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Flood v. Kuhn


Flood v. Kuhn

Flood v. Kuhn
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued March 20, 1972
Decided June 19, 1972
Full case name Curt Flood v Bowie Kuhn, et al.
Citations 407 more)
Prior history 309 F. Supp. 793 (SDNY 1970), preliminary injunction denied; 443 F.2d 264 (CA2, 1971), affirmed
Professional baseball is in fact interstate commerce under the Sherman Antitrust Act, but congressional acquiescence in previous jurisprudence to the contrary make it the legislative branch's responsibility to end or modify antitrust exemption unique among professional sports.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Blackmun, joined by Rehnquist, Stewart
Concurrence Burger, White
Dissent Douglas, joined by Brennan
Dissent Marshall, joined by Brennan
Powell took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
Sherman Antitrust Act, 15 USC 1291-1295

Flood v. Kuhn (407 U.S. 258) was a 1972 United States Supreme Court decision upholding, by a 5–3 margin, the antitrust exemption first granted to Major League Baseball (MLB) in Federal Baseball Club v. National League. It arose from a challenge by St. Louis Cardinals' outfielder Curt Flood when he refused to be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1969 season. He sought injunctive relief from the reserve clause, which prevented him from negotiating with another team for a year after his contract expired. Named as initial respondents were baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, MLB and all of its then-24 member clubs.

Although the Court ruled in baseball's favor 5-3, it admitted the original grounds for the antitrust exemption were tenuous at best, that baseball was indeed interstate commerce for purposes of the act and the exemption was an "anomaly"[1] it had explicitly refused to extend to other professional sports or entertainment. That admission set in motion events which ultimately led to an arbitrator's ruling nullifying the reserve clause and opening the door for free agency in baseball and other sports.

The opinion has been criticized in several ways. It is seen by some as an overly strict and reflexive reliance on the legal doctrine of stare decisis[2] that made an earlier mistake "uncorrectable".[3] Even the text of the decision itself, mainly a seven-page introductory encomium to the game and its history by Justice Harry Blackmun that included a lengthy listing of baseball greats, came in for criticism.[4] Some of the other justices, and Court observers, felt it was inappropriate for a judicial opinion. At the time of his later retirement and death, Blackmun would be remembered for it as much as Roe v. Wade.

Background of the case

Reserve clause

Main article: Reserve clause

The reserve clause had been part of baseball contracts since the game's early days. The National League had begun using it in the late 19th century; the American League began using it in 1903 as part of the truce between the two that created MLB.[5] Team owners realized that if players could go from team to team seeking higher pay, salaries of all players, not just stars, would go up. They feared some teams might have to fold under such competitive pressure, and included the reserve clause, so called since a team reserved rights to a player for a year after the contract expired, to limit free agency.

Such collusion in other industries had been ruled to be restraint of trade in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Players had two options to resist it and become free agents. They could ask to be released from their contracts (which they rarely were), or hold out and refuse to report until the year was up, forfeiting their pay in the process. While star players were able to exercise some leverage this way, most who held out were often traded to other teams and wound up making less money.

A suit was brought in the 1920s,

Two possible challenges in the early 1950s failed. Former

A few years later, when the Court declined to extend the antitrust exemption to professional football in

In 1969, Rick Barry of the NBA's San Francisco Warriors became the first major-league professional athlete to challenge the reserve clause in court. He wanted to play for the Oakland Oaks of the rival American Basketball Association (ABA), since his father-in-law was the team's coach. His challenge was unsuccessful, but after sitting out a year he signed with the Oaks anyway, the first NBA star to change leagues during the rivalry between them.[12]

Curt Flood

Main article: Curt Flood

In 1956, at the age of 18, Flood had, without an agent or attorney to represent or advise him, signed his first professional baseball contract with the Cincinnati Reds. Two years later he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals and became one of the team's stars. He batted .300 in six of the next 12 seasons, earned seven Gold Glove awards (including one for an error-free 1966 season), and played in three World Series, two of which the Cardinals won.[13]

In October 1969, after the season had ended, Flood, then one of the Cardinals' captains, learned from a reporter that he had been traded to the Philadelphia Phillies along with, and for, several other players. He had not been consulted about this beforehand, and did not want to play for the poorly performing Phillies in Philadelphia before fans the African-American Flood believed were racist.

Like many players, he had long chafed at the reserve clause,[14] and wrote to Kuhn shortly before Christmas asking to be declared a free agent: "I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes," he said. "I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decision." Kuhn denied the request, reminding Flood he was contractually obligated to play for the Phillies.

In January 1970, Flood brought suit in New York, where MLB was headquartered, seeking $1 million in damages and injunctive relief from the reserve clause, which his legal arguments controversially compared to slavery. He sat out that year's baseball season, foregoing $100,000 in salary, and signed with the Washington Senators for more money in 1971, only to leave the team early in the season when he was not playing well. He never played again.[15]

Trial and appeal

The Major League Baseball Players Association's team representatives voted unanimously to support Flood.[16] His motion for a preliminary injunction was denied, with Judge Irving Ben Cooper of the Southern District of New York citing the sport's cultural importance in American life: "The game is on higher ground; it behooves every one to keep it there."[17] He allowed Flood an early trial, which took place in May and June of that year.

