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December 4, 2006

Curt Flood's Tragic Fight

Brad Snyder, author of A Well-Paid Slave, tells Gelf how the legal fight for free agency has made baseball better, how he came to terms with the flaws of his book's hero, and why this fall's World Series was a publicity boon.

Carl Bialik

Brad Snyder, once a baseball reporter and then a lawyer, found his ideal subject in Curt Flood. In October 1969, the Cardinals outfielder was making $90,000 and coming off his 12th season in St. Louis when he was traded to the Phillies. Flood refused to report to his new team and instead sued baseball over a contract structure that bound every player to the whims of his present club. The "reserve clause," standard in every contract, gave every team the right to renew the contract for another year, creating a recursive sort of servitude. Flood considered himself a "well-paid slave," the title of Snyder's book chronicling Flood's legal battle to change baseball.

Brad Snyder
Brad Snyder
Flood is unquestionably the hero of Snyder's account, a man inspired by his own hero, Jackie Robinson, to agitate for economic freedom in baseball. Flood sacrificed enormously, interrupting his career with his hitting and fielding skills still near their peak to wage a lonely battle that would, if successful, have benefited his fellow players, who nonetheless mostly declined to stand up and be counted. Flood's trial failed in a questionable Supreme Court decision, but opened the floodgates for free agency and today's economic structure that more-equitably splits the lucre between players and owners. Flood himself never benefited from his selfless struggle, and died in 1997.

Yet Flood is also a deeply flawed character. He sold artwork produced by others as his own, was financially irresponsible, womanized, drank to excess, and let his playing skills prematurely erode during the case. Snyder's gift, as a lawyer and journalist, is to present Flood and the book's other characters, warts and all. Flood's personal foibles pale in comparison to the missteps of former and current Supreme Court justices, cowardly fellow players, and venal owners, who conspired to make this tale a tragedy, albeit one with a triumphant epilogue as Flood sobers up and makes peace with baseball more than a decade after his trial.

Snyder, 34, spoke to Gelf by phone about how the legal fight for free agency has made baseball better, how he came to terms with the flaws of his book's hero, why this fall's World Series was a publicity boon, and what Flood would have thought of his book. Following are edited excerpts from the interview. (Also, you can hear Snyder and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, December 6, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: How did you get the idea for the book?
Brad Snyder: I was a very young reporter for the Baltimore Sun, fulfilling a childhood dream like in Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer of covering the team I grew up rooting for, the Orioles. Two months into my time there, the baseball strike hit. So instead of going to Camden Yards and covering baseball games, I was writing about the antitrust exemption. That's when I really started to hear about Curt Flood.
I saw Curt Flood's story as a Gideon's Trumpet story for baseball. Anthony Lewis wrote this book about Clarence Earl Gideon, an indigent inmate who filed a handwritten petition appealing his case, and created a right-to-counsel in felony trials for indigents. It was a real one-man-takes-on-the-establishment story.
I left the paper to go to law school, then to a clerkship. In between the clerkship and Williams and Connolly, I took off nine months and wrote my first book [Beyond the Shadow of the Senators: The Untold Story of the Homestead Grays and the Integration of Baseball]. But the Flood book was the book I always wanted to write.
As interesting as First Amendment law was, I felt I was always on the outside looking in, advising journalists about what to do. I left the firm after three years with no agent and no contract and for six or seven months, I worked on the book. Through a good friend, I got a new book agent. Three weeks later, I had a new book contract. It took me two and a half years to write the book.

GM: What was the toughest part of researching the book?
BS: The toughest part of the book, I knew, was going to be talking to ballplayers of Curt Flood's generation. I think those guys didn't get the money they deserved. A lot of African-American players put up with a lot of segregation and discrimination. A lot of them are justifiably embittered about the way the game treated them, and a lot of those guys I knew were going to be difficult to get to talk to me.
I also interviewed Joe Torre. Getting an interview with Joe Torre now is like getting an interview with the Pope. It's hard to get the time of a Yankees manager besieged with interview requests.
At same time, I didn't think Curt's teammates were central to the story, because I saw it as more of a civil-rights story than a baseball story. I was more nervous about not getting [then-commissioner] Bowie Kuhn to talk to me than not talking to Curt's teammates.
One thing I learned from doing this book and talking to other authors is that even people at the top of this profession still have to work really hard to get people to talk to them. People don't talk to you just because your name is Gay Talese or Richard Ben Cramer.

