A Well-Paid Slave
A Winning Combination: Baseball and the Law
by Marshall Snider
Reviewed by Marshall Snider
When the St. Louis Cardinals traded star centerfielder Curt Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies at the end of the 1969 baseball season, they couldn’t have anticipated that this act would forever change the economics of baseball. Instead of going to Philadelphia or retiring (his only two options under the "reserve system" established by the major league players’ standard contract), Flood sued Major League Baseball for the right to negotiate with any team interested in obtaining his services. The story of this lawsuit, and Flood’s life before and after, is the subject of Brad Snyder’s book, A Well-Paid Slave.
The title is taken from a comment Flood made to sportscaster Howard Cosell in a 1970 TV interview. Flood had equated the reserve system to involuntary servitude. At the time, he was earning $90,000 a year and was one of the highest paid players in baseball. Cosell commented that this was hardly slave wages, to which Flood replied, "A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave."
Flood made a huge personal sacrifice when he refused to accept the trade to the Phillies. He still had a few good years of baseball left, for which he could have earned $100,000 annually or more. Instead, the lawsuit kept Flood out of baseball for the rest of his life. Except for a very short stint with the Washington Senators in 1971, he never again played professional baseball. He also was blacklisted from managerial, coaching or front-office jobs in retaliation for having taken on baseball’s owners and the entrenched reserve system. The stress of the suit, extensive criticism for his bringing it, and being out of the game he loved led Flood to many years of alcoholism and financial ruin.
In telling this story, author Brad Snyder first explores Flood’s motivations for taking the great personal and professional risks involved in challenging Major League Baseball. Flood had gone straight from high school to professional baseball. He played in two minor leagues in the South, where as an African-American he experienced segregation and racism that he had never faced growing up in a multi-ethnic environment in Oakland, Calif. This abusive treatment continued once Flood reached the major leagues. Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, was Flood’s idol and Flood railed at the humiliation and injustice heaped upon him by the Jim Crow South. He developed a heightened sensitivity to injustice and he considered the reserve clause in the standard major league player’s contract to be as unjust and demeaning as racial discrimination and slavery.
The reserve clause created a series of one-year contracts that a team could renew each year at its sole option for as little as 80 percent of the prior year’s salary, thus tying a player to that team in perpetuity and putting a lid on his earnings. A player had no right to negotiate with other teams. A team could trade a player to any other club and a traded player could go to the new team or retire; he had no other options.
When Flood was traded to Philadelphia, he decided not to go, even though the Phillies offered him a raise. As a matter of principle, Flood did not want to play for the Pennsylvania team, having completed a very successful 12-year career with St. Louis. He filed suit, challenging the reserve system for the benefit of other players as much as for himself. (In fact, Flood did not personally benefit from his lawsuit; he never became a free agent and made very little money playing baseball after he sued.)
At this point in the book, the story shifts to the litigation. Snyder describes the two outdated U.S. Supreme Court decisions that created baseball’s exemption from the antitrust laws. Because of these cases, it was doubtful that either the district court or the Second Circuit Court of Appeals would rule in Flood’s favor. The Supreme Court upheld the rulings of the district and circuit courts by a 5–3 vote (one justice recused himself). Despite the loss of the litigation, the case was a public relations disaster for the owners. Flood’s effort was the first step in the Major League Baseball players’ eventual successful efforts to eliminate the reserve clause.
The Supreme Court experience may be the most interesting part of the book for lawyers. Using interviews with former law clerks and the papers of the justices themselves, Snyder puts us in the middle of the Court’s inner workings, as its members grant cert, take a straw poll after oral argument, attempt to sway other votes to their side, and wrangle over the language of the opinion. Snyder relates in detail the oral argument before the Court, and he describes how two justices switched their votes at various times in the process. Justice Blackmun’s majority opinion has been criticized by many commentators, both for its refusal to overrule the outdated precedent exempting baseball form the antitrust laws, and because Blackmun seemed to have been mesmerized by the glamour of Major League Baseball.
Brad Snyder’s telling of Flood’s story is detailed and complete. Snyder’s style is a bit dry — just the facts, and plenty of them — but the story is engrossing enough that it carries the reader along. Lawyers will enjoy the litigation and appeal aspects of the book, and baseball fans will like the historical and behind-the-scenes views of the game. There is a lot more to the Curt Flood story than that he simply "won free agency," and this book provides us with a close-up look at both the man and baseball’s place in the law.
Marshall Snider is a retired judge. To contact him, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.