No active-duty players testified on his behalf, but his witnesses included Jackie Robinson, Hank Greenberg and maverick owner Bill Veeck. Baseball's lawyers argued the clause was essential to maintain the sport.

Cooper ultimately ruled for Major League Baseball, stating that "the preponderance of credible proof does not favor elimination of the reserve clause." Even Flood's witnesses, he noted, had been ambivalent, regarding some version of it as beneficial to the sport.[18]

Flood appealed the case to the Second Circuit, which affirmed Cooper's decision on the basis of Federal Baseball.[19] Judge Leonard P. Moore added that he thought it unlikely the Supreme Court would overturn that decision.[20]

Before the Supreme Court

The court granted certiorari later that year.[21] Former justice Arthur Goldberg returned to argue Flood's case before some of his former colleagues. Kuhn, a onetime star litigator, considered arguing the case himself, but uiltimately deferred to Paul Porter and Louis Hoynes.[22] At oral arguments on March 20, 1972, Goldberg reiterated Flood's arguments about the harm done to players by the reserve system. Baseball's lawyers responded to them, but primarily invoked the game's place in American culture and the greater good done it by the reserve system.

Justice Lewis Powell recused himself from the case because he owned stock in Anheuser-Busch, which owned the Cardinals.


By a 5-3 margin, the Court upheld the Federal Baseball and Toolson precedents. One justice, William O. Douglas, who had been part of the majority in the latter case, dissented this time and expressed his regret. Even Harry Blackmun's majority opinion conceded that baseball was as much interstate commerce as the other professional sports to which the Court had refused to extend the antitrust exemption.


Blackmun began the opinion with Section I, "The Game", a prologue recounting the history of baseball, concluding with a detailed litany of events and finally the names of 83 legendary players from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, beginning with Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth and ending with Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove. "The list seems endless", Blackmun wrote. In its entirety Section I takes up seven pages of the United States Reports.[23] In the footnotes, he quoted poetry by Ernest Thayer on "Casey at the Bat" and allowed of his list: "These are names only from earlier years. By mentioning some, one risks unintended omission of others equally celebrated."[24]

After two further sections recounting the facts of the case, the lower courts' decisions and the Court's previous jurisprudence, Blackmun considered the legal issues at hand. He noted that the Federal Baseball court had not been persuaded by other case law at the time ruling that traveling vaudeville companies were engaged in interstate commerce and that other companies use of the mail and rail shipments had so qualified. Federal Baseball had also been cited as precedent in later cases without complaint.[25]

In later cases, brought in the 1950s involving other organized sports and similar activities, the Court had refused to exempt them and noted, as it did when asked to end baseball's exemption outright in Toolson, Congress's relative inactivity on the issue. Since then, Blackmun said, there had been some bills, but all intended to extend the exemption to other sports and none to repeal it entirely.

"In view of all this," he began section V, "it seems appropriate now to say that: Professional baseball is a business and engaged in interstate commerce". Invoking Radovich, he admitted that "the slate is not clean. Indeed it has not been clean for half a century." The antitrust exemption created in Federal Baseball and upheld in Toolson was "an aberration confined to baseball". Nevertheless there seemed to be little desire to end or weaken it, and given the problems he thought a judicial turnabout would cause for baseball, he cited the legal doctrine of stare decisis in upholding the previous rulings, saying "Under these circumstances, there is merit in consistency even though some might claim that beneath that consistency is a layer of inconsistency."[26] Justice Byron White signed the opinion, but noted he did not concur in Part I.

"I concur in all but Part I", noted Chief Justice Warren Burger, as well. He did, however, say in his short concurring opinion that he felt Toolson had been wrongly decided and agreed with some other points William O. Douglas made in his dissent.[27]


Justice Douglas

Douglas called Federal Baseball a "derelict in the stream of law that we, its creator, should remove. Only a romantic view of a rather dismal business account over the last 50 years would keep that derelict in midstream." He had come to regret having joined the majority in Toolson.[28] He invoked three of the names on Blackmun's list as he agreed with Flood that the reserve clause unlawfully benefited the owners at players' expense:

Baseball is today big business that is packaged with beer, with broadcasting, and with other industries. The beneficiaries of the Federal Baseball Club decision are not the Babe Ruths, Ty Cobbs, and Lou Gehrigs. The owners, whose records many say reveal a proclivity for predatory practices, do not come to us with equities. The equities are with the victims of the reserve clause. I use the word "victims" in the Sherman Act sense, since a contract which forbids anyone to practice his calling is commonly called an unreasonable restraint of trade.[28]

If a case challenging the antitrust exemption were coming before the Court for the first time, he said, he had no doubt he and his brother justices would have ruled differently. "The unbroken silence of Congress should not prevent us from correcting our own mistakes," he concluded.[28] William Brennan joined his opinion.