GM: You judge Kuhn rather harshly in the book. Had you already arrived at that judgment by the time you got the interview with him?
BS: I didn't think that I was harsh. I just thought he was shortsighted. I interviewed him at the very end of researching the book. He had me send him a list of questions. The ones he answered, he did mostly in yes/no/I don't know fashion. I was basically done with the book. So in some ways, I had already formed my opinions from writing.
To me, my judgments about Bowie Kuhn were secondary to the case, because the person I had enormous respect for on that side was Lou Hoynes, who did a fantastic job of handling baseball's case. To me that was more important than whether Bowie Kuhn was in the owners' pocket and resisted change in the game: Bowie Kuhn had great legal advocacy on his side.

GM: In his review in the New York Times, David Margolick wrote that you were too easy on Kuhn's opponent, union chief Marvin Miller. Did you think that criticism was valid?
BS: He points out that I mention Marvin Miller twice in acknowledgments. I loved David's review; I thought it was very nice and thoughtful and was flattered by the review overall. But if you look at the acknowledgments, you'll find I mentioned many people twice. Lou Hoynes was listed twice in my acknowledgments; he was not only very gracious with me with his time, but he also agreed to read the manuscripts.
I sort of felt like that was an unfair criticism [about Miller]. It certainly wasn't accidental—mentioning Miller twice—it was being upfront with the reader. I think I pointed out three things for which I blamed Marvin Miller in the text. The first was the lack of players showing up at Flood's trial. It was Miller's fault. The second was hiring Arthur Godlberg as Flood's lawyer and sticking with Arthur Goldberg, when it was obvious he had screwed up the trial. Third, I blame the union for not giving Flood a job. And Marvin Miller was head of the union at that time. The problem was, Curt wasn't really sober until 1986. Marvin stepped down in 1982, Kenneth Moffett took over the union, and later Don Fehr entered the picture. It was mostly on Don's watch that Curt could have worked for the union.
I try to follow Lester Bangs's advice in Almost Famous: to be honest and unmerciful. I tried not to favor one side or another.

GM: You were certainly honest and unmerciful with the hero of your book. Were you aware of Flood's flaws before starting the book?
BS: All heroes have flaws. I didn't want to present an unflawed hero, because that wouldn't have been realistic. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a womanizer. None of us are perfect. I still think what Curt did was very heroic and altruistic. There are very few athletes who speak out today and stand up on causes. Pat Tillman comes to mind. [Sports Illustrated] Carlos Delgado not standing for the American national anthem is another that comes to mind. [New York Times]
That said, I did not know about all his personal foibles or the extent of them. But I felt the reader needed to know the impact of the lawsuit on his life. Alcoholism, womanizing, financial despair: I thought they were all relevant, but none of those affected my opinion that Curt Dlood did something to make a better game and benefit his fellow players.
For example, I knew Curt had left the Washington Senators three weeks into the 1971 season by sending a telegram from JFK Airport. I had no idea he needed to declare bankruptcy yet could not declare bankruptcy and continue his lawsuit. [Editor's Note: If he had declared bankruptcy, the decision about whether to settle his suit against baseball would have been taken out of his and the union's hands.] To me that showed how inextricably linked Curt Flood's problems were to wanting to see the lawsuit go to the Supreme Court, and how much he had to sacrifice. If he were thinking about himself, he could have declared bankruptcy and he would have gotten himself financially solvent. He saw leaving the country as his only solution.

