When a black outfielder fought for his economic freedom against baseball owners half a century ago, Jewish Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg was one of a handful of former players who sided with him – even though he had been a retired baseball executive.
In 1970, Curt Flood challenged Major League Baseball’s reserve clause, which tied players to their teams until released or traded. His lonely crusade made Flood an outcast in the sport and led to death threats. The Supreme Court ruled against him 50 years ago last month, but Flood’s case helped lead to free will a few years later.
When Flood’s antitrust case began in a federal courtroom in New York in 1970, no current player testified on his behalf, fearing retaliation.
But Greenberg, known as the “Hebrew Hammer” playing primarily for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s and 1940s, supported Flood at trial. So did Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, and Jim Brosnan, who rocked the baseball boat by writing a candid behind-the-scenes book about the lives of baseball players.
Flood had been a star outfielder with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1960s. After the team traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969, Flood wrote a letter to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, asking that he be declared a free agent instead.
“After 12 years in the major leagues, I don’t feel like a property to buy and sell regardless of my wishes,” Flood wrote. “I believe that any system that produces this result violates my fundamental rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and several states.”
He missed the 1970 season and continued his lawsuit against MLB. At Flood’s trial in May, Greenberg said “the privilege clause is outdated, antiquated and absolutely needs to be changed.” His appearance against Baseball Owners was striking as he himself had been co-owner and general manager of two MLB teams after his playing days ended. Fellow investor with those teams, Bill Veeck, who had been the first owner to sign a black player in the American League, also testified on the side of Flood.
“We need a smoother relationship between players and owners, and we need to fix baseball’s public image,” Greenberg said. “The reserve clause has been in the news since 1923, has caused objections from players and confused the public. We must recognize that times have changed and must move forward smoothly and the first step, the last step, is d ‘remove the existing reserve clause and find a substitute.
In cross-examination, he addresses the issue as a future owner: “I would be happy to invest tomorrow in a club if there was no reserve clause. Owners should have some control over players, but it should be limited,” and suggested a five-year deal would be fair for both parties – close to the six years teams currently vet players before they can ask for free agency.
Robinson, who was active in the civil rights movement, called the reservation clause biased in favor of the owners and argued that it “should be changed to give the player some control over his destiny.” Whenever there is a one-sided situation, you have a serious and serious problem. If the reserve clause is not changed, I think you will have a serious player strike.
A long legal battle
A few months after Flood’s trial, Judge Irving Ben Cooper ruled against him in his antitrust challenge, which was no surprise, since the Supreme Court had granted baseball an exemption from antitrust laws in 1922.
“Judge Cooper only felt that it was up to the Supreme Court to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision,” baseball union executive director Marvin Miller said, adding that his side would appeal. “I think everyone knew it would be very difficult for a district court to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision.”
(Cooper, Miller and a Flood attorney, former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, were all Jewish.)
The decision was upheld by a federal appeals court in April 1971 – the same month that Flood left the sport after a failed comeback effort with the Washington Senators when he had hit just .200 in 13 games. . So even though his career was over, his trial was headed to the main stage: the Supreme Court.
Goldberg, who had resigned from the court in 1965 at the request of President Lyndon B. Johnson to serve as a U.S. representative to the United Nations, represented Flood in oral arguments in March 1972. But he did not have a good day. In his book,A well-paid slave: Curt Flood’s fight for freedom of action in professional sports“Brad Snyder wrote that Goldberg gave a “weak factual recitation” of Flood’s career, and that Goldberg’s friend, Judge William Brennan, backed off during his presentation. Goldberg betrayed his lack of knowledge in baseball by referring to the several “Golden Gloves competitions” that Flood had won.
In June 1972, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 3 against Flood, upholding baseball’s quirky antitrust exemption. Writing for the majority, Justice Harry Blackmun – who occupied Goldberg’s former seat – said that although the original 1922 decision had been an aberration, “it is an aberration which has been with us now for half a century, an aberration hitherto considered fully entitled to the benefit of watch the decision, and which survived the Court’s expanding concept of interstate commerce. (stare decision is a legal principle that means letting the decision stand.)
Flood’s career and affair were both over, but not the cause. After exposing an archaic practice, his challenge helped build momentum for his elimination, and in 1975 an arbitrator overturned the reserve clause. Free agency quickly followed.
“I doubt Curt or anyone – on or off the court in any sport – could fully contemplate the significance of the position he took in 1969,” MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark said in 2019on the 50th anniversary of Flood’s letter to Kuhn, “but as a child and student of the civil rights movement, Curt had a heightened awareness of justice and fairness.”
Years after Flood’s crusade, Congress recognized his contribution to the sport by passing the Curt Flood Act of 1998, which chiseled the sport’s antitrust exemption by subjecting actions affecting the employment of major league baseball players to the antitrust laws.
Flood, who died in 1997 at the age of 59, is recognized today as one of the key figures in sports activism. As USA Today baseball columnist Bob Nightengale wrote recently:
“There’s Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. There’s Larry Doby, who did the same in the American League a few months later. And there’s Curt Flood, whose act of bravery will never be forgotten, and an integral chapter of the Civil Rights era.
Link between Greenberg and Robinson
It was fitting for Robinson and Greenberg to join forces on behalf of another lone player. Their careers overlapped by just a year – when Greenberg capped his playing career as a 36-year-old first baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Robinson was a rookie with the Brooklyn Dodgers. But Greenberg, who faced anti-Semitism from players and fans during his career, quickly won Robinson over.
The pair collided at first base in a series in May, a month after Robinson’s grueling first season. Robinson has encountered countless incidents like this by malicious opponents, but when he reached first base the next time, Greenberg told him, “I forgot to ask if you were hurt in that game.”
Robinson said he was fine.
“Stay in there,” Greenberg told him. “You’re doing fine. Keep your head up.”
“Class tells,” Robinson said after the game. “It sticks all over Mr. Greenberg.”
“Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the major leagues, chose a diamond hero – Hank Greenberg – rival for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ first baseman,” the Associated Press reported at the time.
In his autobiography, Greenberg recalled that during that series in Pittsburgh, his Southern teammates yelled at Robinson, “Hey, coal mine, hey, coal mine, hey, black coal mine, we’re gonna get you!” You won’t play baseball!”
Greenberg wrote that he couldn’t help but admire Robinson because he ignored the taunts:
“Jackie turned her head. He was like a prince. He held his head high and continued to play as hard as he could. He was something to admire this afternoon.
“I identified with Jackie Robinson,” he added. “I had feelings for him because they treated me the same way. Not so bad, but they made remarks about me being a Sheenie and a Jew the whole time.
Four months after the court rejected Flood’s challenge, Robinson died at the age of 53. Greenberg attended the funeral at Riverside Church in New York, along with Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley and numerous current and former players.
“Tears darkened the saddened eyes of Peter O’Malley, an Irishman; Hank Greenberg, a Jew; and Pee Wee Reese and Ernie Banks, baseball greats with different colored skins,” the Chicago Tribune reported.