BY DENNIS RICHARDSON
08 June 2021
ORLANDO, FL – One hundred thirty-four.
Arguably the most significant, yet least known, number in Major League Baseball history.
You will not find it in the record books, yet it may be more important than others you will. More than such iconic figures as 56 – Joe DiMaggio’s consecutive-game hitting streak; 4,256 – Pete Rose’s number of career hits; 2,632 – Cal Ripken, Jr.’s, total for consecutive games played; 511 – Cy Young’s mark for career victories by a pitcher; and 73 and 762 – Barry Bonds’ records for home runs in a season and career.
So, what’s so special about 134? It’s the number of words in a letter that Curt Flood wrote to then-baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn a little more than 50 years ago objecting to being part of a trade between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies. The correspondence, mailed on Christmas Eve 1969, read:
Dear Mr. Kuhn:
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. 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 from the Philadelphia club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decisions. I, therefore, request that you make known to all the major league clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.
Some have called the letter eloquent and powerful in its brevity. Just 134 words and five sentences – which well may have arrived in the commissioner’s office in New York City among a stack of late holiday greeting cards -- in which Flood challenged baseball’s reserve clause, rocked Major League Baseball to its foundations, and set off a series of events that eventually would change not only the league, but all professional sports.
It also was the beginning of a long, arduous and costly road for Flood. A road that half a century later rightfully should end with Flood, who died in 1997 at age 59, being elected posthumously to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. For few have impacted the sport more than this three-time All-Star outfielder.
A Game Without ‘Reservations’
The reserve clause dates back to 1870. It gave MLB teams the right to renew a player’s contract for one year. And, supported by favorable rulings by the courts, that right was considered to be perpetual – year after year. It was an antiquated, feudal system that, in essence, tied a player to a team for life, barring a trade, release, or retirement. The player’s only options were to accept a club’s contract offer, or to hold out.
Flood filed his case in January 1970, alleging violation of federal anti-trust laws (baseball remains the only sport that enjoys anti-trust exemption), asking to strike down the reserve clause, and seeking $1 million in damages. If he won, he’d become baseball’s first free agent.
The trade that triggered Flood’s objection would have sent him and three other Cardinals to Philadelphia for slugger Dick Allen and two additional Phillies’ players. Flood wanted no part of Philadelphia, a city with a well-known reputation for being hard on its athletes, Blacks in particular (A tough crowd, those Philadelphians; they once booed Santa Claus). He also considered the Phillies then to be a poorly run organization (in a five-year period from 1969-73, the club lost 470 games).
The Cardinals’ center fielder was widely criticized for his stand, condemned as just another overpaid, spoiled player. Flood, though, grew up listening to stories from his mother about having lived in the racist South. He was active in the civil rights movement, a rarity among athletes in that day and age, and to him this was about his civil rights. He equated the trade to a form of slavery. “I’m a human being. I’m not a piece of property. I’m not consignment goods,” Flood said.
When sports announcer/TV personality Howard Cosell pointed out in an interview that Flood’s $90,000 salary was not exactly slave wages, Flood famously replied, “A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave.”
As Flood mentioned in his letter to the commissioner, he still wanted to play baseball. He just wanted a choice of where he was employed, just as in any other profession in our free enterprise system. He was 31 years old at the time of the trade, and would have been 32 during the 1970 season, so he still had a number of potentially good years remaining in his career.
Flood was aware that twice before players had contested the reserve clause in the courts and failed. And Marvin Miller, the executive director of the players association whom Flood enlisted to help with his legal challenge, warned the player that he “didn’t stand a chance in hell of winning,” and that even if Flood did win, he’d “never get a job in baseball again.”
Flood reportedly asked Miller if his legal challenge would benefit other players. The head of the players union replied “yes, and those to come.” Flood reportedly answered, “That’s good enough for me,” and sued Kuhn and Major League Baseball.
A Defeat Turns into Victories
Miller’s predictions came true on both counts. The courts – first the Federal District Court, then Appellate Court, and finally the Supreme Court in a 5-3 decision in 1972 – ruled against Flood. Plus, the lawsuit, in effect, ended Flood’s career. After sitting out the 1970 season and then being traded from the Phillies to the Washington Senators, Flood attempted a comeback in 1971. But, he retired after hitting .200 in 13 games.