GM: Did you know before researching the book that he had misrepresented other people's portrait work as his own? Had that been publicized before?
BS: I did not know, and it was not known in general. It was not even something I thought to ask. That information was volunteered to me by two different people.
It's very hard to prove a negative. Do I know Curt Flood did not paint every single one of those paintings? No. Do I know there are times when Curt was not painting those paintings? Yes. He was very much someone whose life had spiraled out of control. It was in some sense like his lawsuit
He had gained some renown as a sketch artist, and that, I think, overwhelmed him, and overwhelmed the demand for his work. But certainly it was a character flaw and a personal flaw. It did not make Curt look good. The painting stuff is three pages in 350 in the book. But I felt I needed to write it, because two people volunteered it to me, and I had found written evidence.

GM: It's not just Flood who emerges as a complicated figure; several well-known baseball figures are shown with flaws, and some later develop and repent. For instance, I didn't know broadcaster Tim McCarver harbored racial prejudice as a young player. And it was interesting how commentator Joe Garagiola initially opposed Flood's lawsuit, but later apologized for it. Willie Mays and Frank Robinson disappointed me by declining to take a position publicly on the case.
BS: It's easy to look at people in 2006 and then judge how they felt or acted in 1970 or 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues. But what's more interesting is to write what people said, or what they did, and then show how people's opinions evolved over time. What I tried not to do in the book is pass judgment over Tim McCarver or Joe Garagiola. In fact, when Willie Mays and Frank Robinson were criticized in book, they were criticized by Jackie Robinson and not by me.
Each of them can be explained a little bit. Tim McCarver was from Tennessee and didn't go to college. (David Halberstam first wrote a lot about this in October 1964; Curt Flood wrote about it in The Way It Is.) Tim McCarver was a southern guy with a lot of built-in prejudices, prejudices he lost because there were a lot of smart African-American guys like Curt Flood, Bill White, and Kirk Gibson on the team. He was an intellectually curious guy and quickly lost the prejudices he had gained.
Joe Garagiola was a prisoner of the baseball establishment in a lot of ways. He realized he had made a mistake in Curt Flood's trial in backing major league baseball, and he apologized for it over the years, by getting Curt a job [with the Senior Professional Baseball Association], and by getting the Baseball Assistance Team to help Curt out.
One of the things that most surprised me in doing the book was the fact that Curt's fellow players didn't stand up for him, and many of the African-American players didn't stand up for him. I tried to put myself in their shoes. First of all, there was an enormous climate of fear among the ballplayers. Anyone's salary can be cut 20% or shipped off to another organization at a moment's notice. The second thing is that a lot of these guys—Frank Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron—didn't go to college, came out of high school or the Negro Leagues, and weren't that well-educated. You couldn't expect them to see the implications of Curt's lawsuit. Some of them really wanted careers in baseball management, and it didn't behoove them to speak out. I felt the need to quote what they did or did not do at the time. Now everyone thinks of him as a hero. It just wasn't like that at the time.

GM: Is that partly a reflection that it's easier to get behind a fight for racial equality and freedom than for economic freedom, that it's a less-complicated stance to cheer?
BS: A racial-equality fight is much more sympathetic than one for economic freedom. Racial equality goes to a lot of things this country is about.
I don't think people are sympathetic to rich ballplayers. People did not have a lot of sympathy for a ballplayer making $90,000 a year. And people involved in civil-rights movement were a lot more sympathetic—such as young schoolchildren in Birmingham being pummeled by fire hoses. [PBS.org]
If you look at the Supreme Court, it was very active in trying to settle racial discrimination. But when the economic component crept into it, the justices were much more reluctant—such as in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, when the Supreme Court declined to overturn a school-financing system based on local property taxes, even though it was argued that the system was discriminatory because richer neighborhoods will have better schools. It reflects the uneasiness of Americans to get into that subject.
As Loren Steffy wrote in the Houston Chronicle last year, we're a generation of Curt Floods: We're looking for the next better deal or better job. There's no loyalty of employment anymore. Employers will eliminate pensions or lay you off if they have to, and employees, if they see a better opportunity in another field they will take it. Ballplayers don't play on the same team their whole careers, and it's reflective of what's going on in society. Curt Flood paid for being a man ahead of his time.

