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A Well-Paid Slave

Spring 2012 | By Brad Snyder. Review by Brian C. Kelly, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Sociology. Photo by Andrew Hancock.

On the heels of the civil rights movement, a star black athlete, compensated near the top of his profession, claimed on national television that he was treated as a slave.

Responding to Howard Cosell's assertion that star centerfielder Curt Flood's $90,000 salary was hardly slave wages, Flood claimed, "A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave." The remark encapsulated the beliefs and emotions informing Flood's decision to challenge Major League Baseball's labor system. A Well-Paid Slave describes Flood's battle against a labor system that he deemed unfair and unjust.

After the 1969 season, Flood was traded to Philadelphia by the St. Louis Cardinals. Flood, a star for the Cardinals for over a decade, decided he would not go. He did not believe in MLB teams' right to determine where he could play and bristled at his inability to determine his own career path. At the time, baseball's "reserve clause" gave teams the right to indefinitely renew a player's contract once the player signed with that team. Players had no ability to seek employment with other teams, regardless of their service time, and teams had the right to exchange player contracts at will, essentially determining where a player could practice his profession.

In response to the trade, Flood sued baseball with a claim that the reserve clause violated antitrust laws and was unconstitutional on the basis of the 13th Amendment — America's prohibition against slavery. Flood, age 31, had just come off his seventh consecutive Gold Glove season in centerfield. To push the case forward, he needed to remain unsigned and postpone his playing career. He had years of baseball — and good salaries — ahead of him and stood to lose a great deal by standing up for his principles. Undaunted, he moved forward with his case, receiving the backing of the players' union, whose representatives voted unanimously to support Flood after hearing his motivations.

While couched in the world of baseball, this book is fundamentally about labor rights, union politics, and legal history. Snyder, a lawyer, truly hits his stride in his narration of the case's path through the Supreme Court. He cleverly chronicles the intricacies of the union struggle for labor rights and the case's developments. At the same time, Snyder displays the saga's human side and its effects on Flood's life: he moved to Europe in despair over being unable to play. Despite ultimately losing the case in the Supreme Court in 1972 and being unable to revive his career, Flood's fight permanently changed the labor landscape in professional sports. It galvanized ballplayers in their push to revise the reserve clause, enabling the introduction of free agency in baseball in 1975 and eventually across all professional sports.

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