Remembering when Hank Greenberg backed former Cardinal Curt Flood’s fight for free agency

Fifty years ago, the Jewish Hall of Famer testified on behalf of Curt Flood, whose stand against MLB’s reserve clause made him a key figure in athletic activism.


Frederic J. Frommer, The Forward

When a Black outfielder fought for his economic freedom against baseball owners a half-century ago, Hank Greenberg, the Jewish Hall of Famer, was one of a handful of former players who sided with him — even though he had been a baseball executive after he retired.

In 1970, Curt Flood challenged Major League Baseball’s reserve clause, which bound players to their teams until released or traded. His lonely crusade made Flood a pariah 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 agency a few years later.

When Flood’s antitrust case started out in a federal courtroom in New York in 1970, no current player testified on his behalf, fearful of retribution.

But Greenberg, known as the “Hebrew Hammer”  playing mostly for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s and ’40s, backed Flood at the trial. So did Jackie Robinson, who had broken baseball’s color barrier in 1947, and Jim Brosnan, who rocked the baseball boat by writing a candid, behind-the-scenes book about the life 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 do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes,” Flood wrote. “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.”

He sat out the 1970 season and pursued his case against MLB. At Flood’s trial that May, Greenberg testified that “the reserve clause is obsolete, antiquated and definitely needs change.” His appearance against baseball owners was striking because he had been a part owner and general manager of two MLB teams himself after his playing days were over. His 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 Flood’s side.

“We need more harmonious relations between players and owners, and we need to repair baseball’s image with the public,” Greenberg said. “The reserve clause has been in the news since 1923, and has brought objections from players, and confused the public. We must recognize that times have changed and must go forward harmoniously and the first step, the last step, is to abolish the existing reserve clause and work out a substitute.”

Under cross-examination, he discussed the issue as a prospective owner: “I’d be happy to invest in a club tomorrow if there were no reserve clause. The owners should have some control over players, but it should be limited,” and suggested a five-year contract would be fair to both sides — close to the six years that teams currently have control of players before they can seek free agency.

Robinson, who was active in the civil rights movement, called the reserve clause one sided in favor of the owners, and argued that it “should be modified to give the player some control over his destiny. Whenever there is a one-sided situation, you have a serious, serious problem. If the reserve clause is not modified I think you will have a serious strike by the players.”

A drawn-out legal battle