Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2022 as part of SABR’s Baseball and the Supreme Court Project.
To place baseball on a pedestal as America’s foundational pastime from time immemorial serves to maintain its culturally ordained immunity from negative aspects of American history. By studying individuals who fought for equality within the confines of a sport embedded within the national ethos, we illuminate the complexities of identity in baseball history. The stories of Roberto Clemente and Curt Flood provide powerful examples of this.
Clemente became the trailblazer for Latin American players in major-league baseball during the same era that Flood emerged as the icon of and greatest champion for player labor rights.1 Clemente was killed in a plane crash on December 31, 1972, a tragic ending to a life dedicated to humanitarianism, baseball, and social justice.
Six months earlier, in June of 1972, Flood lost a monumental labor case before the US Supreme Court.2 This chapter weaves together the stories of Clemente and Flood to explore how their lives intersected with the histories of race, labor, and baseball in the United States during the latter half of the twentieth century.
Three months before his death, Roberto Clemente graced the cover of Baseball Digest, America’s authoritative and longest-running baseball magazine.3 His image previewed a feature on the on-field successes of his 1971 World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates.4 However, much of his legacy extends beyond championships to the pursuit of equality for Latin American and African American ballplayers.
As historian Adrian Burgos Jr. argues, Clemente and the original wave of Latin American major-leaguers worked to ameliorate the multifaceted “racial glass ceiling in baseball created by the slow pace of integration.”5 Identifying as both Latin American and Black, Clemente pushed for greater representation and accommodation, and he greatly contributed to shattering barriers of inequality.
Center fielder Curt Flood, himself African American, emerged as the best-known advocate of player rights in the early 1970s. In the lead-up to the 1972 Flood v. Kuhn Supreme Court case, Flood’s name appeared on the February 1971 cover of Baseball Digest. The imageless headline read, “Curt Flood: An Angry Rebel.” The article described him derisively as “in revolt against the baseball establishment.”6 Other media outlets made similar degrading claims, with one reporter writing, “Flood is so angry with everyone and everything, he turns you off.”7
Aware of baseball’s place in American society, Flood noted in his memoir that “[t]o challenge the sanctity of [O]rganized [B]aseball was to question one of the primary myths of the American culture.”8 His main argument was that the reserve clause, which gave teams permanent and complete control over their players, enabled treatment of players as property rather than human beings.9 The subject of Flood’s ire was not just the baseball establishment, but also the exploitative nature of unbridled capitalism in America.
Labor Disputes and Player Advocacy
Flood and Clemente shared a meeting room on December 13, 1969, at a gathering of the executive board of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Flood received the invitation specifically as an opportunity to convince the board that supporting his reserve-clause lawsuit would be worthwhile.10 As he spoke, union members expressed their doubts.
In his book on Flood’s life, legal scholar Brad Snyder relies on oral histories to claim that Clemente intervened by placing himself firmly behind Flood’s cause at the meeting and that this support proved pivotal in convincing the union.11 This connection would certainly be significant, but it cannot be corroborated from sources other than Snyder’s unpreserved interviews. Other scholars reconstruct the meeting without mentioning Clemente’s contributions at all.12 In Flood’s own memoir, he also describes the meeting with no mention of Clemente.13 Either way, the uneven impacts of economic inequalities upon historically marginalized groups likely connected their agendas at the meeting.
Baseball became a medium for broader advocacy, leading the 1972 Flood v. Kuhn case to become about much more than the antitrust exemption.14 Flood understood the danger of granting baseball cultural immunity from criticism, writing that “[t]o diminish the established insanity in one area of life is to undermine it elsewhere as well. In due course, the quality of justice changes. Values alter.”15 He also made clear that he viewed the exemption as an outgrowth of exploitative labor relations connected to the history of American chattel slavery. Shortly after the San Juan meeting, Flood wrote to Commissioner Bowie K. 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.16
Looking back on this in his memoir, Flood wrote that “[t]he hypocrisies of the baseball industry could not possibly have been sustained unless they were symptoms of a wider affliction.”17 Race relations and labor relations both received great popular attention in the 1970s, and Flood v. Kuhn must be viewed within this context.18 His awareness of broad national implications is clear in his claim that the “typical” media portrayal was “that a victory for Flood would mean the collapse of our national pastime. God profaned! Flag desecrated! Motherhood defiled! Apple pie blasphemed!”19 Like Clemente, Flood forced change in baseball and beyond by pushing against these connected grains and entrenched attitudes.
The system of teams acquiring the rights of international players received recent scrutiny in the labor negotiations of the major-league owners’ lockout that lasted from December 2, 2021, to March 10, 2022. The possibility of an international draft entered negotiations as a potential bargaining chip between the owners and the players. The owners framed it as a means of giving stability to an international signing system known for exploitation and corruption. The players did not disagree with this claim but refused owner insistence on a strictly regulated qualifying-offer system that would take away player leverage.
