|[A] decade of turmoil and change [in baseball] ... was launched on 16 January 1970, when Curt Flood, a 32-year-old outfielder, filed a suit against organized baseball's so-called reserve clause. Curt Flood had played 12 years for the St. Louis Cardinals and had been recognized as one of the leading players in the league; even his employers had recognized this by paying him $90,000 for the 1969 season -- one of the highest salaries in both leagues. But when that season ended, Flood was traded by the Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies -- a transaction that for decades had been taking place in organized baseball and that had been both formally enforced by the United States Supreme Court and tacitly endorsed by generations of traded players. But now here was Curt Flood charging that the reserve clause was "a contract for perpetual service" and that he did not want to go on being treated as "property ... a chattel ... a slave for a team against his will."
What was this "reserve clause" that could prompt such charged language? Actually, it was a series of clauses or terms that were part of the standard contract of every player in professional baseball. Under these terms, a player was legally bound to a team until he was sold or traded to another team, which in turn owned this player. Oh, a team might release a player and thus free him to sign on with another of his choice -- but most players were never released until their playing days were about over. And if a player didn't like a team that held him under contract, the only thing he could do was to quit professional baseball.
It does sound suspiciously like a form of slavery or at the very least like a restraint of trade ... [y]et without ever actually ruling on the reserve clause itself, the Supreme Court ... had held that organized baseball was not subject to the antitrust laws that governed the conduct of business in America. In fact, it was a form of tribute to baseball's special standing in American life that exempted it from such antitrust laws, for this same Supreme Court often ruled that other organized sports -- hockey, boxing, professional football, for instance -- did fall under the antitrust laws. Such a tribute, however, was little consolation to players who saw their salaries and movements dictated by the owners, who in turn argued that the reserve clause was the only thing that prevented the richest teams from buying all the better players -- and thus upsetting the balance that allowed so many teams to remain competitive over the years.
But Curt Flood, backed by the Major League Baseball Players Association, challenged that assumption in 1970 in the United States District Court in New York City .... The District Court soon ruled that it could not overturn the decisions of the Supreme Court regarding baseball; Flood appealed this decision to the US Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the District Court; Flood then appealed to the Supreme Court itself. It would be 1972 before the Supreme Court ruled that since baseball remained exept from antitrust laws, the reserve clause was legal; however, the majority opinion went on to call this exemption an "aberration" and called on Congress to reconsider the special status accorded organized baseball -- since even its most devoted fans could hardly deny that it had become a business....
Curt Flood, meanwhile, sat out the 1970 season -- a considerable sacrifice for a player of his salary level. In November of that year, however, assured that it would not prejudice his suit still being appealed, he signed with the Washington Senators when they acquired his contract in a trade with the Phillies. (Yes, it included the reserve clause.) So in the immediate sense, baseball began the 1970s as usual. But the first strike of change had been thrown....
-- Joel Zoss & John S. Bowman
The National League: A History
The National League: A History, Joel Zoss & John S. Bowman
Copyright 1986 by Brompton Books Corp.
Published by Great Pond Publishing, Ltd., 1992
Published by Smithmark Publishers, 1995
available at ABEBOOKS