Sunday, October 8, 2006

“[Jackie] Robinson started the [baseball] revolution by putting a uniform on. [Curt] Flood finished it by taking his uniform off.”

With these sentences in his final paragraph, Washington author Brad Snyder neatly encapsulates and links the contributions of arguably the game’s two most important figures of the 20th century. Yet while Jackie Robinson has been widely hailed for breaking the major leagues’ unwritten ban against black players in 1947, Flood’s true grit in suing baseball to gain his freedom 23 years later has been largely and unforgivably forgotten.

In “A Well-Paid Slave” ($29.95, Viking, 472 pages, illus.), Snyder masterfully recounts Flood’s long and lonely legal fight that went all the way to the Supreme Court and helped establish free agency in baseball and other team sports. And, Snyder notes, each of these pioneers paid a heavy price. Robinson died of complications from diabetes at age 53 in 1972 and Flood from cancer at 59 in 1995.

The book is a worthy successor to “Beyond the Shadow of the Senators,” Snyder’s intriguing 2003 volume about baseball in Washington and the Negro League’s Homestead Grays and should reach a wider audience. The author is a lawyer and former sportswriter — a rare combination that makes him uniquely qualified to do justice to Flood’s story.

The speedy center fielder and perennial .300 hitter was a star of the first rank on St. Louis Cardinals teams that won National League pennants in 1964, 1967 and 1968, plus two World Series. But when the Cardinals traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies during the winter of 1969-70, Flood balked because of his business interests in St. Louis and challenged Major League Baseball’s hoary contract reserve clause that gave clubs an exclusive option on players’ services for each following season and therefore prevented them from seeking better offers elsewhere.

A proud man who had chafed earlier at the South’s Jim Crow laws that prevented black players from staying and eating at the same establishments as their white teammates in spring training, Flood rightly considered himself enslaved by the reserve clause. He said black players were “all under the same yoke” and added, “I can’t be bought off. Somebody has to [challenge the status quo]. I feel I’m qualified and capable of doing it.”

Baseball officials, including commissioner Bowie Kuhn, and many fans said free agency would destroy the game and, totally missing the point, asked how a ballplayer making $90,000 a year could consider himself a slave. Flood’s response in a TV interview provided the title for Snyder’s book: “A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave.”

Sadly, in retrospect, most of his peers failed to understand and support Flood, including black stars like Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks. Yet he had strong allies in former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, who argued his case before the high court; nationally known media stars Howard Cosell and Red Smith; and Marvin Miller, head of the players union.

Snyder’s detailed description of Flood’s courtroom battles might be somewhat difficult for legal laymen to understand but are essential to the book. Goldberg, preoccupied with running in New York’s gubernatorial race (and ultimately losing to incumbent Nelson Rockefeller), delivered an uncharacteristically inane argument on Flood’s behalf before the Supreme Court, which denied the player’s petition by one vote.

After sitting out the 1970 season and therefore demonstrating his suit was serious, Flood signed a contract minus the reserve clause with owner Bob Short of the Washington Senators for 1971. By then, Flood’s skills had eroded at age 33 after a year out of action. He stumbled badly through 13 games with the Senators, batting just .200.

A heavy drinker and womanizer, Flood found the mental strain of attempting a comeback worse than the physical. “I’ve lost it,” he told Senators slugger Frank Howard at one point, meaning his mind rather than his playing ability. He quit the team April 25 and flew to Spain two days later to live as an expatriate. (Six months later, the Senators were gone, too, as carpetbagger Short shanghaied the franchise to Arlington, Texas.)

After that, Flood was blacklisted by Organized Baseball and scrounged for years to survive financially. With help of his second wife, actress Judy Pace, he quit drinking in 1986 and lived happily for the remaining nine years of his life. And, no, he never regretted the lawsuit.

Though he lost in court, Flood’s courage and perseverance resulted in other players defying the reserve clause by refusing to sign contracts and playing out their options, thus starting baseball’s megabucks march to free agency in the mid-1970s. Some people have not forgotten. Says New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, a former Cardinals teammate and supporter of Flood during the suit: “I want [my] players to understand the reason that they’re doing pretty well and have a lot of rights, and that’s because of what Curt Flood gave up.”

Snyder posits that free agency has been good for baseball rather than destroying it because “competitive balance has improved. … The Yankees, Cardinals or Dodgers do not win the pennant every year.” But his story really is about the indomitable human spirit rather than baseball. It is a “sports book” only in the sense that its protagonist happened to be a ballplayer.

And better than anyone else could, Curt Flood explained in 1980 why he chose to become a baseball martyr: “What about freedom makes us march and picket and sometimes die? It’s the right to choose. To me, freedom means simply I belong to me.”

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