The Disappearance of Curt Flood’s Blackness
The Disappearance of Curt Flood’s Blackness
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the rhetorical consonances between black press support for Flood and the national sports media’s advocacy of his case. It considers the support Flood received in the New York Times and the Sporting News, the era’s two most nationally significant newspapers to report on sports. It argues that black newspapers advocated Flood in a persuasive defense of universal justice and simultaneously fought to protect an institution—baseball—with nearly unmatched symbolic importance to liberalism’s progress narrative.
Recent scholarly interest in Curt Flood has generally taken the form of revisionist history targeted at disclosing the dimensions of his challenge to the reserve clause that were influenced by race. Working from various assumptions, including the idea that Flood was vilified in the national press, these critics try to recover a narrative that connects the “principle” for which he claimed to fight to the fact of his blackness. Michael Lomax, for example, counts “black rage” as Flood’s primary motivation to file suit, attributing Flood’s decision to “Black Power,” which “exemplified a mood, a disillusionment and alienation from white America, race pride, and self respect or ‘black consciousness,’” a historical construct out of which Flood’s “sensitivity” tends to emerge.1 Gerald Early offers a more nuanced analysis of two basic features of the public rhetoric both from and with regard to Flood: the slavery metaphor and the pointed resistance to the owner’s rhetoric of gratitude. For Early, these themes fit historically within the kinds of civil rights discourses that enabled a principled critique of baseball’s investment in American democracy: “In the velvet glove of the myth of baseball as the Great American pastime, the game of heroes, the sport that symbolized our democratic impulses, was the iron fist of its absolutist corporate power, a power it enjoyed for far too long in the form of the unrestrained exercise of its reserve clause.”2 This line of reasoning is incisive, but in the same allusive manner that the insistence on Flood’s “sensitivity” makes race visible only at the margins, Early advocates Flood most persuasively once the error of the reserve clause becomes something larger than racial injustice.
Lomax and Early engage one side of a contemporary debate about where Flood fits in American history. Located in mismatched popular and interdisciplinary locations, advocates such as Lomax and Early attempt to thicken the political context that surrounded Flood in an effort to draw out a denser understanding of the role his blackness played in the case’s unfolding. The other side seems to argue that Flood was sensitized by (p.88) experiences with racism to challenge organized baseball in a way that had nothing to do with race. Perhaps the most interesting and provocative such instance comes from David Leonard, who measures recent memories of Flood against the historical record to conclude that Flood “was hated then because of racism yet now loved because of and evidenced by the fact that we see him as a baseball player first and as a black man in America second.”3 This is a fair analysis, but Leonard overstates both sides of his case: Flood was not universally vilified then, and he is not beloved now. In particular, the New York Times’s Leonard Koppett and several columns in the Sporting News offered plenty of favorable opinions. By skipping over the black press while dismissing Flood’s mainstream support, Leonard misses a crucial connection in his central claim that Flood’s case represents “the continuity of demonization, denigration, and denunciation of blackness in the name of protecting whiteness.” The whiteness story rings true, especially if one dwells closely on what it means to be a baseball player first. But in calculating that “much of the media erased [Flood’s] place within a larger revolt of the black athlete,” Leonard overlooks the way that support for Flood in the early 1970s may have enabled that erasure in ways that had little to do with racist demonization.4
