The words belong to Jackie Robinson; indeed they’re the inscription upon his gravestone: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” They’re fascinating words to ponder. They might be understood as expressing a concept antithetical to our normative mode in self-absorbed, consumption- and pleasure-mad present-day America. Or perhaps they’re a stark and penetrating eternal truth that happily or sadly abides, no matter what we think or how we behave.
The words are Robinson’s, and surely they have profound meaning in relation to his legacy. But just as surely they’re apt with regard to the legacy of Curt Flood.
While the defining, central act of Flood’s life was an act of great courage, it wasn’t a demonstration of courage as towering as that of Robinson’s. Yet as a demonstration not of courage but of selflessness, of sacrifice, Robinson’s action wasn’t as towering as Flood’s. Sacrifice is a function of willingly surrendering something in service of a higher cause, and while Robinson obviously sacrificed a great deal of personal security, comfort, and even mental and physical health, there’s also an important sense in which he sacrificed very little. As Bob Dylan might put it, “when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” When Jackie Robinson embarked upon his daunting mission to integrate professional baseball, he was neither wealthy nor famous, and indeed hadn’t yet forged much of any particular career. When Curt Flood embarked upon his, he was at the apex of a professional career that had provided him with significant wealth and fame, and promised more, including real opportunity for lifelong economic security. Flood had a whole lot to lose.
Flood knowingly, purposefully surrendered it all, in service of something that had been suggested to him by absolutely no one, and was indeed a campaign he was ardently urged to abandon by just about everyone who knew and cared for him. Experts repeatedly counseled Flood that his undertaking’s odds of success were enormously long, and moreover even if it were to succeed, all its benefits would almost certainly accrue to others, and none to him. Flood took it entirely upon himself to not merely risk everything he had, but to just give it up with no hope of recovery, in exchange for the small chance that a greater good might be achieved. That, there can be no doubt, is the very essence of deep and genuine sacrifice.
Curt Flood was a puzzle. The man who performed this act of selfless, hugely admirable sacrifice was in many ways a personality of appalling selfishness and irresponsibility. He was a pitiful drunkard. He was a scam artist who spent years bilking patrons into buying portraits he signed but didn’t paint. He was spectacularly negligent in managing financial obligations. He was a user in relationships with women, even (perhaps especially) those closest to him. He was a ghastly, abandoning father to his five children.
Flood was all these things and more. He was charming, witty, and strikingly handsome. He was highly intelligent, articulate, well-read, and artistically and musically gifted. And he was, of course, a baseball player of terrific skill and accomplishment.
And he was, as it turned out, the single person most responsible for utterly, fundamentally changing the economic power structure, not just of baseball, but of every professional team sport. What an impact on other lives Curt Flood’s had.
Exactly why such an exceedingly important and fascinating life has been so long ignored by biographers is an intriguing question. Likely it has more than a little to do with those many dark facets of Flood’s behavior: if told honestly and fully, Flood’s story is anything but a straightforward tale of an attractive hero. In this regard, Jackie Robinson he certainly wasn’t. Moreover, the ambiguities extend beyond Flood’s personality and into the core issue of his sacrifice itself: Flood, after all, lost his lawsuit, in District Court, in Appeals Court, and in the Supreme Court. His story contains no clear denouement of triumph and vindication; the eventual achievement of the goal Flood sought unfolded in iterative stages not directly involving him. When, at last, others tasted the fruits of the accomplishment, Flood was exiled, reclusive, dissolute, and destitute. Everything about Flood and the vanquishing of the reserve clause was messy, complicated and multi-layered. Thus the best explanation for why Flood’s story hasn’t been much told is that it’s a damn difficult story to tell.
Finally in 2006, more than three decades after Flood’s landmark case and nearly a decade after his death, his biography has appeared, not once but twice. Early this year, our friend Alex Belth published Stepping Up. And now Brad Snyder (the author of the acclaimed Beyond the Shadow of the Senators) has released A Well-Paid Slave.
Snyder is an attorney, and his specialized expertise is manifestly brought to bear. Perhaps only an attorney could sort through the snarl of legal concept, arcana, and precedent that constituted baseball’s reserve system and federal anti-trust exemption, and present it all as thoroughly and sensibly as he does. But Snyder is also clearly a fine student of baseball and its history, and his book adroitly blends and balances its intertwined threads. A Well-Paid Slave is nearly twice as long as Stepping Up, and it’s more than just a far deeper plunge into the legalities: it also provides a more deeply researched and revealing portrait of Flood the man. Stepping Up is an interesting read, a commendable rendering of Flood’s story. But A Well-Paid Slave calmly and easily shoulders it aside.
Snyder’s work is a serious and rigorous piece of scholarship. The meticulously detailed end notes alone comprise 77 pages, the bibliography another 20. Further studies of Flood and his legacy may come along, but this one will very likely stand as definitive, the standard against which others must be measured. Snyder has wrought something worthy of the daunting convolution of his subject matter. Vastly more substantial than ordinary jock fare, this book should appeal to the serious reader of legal and/or general American history who has little knowledge or interest in baseball per se. It’s that good.
Alas, A Well-Paid Slave falls just short of being great. Its precision and detail are awesome, but their presentation is rarely captivating. Snyder’s skills as a researcher, and as a craftsman of clear and direct prose, are superb; less evident is a capacity to inject the narrative flow with a dramatic spark and energy of its own. The book marches along with disciplined chronological persistence, capturing and distilling the multitude of facts, but rarely achieving more than the sum of its impressive parts. Snyder’s voice speaks supremely, but it doesn’t sing.
An efficient put predictable formula becomes apparent: an episode is introduced, and if an individual not yet present in the storyline is prominently involved, we digress into a neat one-or-two-paragraph outline of that individual’s background and career before proceeding. These outlines are unfailingly well-drawn, and their inclusion unfailingly helpful and relevant, but the blocky, quasi-modular structural effect (“insert mini-bio here”) is stolidly workmanlike. The content is inherently vivid, colorful, at turns painful and inspiring, while the form tends toward the safe, beige, utilitarianism of a textbook: the mini-bios might as well be placed in tidy little sidebars.
Contrast this with the effect achieved by Howard Bryant in his masterpiece Juicing the Game from 2005. Like Snyder, Bryant grappled with the challenge of a massively complex morass of facts, characters, and timelines, and like Snyder, Bryant handled this first-order demand with consummate proficiency. But Bryant’s narrative achieved the further feat of reading not like nonfiction, but instead more like a novel; Bryant’s pace and tone and setting had a way of grabbing hold and pulling us into its world, making us not just see it and understand it, but hear it, touch it, smell it, feel it. Exactly how this is accomplished is impossible to precisely describe; it’s both as simple and as elusively complex as the difference between science and art. But history is more than the catalogue of accurate facts, and great history is the rare fusion of science and art.
Snyder’s book doesn’t soar to that height. But it is a mighty tower, a solidly imposing edifice. Curt Flood’s singular life is measured in the impact it had on other lives, and that confounding impact has long intimidated biographers, frightened them off. Snyder boldly takes the dare, and A Well-Paid Slave seems destined to forge a formidable impact of its own. We’re much the richer for it.
References & Resources
A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood’s Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports, by Brad Snyder, New York: Viking, 2006.
Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players’ Rights, by Alex Belth, New York: Persea, 2006.
Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball, by Howard Bryant, New York: Viking, 2005.