Flood Tests Baseball’s Reserve Clause

Curt Flood challenged Major League Baseball’s reserve clause in a lawsuit alleging that the clause violated federal antitrust laws. He lost his case in a 5-3 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, but the challenge nevertheless led to the establishment of free agency in the league.

Summary of Event

On January 16, 1970, Curt Flood initiated a lawsuit arguing that baseball’s reserve clause was unlawful. The reserve clause had been judged lawful by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1922 and was a cornerstone of the standard baseball player contract. On June 19, 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-3 decision, that the reserve clause was “an established aberration” and that it was a matter for legislative, not judicial, resolution. Baseball
Reserve clause (baseball)
Free agency (baseball)
Athletes;Curt Flood[Flood]
Flood v. Kuhn (1972)
[kw]Flood Tests Baseball’s Reserve Clause (Jan. 16, 1970)
[kw]Baseball’s Reserve Clause, Flood Tests (Jan. 16, 1970)[Baseballs Reserve Clause, Flood Tests]
[kw]Reserve Clause, Flood Tests Baseball’s (Jan. 16, 1970)
Reserve clause (baseball)
Free agency (baseball)
Athletes;Curt Flood[Flood]
Flood v. Kuhn (1972)
[g]North America;Jan. 16, 1970: Flood Tests Baseball’s Reserve Clause[10680]
[g]United States;Jan. 16, 1970: Flood Tests Baseball’s Reserve Clause[10680]
[c]Sports;Jan. 16, 1970: Flood Tests Baseball’s Reserve Clause[10680]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 16, 1970: Flood Tests Baseball’s Reserve Clause[10680]
[c]Business and labor;Jan. 16, 1970: Flood Tests Baseball’s Reserve Clause[10680]
Flood, Curt
Blackmun, Harry A.
Goldberg, Arthur J.
Kuhn, Bowie
Douglas, William O.
Cooper, Irving Ben
Miller, Marvin

Curt Flood was born in 1938 and began his major league baseball career at the age of eighteen by playing briefly (four at bats) for the Cincinnati Reds Cincinnati Reds of the National League in 1956 and 1957. Prior to the 1958 season, the Reds traded him—that is, they exchanged his playing contract for the contracts of other baseball players—to the St. Louis Cardinals St. Louis Cardinals[Saint Louis Cardinals] of the National League. Flood’s twelve-year career as an outfielder with the Cardinals was remarkable.

Over the course of his fifteen-year career (which also included thirty-five at bats with the Washington Senators of the American League), Flood made 6,357 appearances at bat and achieved a career batting average of .293 and a career slugging average of .389. He received the Gold Glove Award (for fielding excellence) seven times. He appeared in the 1964, 1967, and 1968 World Series and had his best batting year in 1967 with a .335 average. Flood was one of the top major league baseball players of the 1960’s.

On October 7, 1969, the Cardinals traded Flood, then thirty-one years old, to the Philadelphia Phillies Philadelphia Phillies of the National League. In December, 1969, Flood registered a complaint about the transaction with Commissioner of Baseball Bowie Kuhn. He requested that he be allowed to become a “free agent,” free to negotiate the best deal with any major league club. Kuhn rejected his request, citing the reserve clause in each baseball player’s contract.

At the time of Flood’s request, all teams and players in major league baseball were bound by the reserve clause found in all players’ contracts. The reserve clause specified that once a player had signed a Uniform Player’s Contract with a baseball team, the player and team were to negotiate each year if necessary. If there was no agreement by March 1 of a year, the club had the right to renew the contract for one year. The clause had been interpreted to mean that these renewals could go on indefinitely, giving the team the rights to the player’s baseball services until the player retired. Unless the team released the player from his contract, he could not negotiate with other teams. The team had the right to assign the player’s contract to another team without obtaining the player’s permission. The player was then tied to his new team by his contract’s reserve clause.

The reserve clause had its legal underpinnings in two decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1922, the Court ruled in Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs
Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs (1922) (259 U.S. 200) that the baseball business was not interstate commerce and therefore was not subject to federal antitrust laws. This curious decision gave to baseball’s owners and commissioners the privilege of colluding to raise product prices or to reduce the price of labor. In 1953, the Court accepted the case of Toolson v. New York Yankees
Toolson v. New York Yankees (1953) (346 U.S. 356), in which several baseball players directly challenged baseball’s reserve clause. The Court issued a one-page opinion affirming its 1922 decision without considering the underlying issues of the reserve clause.