The effort, in any case, to fix Curt Flood into the black public sphere or to demonstrate, in Leonard’s terms, “the centrality of race,”5 belies the strategic ambiguity of Flood’s rhetorical performance in The Way It Is and the earnestness with which others took up his cause in fundamentally race-neutral ways. Like Jackie Robinson (whom Leonard ignores), Flood was a fighter for “principle.” But, unlike Robinson, who spoke his mind after the principle of integration had been established, Flood’s principle was never grounded explicitly in a claim about racial injustice. Looking back, it might be fairer to say that Flood’s principle was prudently equivocal on the question of race. For those who still saw baseball as a vestige of racism or sport as a dehumanizing social institution, Flood’s principle summoned the surrounding discourses of racial (in)justice, and for those who looked at matters with the enabling distance of liberalism and color blindness, Flood’s principle summoned emerging criticisms of baseball’s ownership plutocracy, nascent conceptualizations of sporting labor, and anxieties regarding the inevitable modernization of sport’s economic structure. For members of this group, Flood’s race and salary were beside the point; fair was fair, and Flood was being treated unfairly by a system designed to enrich the overprivileged few. The principle could be one of two things, then, each of which attracted support: a racial principle or an economic principle—a (p.89) “black thing” (as Tom Haller had put it) or an economic thing. Both might have been understood, as in Flood’s equivocation, to be a “basic principle of human life.”6
For many contemporary narrators, Flood’s representative detractor was Bob Broeg, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s baseball beat writer whose articles on the highly successful 1960s Cardinals often appeared in the nationally circulating Sporting News. In January 1970, Broeg delivered the most direct attack on Flood’s position that gained widespread attention. Calling him “a bit overdramatic,” Broeg insinuated through a pithy play on words that Flood was just pouting for more money: “It is difficult indeed to be sympathetic to the little man, particularly when it really is not a matter of principle, but of principal.” Broeg expressed brief reluctance at personalizing the reserve clause debate but then alluded to Flood’s salary: “It is difficult not to get personal in Flood’s case because Curt benefited from a large measure of personal consideration.” Here, Broeg made the argument that seemed to bother Flood the most: that he was too well paid to complain. “If the legality of the baseball reserve clause were being contested by a player less affluent than Curt Flood,” Broeg insisted, “the sympathy would be considerably greater.” Instead, citing the $3 million in damages that Flood sought in litigation, Broeg tested Flood’s limits: “If principle were really involved in his legal assault on baseball’s reserve clause as violating the federal anti-trust laws, Flood would have asked for $1 and the right to negotiate for himself.” Though it is possible to read through Broeg’s paternalism to what Leonard calls a “modern form of lynching,” his obtuse defense of baseball’s status quo ignored Flood’s blackness until The Way It Is was released in December 1970. In a book review published in both the Sporting News and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the spring of 1971, Broeg wrote that Flood “emerges as a cynic and as an unforgiving guy whose racial resentment runs deep.” And quoting Flood’s assertion that “black experience teaches that the American white is guilty until he proves himself innocent,” Broeg issued a tired scolding about color blindness, saying that Flood “penned what has to be the most discouraging sentence to all who think they’ve learned to accept a man for what he is and does, not for what he looks like.” That Broeg ignored what Flood took to be meaningful racialized experiences became obvious in the review’s final sentences:”Through most of the 236 pages of ‘The Way It Is,’ whether bedding, boozing or playing ball, Curt is indeed curt. I never knew he was so damned unhappy.”7 Even the fairest historical interpretation of Broeg’s commentary would have to admit that he entirely missed Flood’s point. (p.90)
Such an admission fails to shed any light on precisely what Flood’s point was, especially since he often left the “principle” for which he was fighting up for the public to supply. Despite his ambiguity, one eventuality was certain: Flood’s lawsuit would drive him out of baseball. His “basic principle of human life,” however defined, as enacted in the lawsuit would entail sitting out the 1970 baseball season. In this sense, Flood did not stand for a principle as much as take a principled stand, and since he demonstrated the sincerity of his cause by refusing to play ball, Flood’s supporters found ways to animate the “basic principle of human life” with arguments, narratives, and themes that may or may not have been faithful to the sophisticated humanism Flood attempted to formulate. The stand authenticated the principle, which was then elaborated in terms that reflected the interests, motivations, and political imaginations of his supporters. In suing and refusing to play, Flood had put his money where his mouth was, so his commitment to conscience could only be challenged disingenuously. Flood’s supporters from the black press to the New York Times to the Sporting News easily and dramatically falsified Broeg’s uncharitable accusations of greed.