GM: While I understand the connections between Flood and Jackie Robinson, Robinson had a bigger impact, right?
BS: Absolutely. I don't want to equate Jackie Robinson's suffering or struggle with Curt Flood's impact or struggle, because Robinson's impact was much larger, and his struggle much harder. There's his symbolic importance, and the timing of it all: in 1947, eight years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott [Stanford.edu] even began. Martin Luther King told Jackie Robinson there would have been no bus boycott without him. I think Robinson's impact was enormous and almost incalculable. Curt was taking the baton from Jackie Robinson in a lot of ways, and taking the next step. The reserve clause was the next step—it had to go.

Jackie Robinson
Courtesy Look Magazine
Jackie Robinson could have been a pioneer on baseball's racial and economic fronts, but it may have been too much of a burden for one man to bear.
GM: But how obvious was it at the time that the reserve clause had to go? It seems clear with the benefit of hindsight that Flood was right, but at the time did the other side have a decent argument? BS: If you look at it from the perspective of ballplayers, they didn't know of any other system. They had heard that if baseball were to get rid of the reserve clause, it would kill the game. No one wanted to kill the game. It was almost a miseducation of ballplayers by teams and the media that ballplayers believed. In the 1950s, ballplayer after ballplayer testified that they were in favor of the reserve clause. They weren't getting their rightful share of the economic pie vis a vis the owners. Certainly at the time it wasn't clear to some of the guys that Curt was doing the right thing. Joe Torre said, Curt is standing up for everything that we're fighting for. But not everyone was as involved as Joe Torre in the union issues. Torre was traded to the Cardinals because he was standing up for his rights as a baseball player, in a pension dispute. I think there's still a segment of people who feel that Curt Flood ruined the game—that free agency has ruined sports. But to me that is really sort of an anachronistic way of looking at things. I heard [86-year-old New Yorker writer] Roger Angell speak about baseball not long ago. An old guy in the audience said baseball was better when he was growing up in Brooklyn in the '50s, and all the Dodgers lived in our neighborhood and had second jobs. I thought Angell would agree with him, but he said something like, "Times change. The game is better and the players are better. And players had second jobs then because they were being exploited. Walter O'Malley was making all the money, and they were getting none. The game is better now." I am not in the camp that free agency has ruined baseball. It seems to almost have moved past how owners and players have divided the pie. Now it's about how the owners will divide the pie among themselves People are afraid of the unknown. There was no free agency in sports back then. How would people know what its effect would be on the game? We just didn't know. But now we know: It's made baseball a better game. It's given people hope. I follow the Orioles. I can always hope that they will get a free agent that will change a team. When they got Miguel Tejada a few years ago, there was renewed optimism. It's a lot easier to be nostalgic if you were a fan of one of those teams that always won. There was no better time to be a Yankees fan than in the pre-free agent era.

GM: I hadn't realized before reading your book that Jackie Robinson was traded at the end of his career from the Dodgers to the Giants, and chose to retire instead of changing teams.
BS: Jackie was sold like a piece of property, for 35 grand and a nothing pitcher. There are parallels between what happened to Robinson and what happened to Flood. Flood said he didn't want to be sold like a piece of property. Jackie Robinson understood that, because at the end of his career, he was sold like a piece of property. Jackie Robinson took the same course Curt did: He quit the game.
I'm a pretty obsessed Jackie Robinson fan, and had done a lot of research on him. His salary had been cut. The most he ever made was $42,500. He was making in the 30s, around 36,000, when he was traded. The Giants offered him a salary far in excess of what he had ever made, and he turned it down. It's fascinating to me that guy like Jackie Robinson had his salary cut for several seasons. It showed the control teams had over even the greatest of players. Robinson really was the Derek Jeter of his era. He may not have had the best numbers, but you wanted him on your team in the postseason.