Ultimately, the two sides dismissed the topic, keeping the current system of only players from the United States, Canada, or a US territory such as Puerto Rico being eligible for the first-year player draft. The international signing system remains unchanged.
Outside observers noted the absence of Latin American player representation in these talks and suggested that it is not surprising that a largely North American players union would not fight hard for something largely affecting Latin American players.20 Significant differences of opinion among Latin American players on the matter further skewed the representation of their overall perspectives.
Perhaps this lack of representation reflects the continued confluence of the causes of Clemente and Flood. In the 2022 case, the players union did not want an international draft because it saw this as inhibiting the free market, akin to Flood’s cause.21 It appears such a draft could have improved the overall experience of Latin American players, more analogous to Clemente’s agenda.
Swinging Away at Adversity
The persistence of injustice did not dissuade Clemente and Flood from fighting for structural change. One exchange from a 1963 interview with Clemente conveys this spirit beautifully, in the moment spoken of baseball but reflective of much more. Interviewer Clifford Evans asked, “Roberto Clemente, sometimes you swing at bad balls as if you are impatient. Now, when you are in the batter’s box, are you sometimes impatient?” Clemente quickly responded, “I don’t think so. I think I’m very relaxed at the plate. I just swing at the bad balls because I’m a good bad ball hitter.”22
This unflinching belief in the ability to turn less-than-ideal circumstances into positive opportunities lies at the root of Clemente’s and Flood’s stories. They believed that overcoming discrimination and inequality was possible. By seeing the potential for change and taking a swing at challenging circumstances, they improved the plight of future generations.
While these efforts would not come to full fruition in their lifetimes, significant progress under the Antitrust Reform Act of 1997 and the prominence of high-earning Latin American major leaguers in the twenty-first century reflect their triumphs in these ongoing struggles.23
1 Adrian Burgos Jr., Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 227; Stuart L. Weiss, The Curt Flood Story: The Man Behind the Myth (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 229-230, Kindle edition.
2 Burgos, 225.
3 Bill Francis, “Baseball Digest Still Enthralling Fans in Eighth Decade,” BaseballHall.org, accessed at https://baseballhall.org/discover/baseball-history/baseball-digest-still-enthralling-fans-in-eighth-decade on July 27, 2022.
4 Baseball Digest, September 1972: 1.
5 Burgos, 193.
6 Baseball Digest, February 1971: 1; William Gildea, “Curt Flood – Baseball’s Angry Rebel,” Baseball Digest, February 1971: 55-60.
7 Jerome Holtzman, “Richie Relieves Monotony,” The Sporting News, May 8, 1971: 11.
9 Ursula McTaggart, “Writing Baseball into History: The Pittsburgh Courier, Integration, and Baseball in a War of Position,” American Studies vol. 47, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 118, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40604900.
10 Brad Snyder, A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports (New York: Plume, 2007), 69, Kindle edition.
11 Snyder, A Well-Paid Slave, 76, 79.
12 Weiss, The Curt Flood Story, 155-157.
13 Flood and Carter, The Way It Is, 193.
14 Stuart Banner, The Baseball Trust: A History of Baseball’s Antitrust Exemption (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 187-188, https://archive.org/details/baseballtrusthis0000bann.
15 Flood and Carter, The Way It Is, 18.
16 Curtis C. Flood, “Letter to Bowie K. Kuhn, Commissioner of Baseball from Curtis C. Flood stating that he had the right to consider offers from other baseball clubs before signing a contract,” December 24, 1969, Record Group 21: Records of District Courts of the United States, 1695-2009, Series: Civil Case Files, 1938-1995, National Archives at New York (New York, NY), https://catalog.archives.gov/id/278312.
17 Flood and Carter, The Way It Is, 16.
18 Banner, The Baseball Trust, 191.
19 Flood and Carter, The Way It Is, 18.
20 Alden Gonzalez and Marly Rivera, “‘Something Needs to Be Done’: Why an MLB International Draft is Such a Big Deal,” ESPN, March 10, 2022, https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/33463929/needs-done-why-mlb-international-draft-such-big-deal.
21 James Wagner, “M.L.B. Cancels Another Week of Games as Lockout Continues,” New York Times, March 9, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/09/sports/baseball/mlb-lockout.html?smid=url-share; Chelsea Janes, “MLB, Players Union Reach A Deal, Clearing the Way for Baseball’s Return,” Washington Post, March 10, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2022/03/10/mlb-lockout-deal/; Gonzalez and Rivera, “Something Needs to Be Done,” ESPN, March 10, 2022.
23 U.S. Congress, “H.R.704 – 105th Congress (1997-1998): Major League Baseball Antitrust Reform Act of 1997,” February 12, 1997, https://www.congress.gov/bill/105th-congress/house-bill/704?s=1&r=36.