Nevertheless, according to Broeg and others who shared his views, Flood’s wealth delivered the lie to “the basic principle of human life.”8 Perhaps, then, it is reasonable to say that the most stable principle that Flood embodied revolved around the notion of freedom. This is the point at which observers such as Leonard tend to overstate the influence of racial politics. Although Flood’s rhetorical performances evinced an interest in finding common cause with agitational black discourses, Flood’s description of himself as a “well-paid slave” to Howard Cosell’s national audience also demonstrated a strategic understanding of public argument. The figure of the slave performed double duty, simultaneously evoking racial imagery and analogizing baseball’s basic institutional moral error. Anticipating the color-blind platitudes (which Flood had learned to identify and disdain) that would be repeated by numerous detractors, the “well-paid slave” could be regarded, if deployed skillfully, as intrinsically raceless. His self-characterization certainly would attract little sympathy from Broeg and other critics, but supportive commentators attended closely to the basic structure of Flood’s slave metaphor—Flood was a freedom fighter with the conviction and sincerity to act on principle. The pricelessness of freedom, by contrast, made Broeg’s lecture look distasteful and churlish.
The slave metaphor proved itself to be racially slippery and symbolically perilous. The “well-paid slave,” though evoking graphic racial imagery (p.91) for those who wanted to see it and seeming absurd to those who marveled at Flood’s paycheck, paradoxically contained both symbolic difficulties and built-in symbolic solutions relative to the race and class identifications that sometimes vexed his advocates. For Flood, slavery was a flexible resource that rhetorically condensed what he took to be an abject social position. Once released into public circulation, however, the slave metaphor forced his advocates to cope with the complicated representational obstacles imposed by the facts of his salary and blackness. Broeg’s columns gave voice to a naive populism that used Flood’s class and race against him. Broeg said, in essence, that Flood was not poor and therefore should not be talking about race. Why, Broeg ultimately asked, should one root for Curt Flood? Who did he represent other than himself? The answers here revealed the ingenuity of the slave metaphor: Freedom as a principle rested on the abstract condition of Flood’s slavery; once regarded as a freedom fight for which Flood was willing to sacrifice, many observers saw the principle as trumping the size of his salary and the color of his skin. The slave metaphor, which might have symbolized systemic articulations of race and class, became in baseball’s public sphere precisely the symbol through which race and class were disarticulated from principle.
It was easy, then, for public speakers to lose sight of Flood’s blackness when addressing the challenge to the reserve clause in the early 1970s. Supportive public discourse turned its rhetorical activity toward universalizing Flood’s case and figuring out a way to save baseball. Race became superfluous, part of the story but not part of the argument, something for which his advocates would have to account so that they could set it neatly aside. The black newspapers and the national sports press made three basic discursive moves. First, Since Flood’s condition of supposed bondage extended to his white teammates, the argument from blackness—incipient in the imagery of slavery and inflecting Flood’s speech—was safely quarantined in Flood’s consciousness and removed from the social and structural facts of the case: Flood was “sensitive” and “principled.” Second, the labor dimension of the slave argument became the locus of extended discussion and analysis. Well-paid slavery had piqued the interest of black newspapers eager to establish baseball as a measure of progress (an achievement for which Robinson can be credited), and the comparison had certainly drawn the attention of a national sports press already narrating baseball’s economic minutiae. Third, any abolitionist spirit of well-paid slavery gave way to the rhetoric of reform: Flood’s advocates moderated his claim and pointed out where interests converged. In both black newspapers and the national sports press, (p.92) Flood indeed found support, but along the way, the symbolic significance of blackness to the slavery argument got lost in the commotion.
