Thursday, October 26, 2006

GEORGE VECSEY: Flood Missed a Fly, but Made a Stand That Changed Baseball

How strange that baseball’s new labor contract was announced in St. Louis on Tuesday night, for that is where a proud center fielder named Curt Flood made a stand against his version of slavery.

An industry awash in money will have peace for the next five years. Alex Rodriguez is making $252 million over these 10 years and clubs are building new palaces with luxury boxes for the shrimp-eating set because Flood fought the system.

“He put his career on the line,” Marvin Miller, the head of the players’ association then, said yesterday, recalling the brave, driven man who helped bring about free agency that enriched everybody except, of course, himself.

Today’s nine-digit salaries began with a misjudged fly ball by Flood in the World Series of 1968 between these same Cardinals and Tigers. That was the year before division play began, which led to the current postseason playoffs that have turned the World Series into a dark, late-night coda to the frolics of the warmer months.

In 1968, in the Last Real World Series, Curt Flood botched a fly ball in the seventh game, turning a drive by Jim Northrup into a two-run triple that helped the Tigers win the Series after the Cardinals had won three of the first four games.

The next spring, the patron of the Cardinals, Gussie Busch, lit into them for their alleged nonchalance, treating them like serfs who had let down their baron.

Flood, artistic and intelligent, had brooded all winter about his misplay. Now he was sure Busch was going to send him away, as owners had the right to do. But management held off until after the 1969 season, when Flood was included in a blockbuster trade with the Phillies.

His refusal to be traded — even though the Supreme Court had allowed the owners to have their way with their vassals — became one of the most important acts by a professional athlete in America.

“It’s been written, Curt, that you’re a man who makes $90,000 a year, which isn’t exactly slave wages,” Howard Cosell said to Flood on ABC. “What’s your retort to that?”

“A well-paid slave is nonetheless a slave,” Flood replied.

This exchange is recorded in a new book, “A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports,” by Brad Snyder, published by Viking. Snyder has done excellent reporting on the complicated man, including claims that Flood, while adept with a pencil and sketch pad, did not paint the oil portraits attributed to him. Despite his personal flaws, Flood changed the way his business worked.

Yesterday, Miller recalled how it took him three years to prod the brightest major leaguers into questioning the reserve system. In December 1969, at a meeting in Puerto Rico, Flood faced tough questions from representatives of the Players Association.

Tom Haller of the Giants, a white man, wanted to know if Flood, an African-American, was motivated by labor issues or civil-rights issues. Flood accepted the challenge from Haller and replied that his thrust was about the right of athletes to choose their own employer. Snyder and Miller say Flood was motivated by race as well as economics.

“I remember him as a stand-up guy,” Miller said yesterday, praising Flood as “bright, very social-minded” and able to push himself because of the discrimination he had faced as a young player.

Flood eventually lost his Supreme Court case and made only a cameo return to the major leagues, living in Europe for part of a decade before coming home and dying of cancer in 1997. By then, Miller and players like Jim Hunter, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally had challenged the reserve system, and won their cases. As of Tuesday, players and owners have agreed on a contract without any brinksmanship or labor stoppage.

Miller is not a fan of the current luxury-tax system that made the Yankees pay $34.05 million for going above the limits in 2005. He said yesterday that unions should not allow leagues to set arbitrary ceilings on how much teams can spend, even with a so-called tax.

He is also skeptical of the drug testing and the penalties that have gotten much steeper in the past year after pressure from Congress. Miller said that all sides lack scientific evidence of the dangers of steroids. If baseball were really interested in the players’ health, Miller added, it should ban tobacco and test for usage. Now there’s an idea.

However, the old union man was happy with the prospect of peace and high salaries for five more years. “I see the minimum salary near $400,000,” Miller said, “and I remember how the minimum was $6,000 when we started. That’s magnificent.”

Flood’s principle concerned freedom, not his relatively high salary. Miller helped advance both. The two men are among the most important figures in baseball history, but are not likely to be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame via an oversight vote in the near future.

The game goes on. With labor peace guaranteed, the Cardinals and the Tigers are playing another World Series in a new stadium with modern amenities. A man who lost track of a fly ball 38 years ago in St. Louis helped bring about this era of affluence all around.


No comments: