Book Excerpt: Stepping Upby Alex Belth
April 11, 2006
The following is an excerpt from Stepping Up: The Story of Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights by Alex Belth. Reprinted by permission of Persea Books, Inc. (New York)
Once he was in Denmark, Flood took a room in a little town called Vaethbeck, fifteen miles north of Copenhagen, that looked over a yacht basin. He began to paint again and resumed his plan to open a bar. He learned by mail—and subsequently read in the newspapers—that on August 12, Judge Cooper ruled against him, upholding the two previous Supreme Court decisions. Flood was not surprised. He was just one man fighting an uphill battle against an entire industry. What’s more, he felt that race had played a part in the outcome. In his mind, there was no way that the court was going to let a black man win this case.
Miller had expected Cooper to rule in favor of baseball, in spite of recent court rulings that boxing and football were not exempt from antitrust laws. In a forty-seven-page opinion, Cooper wrote, “For the first time in almost 50 years opponents and proponents of the baseball reserve system have had to make their case on the merits and support it with proof in a court of law.” But while he didn’t feel that it was his place to determine the “fairness or reasonableness” of the reserve system, he did encourage both sides to consider negotiating modifications. Meanwhile, Flood’s lawyers filed an appeal with the court of appeals, the second step in taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
As fall began, it became clear that Flood’s legal troubles were worse than he had thought. The failed businesses now resulted in several lawsuits. Suddenly, being a reclusive expatriate looked damning. Even Flood recognized the contradictions of his current situation. On one hand, he was involved in a major lawsuit over baseball’s economics; on the other, he was in small claims court as a result of his business ineptitude.
It was around this time that Flood got word that the Washington Senators had acquired the rights to negotiate with him. According to Kiss It Goodbye, Shelby Whitfield’s book about that team, Senators’ owner Bob Short came up with the idea at an owners’ meeting the previous spring. When the commissioner announced to the owners that they would have to collectively pay the legal fees in the Flood case, Short suggested that since the Phillies couldn’t sign him, they should be responsible for paying any lawyers. After the meeting, John Quinn scoffed at Short: Did he think that he could sign Flood? Short thought he could and ever since had been determined to bring Flood to the Senators.
Flood returned to New York and met with Short, Miller, Goldberg—who was in the middle of the gubernatorial election—and Max Gitter. The main concern was whether Flood would be jeopardizing his suit if he returned to the game. Goldberg concluded that since he had already missed one year, Flood had suffered damages and hence his case would not be compromised if he came back. In a series of meetings, Flood’s lawyers proposed a contract that would grant him a no-trade clause, pay his entire salary upfront, and release Flood unconditionally if he and the Senators failed to come to terms on a contract the following year. On top of that, they wanted a guarantee from the owners that his playing again would not affect his suit.
Short had no problem with their proposal, but while Kuhn was willing to grant their last request—that should Flood play again, it would not affect his suit—the rest of it was entirely unacceptable to him. Short’s involvement probably didn’t help: he had never endeared himself to anyone in the baseball community. During the 1970 season, claiming that the Senators, long a losing organization, were virtually bankrupt, he threatened to move them out of Washington, D.C. He had also just traded for Denny McLain, who had been suspended for a portion of the season for gambling. Along with Flood, he was a former star who was now more controversial than promising. That Short pursued both players during October distracted attention from the World Series, vexing Kuhn and the other owners.
There would be no special concessions made for either Flood or Short. If Flood wanted to play, he would have to sign the same contract that every other player signed. At first Miller balked, but Short insisted that even if it wasn’t in writing, Flood was going to get everything he had asked for. He wasn’t going through all this trouble to trade Flood or otherwise make him unhappy. When it came time to discuss salary, Short suggested he pay Flood around $100,000. Goldberg countered with $110,000 and Short quickly accepted. He also told Flood that he would help him straighten out some of his financial problems.
Flood was worried about how his return would be perceived. Some fans and players and certainly the press would think he was selling out, and Flood had to admit that it did not look good. However, he was desperate. “I still think the reserve clause stinks,” he told the sportswriter Maury Allen, “[But] I’m paying alimony and I got five kids to support. That’s enough to drive any man back into the game.”
On November 4, Flood signed a one-year deal with the Senators and flew to Washington, D.C. to attend a press conference. Ted Williams, the great Red Sox outfielder, was now the Senators’ manager. Williams had been critical of Flood’s suit earlier in the year but now welcomed him to the team. After the conference, Flood went to Florida to play a few games in the Florida Instructional League and work his way back into shape. At the same time, he was being hounded for interviews by the media. In one, the Associated Press asked if he felt that his suit against baseball and everything he had been through had been worth it.
“I think so,” Flood replied. “If I had to do it over again, I would. It brought a lot of attention for not only the public, but the ballplayers that are saddled with similar problems. We are not lawyers and our player contracts are not easy documents for the layman to read. If a man can get more money with normal bargaining rights, that’s what it’s all about.”
Flood said that he didn’t consider himself a martyr, and, when asked if he was coming back because he loved the game or because he needed the money, he said, “It’s a combination of the two. I work and I do it for the money. I do not think I would play baseball if they didn’t pay me.” He added that playing baseball was the only way for him to earn the kind of money he had become accustomed to making. “I don’t know how to do anything else,” he said.