The owners insisted that Flood was an agent of destruction. In late January 1970, Joe Cronin and Chub Feeney, presidents of the American and National Leagues, respectively, issued a press release concerning Flood’s federal lawsuit. The concise statement summarized baseball’s official public position in defense of the reserve clause, and it set baseball’s preservationist discourse into motion. In various press outlets nationwide, such as the New York Times, the Sporting News, and black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, Cronin and Feeney’s statement characterized Flood’s legal action as a potentially fatal threat to baseball’s future. They scolded Flood for selfishly refusing his “reassignment” and spoke in catastrophic terms regarding a successful lawsuit’s potential consequences:
When a player refuses to honor an assignment, he violates his contract, in which he agrees that assignments may be made, and he violates the fundamental baseball rules, including the reserve clause, which experience has shown to be absolutely necessary to the successful operation of baseball.
The court action commenced by Curt Flood attacks these fundamental rules and makes the same charges that have been made in the past and rejected by the Supreme Court of the United States. We have complete confidence that the rules of professional baseball, which have been central to the success of the game over many decades and which have permitted players such as Curt Flood to reap rich personal rewards, will withstand this new attack….
A congressional committee, after an exhaustive study of baseball and weeks of hearings, concluded as follows:
“Baseball’s history shows that chaotic conditions prevailed when there was no reserve clause. Experience points to no feasible substitute to protect the integrity of the game or to guarantee a comparatively even competitive struggle.”9
Given what would follow, a detailed and bulleted list of the chaos that would result if Flood were to win in court, Cronin and Feeney’s “complete confidence” that baseball could withstand attack reads like petty, misplaced bluster:
The chaotic results that would be created without the reserve clause should be obvious:
(p.93) 1. Without the reserve clause the wealthier clubs could sign an unbeatable team of all-stars, totally destroying league competition.
2. Clubs of more limited resources would be stripped of their stars and their ability to field a team which the public would accept.
3. The integrity of the game would be threatened as players could negotiate with one club while playing for another.
4. Clubs could no longer afford to spend millions of dollars to scout and sign new players and to subsidize their development in the minor leagues. No club could build with assurance and no intelligent person would continue to invest the large capital required for player compensation, an unmatched pension and benefit plan costing $5,450,000 per year, minor league subsidies and other costs of operating a minor league club.
5. The minor leagues, which exist only because of major league support, would be destroyed. Professional baseball is the only team sport that finances the development of its players.
6. Mutually advantageous trades would become impossible if the players’ consents were required, thus preventing contract assignments which have been beneficial to both clubs and players and which are exciting to those who support the game of baseball.
7. Professional baseball would simply cease to exist.10
This statement can be read in various ways. One possibility is that it is an honest declaration from baseball’s chief bureaucrats in a panic over the security of the institution they had been installed to protect. Another is that it is a set of alarmist talking points meant to induce public panic about baseball’s demise. From a more critical perspective, one might also call it a detailed (albeit unintentional) analysis of the political economy of Major League Baseball, a naked iteration of the slavelike conditions described by Flood and a performance of the kind of dehumanizing rhetoric Flood had identified as necessary to the preservation of the owners’ power. In any case, Cronin and Feeney’s statement officially summarized the terms of baseball’s public position, which put “chaos” and “collapse” at the center of its unabashedly dystopian vision.
Koppett and other observers critical of baseball, however, pointed to such statements as evidence of the owners’ traditionalism, painting base-ball as out of touch, stuck in a different time, inherently conservative, and most tellingly, “obtuse.” A predominant narrative held that sport was undergoing massive shifts relative to the desires and expectations of its athletes, the spiking growth of its economic structure, and its public image. (p.94) Koppett’s columns turned frequently to a trope that resonated with general announcements of shifts in the national psyche and that was a favored term of Flood’s: the “sports establishment.” In a late January 1970 New York Times piece, Koppett offered a history of baseball’s labor organizations in an effort to make sense of the Flood case. Naming this history a “Brotherhood of War,” Koppett dramatized the nature of the false choice presented by ownership on the matter of the reserve clause:
The hardest thing to understand, for most outsiders, is the apparent obtuseness of the baseball establishment in resisting any and all change…. After all, it sounds silly for supposedly responsible business men to hint at “total destruction” of their affairs if so much as a comma is changed. But everything has its origins, even unreason. It’s easy enough for mid–Twentieth Century lawyers to say “devise a less restrictive reserve substitute.” Driven into baseball consciousness, however, is the idea that the present system, which did evolve gradually, has worked profitably; that alternatives tried in the past—even if it was the dim past—did fail; and “alternatives” presented in theory can lead to numerous booby traps in reality.