Still, his lawsuit was an instrument for change, as the tide slowly turned in the players’ favor. In 1970, the players won the right to have grievances settled by an independent arbitrator, then won salary arbitration rights, and rights for veterans to refuse trades. In 1975, an arbitrator ruled that pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally were free from the reserve clause after playing the 1975 season without a contract. Thus, free agency was born.
A fight that ended in failure for Flood would help lead to generational wealth for players that followed. Every athlete who signs a free-agent contract – baseball, football, basketball, and hockey – should donate a percentage of that contract to a favorite charity in Flood’s name.
He made possible today’s $4-million-a-year average salary for MLB players. He made possible Mookie Betts (12 years/$365 million), and Francisco Lindor (10 years/$341 million), and Gerrit Cole (9 years/$324 million), and LeBron James (4 years/$154 million). All of those mega contracts began more than 50 years ago with 134 words and five sentences.
Sadly, most athletes – and fans -- today have no knowledge of who Curt Flood is, the sacrifices he made, or how he helped players gain their millions. During his court battle, Flood received death threats, was considered an outcast, and was shunned by a surprisingly large number of his fellow players, some of whom considered Flood’s lawsuit a “Black issue.” He said his fight cost him money, friends, coaching jobs – and possibly a place in the Hall of Fame.
Flood sacrificed a well-paying career (the Phillies even offered to raise his salary $10,000 to $100,000, which would be worth about $683,000 today) for a principle. Ask yourself, how many of us have enough courage of our convictions to willingly put our jobs and careers on the line for our beliefs, and to help benefit others?
In December 2019, Yankees’ right-hander Cole made a point of praising Flood during a press conference to announce Cole’s nine-year deal with New York.
“Challenging the reserve clause was one of the first steppingstones to ultimately the system we have today, which I believe brings out the most . . . genuine competitiveness that we have in baseball,” Cole said. “There’s many different stories to be told by every baseball season. And the best stories are always told because there’s competitiveness, and Curt was instrumental in getting the ball rolling.”
And, because of that, Curt Flood belongs in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Some people will look at his career statistics over 15 seasons – a .293 batting average, .732 OPS, 1,861 hits, 85 home runs, 88 stolen bases, .342 OBP, and seven consecutive Gold Gloves – and say he was a very good player, an all-around player, a key player for a club that won three National League pennants and two World Series, but not an elite one worthy of the Hall.
Flood’s candidacy is not about what he achieved on the diamond, but rather his impact on the game. He fought baseball’s feudal past, and made baseball – in fact, sports – history. He won – not for himself, but for others.
If the Hall is baseball’s museum, then it should tell the history of the game, both on and off the field. One cannot legitimately talk about Major League Baseball while ignoring the significant impact of Flood’s lawsuit.
Now, Flood can only be inducted into the Hall through a vote by the Golden Era committee that covers players who played from 1950 through 1969 – one of four veterans’ committees that meets about every five years – instead of balloting by the baseball writers.
The next Golden Era committee meeting is in December. It’s time – actually, well past time -- the committee voted Flood into the Hall, along with the other principal player in that ill-fated 1969 trade: Dick Allen.
Allen to Hall of Fame?
What do Hank Aaron, Dick Allen, Roberto Clemente, Reggie Jackson, Harmon Killebrew, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Frank Robinson, Willie Stargell, Carl Yastrzemski, and Billy Williams all have in common? According to Tyler Kepner, the outstanding baseball writer for the New York Times, those are the top 11 hitters in terms of OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), for an 11-year period from 1964-74, with a minimum of 1,000 games.
All of them are in baseball’s Hall, except for Allen.
If Flood’s career stats give one pause over his Hall election, Allen’s should not. In that 11-year span, his 319 home runs ranked fifth in the majors, and his .941 OPS was just one percentage point behind Aaron. Allen’s average over those 11 seasons: 31 doubles, nine triples, 35 homers, 107 RBI, 106 runs, and 12 steals.
Dick Allen was one of the most feared hitters of his time. He led the league in intentional walks four times. And, it was jokingly said that opposing third basemen checked their life insurance policies before they were asked to play an “infield in” alignment when Allen was at bat.
His critics trot out an argument similar to one used against Flood when talking about baseball’s Hall: that Allen played in just 1,749 games over his 15 major-league seasons, and has good but not Hall-worthy career numbers. But, one cannot overlook the fact that Allen was a National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1964, a seven-time All-Star, and the American League MVP in 1972.
To those who contend that Allen didn’t play at a Hall of Fame level for a long enough period, I ask: Is more than a decade as one of the greatest sluggers in the game not enough? If not, what is? Fifteen years? Twenty years?