The next challenge to the reserve clause came after Commissioner Kuhn rejected Flood’s request to be made a free agent. Flood instituted a lawsuit on January 16, 1970, in federal court in New York. The lawsuit alleged that the reserve clause violated federal and state antitrust laws, was unconstitutional under the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and violated other labor and civil rights statutes. Judge Irving Ben Cooper heard his case during May and June of 1970. Flood was represented in his lawsuit by Arthur J. Goldberg, a former member of the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Cooper rejected all of Flood’s arguments, deciding the case (Flood v. Kuhn, 316 F.Supp. 271) in favor of major league baseball.

Judge Cooper’s decision considered both the constitutional and the antitrust law arguments. First, he observed that a “showing of compulsion” was necessary to find that a contract constituted involuntary servitude, prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Since a baseball player had a right to retire from baseball and undertake a new career, Judge Cooper concluded that compulsion was not present in the reserve clause. Second, Judge Cooper cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s exemption of baseball from the federal antitrust laws and argued that baseball’s reserve clause was at the heart of this exemption. Moreover, since baseball was exempt from federal antitrust laws, baseball was also exempt from state antitrust laws.

Although Judge Cooper ruled against Flood, his decision also concluded that the conflicts between team owners and players over the reserve clause were reconcilable. He believed that collective bargaining between the players’ union (the Major League Baseball Players Association) and the team owners was capable of producing a reform acceptable to both sides.

Flood appealed Judge Cooper’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, U.S. . In a 3-0 ruling (Flood v. Kuhn, 443 F.2d 264) in 1971, the court of appeals upheld Judge Cooper’s decision. In a concurring opinion, Judge Moore noted that it was up to Congress, not the courts, to repeal baseball’s exemption from the antitrust laws.

The Supreme Court accepted an appeal of the case and heard arguments on March 20, 1972. In a 5-3 vote, the Court ruled (Flood v. Kuhn, 407 U.S. 258) against Flood on June 19, 1972, affirming its previous exemption of baseball from the antitrust laws. Justice Harry A. Blackmun, writing for the majority, declared that baseball was a business and that the antitrust exemption was an aberration. Nevertheless, the exemption had been in place for five decades, and Blackmun affirmed the importance of adhering to precedent. Blackmun, as well as Chief Justice Warren Burger in a separate concurring opinion, followed the appeals court in arguing that the matter should be resolved by the U.S. Congress, not the federal courts.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice William O. Douglas argued that the Court was responsible for correcting the errors of its earlier decisions. He reasoned that baseball had become like other big businesses and should be subject to antitrust laws. In a separate dissenting opinion, Justice Thurgood Marshall argued that Congress had done nothing to right the inequities stemming from the reserve clause and that it was time that they were corrected by the courts. All three dissenters wanted to send the case back to District Court, which would then determine if the reserve clause violated federal and state antitrust laws.


The federal court rulings in the Flood case were not particularly surprising, as Flood’s case was relatively weak. Although he ran a photography store in St. Louis, he did not claim that his business suffered losses as a result of the trade. In addition, Flood could not establish the extent of his damages in baseball stemming from the reserve clause. Robert Nathan Nathan, Robert , an economist, testified at Flood’s trial that Flood and all other major league baseball players suffered reduced salaries because of the reserve clause. Unfortunately for Flood, Nathan did not provide any evidence on the magnitude of the damages.

Baseball scholar Gerald Scully Scully, Gerald argued that Flood’s lawyers mistakenly based much of their case on the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition of involuntary servitude. Scully stressed that a stronger case could have been made by focusing on labor law and emphasizing the excessive control management exercised over players. Others have argued that the case against the reserve clause should not have been brought by a star player but instead by a journeyman player whose damages were more transparent.

