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Fifty years ago on Christmas Eve, Curt Flood mailed a letter that changed baseball history

Fifty years ago on Christmas Eve, Curt Flood mailed a letter that changed baseball history

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Baseball’s declaration of independence, as brief and blunt as it has proven impactful, was sent to the commissioner’s office on Christmas Eve, 50 years ago, and it had St. Louis as the return address.

The brick building with its six white Ionic columns still sits at 8007 Clayton Road, and behind its “For Lease” sign is The Creative Services Building, home to a company that specializes in promotional products to help companies establish their brand, create awards for employees, or fashion gifts for anniversaries. On Dec. 24, 1969, Curt Flood & Assoc. Inc. and Curt Flood Studios resided there, and under its letterhead and that date the former Cardinals outfielder typed a letter that changed baseball history.

“After twelve years in the Major Leagues,” Flood’s letter began, “I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.”

Flood’s rejection of a trade to the Phillies ignited the labor relations revolution that cost him his career. Between addressing commissioner Bowie Kuhn and signing his name, in an economical 127 words, Flood launched what would help create this winter’s billion-dollar free agent market.

“The letter is brilliant. It’s timeless,” said Judy Pace Flood, Curt’s widow. “. . . It took somebody of African descent who had a different reaction to being bought and sold. It was part of the 1960s. It was part of the Civil Rights movement. It was like he was doing as Rosa Parks did. ‘I’ve been sitting at the back of the bus, playing where they tell me. I think I should be able to sit anywhere.’ He was not willing to continue if he couldn’t choose.

“It was not Curt’s nature.”

THE DOCUMENT

The single-page letter, filed as part of a 1970 case that reached the Supreme Court, is part of the National Archives catalog. A photocopy of it resides at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and is featured there along with Flood’s biography as part of an exhibit on the history of the game since 1970.

An original draft of the letter was found in the late Marvin Miller’s papers at the MLB Players’ Association, and executive director Tony Clark said it’s been “kept safe, kept in a place that’s very, very safe.”

Flood’s letter was reprinted in a book that collected the best letters of the 20th century, and in 2005 Forbes ranked Flood’s decision as one of 20 that “shaped the (modern) business world.” (Complete text of the letter is at the bottom of this story.)

The opening line of Flood’s letter recently was the clue in a question in the TV game show “Jeopardy!” The question was worth $1,200, or slightly more than the players’ average salary per week in the 1969 season. And a week later, at a news conference to introduce him and his record $324 million contract with the Yankees, pitcher Gerrit Cole named-dropped Flood.

“Challenging the reserve clause was essential to the blossoming sport we have today,” Cole said, later explaining to New York reporters how a teammate would challenge players to know their history. “I hope everyone has that conversation about Curt Flood on the bus. As John Buck would say, excuse my language, ‘Get your (expletive) book reports ready, kids. I want to hear about Curt Flood.’”

The anniversary, the acknowledgement, and even the appearance on “Jeopardy!” come in concert with Miller’s long-awaited election this month to Cooperstown. Miller led the players’ union from 1966 to 1982, an era that saw Flood’s loss at the Supreme Court and the groundswell it inspired all the way to the arbitration victory in 1975 that spawned free agency. The appreciation for Miller has brought renewed attention to Flood, what he sacrificed, and illuminated his claim to history’s honors.

“If the Hall of Fame is a museum and reflective of the transcendent players first and, then second, the events and circumstances that shaped the game, it has to recognize the impact of Marvin Miller and the importance of Curt Flood to that impact,” Clark recently told the Post-Dispatch. “It’s hard to separate the two. It’s hard to separate them for all of history, and we shouldn’t separate them for what they meant. Curt was willing to lose a lot to make a stand.

“His letter was everything,” Clark continued. “It was enlightening. It was empowering. It was eye-opening. It’s a reminder of how things were and how far we’ve come.”

THE TRADE

At the end of the 1969 season, Flood had just won his seventh consecutive Gold Glove award with the Cardinals. A three-time All-Star, he had a career batting average of .293 and was two years removed from batting .335. On Oct. 7, 1969, he and Tim McCarver were traded to Philadelphia as part of an eight-player deal that also included Dick Allen.

Flood refused to go.

“He was aware of what not saying ‘yes’ meant, and what it meant in that moment to not say, ‘What time do I leave? When do I pack?’” said Judy Pace Flood, who now serves as an ambassador for the union. “His non-action of not going, that was the act. He knew what was going to happen. He knew so much of what he had was gone. But if he didn’t do it, he wouldn’t be Curt. And that can get in your heart, can eat at you in the same way.”

Judy Pace Flood was Curt’s girlfriend at the time of the letter and also accompanied him to San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1969 for a pivotal meeting with players’ union representatives. She described how Curt would type letters, from business to Christmas, on an old typewriter. He did so with the “complete focus he had painting a portrait or when he was out playing the outfield.”

Miller enlisted former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg to aid Flood’s legal battle, and all three of them poured into his succinct declaration. The draft in Miller’s papers, shared by a union official, shows how the final letter had a key change:

“Gentlemen:” at the top was replaced with “Dear Mr. Kuhn.” It was personal.

St. Louis-based sports historian and professor Charles Korr, who wrote a book on the union titled “The End of Baseball As We Knew It,” described the language in the letter as “intellectual and visceral.” It helped shape the public conversation about Flood’s refusal to be traded and set the stage and tone for a few days after Kuhn’s rejection of the letter.

During a televised interview, the 31-year-old center fielder told Howard Cosell, “A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave.”

Flood did not play in 1970, surfaced with Washington for 13 games in 1971, and his career was over, undone in part by the stress of standing up to the reserve clause. Flood died in January 1997, two years before President Bill Clinton signed The Curt Flood Act to strike out baseball’s antitrust exemption from labor matters.

The bill carried his number, 21, which his widow said he wore because it was half Jackie Robinson’s 42. Baseball’s rule that grants players no-trade protection after 10 years of service time and five with the same team, also has his name.

Flood’s loss ultimately was the players’ gain.

All of it starting with a letter mailed on Christmas Eve.

“If you read that opening line, it is actually a poetic rhythm, very lyrical, very beautifully written,” Judy Pace Flood said. “I look at that letter as Curt putting words to being a very determined person. He was going to do this whatever next happened. It was breaking his heart if he didn’t do this. It was breaking his heart to walk away. It cost him everything. It cost him everything, completely. But he was still alive. To him, that’s what it took to do what was needed.

“I think people understand now what he did — and also why he did it.”

THE LETTER

Here is the text of Curt Flood's letter to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, dated Dec. 24, 1969:

Dear Mr. Kuhn:

After twelve 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 offer 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.

Sincerely yours,

Curt Flood

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