GM: How might things have played out differently if Robinson had chosen to challenge his trade, and the reserve clause, in court rather than retiring? It seems like he would have been a more-sympathetic plaintiff than Flood, but perhaps asking him to take on that second fight would have been asking far too much.
BS: No one's ever asked me that question before. Maybe. It's possible. The Supreme Court had just decided the Toolson v. New York Yankees case in 1953 [reaffirming baseball's antitrust exemption]. In some respects Robinson would have been a more sympathetic player than Curt Flood. He had moral authority as baseball's first black player. But the court, four years earlier having just decided the issue, might have been even less likely to decide the case.
It's one of the great what-ifs of history. But it's almost too much to have one guy bear, almost too much for one person to take on, given everything Robinson had already taken on, and the physical and mental toll he had already taken. He would almost have been taking on the role of martyr twice.
I think the best plaintiff would have been a minor-league ballplayer, because minor-league players weren't represented by the labor union, and all these labor issues would not have been there. [Editor's note: Part of baseball's defense in the case was to argue that the reserve clause should be modified, or not, at the bargaining table and not in the courtoom.] But no one who was a minor leaguer would have wanted to give up his career at that stage.

GM: Your portrayal of the trial doesn't square with the ideal of objective, logic-driven justice. So many outside factors besides the merit of the case affect the outcome, from Flood lawyer Arthur Goldberg's unexpected and unsuccessful campaign to be New York's governor, to the interpersonal relationships between the Supreme Court justices. Are all cases burdened by so much outside, nonjudicial influence? And did you know that before your legal career?
BS: It's not true of every case. But it's true in a lot of cases. And it's definitely true of sports cases. They become divorced from the law in some ways.
I wouldn't have known about this had I not gone to law school, but certainly a justice's background and personal experiences come into play in judicial process. Making a decision can be stressful for some Supreme Court justices. Harry Blackmun [who wrote the Flood decision] was having a hard time with the decision making process.
It's inevitable that personal biases and experiences come into play in high-profile cases. What you would hope is that they would try to follow the law and interpret the law in a way that makes the most sense. A lot of people look at justices as these exalted beings. I tried to get people to look at them as human beings with backgrounds and experiences. Some of them were baseball fans, some of them not.

GM: Reading about Blackmun writing the decision, it struck me that he sounded like a college kid procrastinating writing a big paper, and then focusing on the fun but tangential part [an irrelevant introduction extolling the history of the game and some notable former players].
BS: He was so new to the court. He had been assigned writing the decision in Roe v. Wade, and he looked at this as a fun diversion. He was obviously enjoying what he was doing; I don't fault him for that.
But he spent too much time on the part he enjoyed, rather than on the heavy lifting that needed to be done: What are the reasons we are going to decide for Major League Baseball. There are more legitimate reasons to decide for Major League Baseball than the ones he used. If I had been assigned the task of writing a decision in favor of baseball, I would have said this was a labor issue, the union is a monopolistic labor entity, and under labor exemption, the reserve clause is exempt from antitrust laws. It's a bargaining issue, something to be decided at the negotiating table. That decision would have made the most sense.

Curt Flood
Flood's image is on the Hall of Fame website, but he's not in Cooperstown.
GM: You're into baseball's numbers. What do you think today's more advanced statistical analysis techniques would make of Curt Flood as a ballplayer? BS: He's not an OPS dream. He's more of a Jeter-type of guy. If you look at just the numbers, he doesn't stand out as a tremendous ballplayer. He didn't have tremendous power, he didn't steal bases, and he didn't walk a lot. (On the other hand, he didn't have an enormous number of strikeouts.) One thing his teammates kept telling me is that Curt did a lot of little things his teammates admired. As a No. 2 hitter, he was really good at handling the bat. I don't think the Cardinals were a sabermetric team. Curt would try to ground the ball to the right side of the field to move Lou Brock from second to third. It wasn't a sabermetric approach, but it was the kind of approach his teammates really admired. [Cardinals general manager] Bing Devine compared him to Pete Rose. Curt was a very good player, not a great player. But he was a winner, and an important cog in World Series teams. Flood is a little bit like Bernie Williams. He did a lot of things for his team and came through in a lot of situations for his team.