The immediate impact of the Flood case was to send a signal to both players and managers that the courts were not going to strike down baseball’s reserve clause. If the reserve clause was to be eliminated or modified, it would be through negotiations between the team owners and the players’ union. In fact, changes that would lead to partial elimination of the reserve clause were already under way prior to the Flood case. The 1970-1972 Basic Agreement between the players’ association and the owners had specified that the reserve clause was a required subject for collective bargaining. In addition, the 1969 Basic Agreement had specified that all disputes concerning the Basic Agreement would be submitted to a three-arbitrator panel to resolve. One arbitrator was appointed by the owners, the second by the players, and the third by the first two arbitrators.

The owners’ victory in the Flood case was short-lived. The 1973-1975 Basic Agreement restricted the reserve clause by allowing players with ten years of experience (and the last five years with a single club) to veto a trade to another club. After the Flood decision was announced, the owners proposed in early 1973 to allow arbitration to be used to settle salary disputes between players and owners. The players agreed to the use of salary arbitration beginning with the 1974 season.

The critical event in changing the reserve clause came with pitcher Andy Messersmith’s Messersmith, Andy dispute with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Messersmith had played the 1975 season without a contract and at season’s end proclaimed himself to be a free agent. The players’ association sent his case to arbitration, arguing that the reserve clause did not tie a player perpetually to a given team but merely granted the baseball team a one-year option to renew the player’s contract. To the shock of all parties involved, arbitrator Peter Seitz decided in favor of Messersmith on December 23, 1975. The ruling essentially freed all players to negotiate with other clubs after playing one season without a signed contract.

The players’ association eventually compromised with the owners by agreeing on a six-year reserve clause in the 1976 Basic Agreement. Under this modification, after six years in the majors, players could become free agents, subject to a reentry draft by major league teams. Baseball
Reserve clause (baseball)
Free agency (baseball)
Athletes;Curt Flood[Flood]
Flood v. Kuhn (1972)

Further Reading

  • Belth, Alex. Stepping Up: The Story of Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players’ Rights. New York: Persea Books, 2006. Portrays Flood as sacrificing his career for the good of his fellow players. Attributed his fighting spirit to his resistance to racism in the game. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Dworkin, James B. Owners Versus Players: Baseball and Collective Bargaining. Boston: Auburn House, 1981. Reviews the history and impact of collective bargaining on major league baseball. Provides a short overview of the major antitrust cases, including Flood’s, questioning baseball’s reserve clause.
  • Kuhn, Bowie. Hardball: The Education of a Baseball Commissioner. New York: Times Books, 1987. The former commissioner of baseball provides his version of the important events in baseball from 1969 to 1984. Chapter 6 recounts the events surrounding Curt Flood’s lawsuit.
  • Noll, Roger G., ed. Government and the Sports Business. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1974. An influential collection of writings by academic economists on the economics of professional sports. Topics covered include racial discrimination, competition between teams, the relationship between productivity and pay, and the profitability of sports teams.
  • Scully, Gerald W. The Business of Major League Base-
    ball. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Scully explains how economic incentives critically affect the baseball business. He analyzes racial discrimination, free agency, owner collusion, financial incentives of teams to win pennants, team profits, baseball’s high salaries, and television contracts.
  • Seymour, Harold. Baseball: The Golden Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. An excellent history of major league baseball in its formative years. Seymour retells famous stories and recounts the major changes in the organization and management of the game.
  • Snyder, Brad. A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports. New York: Viking, 2006. Written by a baseball writer who is also a lawyer; includes clear and lucid explanations of the law Flood was fighting, as well as a compelling portrayal of his life and the racism he faced on and off the field. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Sommers, Paul M., ed. Diamonds Are Forever: The Business of Baseball. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1992. A collection of articles by academic economists. Topics covered include the baseball players’ labor market, player pay, competitive team balance, and racial discrimination.
  • Will, George. Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball. New York: Macmillan, 1990. An excellent book providing a unique perspective on the game of baseball by one of the best-known commentators on modern American politics and society.

Yankee Baseball Great Lou Gehrig Dies

Robinson Breaks the Color Line in Major-League Baseball

NBC Broadcasts the Baseball World Series

Larsen Pitches a Perfect Game in Baseball’s World Series

Brooklyn Dodgers Move to Los Angeles