Brad Snyder


Sports Illustrated

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

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."

Flood's decision 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 free agency.

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.

Flood didn't 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."

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© 2006 Brad Snyder