Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Self Sacrifice

A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood's Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports
by Brad Snyder

First off, apologies for the gap between posts. It's been a hectic several days, and I had some other writing I had to complete before I could get back to the blog. Y'all know how it is. I got to go to a Baltimore Orioles game on Monday night - the first one I had made all season. As I sat with my friend L. and enjoyed the baseball game, I thought about Curt Flood and how much his determination changed not only baseball but all professional sports.

It is hard to place A Well-Paid Slave into any one genre - and I mean that as a good thing. It is part civil rights history, part sports writing, and part legal history (specifically Supreme Court history). However we classify the book, it is ALL interesting, compelling reading. I'm grateful to my friend J. who loaned it to me - it's not something I ordinarily would have picked up, but I'm glad I read it.

For about the first century of professional baseball, players were like pieces of property that the team owners could literally buy and sell among themselves. Players had no say in where they would play, even if they had lived in one community for many years and had close ties in that place. If they were traded, they had to either show up for spring practice at their new team or retire from baseball. This was enforced with an archaic rule known as the "reserve clause." In 1969, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Curt Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies after he had played for the Cardinals for 12 seasons and won numerous "Golden Glove" awards for center fielding. Flood did not want to move to Philadelphia, and believed that if the Cardinals did not want him anymore, then he should be able to negotiate with whatever teams he wished to and work out the best deal he could.

For Curt Flood, it was not a question of money. His final season with the Cardinals, he made $90,000, an enormous amount at the time. The Phillies offered him $100,000. But Flood was sensitive to the slight of being treated like an object rather than a human being. Originally from California, he had endured a couple of horrible seasons in the deep South, playing on minor league teams until he finally made the majors. The racial slights and humiliations that he endured affected the rest of his life. The reserve clause affected all players, regardless of race, but due to his own history Flood probably felt the injustice more keenly than some other players.

Rather than play for the Phillies or retire from the game, Curt Flood chose to sue major league baseball. He sued for monetary damages, but knew that he would in all likelihood never see a penny. His primary goal was to challenge the reserve clause and see to it that, after a certain number of years with one club, players were allowed to be free agents. Flood was backed by the Player's Association (the "labor union" for baseball players at the time), who paid his legal fees. Flood's lawyers warned him that the legal battle could take several years, after which he would probably be too old to play anymore. Flood asked if future players could benefit from his efforts. When told that they undoubtedly would, Curt Flood replied "That's good enough for me."

Flood's case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where he ultimately lost 5-3, with one justice recusing himself due to a potential conflict of interest. Although several former players testified on Flood's behalf about the injustice of the reserve clause (including Flood's hero, Jackie Robinson), no current players testified or even attended his trial. They were too afraid of losing their own positions within the game. Sadly, the Supreme Court justices seemed to be seduced by their own love for baseball and by the game's moniker of "our national pastime." These brilliant men ignored blatant contradictions in labor law and legal precedent with other sports to maintain baseball's status quo. It was a sad day.

Curt Flood's sacrifice was not in vain, however. Knowing that the issue of the reserve clause was not going to go away, the team owners finally agreed to negotiate with the players' union after years of stonewalling. Within a couple of years of Flood's case, the reserve clause had been modified to include free agency.

The ordeal took a toll on Curt Flood personally. His marriage collapsed, partially due to the stress of the lawsuit. When Flood made an attempt at a professional comeback, with the Washington Senators, it was a dismal failure. He had always had a tendency to party, but during his legal battle a fondness for alcohol turned into full blown alcoholism that he battled until the last few years of his life. Later, when he wanted to get a job managing or coaching a pro baseball team, he was frozen out. For a time he was a lonely, embittered, lost soul. Flood was a flawed person, as we all are. However, he was willing to make a great sacrifice for a principle, even though he would not personally benefit from it. We do not see that too often anymore. He is an under appreciated baseball hero - I had never even heard of him until I read this book. I'm grateful that Brad Snyder told his story so well.

Reverent Reader


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