Some also argue that Allen never having played in a World Series further diminishes his Hall credentials. That is absurd. Allen shouldn’t be penalized for the failings of the teams he played on. Cooperstown is filled with great players who never appeared in the Fall Classic. Among them: Ernie Banks, Ken Griffey, Jr., Rod Carew, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Frank Thomas, Ferguson Jenkins, Andre Dawson, Gaylord Perry, Ralph Kiner, and Luke Appling.
A Hostile Environment
Allen’s .292 career batting average, 351 home runs, 1,119 RBI and .912 OPS likely would have been higher had he not had to play through injuries and “personal issues” (that being a polite way to phrase the racism he endured, mainly in his days with the Philadelphia Phillies).
Allen carried the burden of being the first Black superstar on a franchise that was exceedingly slow to integrate, in a city that (as we mentioned before) had a reputation for not exactly being tolerant toward its Black athletes. When he played during home games, Allen had to wear a batting helmet on the field for fear of being hit by projectiles from the stands.
Mike Schmidt, the Phillies’ Hall of Fame third baseman, mentioned those troubles in his speech during a team ceremony last year to retire Allen’s No. 15 jersey.
“Dick was a sensitive Black man who refused to be treated as a second-class citizen,” the Associated Press reported of Schmidt’s speech. “He played in front of home fans that were products of that racist era (with) racist teammates and different rules for whites and Blacks. Fans threw stuff at him…They yelled degrading racial slurs. They dumped trash in his front yard at his home. In general, he was tormented and it came in all directions. And Dick rebelled.”
“…Negative labels have kept Dick Allen out of the Hall of Fame. Imagine what Dick could have accomplished as a player in another era, on another team, left alone to hone his skills, to be confident, to come to the ballpark every day and just play baseball.”
Allen got that chance, following trades, first in St. Louis, then in Los Angeles, and with the Chicago White Sox. In 1970, he hit 34 home runs for the Cardinals, despite missing almost all of the team’s final 34 games due to an injury, and playing in a pitcher-friendly stadium. Two years later, he was the AL MVP, hitting .308 with 37 homers for the White Sox.
An Unfair Reputation
Allen’s objection to that horrible treatment in Philadelphia led to his being unfairly and incorrectly labeled as a malcontent, troublemaker, and bad teammate. He was different in a time when the game demanded conformity, and that made him an obvious target.
He was outspoken; frequently clashed with the front office, his managers, some teammates, the press, and fans; strongly believed that he should be paid what he was worth and was a frequent spring training holdout in the days before free agency and salary arbitration; and was not a big fan of batting practice or arriving at the ballpark two hours before game time.
In other words, Allen refused to be silent, and showed an independent streak in an age when Black athletes were expected to obediently follow the rules and accept baseball’s racist practices. He was vilified for not being what others expected him to be.
The Phillies and Allen did patch things up. When the team retired his jersey in September, it broke with a longstanding club policy of only retiring the numbers of players who are in baseball’s Hall of Fame – and had a ceremony planned for this year after fans were allowed to return to the stadium when attendance restrictions caused by the pandemic were lifted. Unfortunately, Allen passed away on Dec. 7, at age 78, and never got to feel the appreciation he deserved.
Allen would seem to be a good bet to make the Hall. He fell one vote short of the 12 needed in balloting by the Golden Era committee in 2014. That committee was supposed to meet last December, and likely would have voted in Allen, but it was postponed until this December because of the coronavirus.
There are people who say that a Hall of Fame with confessed baseball gambler Pete Rose and suspected steroid users Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens would be flawed.
Well, a Hall without Flood and Allen likewise would be flawed. One has the most meaningful number – 134 -- of any player enshrined in the Hall, and the other was one of the most feared sluggers of his generation.
The primary player for whom Flood was traded – Dick Allen – seems headed for the Hall. The man who helped Flood challenge baseball – Marvin Miller – will be enshrined this summer. The man that Flood sued – Bowie Kuhn – is in the Hall. The Christmas Eve letter to Kuhn that started the lawsuit is in the Hall’s archives. The man who did more than any other athlete to change modern-day baseball and professional sports in general – Curt Flood -- should be as well.
It’s time for the Golden Era committee to step up this December and right a wrong – actually, two wrongs -- and finally put Flood and Allen into baseball’s Hall of Fame. It would be fitting that the two principal players in one of the most famous trades in baseball history would go in together.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.