Of course, this wasn’t entirely true. Flood had the intelligence and the talent to pursue other career paths, even if they were not as lucrative as baseball. But he was in a critical financial state and not in the proper frame of mind to think about his long-term future. He needed immediate relief. “Things are going so bad for me now,” he joked to Maury Allen, “it would be just my luck to jump out of this window and live.”
Flood’s autobiography, The Way It Is, was released in the middle of February, less than a month after his thirty-third birthday. If Carter, Flood’s ghostwriter, did not exactly capture Flood’s voice in the book, he was at least able to convincingly recreate Flood’s state of mind when they collaborated together. The book was more of an impressionistic collage of his life than a carefully documented history. It mentioned his playing experiences but didn’t focus specifically on any one season. Flood’s marriage and children were only briefly noted, though there was a loving tribute to the Jorgensens, as well as a moving description of Flood’s relationship with his brother Carl.
The Way It Is also detailed the behind-the-scenes lifestyle of ballplayers: how they courted groupies, lived the lives of sex symbols, and used alcohol and amphetamines. But the crux of the book was a diatribe against the reserve system and the institutional racism in baseball. In all, it fiercely condemned much of baseball’s public image as inaccurate and deceitful.
In reviewing the book, Bob Broeg noted that while Flood “comes across as a multi-talented man of many interests,” he also “emerges as a cynic and as an unforgiving guy.” And Dick Young blasted Flood for assorted factual errors, discounting the credibility of his arguments against baseball. “It is comical when a bright young man, who has proven himself a disaster in a couple of piddling business ventures, attempts to tell baseball how to run its finances.”
But no matter its shortcomings, The Way It Is was a vivid and compelling representation of Flood’s career in the big leagues, though not as sensational as Ball Four, Jim Bouton’s infamous behind-the-scenes look at the game, released a year earlier. The Way It Is was more limited in scope but perhaps more illuminating about the ugly truths that existed in the game. In a glowing review in the New York Times Book Review, Jonathan Segal wrote, “Regardless of the outcome [of Flood’s suit], Flood is the one who has done the struggling, made the demand and written an insightful book to explain his position.”
Shortly after The Way It Is was published, Flood reported to spring training with the Senators. Almost immediately it was apparent that he was not right on the field. Technically, he was not hurt, but he was thirty-three and had been away from the game for a year and a half. Now he couldn’t keep up with the younger, fitter ballplayers. At the plate he was overmatched, while in the field, his ability to judge fly balls was impaired for the first time in his life. At the same time, the pressure on him was intense. While other players never mentioned his suit, the fans wouldn’t let him forget it. To many of them, he was a spoiled, self-righteous phony, and they let him have it.
In addition to the anxiety over his performance on the field and his finances off it, Flood had his lawsuit to deal with. The case had been argued before the court of appeals at the end of January, and it came as no surprise when, on April 7, the three-judge court upheld Judge Cooper’s ruling. One of the judges, Judge Sterry R. Waterman, wrote:
We freely acknowledge our belief that Federal Baseball was not one of Mr. Justice Holmes’ happiest days, that the rationale of Toolson is extremely dubious and that, to use the Supreme Court’s own adjectives, the distinction between baseball and other professional sports is “unrealistic,” “inconsistent” and “illogical.” [However] we continue to believe that the Supreme Court should retain the exclusive privilege of overruling its own decisions.
Though the court had gone so far as to question the reserve clause, it was another defeat for Flood. Now he and his lawyers would have to wait until the fall to learn if the Supreme Court would choose to hear the case. In the meantime, Flood grew surly with the media. Reporters constantly wanted to speak with him about his suit and his comeback. For the first time, he was not always amiable in return. The season started, and Flood was still not hitting. In his first twenty at-bats he had just three singles, two of them bunts. He was benched temporarily.
Some of his teammates thought his difficulties were to be expected from someone who had been away from the game, but others saw something darker enveloping Flood. “Things are closing in on me,” he told his teammate Mike Epstein one day while warming up before a game. During a trip to Yankee Stadium, Flood returned to the clubhouse to find a black wreath hung in his locker. He also received a letter that read, “Dear ######, You are a dead ######.” Flood was terrified that someone had found his way into the locker room to make these deliveries in person.
On April 27, Flood could no longer take it. After collecting seven hits—all singles—in thirteen games, he was through. He left the Senators, having already pocketed half of his year’s pay (most of which went directly to his creditors), and went to the airport, where he sent Short a telegram. “I tried,” he wrote. “A year and a half is too much. Very serious personal problems mounting every day. Thank you for confidence and understanding.”
Short badly wanted to reach Flood before he left the country. “I’m sure that if I find Curt and talked to him, that I could persuade him to rejoin our ball club,” he told the Associated Press. “It isn’t the money. I’d just like to help Curt out.” Joe Reichler, the former sportswriter who broke the St. Petersburg Yacht Club story back in 1960, now worked in the commissioner’s office. He rushed to Kennedy Airport to try to stop Flood from leaving. Flood listened to him but could not be stopped. He boarded a plane for Spain.
“I don’t think we’ll ever see him back in this country,” a member of the Senators’ front office told Dick Young. “Troubles like he has just don’t go away.”
References and Resources
Stepping Up: The Story of Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights
Alex Belth is the author of Bronx Banter. To contact him, click here.