, a season in which he did not commit a single error in the outfield; his record errorless streaks of 226 games (NL record for an outfielder ) and 568 total chances (major league record) ran from September 3, 1965, to June 4, 1967.
In 1967 he had his highest batting mark with a .335 average (though his other batting totals fell off from previous years), helping the Cardinals to another championship. In the 1967 World Series against the Boston Red Sox he hit a woeful .179 but made some crucial contributions. In game 1, he advanced Brock to third base twice, putting him in position to score both runs in a 2-1 victory; in game 3, he drove Brock in with the first run of a 5-2 win. As team co-captain (with Tim McCarver) in 1968 he had perhaps his best year, earning his third All-Star selection and finishing fourth in the MVP balloting (won by teammate Bob Gibson) on the strength of a .301 batting average and 186 base hits. Against the San Francisco Giants that year, Flood was involved in the final outs of the first back-to-back no-hitters in major league history. On September 17, he struck out for the final out of Gaylord Perry's 1-0 gem. The next day, he caught Willie McCovey's fly ball for the final out of Ray Washburn's 2-0 no-hitter. Had he not momentarily lost his footing chasing a Jim Northrup fly ball (ruled a triple) with two out in the seventh inning of game 7 of the 1968 World Series against the Detroit Tigers, the Cardinals might have won their third championship of the decade; Detroit scored twice on the play, with Northrup later coming in for a 3-0 lead, and won the game 4-1. Up to that point, Flood had been enjoying the best series of his career despite dealing with personal problems at home, hitting .286 with three steals.
After the season ended, Flood was upset when Cardinals' president Gussie Busch, also CEO of team owner Anheuser-Busch, offered him only a $5,000 raise, far short of the $90,000 salary he believed he deserved after his stellar regular season. He believed Busch, with whom he had hitherto enjoyed a close personal friendship, was expressing his displeasure over the error that had likely cost the team the Series. While Busch eventually relented, Flood took it personally when Busch publicly chewed the team out after most players boycotted spring training before the 1969 season for a week, accusing players of forgetting that fans were what kept the sport going (although he did not mention any player by name).
In 1969, despite the lower pitching mound instituted that season, which saw a general rise in batting average league-wide, Flood's batting average slipped to .285. His brother was arrested during the season. Late in the season, he publicly criticized the team for reorganizing the team before they were officially eliminated. He received his seventh Gold Glove that season just as other events in his career began to affect the entire sport.
Flood collected the first hit in a major league regular season game in Canada. He doubled off Montreal Expos pitcher Larry Jaster in the first inning of the Expos' inaugural home game, on April 14, 1969, at Jarry Park. (Jaster, a Cardinal teammate of Flood's just the year before, had been selected by the Expos in the expansion draft.)
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 for (what he thought were) belligerent—and racist—fans. Flood said, "That I didn't think that I was going to report to Philadelphia, mainly because I didn't want to pick up twelve years of my life and move to another city." 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, further alienating him from Busch. 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 (equivalent to $616,710 in 2016) 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.
Commissioner Kuhn denied Flood's request for free agency, citing the propriety of the reserve clause and its inclusion in Flood's 1969 contract. On January 16, 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. 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) was argued before the Supreme Court on March 20, 1972. 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."
On June 19, 1972, 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.
After Flood’s lawsuit lost, many consequences followed. One of the worst things that happened to Flood was being blackballed from baseball following his lawsuit. There were questions similar to “Do you realize you won’t be able to play in the MLB ever again?” or “You realize you are going to lose your job?” Everyone Flood consulted was convinced he would be blackballed from baseball. Flood soon came to realization that his career was over as he later said,
It would be difficult to come back. And besides, I don’t think I’ll be getting the opportunity to play again. As big as it is, baseball is a closely-knit unit. I doubt even one of the 24 men controlling the game would touch me with a 10-foot pole. You can’t buck the Establishment.
Another outcome of Curt Flood’s lawsuit, albeit 26 years later, was the Curt Flood Act of 1998. Gary R. Roberts, a graduate and author in the Marquette Law Scholarly Journal, explains the Act as:
[T]he conduct, acts, practices, or agreements of persons' in the business of organized professional major league baseball directly relating to or affecting employment of major league baseball players to play baseball at the major league level are subject to the antitrust laws to the same extent such conduct, acts, practices, or agreements would be subject to the antitrust laws if engaged in by persons in other professional sports business affecting interstate commerce.
This act did exactly what Flood wanted; it stopped owners from controlling the players’ contracts and careers. Strangely enough, the Curt Flood Act did not eliminate the Reserve Clause and it still fully exists in baseball today.
Not only did Flood help modify the Reserve Clause, he also helped bring in the 10/5 rule, which is also known as the Curt Flood Rule. The rule states that when a player has played for a team for five straight years, and played in the MLB for a total of ten years, they have to give the club their consent to be traded.
Flood sat out the entire 1970 season. During this period he was bombarded with hate mail from fans, who accused him of trying to destroy baseball; his teammate Bob Gibson estimated "He got four or five death threats a day." 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. 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 RBI.
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.
After his retirement Flood purchased a bar in the resort town of Palma on the island of Majorca, where he had moved in the wake of bankruptcy of his Curt Flood Associates business, two lawsuits, and an IRS lien on a home he bought for his mother. He returned to baseball as a member of the Oakland Athletics broadcasting team in 1978. In 1988 he was named commissioner of the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association. In the mid-1990s he joined the management group of the United Baseball League (UBL), which was envisioned as a smaller alternative to MLB. While the group negotiated a long-term TV contract with Liberty Media, the deal (and the UBL) failed when Liberty was absorbed by MLB contractor Fox Sports. In his spare time, he painted; his 1989 oil portrait of Joe DiMaggio sold at auction for $9,500 in 2006.
Diagnosed with throat cancer in 1995, Flood was initially given a 90-95 percent chance of survival. He underwent radiation treatments, chemotherapy, and throat surgery, which left him unable to speak.
On January 20, 1997, just two days after his 59th birthday, Flood died at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, after developing pneumonia. He was survived by his five children, Debbie, Gary, Shelly, Scott, and Curt Flood, Jr., his wife, actress Judy Pace, and his two step-daughters. Flood was interred in Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, California.
Flood's legacy was acknowledged in Congress in 1997 via the Baseball Fans and Communities Protection Act of 1997. Numbered HR 21 (Flood's Cardinals uniform number) and introduced in the House of Representatives on the first day of the 105th Congress by Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D–Michigan), the legislation established federal antitrust law protection for major league baseball players to the same extent as provided for other professional athletes. Similar legislation, titled the Curt Flood Act of 1998 and sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R–Utah), was introduced in the Senate and enacted into law the following year.
Curt Flood is a nonparticipating but pivotal character in the book Our Gang by Philip Roth.