There are, in my view, very few genuine sports heroes. My favorites are the ones who are noteworthy not for the sports they played, but for what they did outside the athletic arena.
One of these is Muhammad Ali, pugilist par excellence who defied federal authorities in their attempt to draft him into the Army so he could - at least tacitly - support an unjust and unpopular war in Vietnam. When he refused induction into the Army in April of 1967, Ali made the leap from superb boxer to folk hero.
Another genuine folk hero died last week. At the age of 59, Curt Flood succumbed to throat cancer. In the mid-1960s, I thrilled to the heroics of Curt Flood - then the center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals - and his teammates Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and Tim McCarver as they won the 1964 and 1967 World Series and came within a game of winning a third in 1968.
News of Flood's death saddened me, caused me to reflect and then grab from my library what I consider the best sports autobiography ever written, Flood's "The Way It Is." Published in 1971, the book is as insightful, witty, entertaining and informative as it was when I first read it in the mid-1970s. Those who think Flood ruined baseball by challenging the reserve clause in 1969 would do well to read it.
To rehash what now seems like ancient history, baseball's reserve clause bound a player to a team for the duration of his career, unless he was traded. If he were traded, he was then bound to that team for the duration of his career. In 1969, Flood was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. He refused to go. Somewhere along the line he got the curious notion that he lived in a free, democratic and capitalistic America. He even had the gall to assume he could do what you and I are free to do, indeed what we take for granted: sell our labor to the company of our choice.
He couldn't do it under the reserve clause. When Flood challenged this despicable state of affairs and called the reserve clause the slavery it was, he was blackballed from baseball. Fans then and now claimed he was hardly a slave. The man made $90,000 a year, after all. How could he be a slave? Flood rejected this muddled but still prevalent thinking in the first chapter of his book.
"Player trades are commonplace. The unusual aspect of this one was that I refused to accept it. It violated the logic and integrity of my existence. I was not a consignment of goods. I was a man, the rightful proprietor of my own person and my own talents.
"A salesman reluctant to transfer from one office to another may choose to seek employment on the sales force of a different firm. A plumber can reject the dictates of his boss without relinquishing his right to plumb elsewhere. At the expiration of one contract, an actor shops among producers for the best arrangement he can find. But the baseball monopoly offers no such option to the athlete. If he elects not to work for the corporation that 'owns' his services, baseball forbids him to ply his trade at all. In the hierarchy of living things, he ranks with poultry."
For the record, Flood gave up the $100,000 the Phillies would have paid him for the 1970 season to challenge the reserve clause. How many of those who vilified Curt Flood would have given up their jobs to fight for a principle? Not many. The residual anger with Flood is that although he lost his challenge to the reserve clause (it was discarded later), it is he who is considered responsible for ushering in the age of baseball free agency.
The words "free agency" are anathema to baseball fans. They conjure up images of overpaid players and strikes. During the last baseball strike, many fans took the position that the players were greedy - as if owners aren't. But Curt Flood's legacy is that today's baseball players are not being overpaid. They're being paid what they deserve: an appropriate share of baseball's revenues.
Those of you who doubt this had best consider whether you go to the ballpark to see ballplayers play or owners sitting in their skyboxes in the act of owning their teams. Baseball's old reserve clause was an unjust system that perpetuated injustice, much like the segregated system that kept blacks out of baseball until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
As a man of courage who challenged an unjust system, Robinson knew one of his kind when he saw him. Of Flood, Robinson delivered the following accolade in 1969:
"I think Curt is doing a service to all players in the leagues, especially for the younger players coming up who are not superstars. All he is asking for is a right to negotiate. It doesn't surprise me that he had the courage to do it. He's a very sensitive man concerned with the rights of everybody."
It's time for all Americans to recognize Curt Flood as the genuine hero he is.
Pub Date: 1/29/97