Apicture can be worth a thousand words.
But five sentences 50 years ago have been worth billions of dollars. About $325 million of that windfall went to pitcher Gerrit Cole this month for signing with the New York Yankees. Another $490 million, combined, went to pitcher Stephen Strasburg and third baseman Anthony Rendon, the former for staying in Washington and the latter for relocating to Los Angeles.
And that’s just counting the biggest deals since the World Series ended. Earlier this year, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado raked in a combined $630 million for signing with Philadelphia and San Diego, respectively.
Players undeniably have earned a staggering amount since 1976, when Andy Messersmith agreed to baseball’s first free-agent contract (three years for $1 million). All of that loot sprouted from outfielder Curt Flood’s short letter to MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn on Christmas Eve 1969.
“Dear Mr. Kuhn: After twelve years in the Major Leagues, I do not feel that 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, and I am capable of playing. 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 decisions. I, therefore, request that you make known to all the Major League Clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.”
A star player on St. Louis’s World Series champs in 1964 and 1967, Flood had the unmitigated gall to challenge baseball’s “reserve clause,” which essentially tied players to one club in perpetuity. Miffed that he demanded a raise, the Cardinals had traded Flood to the lowly Philadelphia Phillies in October 1969 and he balked.
Flood rejected the Phillies’ $100,000 salary offer and sat out the entire 1970 season. He took his fight against the reserve clause all the way to the Supreme Court, where he lost a 5-3 ruling in 1972. But the seeds of freedom were sown, allowing Messersmith (and pitcher Dave McNally) to reap the fruit a few years later.
“Every player in every team sport owes a debt of gratitude to Curt Flood,” HBO Sports said in a release when it aired “The Curious Case of Curt Flood” in July 2011. “His battle to win free agency and have the right to choose where to work is an inspiring story. He is one of the giants in the history of the sports, but has largely been forgotten.”
Cole’s sense of recollection was intact last week during his introductory news conference with the Yankees. He acknowledged Flood and former players’ union president Marvin Miller during his remarks.
“This is a special year for (Miller) to get inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame,” Cole said. “We’ve seen competitiveness blossom and free agency blossom and he played a major role in that. And Curt Flood challenging the reserve clause was essential to the blossoming sport we have today.
Today, players become free agents after six years of major league service, or when their organization releases them prior to six years of service. The notion of players once being treated as property — with no choice but to play for a given team or quit — seems as antiquated as slavery. But that was reality for Flood, a three-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove winner.
Miller advised Flood that winning in the Supreme Court was iffy and baseball might ostracize him as payback. Flood was content to know that even if he lost, future players stood to win. Miller rightly received a ton of credit for progress made during his tenure as union head from 1966 to 1982, finally elected to the Hall of Fame this month.
Flood deserves to be next. His family has steadfastly campaigned for his inclusion in Cooperstown, with allies that include the players’ union.
“I doubt Curt or anyone — on or off the field in any sport — could fully contemplate the significance of the stance he took back in 1969,” players’ union executive director Tony Clark told USA Today. “But as a child and student of the civil rights movement, Curt had a heightened sense of awareness about justice and fairness.
“The stand he took affected all athletes who have enjoyed free agency for the last half-century.”
And it all began with five simple sentences one Christmas Eve.
⦁ Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter