In 2006, the Boston Red Sox posted a bid of more than $51 million just for the exclusive right to negotiate with Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. Only two years into his five-year $33 million contract, ubiquitously injured outfielder J.D. Drew decided to test the lucrative free agent market and seek more money and a longer-term contract. Journeyman pitcher Gil Meche signed a contract worth a staggering $55 million with the Kansas City Royals in late 2006. To a 1960’s or early 1970’s professional athlete, these sums may seem other-worldly. That is because baseball (and all professional leagues) had what was called the “reserve clause.” This clause, which was standard in all professional contracts, bound a player to a team for life. Athletes signed a one-year contract and at the end of the year sought a new one-year contract with their current team. Of course, the team could choose to trade away the player. However, a player could not make any such move of his own, even after a spectacular year of accomplishments.
After a sub-par 1969 season, All Star outfielder Curt Flood of the Saint Louis Cardinals was informed by a journalist that he was being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood chose to contest his trade by challenging the reserve clause in court. Helped by the union and its head, Marvin Miller, Flood fought his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he lost by a 5-3 decision. However, a combination of inadequate rationale offered by the Supreme Court for the decision and the growing public opinion about the inequity of such one-sided contracts turned the tide toward free agency and the ensuing largesse for athletes.
Using his legal background (he was a practicing lawyer before he turned to full-time writing) and his knowledge of baseball, Brad Snyder offers both the definitive account of the history of the reserve clause in baseball and the biography of Curt Flood. Weaving adroitly between law and the nuances of the game, Snyder’s compelling narrative is at once an indictment of the system and a cautionary tale of an athlete’s life undone by off-field excesses. Flood did not benefit a bit from his pioneering fight against the system. Rather, shunned by the baseball establishment and worn out by excessive drinking and carousing, Flood lived a poor and embittered man until the very end, when his second wife mended his ways. When he died in 1997, strangely, his funeral was not attended by a single active player, the very people who benefited enormously by Flood’s actions.
This is an engrossing account of one man’s quest for personal freedom. When the journalist Howard Cosell asked Flood how he could describe himself as a slave when he was making $90,000 a year, Flood said he was a “well paid slave, but a slave, nevertheless.” That the story ended tragically for Flood makes Snyder’s absorbing account even more poignant. A man of many flaws, Curt Flood nonetheless paved the way for the well-compensated modern athlete. Snyder’s telling underscores this emphatically, even though history may have largely forgotten Flood.