Labor Pain

A new bio details the suffering of Curt Flood, who rattled the chains of baseball's plantation system
September 10, 2006

by Brad Snyder
Viking, 485 pages, $25.95

On Christmas Evein 1969, Curt Flood sent baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn a letter that was thelegal equivalent of a lump of coal. A speedy centerfielder with a lifetimebatting average of .293 who had played for the Cardinals in three World Series,Flood had just been traded to Philadelphia. Instead of reporting to thePhillies, Flood informed Kuhn he was going to sue baseball. "After twelveyears in the Major Leagues," he wrote, "I do not feel that I am a pieceof property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes."

Flood's decisionwas a lump of coal for Kuhn, but pure gold to players. Although Flood lost hiscase--both at trial and on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court--and ruined hiscareer, the momentum he generated would ultimately force the owners to allowfree agency.

Flood grew up inOakland, where he played baseball for George Powles--the same white coach whomentored Frank Robinson and whom Bill Russell said "saved me from becominga juvenile delinquent." But a color-blind coach couldn't prepare Flood forthe segregation he encountered after signing with the Reds in 1956. He wasrarely allowed in the Southern restaurants where his teammates dined and wasrepeatedly barred from one visitors' clubhouse, which forced him to change hisclothes in a tin shed next to the dugout. Such experiences scarred Flood deeply("It's hell down here," he wrote home to his family. "I didn't knowpeople could act like this") and turned him into the activist who would oneday take on the baseball establishment.

In the daysbefore free agency, players had two options in salary negotiations--take it orleave baseball--and owners were not about to give up such leverage without afight. Flood certainly had help in challenging the system. Part of theentertainment in A Well-Paid Slave is the cast of supporting characters: MarvinMiller, who, as head of the players' association, recognized Flood's characterand persuaded the union to back him; Arthur Goldberg, the hopelesslylong-winded but well-meaning former Supreme Court justice who tried to act asFlood's attorney while simultaneously running for governor of New York; and therest of Flood's legal team, particularly Jay Topkis and Allan Zerman, who didmost of the legal heavy lifting.

Flood didn'texpect to win his case, but he thought that if he could publicize how wrong thesystem was, public sympathy would force baseball to change. Consequently, itwas essential that his fellow players show their support, especially majorstars. But remarkably few active players stood up for him. Frank Howard andHarmon Killebrew expressed their disapproval of the lawsuit; Willie Mays, FrankRobinson and Ernie Banks refused to take a side--a betrayal Flood understoodbut never got over. The press was even worse: The New York Daily News ran aback-page headline that warned curt win kills baseball.

Flood sat out the1970 season as his case went through the courts and, publicly, cut a charming,unflappable figure. Asked if he worried that his skills would deteriorate, hereplied, "Baseball is like sex; you don't forget overnight."Alcoholism, financial ruin and stress left him woefully out of shape; hereturned to baseball with the Washington Senators in 1971, even as his caseproceeded, but quit after just 13 games.

It wasn't untilFlood died in 1997, at age 59, that his contributions were finally appreciated.George Will, who spoke at his funeral, noted that it was one of the few timeshe and the Reverend Jesse Jackson had ever shared a podium. Jackson pointed outthat Flood had won in the end: "Baseball is better, [and] America isbetter.... Thank God that Curt Flood came this way."

PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.CHATTEL CALL Flood, with an assist from Miller (inset), brought free agency to baseball. PHOTOAP[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOS

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