He lost the battle, but won the war against baseball's control of players

Review Sports

October 08, 2006|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to the Sun

A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood's Fight For Free Agency in Professional Sports

Brad Snyder

Viking / 472 pages / $25.95.

In 1969, after 12 years as an outstanding outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, Curt Flood learned from a sportswriter that he had been traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. The next day a form preprinted on an index card made it official. "If I had been a foot-shuffling porter," Flood fumed, "they might have at least given me a pocket watch."

With roots in St. Louis, including a portrait and photography business, Flood opted to forgo his $90,000 salary and retire. When the players association agreed to pay his legal expenses, he challenged Major League Baseball's infamous reserve clause, which bound players, in perpetuity, to a single team.

In A Well-Paid Slave, Brad Snyder, a lawyer who once covered the Orioles for The Sun, weaves together a sympathetic biography of Flood and a lucid, meticulously detailed analysis of his lawsuit. At the Supreme Court in 1972, Snyder shows, the case was a cliffhanger.

The judges agreed that baseball's exemption from anti-trust laws was "an aberration" but were reluctant to overturn precedents stretching over half a century that might "end baseball as we know it."

The poor performance in oral argument of Flood's lawyer, former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, may have swayed the fence-sitters. By a 5-3 vote (Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. recused himself because he owned stock in the Anheuser-Busch Corp., which owned the Cardinals at the time), Flood lost his case, and "paid a terrible price," personally and professionally.

But he won the war.

The majority opinion of Justice Harry A. Blackmun, who fretted about whether to include pitcher Eppa Rixey in his long list of baseball immortals but did not craft a credible argument for the constitutionality of the reserve clause, helped shift public opinion toward the players. By the end of the decade, they gained the right, as free agents, to sell their services to the highest bidder in the marketplace.

It was no coincidence, Snyder demonstrates, that an African-American agreed to become baseball's test case. Reared in Oakland, Calif., Flood signed with the Cincinnati Reds in 1956. He endured segregation and racial taunts in the minor league towns of High Point, N.C., and Savannah, Ga. While playing winter ball in Venezuela, he learned he had been traded to the Cardinals. Apparently, the Reds' management feared that fans would not accept an all-black outfield of Flood, Vada Pinson and Frank Robinson. In St. Louis, manager Solly Hemus kept Flood - and other talented black players - on the bench. After Hemus was replaced by Johnny Keane, Flood got his chance.

"I am pleased that God made my skin black," Flood said, "but I wish He had made it thicker." In the 1960s, he traveled throughout the South for the NAACP. With teammates Bob Gibson and Bill White, he pushed owner August Busch to desegregate the Cardinals' spring training facilities. Little wonder, then, that Flood claimed that the reserve clause violated federal statutes against "peonage and involuntary servitude," the prohibition against slavery in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, as well as anti-trust laws.

Flood took on the baseball establishment when no other active player was willing to take the risk - or even testify for him in court. More than Snyder wants to admit, however, he was a flawed hero, who lacked the self-discipline to reach his goal: a life that would make Jackie Robinson proud. An alcoholic and a womanizer, he did not paint the portraits to which he affixed his name. A year after he filed his suit, Flood signed with the Washington Senators for $110,000. Performing poorly in the field and at bat, he left the team for Mallorca after just 18 games.

Although Flood was on the verge of bankruptcy, with the Internal Revenue Service in hot pursuit, Snyder believes that he "had too much pride merely to hang on" until June 15, when he was entitled to the last half of his salary. Since he had sat out the 1970 season, moreover, Flood retained his standing to sue. And, Snyder insists, he refused to declare bankruptcy because a court-appointed receiver might have settled his lawsuit against baseball to get money to pay his creditors.

Perhaps. But surely leaving the country was not "the only way to preserve his sanity and his lawsuit." Flood was as impulsive and unstable as he was intelligent and principled. On the day he discovered he had been traded, he reacted as Rosa Parks had on that segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955: He just couldn't stand any more. In that moment, he became part of something bigger and better than himself. And he saw it through, just barely. Since (the) Flood, major leaguers, the stars and the scrubs, swim in a sea of green. They owe him. Even though he wasn't really all that altruistic - and wouldn't have filed the suit, if he had the chance to do it all again.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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