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  • Writer's pictureTopher Enneking

Curt Flood: The Godfather of Agency in Athletics 

Updated: Feb 21

I created the game that would become STATSdraft to try to reveal something unseen in sports to a friend. So often in sports, the ones we see crossing the goal line aren’t the only ones to put in the work that made it happen. Typically, it is someone’s job to pave the path so that another can use it to run to victory. That is the story of Curt Flood. A man who fought all the way to the Supreme Court, earning agency for athletes, but not himself. 

Curt Flood holding a bat in his baseball uniform
Courtesy of Getty images

Born in Houston, Texas in 1938, Curt Flood was the youngest of six children. The product of a blended family, Curt’s parents moved him to Oakland, Calif. when he was young. Originally living in a mostly white neighborhood in East Oakland, the growing racial tensions of post World War II were strong enough to convince the Floods that moving West to a less affluent neighborhood would help them avoid the racial hostility brewing in the area. 

At nine years old, Curt started playing baseball with the Juniors Sweet Shop team. Managed by a man named George Powles, who coached locally in junior high school and amateur leagues, Flood was fortunate to have found an early mentor. Curt credited Powles with being the man who was able to show him white people were “human beings of variable worth rather than as stereotypes.” Under Coach Powles’ tutelage, Curt flourished as he would every time he was able to operate under authority that saw his value and humanity.

Shortly after discovering baseball, one of Curt’s junior high art teachers, Jim Chambers, discovered his talent for art. Always an able learner, Curt described the lessons Chambers revealed to him as teaching him “art not as technique alone, but as one of the great resources of the human spirit.” Curt immediately started using his growing artistic skill, creating backgrounds for school, proms and plays, and earning extra money. He even designed window displays and advertising signs for a local furniture store. Later, he would paint a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. that was presented to his widow Coretta Scott King. This portrait was then given to President George W. Bush to hang in the White House. It’s easy to see why some of his teammates and players around the league called him Rembrandt and commissioned family portraits from him.

Coach Powles’ connection to the Cincinnati Red Legs got Curt a contract for $4000 after he graduated high school. This inverted invitation to Spring Training pulled Flood out of the bubble of protection he had been living in. Immediately, he had to deal with the ugliness of racial hatred in America. Spring training was filled with having to stay in a separate hotel from his teammates and waiting on busses for someone to bring him food from restaurants that wouldn’t seat him. He had to stay in boarding houses separate from his teammates because black players were segregated. Flood couldn’t even use the restrooms that the team used when they were on bus trips on the road. The bus would have to pull over on the side of an abandoned road so that Flood could get out and “wet the wheel.” 

Unlike early pioneers like Jackie Robinson, who had teammates that embraced him, Curt's experience was much different. Feeling that many teams were “offended by my presence and wouldn’t even talk to me when we were off the field,” Kurt was often isolated. A man of conviction, Flood had no recourse but to fight, he stated, “Pride was my resource. I solve my problem by playing my guts out.”

image of 3 books written about Curt Flood

Flood fought through this early difficulty in the minor leagues and was able to lead the league with a 340 batting average. This set a team record of 29 home runs in a league record with 133 runs scored. He was named player of the year and called up to the big leagues in 1956. 

It took a little time for Flood to find his feet, but by 1962 he was beginning seven seasons, where he would bat over 305 times. With Flood firing on all cylinders, the now Cardinals won a world championship in ‘64 and ‘67. They also won a National League championship in ‘68.

Off the field, Flood endured many difficulties, including the loss of a dear friend who had taken him in when he was a young and struggling to find community. After fighting to find his way, Flood’s relationship with the Cardinals took a turn in 1969. Eventually, Curt was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies and his fight for free agency began. 

Curt believed Philadelphia to be a racist city that would not embrace him. At the time, there was a rule called the “reserve clause” that gave the right to renew a player’s contract solely to the team. Given that there was nowhere within the rules for him to find his freedom, Flood decided to fight for his freedom. Faced with the possibility of spending his remaining prime, playing years in a fight to find the freedom to play where he wanted Flood was undeterred. 

Curt Flood’s story is just one example of many in sports. Oftentimes, you can only see the victory if you’re able to pan out. The Supreme Court denied Curt Flood‘s free agency with the opinions in it. The pressure of it swayed owners to offer arbitration to players. This process of arbitration would be used to strike down the reserve clause and allow the players union the leverage necessary, so that it could move the needle towards authentic agency for athletes. 

Curt Flood was able to play again after he took Major League Baseball to court. But the time away from the field, and the stresses of the battle took his focus off of his performance and ultimately led to his “on the field” decline. In 1971, Flood's baseball career was coming to an end. He spent the following 16 years in financial difficulties, attempting to help athletes. Floyd was inducted into the Bay Area Hall of Fame in 1995, which was the same year he was diagnosed with throat cancer. The cancer ultimately took his life in 1997. 

Baseball's antitrust exemption was eliminated by Congress in 1998 with the passing of the Curt Flood Act. The next year, Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most influential athletes of the past century.

Today we can hear the name Curt Flood and think of the freedoms that he won but as is the tale for so many of our nation's freedom fighters, that freedom wasn’t felt by just Flood himself. His legacy lives on in the athletes who have fought to continue to expand this agency. Athletes now use political pressure and organized strikes to grow the agency of other athletes. Each one of them follows in the footsteps of Curt Flood. 

I was reminded the other day of the quote, “Whenever you think you are making progress, go down to the stone yard and watch a stonemason strike a stone 1000 times with a hammer without seeing so much as a crack, until on the 1001st strike when it cleaves in two.” Curt Flood was the first hammer to strike a blow. He struck a blow that created a fisher so deep that we are still cleaving pieces of freedom by continuing to strike at it. In the end, Curt Flood was the hammer that began at all, but he was worn down before the end result could be revealed. There’s a little piece of him today in every athlete that plays. Every athlete who sees how things could be better. Every athlete that dreams of a place that will accept them as they are. Every athlete who is ready to own their value. They all originate from Curt Flood. 


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