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How Andre Dawson continued Curt Flood’s legacy of protecting players’ rights

Hall of Fame outfielder named the recipient of the inaugural Curt Flood Award

Earlier this week, in an effort to honor the legacy of Curt Flood, the Major League Baseball Players Association created the inaugural Curt Flood Award.

The award commemorates the 50th anniversary of Flood’s historic court fight against Major League Baseball’s reserve system and celebrates a player who demonstrated selfless devotion to the advancement of players’ rights.

On Thursday, the players association announced that Hall of Fame outfielder Andre Dawson is the recipient of the inaugural Curt Flood Award.

In 21 major league seasons, Dawson played for four different teams. He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1977, the NL MVP in 1987 and an eight-time All-Star.

The reason Dawson was recognized for the first Flood award, however, had nothing to do with stats but acknowledges Dawson’s commitment to extending Flood’s legacy of protecting players’ rights. Dawson never met Flood, who died in 1997, but understood that Flood’s courageous spirit hovers over the game.

“I’ve received a ton of accolades in the game,” Dawson, 66, said this week during a phone interview. “This is pristine, over any accolade that I’ve received, because of the significance of the history it represents and the person it’s named after.”

Flood helped to fundamentally change the way business was done in professional team sports. On Oct. 7, 1969, Flood refused a trade from St. Louis to Philadelphia. That act of courage and defiance set the stage for free agency. Flood never benefited from his stand but generations of players would become millionaires, including the players starring in the 2020 World Series.

“I see a lot of myself in him because of how proud an individual he was, how he believed in his ability, and you couldn’t tell him otherwise,” Dawson said of Flood.

“You can’t control how people are going to react to that, or what they’re going to say or what they’re going to do, but the fact that you’re going to be willing to man up and stand up to it says a lot about your character and your principles and your beliefs, and I’ve always had a lot of strong beliefs and principles,” he said.

Seventeen years after Flood refused a trade, Dawson took on baseball owners who, unbeknownst to players at the time, were colluding to try and stop free agency. Dawson was one of the players caught in the owners’ crosshairs.

In 1986, the final year of his contract, Dawson enjoyed an outstanding bounce-back year after two disappointing seasons. Despite being on the disabled list for the first time in his career, Dawson hit .284 with 20 home runs and was hoping his resurgence would lead to a superstar contract. But there were no offers from other teams. The only offer came from Montreal and included a pay cut. The Expos wouldn’t improve their poor offer since no other teams made a bid for Dawson’s services.

Dawson was hurt and insulted. He had come through the Montreal organization through the minor league system and had given 10 years of service.

“It didn’t go over real well,” Dawson said, describing his reaction at the time.

“For them to look me in the eye and say, ‘We’re going to reward you by giving you a cut in pay,’ I just said, in all honesty, if I’m going to take a cut in pay, I’m going to go somewhere where I want to play.”

Outfielder Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals follows through on his swing during a mid-1960s MLB game. Flood played for the Cardinals from 1958 to 1969.

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Dawson and his agent pulled a page out of the Flood playbook. While Flood refused a trade to an unwanted place, Dawson chose where he wanted to go and made the team an offer it couldn’t refuse.

Dawson decided he wanted to stay in the National League, play on natural grass and in mostly day games. Before the 1987 season, he and his agent went to the Chicago Cubs’ spring training facility in Arizona with a blank contract and told the Cubs to make whatever offer they wanted and they would sign.

Dawson, like Flood, was determined to control his own destiny.

“I wasn’t going to let Montreal make the determination of where I was going to play,” he said. “They got under my skin in the wrong way, and I just made the decision that I wasn’t going to go back there. I knew it was going to be a roll of the dice, but for me, I had to look in the mirror and say, ‘It’s not a monetary issue, it’s about pride and principle.’ ”

Within 24 hours, Dawson was a Cub.

The Cubs made out like bandits. The team paid Dawson $500,000 — half of what he would have made with Montreal — but Dawson had his dignity. As he wrote in his autobiography: “I can’t describe for you the feeling of elation I experienced as we walked out of [Dallas] Green’s office that afternoon. I had taken back control of my own life.”

Dawson would help lead collusion cases against owners and did his part to rescue free agency. What was eye-opening for players was that baseball owners never stopped their assault on free agency. In September 1987, an arbitrator ruled that the owners had colluded after the 1985 season to destroy free agency. There would be three more rulings against owners in collusion cases.

“It was said that free agency was destined to destroy the game,” Dawson said. “That was the first thinking. Not just change the game, but destroy the game. It hasn’t destroyed the game. I mean, you spend your money, you pay for what you can afford.”

During the 1987 season, Dawson made the All-Star team and led the majors with 49 home runs. He would win the NL MVP award and dedicate his first season in Chicago to his grandmother, who had died that year. It was his grandmother who had pushed Dawson, the oldest of eight children, to enroll at Florida A&M University to pursue a college degree after a serious knee injury he suffered while playing high school football nearly cost him his athletic career.

“She was my chief mentor growing up because she always told me what the importance of education was, as opposed to playing baseball,” Dawkins said. “She always said, ‘If you can play the game, at some point someone will notice, but the importance of getting your education, that’s first and foremost.’

“I didn’t get a scholarship offer. I went to FAMU, and I was going to get my education. I went out for the baseball team, and I made the baseball team as a freshman, made the starting lineup as a freshman, and I was essentially given a scholarship.”

Dawson retired in 1996 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010. He believes that Flood should be there as well.

“There are important people who changed the history of the game in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “There are a lot of executives, writers. There are people in the game that have changed the course of history.”

Marvin Miller, the executive director for the association from 1966 to 1982, was elected to the Hall in 2020.

“I think he made Marvin Miller bigger,” Dawson said, referring to Flood. “We finally got Marvin Miller in the Hall of Fame. Curt Flood should be right there seated next to him.

“In my opinion, it’s a no-brainer.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.