Justice Marshall

Brennan also joined Thurgood Marshall's dissent, a longer review of the case in which he came to the same conclusions as Douglas, expressed in more measured language:

Has Congress acquiesced in our decisions in Federal Baseball Club and Toolson? I think not. Had the Court been consistent and treated all sports in the same way baseball was treated, Congress might have become concerned enough to take action. But, the Court was inconsistent, and baseball was isolated and distinguished from all other sports. In Toolson the Court refused to act because Congress had been silent. But the Court may have read too much into this legislative inaction.Americans love baseball as they love all sports. Perhaps we become so enamored of athletics that we assume that they are foremost in the minds of legislators as well as fans. We must not forget, however, that there are only some 600 major league baseball players. Whatever muscle they might have been able to muster by combining forces with other athletes has been greatly impaired by the manner in which this Court has isolated them. It is this Court that has made them impotent, and this Court should correct its error ... Baseball should be covered by the antitrust laws beginning with this case and henceforth, unless Congress decides otherwise.[29]


Major League Baseball and its owners praised the decision, as did many of their supporters in the media. The players and some of their supporters, such as sportswriter Red Smith, criticized it. In legal circles, Blackmun's homage to baseball was criticized and ridiculed.


The decision is often remembered today as paving the way for free agency in baseball. However, it did so, according to Bill James, only by showing them they could not rely on the Courts to strike down the antitrust exemption and the reserve clause along with it.[30] But the effort by a player of Flood's stature did galvanize the players, and according to Marvin Miller it made the general public aware of the reserve clause.[31] Labor law proved a more fruitful opportunity for the invalidating of the reserve clause. The next year the National Labor Relations Board voted that baseball came under its jurisdiction, and that led to the Seitz decision three years later that Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally were free agents after they had played out a year without signing new contracts. That event is considered the true beginning of baseball free agency.

Neither Congress nor any court has completely overturned baseball's antitrust exemption. Some bills that would do so were named the Curt Flood Act in his honor and later, memory. In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed one into law making baseball's employment practices subject to antitrust law,[32] a largely moot point since by then free agency was well established (minor league players, however, remain bound to their parent clubs[4]). Flood himself was remembered as much for this case as for his playing career when he died in 1997. He has not been inducted into the Hall of Fame despite his accomplished career and effect on the game.[33]

Legal analysis and criticism

Legal commentators have criticized the decision as not just a mistake but a compounding of the earlier mistake made in Federal Baseball and continued in Toolson. According to antitrust expert Kevin McDonald of Jones Day, Flood v. Kuhn is a "principle of antitrust law that is (1) indefensible as a matter of fact or policy, and (2) an embarrassment to the Court."[34] Holmes' original decision has been misread by both later cases to imply a divination of congressional intent to exclude baseball and a prescription for congressional action to remedy that, he argues: "Just as Toolson blamed Holmes for a problem (an express statutory exemption) that he did not create, Flood blamed him for insisting on a solution (Congressional action) that he did not mention."[35]

Yale law professor William Eskridge, a harsh critic of the decision, has called it "the most frequently criticized example of excessively strict stare decisis."[2] It is often counterpointed to the Court's decision in the 1940 trust case Helvering v. Hallock,[36] where Justice Felix Frankfurter explicitly rejected the idea, embraced by Blackmun in Flood, that the Court should consider congressional inaction as a tacit statement of acquiescence with one of its existing holdings, however questionable they may have seemed.[37] Eskridge notes that there are many reasons besides express lack of intent that would forestall Congressional action to remedy a flawed Court decision.[38]

Blackmun's list

Even years after his death, Blackmun's paean to the game was still criticized as "rambling and syrupy"[39] and "juvenile".[4] Roger Ian Abrams at Northeastern University School of Law, who found that Blackmun had likely used Lawrence Ritter's 1966 book The Glory of Their Times as his primary source,[5] showed how the careers of many of the players he listed had been impacted, often adversely, by the reserve system.[40]

Blackmun himself acknowledged in 1987, that his colleagues on the Court had, as Burger and Douglas's opinions suggest, seen it as "beneath the dignity of the Court". But he expressed no regrets,[41] save the discovery by his clerks that, after the decision had issued, he had forgotten Mel Ott. In his personal copy of the decision he penciled Ott's name in.[42]

Condemnation has not been universal. One commentator has defended it as a "trace of resistance to the hyperrationality of contemporary legal discourse".[43] "If Flood is seen, however, as a decision grounded in a desire to adopt sound legal rules for sports leagues, Part I makes eminent sense," says Illinois law professor Stephen F. Ross. He goes on to read the decision as doing exactly that, countering critics who charge it with being an overly strict application of stare decisis by showing how Blackmun and the other majority justices could reasonably, at that time, have been convinced that "contemporary antitrust doctrines would condemn many arrangements among owners that are arguably essential to baseball".[44]

See also

Flynn, Neil F. - "Baseball's Reserve System: The Case and Trial of Curt Flood vs. Major League Baseball" (


External links

  • 407 258 (1972)
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