Before “The Decision,” the July 8 ESPN show in which Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player LeBron James announced he would sign a contract with the Miami Heat, there was another decision. Almost 40 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case that pitted St. Louis Cardinal outfielder Curt Flood against Major League Baseball. Though Mr. Flood did not win the case, he helped turn the tide so NBA stars like Mr. James are able to weigh $100 million offers from a half-dozen teams.
Mr. Flood, who played from 1956 to 1971, was a three-time all-star and seven-time Gold Glove winner whose lifetime batting average was a respectable .293. After playing for the St. Louis Cardinals for 11 years, the team traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies. In an unprecedented act of defiance, Mr. Flood refused to report to the Phillies. But this was not the act of a spoiled and petulant professional athlete.
It’s important to understand the relationship between players and teams in those days. In baseball, team scouts found prospects in high school, college and in semipro leagues, and signed them to contracts. Once the player signed, he was bound to the team for his professional life, unless he was traded or retired. Professional football and basketball teams drafted players from college; those players, too, had not choice but to sign with the team that drafted them and stay for the duration.
After refusing to report to the Phillies, Mr. Flood wrote MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in late 1969, demanding to be declared a free agent: “After 12 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. 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.”
The commissioner denied the request, Mr. Flood sued claiming MLB had violated anti-trust laws, and the case ended up in the Supreme Court. The court ruled 5-3 (one justice who owned stock in Anheuser-Busch, which owned the Cardinals, did not vote) to uphold the existing arrangement. No active players supported Mr. Flood during his battle, and after he returned to baseball in 1971, he was harassed by some of them.
Yet a decisive blow had been struck. Four years later, when two pitchers who hadn’t come to terms with their team played an entire season after their contracts had expired, an arbitrator ruled they could become free agents. This spelled the end of the reserve clause in professional athlete contracts, enabling players to opt-out after a prescribed number of years as free agents.
In 1998, Congress approved the Curt Flood Act, which banned baseball’s anti-trust exemption that allowed the reserve clause. For that, and for Curt Flood, LeBron James and the other big-ticket free agents should be grateful.