GM: The Cardinals won the World Series this fall against the Tigers, a rematch of the 1968 World Series, and Flood's name came up because Curtis Granderson's slip when fielding a Cardinals hit in the outfield evoked memories of Flood's similar gaffe in '68. [Tacoma News-Tribune] How much of a publicity boon was the fortuitous timing of these events coinciding with your book's release?
BS: The Cardinals winning the world series and Granderson falling down were like a publicity dream come true for me, though I was sorry Granderson fell down. I was in a bar in D.C. when he fell down. I immediately left the bar. My colleague called me almost immediately from the game.
It was nice that Curt Flood popped up on everyone's radar screen. It's sad that's what he's known for, because he really was a beautiful outfielder. He was leaping over outfield walls before anyone else was. It's sad that's what he's best known for. But I think Curt knew it at the time. Right after that play in '68, he was talking to reporters and he said that would go down in the annals of baseball's history. One sad part of Curt Flood's lawsuit is that it sort of obscures how good a ballplayer Flood was.

GM: Do you think Flood deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame? Will it ever happen?
BS: I compare Flood to Vada Pinson. I could see him ending up with 2,700 or 2,800 hits, if not for his lawsuit and the premature end to his career. That's not that far off from near-Hall of Fame kind of numbers. I'm not advocating Vada to get into the Hall of Fame. I think Flood would have played three or four more seasons and come close to 2,700 hits.
I think he should have gotten in for his pioneering role. I call it the Larry Doby criterion. He obviously got in not for his numbers in the major league nor the Negro Leagues but for his contribution to the game [as the first black player in the American League]. Under a Larry Doby criteria, Flood could get in.
But I don't see it happening, particularly in an organization that doesn't let Marvin Miller in. It shocks me that Miller's not in the Hall of Fame. It really does. I know he wasn't a player, but among nonplayers, I'd put Branch Rickey, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and Marvin Miller as my top three. [Rickey and Landis are in the Hall of Fame.]

GM: You never got to meet Flood, who died in 1997. Would you two have been friends, sitting down together over a beer occasionally? What would he have thought of your book?
BS: I would have loved to have talked to Curt, for a number of reasons. I think Curt would have respected the work and thoughtfulness I put into the project, and I think he would have agreed with my central thesis that civil rights was driving his lawsuit.
I think Curt would have sat down for a beer with me, and I wish that could have happened. His widow and I have a good relationship, and she is for the most part pleased with the book.
I could have seen myself sitting down for panels with Curt. I would hope that the book, if he were still alive, would have possibly gotten him Hall of Fame consideration for his contributions off the playing field.
It's a great loss that I never got to meet Curt. I wish I had started this project 10 years earlier, and I would have tried my damnedest to meet him.

Related on the web

•Official site for A Well-Paid Slave.

•Reviews and articles about the book at CNNMoney.com, Hardball Times, and the Boston Globe.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.







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Comments

- Books
- posted on Jul 23, 11
skwatson

Did curt flood like women and men as for
as having relationships?

- Books
- posted on Jan 20, 12
nathan bob

this is a beast site

- Books
- posted on Apr 01, 14
Chuck

You can paint Flood anyway you want. But there is no question that free agency ruined baseball. You used to have a nucleus of guys on your team every year now ;constant movement you have no attachment to your team. You would have never had the Oriole teams of the 70's. Celebrating Flood and societal leeches like Miller is nauseating.

- Books
- posted on Apr 18, 14
Arnav Sethi

This is a very helpful site. Thanks Mr. Brad Snyder. We did a NHD project on Curt Flood.

Thanks!!!!!!!


Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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