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The concept of the tragic hero is both a foundation of storytelling and, of course, a wretched clich�. But writers have little choice when humans are involved. We are flawed creatures, prone to talking big, taking on too much, and shrinking away when things grow complicated. In that sense, Curt Flood is an ideal subject for Brad Snyder’s new work, A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports. Flood, an African-American outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1960s, paved the way for modern free agency in baseball with a lawsuit that made it to the Supreme Court. Snyder draws a portrait of a complex man whose idealism helped change professional sports but at the same time led to a personal disintegration. Flood’s path crossed those of the civil rights movement, Democratic politics, the federal courts, and the formidable world of high-powered law firms. Flood was proud, brittle, artistic, charming. And though he was athletically gifted, it was his drive that helped him overcome the many obstacles that lay before black athletes at the time. Flood grew up in Oakland, Calif.; used sports as a means to keep straight (his brother went to prison); and signed with a professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds, right out of high school. Had that been the end of the story, Flood might have gone on to a distinguished yet largely unspectacular career. He was a stellar center fielder, a speedster, a singles hitter at a time when that was a more valuable commodity in the game than it is now — and he would have left little impact past retirement. But Snyder rightly concludes that Flood’s experiences in the minor leagues changed him and launched him toward rebellion. From the start, Flood is portrayed as a man whose life is not his own. The Reds, in a manner that comes off in the book as almost sadistic, sent Flood to a series of minor league teams in the South, first in North Carolina and later in Georgia. Flood had never before experienced the kind of racism he would encounter there, and it burned his soul. The playful, exuberant boy became a mistrusting, quiet man. His passion turned inward. Flood began a pattern of drinking and womanizing that would stay with him for most of his life. PROPERTY RIGHTS Flood was playing winter ball in Venezuela when he received word that he’d been traded to the Cardinals. He was shocked, perhaps naively so, but soon realized that he was a piece of property rather than the independent man he believed himself to be. Cut to 10 years later. Flood was a 30-year-old Cardinals outfielder, coming off the worst season of his career. He was coldly notified by a front-office underling that he had been dealt to Philadelphia for the 1970 season, at the time one of the worst-run franchises in baseball. With a photography business in St. Louis and personal ties to the area, Flood didn’t want to go, but baseball’s laws dictated that he had to go. The reason: the so-called “reserve clause” in every standard player contract. The contract bound a player to the team that signed him for life — and allowed the team, and only the team, to transfer his rights to another club. The clause had been a linchpin of major league baseball for almost a century. Few players questioned it. They believed team owners who maintained that elimination of the clause would destroy the stability of franchises and ruin the sport. And a famous 1922 Supreme Court opinion written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes seemed to cement the legality of the clause and provide an exemption for baseball from federal antitrust laws. But Flood was a rebel at a time when unrest seemed more the natural order of things. It was the late 1960s, and Flood had watched heroes such as Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr. pay a price for their beliefs. At the time, professional athletes, largely a conservative lot, began questioning bedrock beliefs. Some wrote tell-all books. Others protested the Vietnam War. Snyder vividly documents a meeting in Puerto Rico of representatives of the baseball players union, who decided to back Flood’s federal lawsuit challenging the reserve clause. The room included a future Republican senator, Jim Bunning, and a future manager of the New York Yankees, Joe Torre. Flood was warned that his suit meant he would be blackballed by owners and maligned by the pro-management sporting press. He pressed on regardless. But from there, Snyder’s book crosses into more familiar territory for any reader of what might be called the “dramatic lawsuit” genre. Flood’s cause was taken up by a group of brilliant and idealistic New York lawyers, headed by Arthur Goldberg, the former Supreme Court justice who foolishly surrendered his seat on the Court at the behest of President Lyndon Johnson, and lawyers from the firm now known as Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, and Garrison. On the other side were the lawyers representing baseball from a collection of firms that included Washington’s Arnold & Porter, Willkie Farr & Gallagher, and Baker & Hostetler. As typical in such suits, Flood became a secondary character as the mechanics of the process overwhelmed him and the lawyers assumed center stage. He was broke and desperate. He finally panicked, agreeing to take the field for the Washington Senators two years after refusing to go to Philadelphia. His comeback was short-lived. Too much time had passed and too much vodka had been drunk. His skills were gone. In court, Flood lost every step of the way, first in federal court, then on the appellate level, and finally at the Supreme Court, which was then struggling with weighty issues such as abortion and the death penalty. Justice Harry Blackmun wrote for a divided Court in upholding the legality of the reserve clause. But the issue was not to go away, and baseball players eventually would be given free-agency rights a few years later after an arbitrator’s ruling shattered the clause. Every modern athlete who signs a multimillion-dollar contract should thank Flood. (The most he ever made in the game was $100,000 a year.). And if Snyder’s book has a hidden message, it’s that the time when professional athletes and politics were intertwined now seems very far away. It’s tempting to say that everyone has been bought off to keep quiet, but that’s holding players to a higher standard than they probably deserve. There are few with the courage of Curt Flood, in sports or otherwise.
James Oliphant can be contacted at [email protected].

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