Book Review: A Well Paid Slave

A Well Paid Slave
By Brad Snyder (Viking, $25.95)

The call informing Curt Flood of his trade to the Phillies from the Cardinals didn't come from general manager Bing Devine, manager Fred Hutchinson or owner Gussie Busch. Instead, Flood heard it from a sportswriter who gets the credit for breaking the news that upended baseball.  Flood was making $90,000 in October of 1969, firmly establishing himself as a Gold Glove centerfielder with a .293 batting average. He felt he deserved better than a trade to the Phillies, the last team in the National League to integrate.

So Flood refused to report to the Phillies and instead sued baseball over a contract structure that bound players to their current team, commonly referred to as "the reserve clause." On Christmas Eve of 1969, Flood wrote to commissioner Bowie Kuhn setting in motion a series of legal events that led to salary arbitration and eventually free agency as we know it today. "After 12 years in the major leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes," penned Flood. But unlike his hero and pioneer Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood never got to reap the benefits of a career that ended inside a court room rather on a baseball field.

Brad Snyder tells the sad and dark story of Flood's battle with the courts, alcohol and baseball. The title is taken from Flood's response to Howard Cosell's question, "It's been written that you're a man who makes $90,000 a year, which isn't exactly slave wages." Flood responded, "A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave."

According to Snyder, protests were nothing new to Curt Flood. He was outspoken about segregated training camps in Florida, appeared at numerous NAACP rallies and with the help of a court order and police protection, he moved with his family into an all-white neighborhood outside of Oakland. But nothing prepared him from the backlash he received from baseball. Carl Yastrzemski warned that Flood's case could "ruin the game."

Flood's case, which was baseball's first major dealing with Marvin Miller, the fiery executive director of the players association, made its way to the Supreme Court. In June of 1972, with Flood out of baseball for three years, the high court upheld the reserve clause by a vote of 5-3. He spent 13 games in an ill-fitted comeback with the Washington Senators in 1971. He died on January 20, 1997 - Martin Luther King Day.

Writes Snyder, "Curt Flood's legacy has nothing to do with congressional legislation or Supreme Court precedents but with starting the fight for free agency in baseball. He helped usher in a new era that allowed the players to exercise greater control over their careers and to share in the owners' economic prosperity."