Would you risk fame and fortune over a principle? All-star baseball player Curt Flood did.
Just 5 feet, 9 and 165 pounds, Flood was an undersized baseball player from the inner city of Oakland, CA. As a young black man in the 1950’s, strict discrimination told him where he could live [in a ghetto] what school he could attend [substandard] limited his job opportunities [mostly menial] and told him his role in the world [a nigger].
But Flood was a top athlete good enough to play professional baseball. He was signed and sent to the minor leagues where he tolerated the indignities cast upon him as a young black man.
Being black, Flood knew to reach the big leagues; he would have to out work and out play some talented white players. With an insatiable hunger to succeed that is what he did.
But when he got to the big leagues, he discovered he couldn’t hit top quality pitching and it looked like his career was over. But he listened to his coaches, practiced intensely and made himself an excellent hitter.
Flood became a three-time all-star centerfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, who batted over .300 six times and won the National League batting championship in 1967 hitting .355. In addition, he won seven Gold Gloves in a row for his fielding excellence. He was on top of the world.
However, in 1969 Flood got a rude awakening. After 12 seasons with St. Louis, and being a fan favorite he saw himself as a career Cardinal, a dedicated member of the team and a supporter of the city. But with no notice, the Cardinals traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies. He was hurt and angry and refused to go to the Phillies.
Yet he was required to for baseball long had a “reserve clause” in every contract. It meant players were property of their team. Every player including Babe Ruth signed such a contract and did as he was told. Team owners paid them what they chose, traded them at will and could make other demands on them.
If a player didn’t like it, it was too bad. His only choice was to find a different profession. This was not unique to U.S. baseball, the practice was widespread in sports.
Flood found it offensive. “I’m a human being,” he said angrily. “I’m not a piece of property.”
At 32, Flood was in the prime of his career. He knew if he filed a lawsuit challenging the reserve clause, he risked his financial security and the chance to play the game he loved. Team owners could blackball him, the media would vilify him, most players and coaches would avoid him and he might never have any baseball job again.
But after considerable soul searching, he filed the lawsuit. Because of the suit, Flood sat out the 1970 season. The following year, he was traded to the lowly Washington Senators and played in just 13-games, buried in criticism from the media and his teammates each of whom viewed him as ungrateful for all baseball had “given him.”
It was too much for Flood to bear. He walked away from baseball, never to play again.
In 1972, the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On a 5 to 3 vote, the Court ruled against him. Flood was devastated and broke and he slid into alcoholism.
But because of Flood’s lawsuit, in 1970 team owners agreed to settle contract disputes with the players union by using an independent arbitrator. As a result the game would never be the same.
On December 23, 1975 an arbitrator over-ruled the reserve clause, and from that time on players were free to put their services out to bid. This system is used today and owners and players have profited immensely and most major sports leagues are more popular than ever.
Curt Flood as a man of principle had revolutionized sports. But today, he is largely forgotten. For him there was no financial reward, no hall of fame selection and no gratitude.
All of this took a toll on Flood, who was a heavy smoker and drinker. He stopped smoking in 1979 however and drinking in 1985. But in 1995, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Two years later, at the age of 59, he died at the UCLA Medical Center.
In his latter years, Flood was sometimes saddened and frustrated by the costly price he had paid to challenge the reserve clause. Yet other times he was especially proud of the results, knowing he had the courage to stand behind his principles and the difference he saw it make for others.
But this is who he was, compelled to stand-up for his beliefs, even while others quietly complied with authority. If the need was there now and he was still playing, he would likely do it again.
It’s much more than being an athlete. It’s Mother Teresa saving orphans while most others saw their sad plight and did little about it. It’s Gandhi challenging British rule of India, which had stood for nearly 200-years while most others acquiesced. It’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrating against the oppression that had crushed Black Americans for centuries.
Curt Flood too found the courage to act while others did little to confront the blatant unfairness of the system and some mocked him for doing it. For him it was often a lonely battle but ultimately it succeeded, affirming the principle he had so believed in, which to a person of principle is its own reward.
Success Tip of the Week:
If you have a principle you whole heartedly believe in, act on it. For a principle without the gallantry behind it is no more than a wish and it will remain meaningless to the world.
In the next KazanToday:
A dedicated teacher who helped uplift the lives of thousands of students.