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The Player Who Hit One Out of the Park

By Bruce Schoenfeld,
who writes frequently on sports
Thursday, October 19, 2006

A WELL-PAID SLAVE

Curt Flood's Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports

By Brad Snyder

Viking. 472 pp. $25.95

Surely none of Major League Baseball's franchise owners wish it was 1970, when the sport's contracts still bound players to their teams in perpetuity. That year, the African American outfielder Curt Flood filed suit to challenge the paragraph known as the reserve clause, rather than let himself be traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies as what Brad Snyder calls "chattel property" in "A Well-Paid Slave," his captivating new biography of Flood.

Under the modified emancipation that emerged from Flood's sacrifice of $100,000 in salary (and the remainder of what proved to be his last productive year as a player), player compensation has skyrocketed. But though one big-league executive after another testified at the time that granting players their freedom would ruin competitive balance by luring the best players to the richest teams, since then the sport has experienced unprecedented success.

In contrast to the half-century before the trial, when just four stockpiled franchises won 63 percent of American and National League pennants, 23 have played in at least one World Series in the 35 years since. That the value of the average franchise has increased more than 30-fold during that time (for example, the Cleveland Indians sold for $9 million in 1972 and $323 million in 2000, according to the SportsBusiness Journal) is not an unrelated development.

Yet the engine for all this success remains a shadowy and near-forgotten figure. An inveterate partygoer and nightclub habitue, Flood suffered from a fondness for vodka and scotch that prematurely curtailed his career. Talented with the camera and sketch pen, he fraudulently allowed portraits painted from his works to be passed off as his own. He chose not to attend the day the justices heard his case, disappearing to a Spanish island and hearing the court's ruling a day late by telephone. In the years that followed, he sank into alcoholism, was arrested and deported from the tiny Iberian nation of Andorra, and returned home to Oakland blacklisted by baseball, drunk, broke and afraid of the dark: hardly an inspiring symbol of anything.

Part of the problem, too, was the decision itself. Flood's challenge was ultimately denied by a Supreme Court that became star-struck by its contact with the national game. Rather than buttress his 5 to 4 majority opinion with cogent legal arguments, Justice Harry Blackmun spent days of personal research time larding it with an irrelevant history of baseball, including his own list of 79 all-time greats. Justice Potter Stewart threatened to withhold support unless a personal favorite, Eppa Rixey, was included. The issue at hand was all but forgotten. "The justices were not machines; they were men," Snyder writes. "And baseball turns men -- even ones with life tenure -- into boys." Much as Flood sacrificed money for principle, Snyder left a legal career to undertake this project without a publisher. Anyone with a sociological interest in American sport should be glad he did.

Writing with dispatch and grace, he places Flood's challenge to baseball squarely where it belongs, as the final radical act of the 1960s civil rights movement. Self-educated, Flood had read far more than most players, managed to integrate his neighborhood, occasionally visited Mississippi and other flash points, but otherwise was forced by his profession to remain far from the fray. On the day of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, he was playing center field in San Francisco. "I should be there instead of here," he said.

When the opportunity arose to challenge baseball, Flood was ready. He used his portrait-painting to justify his need to remain in St. Louis and found a willing ally in Marvin Miller, executive director of the players' union, who'd emerged as the first successful labor organizer in sports. An extraordinary scene in which Flood pleads his case before baseball's player representatives, asking them for moral support and crucial funding for his lawyer, former Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg, reveals just how removed from the game's economic and social issues many stars were, even in that politically charged era.

It also provides a telling glimpse at the idealism behind Flood's action. "Flood took the podium and punctured the players' skepticism," Snyder writes. "He was not threatening to retire as a negotiating tactic. He was going to sue baseball, with or without their help. He explained that he was not doing it for the money. He was doing it because the reserve clause as it currently existed was inhumane and unjust. This was a question not only about how the business of baseball should be conducted, but also of human dignity." When Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who feared any disruption of the existing order, offered a settlement that would have traded him to the team of his choice, Flood held fast.

The case bankrupted and about ruined Flood. But with the help of opinion-makers such as Howard Cosell and Red Smith, it shifted sentiment away from the Lords of Baseball. That set in motion changes and compromises that created a blueprint for the current system of limited free agency. By then, players understood. A few even thanked Flood for helping make them multimillionaires.

And when Marvin Miller would make his annual visit to each team in spring training, he would conclude his presentation with the same words: "Curt Flood got you these things."

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