Saturday, August 6, 2011

Book Review: A Well Paid Slave

When I was in junior high I remember an issue of Sports Illustrated with the 1967 World Champion Cardinals on the cover. There was third baseman Mike Shannon, outfielder Lou Brock, some guy named Julian Javier, and manager Red Schoendienst.*  A smiling Bob Gibson, which was unusual.  There was also a fairly small, very handsome center fielder, Curt Flood.
Sports Illustrated cover October 7, 1968.  The cover is entitled "Manager of the Money Men," about Red Schoendienst's management of the world's best paid team.
Flood's fight to overturn his trade to the Philadelphia Phillies, and hence baseball's reserve clause is the subject of Bryan Snyder's 2007 book, A Well Paid Slave: Curt Flood's Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports. Snyder tells a pretty grim story.  He traces the story of Flood's determination to undo the trade, and subsequent impact the highly publicized litigation had on his life.  He also focuses on the legal trajectory of Flood vs. Kuhn and the actors who influenced the outcome of the case from its hearing in federal court to the arguments made before the Supreme Court.

 Snyder portrays Curt Flood after the end of the 1969 season as a ballplayer who had enjoyed considerable success in the major leagues.  His '69 season was one that was not his best, and at age 31, today sabermetricians might view it as the beginning of his decline years.  (We'll never no, because for all intents and purposes he never really played the game again.)  A great defensive center fielder and an effective singles hitter, we might reasonably compare him to Ichiro Suzuki without the drop dead arm. Flood, paid $90K, a lot for his time, experienced a trade in his minor league career from the Reds to the Cardinals.  He felt like property, and was sent to play in the segregated south, where he endured racial taunts and threats, separation from his white teammates in dining and accommodations.  He vowed it would not happen again.
August 1968 SI cover of a fabulous Flood grab at the wall.  Well-compensated for the times, Flood was paid for his glove and less for his bat.
 When he was traded along with teammate Tim McCarver to the Phillies Flood proceeded down the path that would lead to the Supreme Court.  His life would never be the same.  Snyder paints him as a regular drinker, and a womanizer who abandoned his family.  The stress of being out of baseball would push him over the edge into alcoholism and bankruptcy.  Flood fled the country for the solace of Denmark and Spain where his life continued to spiral downward.  Eventually, upon returning to his Oakland origins, with the help of friends in and out of baseball, Flood got sober, resurrected his self respect and enjoyed a connection with the game until his death from cancer in 1997 at age 59. At the time of his death, baseball players were beginning to recognize the debt they owed him for their freedom of movement and the riches they earned.
Flood and Player Asssociation president Marvin Miller.  Miller, a smart hard working representative for the the players, told Flood he didn't believe he could win his case.
Just as interesting as Curt Flood's story is the story Snyder tells of the progress through Flood's case through the courts.  Perhaps the most interesting character outside Flood is Players Association representative Marvin Miller. Miller had connections to former supreme court justice and U.N. ambassador Arthur Goldberg, who agreed to represent Flood, and by association the Players Association, who paid the legal costs of the trial. Unfortunately Goldberg was ill prepared to argue this case effectively.  Caught up in a disastrous New York gubernatorial campaign, his attention was elsewhere, while more enthusiastic and knowledgeable litigators were left on the sidelines. Another interesting aspect of the judicial side of the case is the roles of the arbiters hearing the evidence.   Federal court trial judge Irving Ben Cooper and associate Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun appear starstruck by their association with major league baseball and its history.  Beholden to the game's rich history and tradition, they are ultimately transfixed by baseball's mythology, the status quo and the owners' position that the reserve clause is vital to the success of major league baseball.
After he regained his sobriety, friends in and out of baseball helped Flood find his self-respect and rebuild his finances.  One job he held was as commissioner of the short lived Senior Baseball Association 1989-90.
A Well Paid Slave is a great story well told.  Snyder portrays Flood sympathetically without resorting to sentimentality.  He tells the story of the legal case honestly and lucidly without unduly complicating the issues.  It is a book I can highly recommend.

*Please, no letters.  I know Julian Javier was the very talented 2nd baseman with the Cards, and the father of former Mariner outfielder Stan Javier.

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