Book Review: “A Well-Paid Slave”
November 4, 2006 by Bijan C. Bayne • Print Story •
The year was 1969, and seven-time Gold Glove center fielder Curt Flood was on top of the baseball world. He played for the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the few late 1960s teams where racial harmony was enjoyed, and was a leader of an oufit that boasted the likes of Bob Gibson and Tim McCarver. Together, the Redbirds had played in three World Series, winning two.
An October phone call from a mid-level team office staffer informed him that he and McCarver had been dealt to the lowly Phillies, essentially for disgruntled slugger Richie Allen. Philadelphia, where fans not only booed superstar Allen, but Santa Claus at Eagles' games.
As we now know, Flood chose not to report to his "new" team after 12 years in St. Louis. He did not wish to start anew with a cellar dweller, and sought legal advice on the matter. The proud, and to some, uppity Black athlete's protest that a well-paid slave nonetheless had no control over his career, angered sports fans all over America. To those for whom $12,000 a year was a decent salary in 1969, Flood's $90,000 per annum was astronomical — and he an ingrate.
Brad Snyder's "A Well-Paid Slave" details Flood's life as an Oakland athlete (and teenage contemporary of locals Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson ,and Bill Russell), minor leaguer in Jim Crow towns, and civil rights participant prior to the trade and battle which changed his life as much as it altered the professional sports marketplace.
Like any worthy work, the book strikes down a few widely-held beliefs. Flood was not a talented portrait artist who painted the quintessential image of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Flood was not seeking free agency for MLB players, his contestation of the reserve clause was based on his desire to remain with the Cardinals. Also, Flood was not one of a tide of rebellious 1960s baseball players for whom he was a mere symbol of The Modern Athlete — not one contemporary player testified in his defense or attended the trial.
This text sheds much-needed light on crucial aspects of the challenge to the clause that bound players to their teams with no say-so as to trade or arbitration. Snyder demonstrates that Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, the MLB owners, and most of the sporting press underestimated Flood's resolve, viewing him as tool of the Players' Association (and more specifically, their executive director Marvin Miller). Flood was not the first ballplayer to attack the reserve system in court. And had former Supreme Court Justice been more dedicated to his role in Flood's defense, the center fielder without a team may well have won his case.
Snyder, an attorney and sportswriter, is best when providing both background into the decision making processes of the 1971 Supreme Court (two of whom were new Nixon appointees), and analysis of how the case, and absence of baseball in his life, led Flood to disregard his health. Much as his hero Jackie Robinson's struggle against baseball's color line contributed to his death at age 53, alcoholism, and what may have been depression, were factors in Flood's death at 59.
Readers will travel back to the era of Muhammad Ali, Howard Cosell, lucrative $100,000 contracts, and sports columnists who sided with management. The superstars are all here — Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Sandy Koufax. Curt Flood, although a product of his times, was the lone brave figure willing to leave a $90,000 a year deal on the table for a principle. This fight led fans and media to wonder about baseball's hallowed status, and its most prized possession, its antitrust exemption. Nine appointed high justices were charged with deciding exactly how special the national pastime was.
Those interested in the legal inner workings, the reasoning behind the lack of player support for the plaintiff, and how the battle led to binding arbitration, free agency, and the 10-and-five rule will supremely enjoy "A Well-Paid Slave." In a world where few athletes appreciate Flood's sacrifice, and New York Times sportswriter Bill Rhoden contends we have a generation of athletes who are well-paid slaves (bound more by lack of social consciousness than restriction of player movement), this is doubtless a timely read.