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a well-paid slave

20 november 2008

Dred Scott v. Sandford is invoked here and there in Brad Snyder's excellent history of Flood v. Kuhn, titled A Well-Paid Slave. Naturally, the cases seem of disproportionate importance. Dred Scott would have had vast implications for the legal status of the races in the U.S., had it not helped touch off a civil war that had even vaster ones. Flood v. Kuhn, by contrast, didn't decide much of anything, merely reiterating the Supreme Court's previous (and somewhat inconsistent) wisdom on the antitrust status of Major League Baseball. Yet because we Americans read so much of our attitudes toward economics and labor through sports, the case of Curt Flood has symbolic importance far beyond its practical ramifications.

Snyder, author of the fascinating Beyond the Shadow of the Senators (2003), continues his trenchant work on the history of race, baseball, and economics in A Well-Paid Slave. (Perhaps I should say "continued," because Snyder's book was published two years ago and I am just catching up to it today.) A lawyer as well as a journalist, Snyder is on sure footing in recounting the legal background to Flood v. Kuhn. He doesn't downplay Flood's personal travails, which were many. Flood himself is still fairly well-known as the iconic challenger of baseball's reserve clause; more fans can probably name Flood, the losing challenger in his eponymous case, than can name the first baseball stars actually to win free agency in the 1970s (Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally).

And Flood, who descended from top-of-the-world stardom to hideous depths of alcoholism and depression, and recovered to become a prominent critical voice in the sports world, is deservingly at the center of this book. But Snyder balances the human drama with insightful legal exposition.

I had always thought, like many who know a very little about baseball's antitrust exemption, that the Supreme Court had decided back in the 1920s that baseball, as mere child's play, wasn't a business – and was therefore exempt from the Sherman antitrust act. Not so! Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore (1922), would probably have been fine with that argument, so intent was he on finding ways to make the Sherman act apply to practically nobody that it could possibly have applied to. But "entertainment" was not Holmes's rationale. Instead, he grasped at an even less reasonable premise: that baseball games, since they are almost necessarily played in one state or another, don't constitute "interstate commerce," the province of the Sherman act.

Well, that may have been fine when the Brooklyn Robins played the New York Giants, but it applied rather dubiously to every other major-league game of Holmes's era. A government that could make a federal case of Jack Johnson crossing a state line in the company of a white woman somehow found teams of baseball players riding the rails between Boston and St. Louis to be an entirely intrastate business.

Whatever. But in the 1950s, the Warren Court made things worse. While busy delivering the Gordian-knot-like blow of Brown v. Board of Education, Warren's nine developed brain-lock in the case of Toolson v. Yankees (1953), where a journeyman ballplayer sued to be released from the New York organization. The Court upheld the reserve clause, largely because it had made a mistake with Federal Baseball and couldn't see its way to reversing it, seeing as how Congress hadn't done anything about the antitrust "exemption" in the intervening 31 years. (It still hasn't.)

Imagine the court in Brown taking the same attitude toward Plessy v. Ferguson, and you have some idea of the slipshod nature of the Toolson decision. Snyder suggests that something odd happens when the Supreme Court is asked to think about baseball. They become more like a Little League team than a high tribunal. Harry Blackmun, who swung and missed on the third try that the court took at the reserve clause in Flood v. Kuhn, spent most of his opinion-writing time developing a list of famous names from baseball's past.

Nobody seemed to care about what Curt Flood cared most deeply about, and had thrown away his baseball career to establish: the right of a worker to break out of conditions legally not far from those of sweatshops, company stores, and sharecropping. Flood, by signing a standard player contract when a teenager in the 1950s, bound himself to the Cincinnati Reds for life. The Reds made no reciprocal commitment. They traded Flood to St. Louis, where he was happy. But the Cardinals traded him to Philadelphia, and Flood got tired of being traded.

Fascinating in Snyder's recounting is the insistence of baseball's owners that free agency would be the death of competitive balance in the majors, and the death therefore of the major leagues themselves. They must not have noticed that in the years between the death of the competitor Federal League after the 1915 season (touching off Federal Baseball) and the institution of the free-agent draft for young ballplayers in 1965, competitive balance in baseball was at its nadir. New York clubs won 44 of the 100 pennants in that half-century (1916-65). Ex-players testifying on Flood's behalf, including Jim Brosnan, noted that good players got stuck on the benches of good teams, preventing them from becoming starters with second-division clubs and thereby improving competitive balance.

And the draft just made things worse for labor, if more competitive for management. If the reserve clause had allowed a few rich clubs to hoard players, the draft didn't even allow a player to sign with the club of his choice. By the time of Flood's decision to quit in 1970, players never had the slightest say in what major-league club they would work for.

Now, of course, they do, and except for a few cranky folk who bemoan a past of stability that never really existed to begin with, we are just as happy with baseball as we've ever been. More to the point, the players we pay to see are compensated with a reasonable amount of our ticket dollar – or at least, as much as they can freely bargain for. And though Curt Flood lost his case, he is very deservedly the iconic face of this development in the history of workers' rights in the United States.

Snyder, Brad. A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood's fight for free agency in professional sports. New York: Viking, 2006.