by Brad Snyder
Viking, 485 pages, $25.95
On Christmas Eve
in 1969, Curt Flood sent baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn a letter that was the
legal equivalent of a lump of coal. A speedy centerfielder with a lifetime
batting average of .293 who had played for the Cardinals in three World Series,
Flood had just been traded to Philadelphia. Instead of reporting to the
Phillies, Flood informed Kuhn he was going to sue baseball. "After twelve
years in the Major Leagues," he wrote, "I do not feel that I am a piece
of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes."
was a lump of coal for Kuhn, but pure gold to players. Although Flood lost his
case--both at trial and on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court--and ruined his
career, the momentum he generated would ultimately force the owners to allow
Flood grew up in
Oakland, where he played baseball for George Powles--the same white coach who
mentored Frank Robinson and whom Bill Russell said "saved me from becoming
a juvenile delinquent." But a color-blind coach couldn't prepare Flood for
the segregation he encountered after signing with the Reds in 1956. He was
rarely allowed in the Southern restaurants where his teammates dined and was
repeatedly barred from one visitors' clubhouse, which forced him to change his
clothes 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 know
people could act like this") and turned him into the activist who would one
day take on the baseball establishment.
In the days
before free agency, players had two options in salary negotiations--take it or
leave baseball--and owners were not about to give up such leverage without a
fight. Flood certainly had help in challenging the system. Part of the
entertainment in A Well-Paid Slave is the cast of supporting characters: Marvin
Miller, who, as head of the players' association, recognized Flood's character
and persuaded the union to back him; Arthur Goldberg, the hopelessly
long-winded but well-meaning former Supreme Court justice who tried to act as
Flood's attorney while simultaneously running for governor of New York; and the
rest of Flood's legal team, particularly Jay Topkis and Allan Zerman, who did
most of the legal heavy lifting.
expect to win his case, but he thought that if he could publicize how wrong the
system was, public sympathy would force baseball to change. Consequently, it
was essential that his fellow players show their support, especially major
stars. But remarkably few active players stood up for him. Frank Howard and
Harmon Killebrew expressed their disapproval of the lawsuit; Willie Mays, Frank
Robinson and Ernie Banks refused to take a side--a betrayal Flood understood
but never got over. The press was even worse: The New York Daily News ran a
back-page headline that warned curt win kills baseball.
Flood sat out the
1970 season as his case went through the courts and, publicly, cut a charming,
unflappable figure. Asked if he worried that his skills would deteriorate, he
replied, "Baseball is like sex; you don't forget overnight."
Alcoholism, financial ruin and stress left him woefully out of shape; he
returned to baseball with the Washington Senators in 1971, even as his case
proceeded, but quit after just 13 games.
It wasn't until
Flood 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 times
he and the Reverend Jesse Jackson had ever shared a podium. Jackson pointed out
that Flood had won in the end: "Baseball is better, [and] America is
better.... Thank God that Curt Flood came this way."