What I’m Reading: A Well-Paid Slave by Brad Snyder

A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports is a deeply researched look at Flood’s battle against the trade that sent him from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. Part biography, part exploration of the legal issues behind Flood’s lawsuit, Brad Snyder’s book is a remarkable work that left me thinking about Curt Flood days after I finished reading it.

Before reading A Well-Paid Slave, I was familiar with Flood’s role as a .300 hitter and Gold Glove center fielder who helped the Cardinals capture world championships in 1964 and 1967. I had read reflections from players such as Bob Gibson, who expressed nothing but admiration for Flood as both a man and player, and often heard about how sensitive and thoughtful Flood was, and how those qualities drove his battle against Major League Baseball’s reserve system.

I was fully prepared to read about a principled leader ahead of his time who took a stand against a system designed to allow the whims of owners to determine the lives of players. In some ways, this was true. I was surprised, however, by how many of the details included in the book served to dim rather than enhance my appreciation of Flood’s legacy.

Early in the book, Snyder depicts two separate conversations: one between Flood and his lawyer and another between Flood, attorney Allan H. Zerman, and Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) Executive Director Marvin Miller. In each conversation, the participants warn Flood about the consequences of suing Major League Baseball (MLB) over the reserve clause.

There would be public criticism, including from fellow ballplayers who believed the owners’ arguments that removing or replacing the reserve clause would ruin the game. Flood’s baseball career would likely be over. The lawsuit likely would take years to make its way through the courts. There was almost no chance that the court would award him financial damages, meaning that the money he would have earned playing for the Phillies in the final years of his career would be gone forever.

Miller pointed out that if the MLBPA was going to fund Flood’s lawsuit, he needed to see it through until the end and not accept a settlement, as other players had in the past. On that point, Flood was firm. If the owners thought they could buy him or silence him, Flood said, they were underestimating him.

Unfortunately, in some ways, Flood also was overestimating his ability to withstand the pressures associated with his suit.

The public criticism was harsher than he expected, as fans feared that Flood threatened to ruin the game. Even other players, led by Carl Yastrzemski, criticized Flood’s decision to sue MLB. These criticisms weighed on Flood, and while he indicated that part of the reason he wanted to stay in St. Louis was due to his business interests in the city, his photography business soon began to fail as a result of Flood’s inattention.

An artistic personality, Flood often drew sketches and even taught his Cardinals roommate, Bob Gibson, to play the ukulele. His painted portraits, which he gave to teammates and friends as presents, or commissioned if they wanted additional paintings of their children, were the source of much publicity and acclaim. Flood gave Cardinals owner Gussie Busch a portrait that impressed Busch so much that he commissioned Flood to paint additional portraits of his children. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Flood gave her a portrait of the civil rights icon.

According to Snyder’s book, however, Flood never actually painted any of the portraits for which he took credit. Instead, he sent photos to a portrait artist in California, who enlarged the photos and painted over them, then shipped them back to Flood to affix his signature and give to the unwitting recipient. This seems like a relatively minor crime, especially since the portrait artist was complicit in the scheme, but it’s hard to imagine presenting a widow with a portrait and taking false credit for it, let alone Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow.

Between the pressure Flood was encountering from his creditors, the media, and the general public, he fled to Denmark, leaving his critics, failing businesses, and his ex-wife and five children behind. As Flood himself described it, he “boozed and bedded” his way through Europe. He eventually burned through his remaining cash and was frustrated to learn that his MLB pension wouldn’t kick in until he was 45.

Flood’s drinking largely consumed him, and with his finances in tatters, he got the opportunity to return with the Washington Senators in 1971. Desperate to return to baseball and to repair his financial situation, Flood returned but continued to drink and was in terrible shape. Senators manager Ted Williams quickly took Flood out of the starting lineup, and after just 13 appearances Flood failed to show up to the stadium one day. As the team searched for him, Flood sent a telegram from the airport to inform the Senators that he was quitting before hopping on a plane back to Europe.

Flood’s drinking continued. Eventually, he was arrested in Spain and, after an altercation with local police, his father paid for his flight back to his hometown of Oakland. There, he entered into a relationship with a woman named Karen Brecher, who helped him quit drinking and get his life back on track. He took a leadership role with the local Little League and began to gain recognition for his fight against the reserve clause even though, as Snyder details, the Supreme Court ruled against him.

Flood even began to repair his relationships with his five children. Throughout his financial difficulties, Flood had stopped paying child support, and as Snyder writes, “by leaving for Denmark in 1970 and Spain in 1971, Flood had abandoned his children when they needed a father most.” In January 1983, when Flood turned 45 and began receiving his $2,500-per-month pension, he no longer needed Karen’s financial support and so immediately left her.

Even as I found a lot about Flood’s behavior distasteful, I do agree that the reserve clause needed to be amended – obviously, a system that keeps a player tied to one team unilaterally for the length of their career is a system that’s wildly out of balance.

I’m torn in how to feel about Flood. He was ready to give up his career to fight the reserve clause, but at the same time, he already was considering retirement. Once he was out of the game, though, he quickly wanted back in and was given that opportunity with the Senators.

The only reason Flood didn’t continue his career as a major league player wasn’t an owners blacklist, but the fact that as an out-of-shape alcoholic, he was no longer major-league material. The common depiction that Flood gave up the remaining years of his career as a result of his lawsuit simply doesn’t line up with the events that transpired in the years to follow.

I also wonder how comfortable I should feel celebrating a man who left five children behind as he fled his issues by living overseas and who lied about painting portraits for years, deceiving friends, teammates, and even Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow.

At the same time, he also was obviously charming, kind to others, and fiercely principled. He saw a wrong, sought to correct it, and did indeed pay a price for it.

Ultimately, after reading A Well-Paid Slave, I found Flood – like so many of us – to be at times a hero, at others a villain. His story may be tragic in some ways, but I feel as though the impact his alcoholism had on his life and those of his loved ones was far more tragic than the season he missed in a righteous fight against the reserve clause.

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