In this light, the reluctance of the establishment to confront change is more comprehensible, if not necessarily more justified. Perhaps the real criticism of today’s baseball brass should be on other grounds. Its rigid stance implies timidity, a self-confessed lack of confidence in its ability to act imaginatively, constructively and with goodwill, to devise improvements.11
In adopting a reformist line of reasoning, Koppett provided a reading of Cronin and Feeney that simultaneously exposed the “baseball establishment” as on the one hand bellicose, blustery, and foolish and on the other hand acting expectedly (however irrationally) to secure its self-interest. At the same time that Koppett demystified the owners’ dystopia, he recognized the symbolic advantages that the dystopian vision conferred.
Owners operationalized their catastrophic rhetoric through shamelessly frightening terms such as chaos, destruction, and cease to exist, choices that carried with them at least three benefits. First, the owners were able to expand the scope of the problems associated with reserve clause abolition coterminously with Flood’s rhetorical escalation to “principle.” Beset by the charge that they were slaveholders and tyrants, owners enumerated the catastrophes that would ensue if the disloyal subjects had their way. (p.95) Second, “chaos and destruction” helped to reclaim the public ground that had been undermined by the revelatory rhetoric emerging from Flood and his advocates. Flood claimed to be showing “the public” a truth obscured by an ideological trick, and the owners responded with a “public” victimized by Flood’s threatening gestures. After all, the owners had said, modifications to the reserve clause would erode competitiveness beyond the point of public acceptability. Finally, baseball’s dystopia concretized the emerging malaise in sport in a way favorable to the “sports establishment.” As critics groaned about the increasing influence of big money in sports and the loss of baseball’s iconic national status, baseball owners contended that Flood was exacerbating baseball’s demise as an idyllic pasture of American life.
Critiques similar to Koppett’s circulated widely but also abetted ownership’s effort to construct a dystopian scene animated by labor disagreements. “Chaos and destruction” fit easily within the national sports press’s controlling thematic at the beginning of 1970. Flood’s case had become a matter of public attention as December 1969 turned to the new decade, which occasioned a variety of predictable articles attempting to make sense of the 1960s and speculate on the 1970s. On January 4, 1970, Joseph Durso wrote the lead article in a special section of the New York Times on sport at the dawn of the decade. Durso’s column, “Color the Next Decade a Lush Green,” observed the effect that money would have on sports: “It’s green, it’s abundant, it’s inflated. It buys oats for race horses, llama rugs for quarterbacks, domed stadiums for cities. It’s money, and it will make the sports world go round in the seventies as never before.” It was not all bad, though. Durso saw economic reasoning as the price of progress: “Economics—the ‘dismal science’—will bring more teams to more cities in more areas of the world at higher prices and on more artificial surfaces with the color of currency. But economics will also bring more lawsuits by athletes, unions for umpires, boycotts by players and strike deadlines for all sides.” As Durso depicted sports in a mythic fall from innocence, his first case in point was hardly surprising: “Curt Flood, an outfielder famous for catching the ball, may become even more famous as the man who attacked the ‘reserve system’ that governs most major spectator sports. As the seventies begin, he is suing for his ‘freedom’ from baseball’s reserve clause, which binds a player to his team until he is traded or quits.” Moreover, as Flood, his advocates, and the owners insisted for various purposes, “the public” was left to watch helplessly as matters spiraled out of control. Durso saw Flood’s case as “part of the scramble for the public’s growing leisure time and leisure cash. And sports in the seventies will spiral upward with the economy into the chase (p.96) for big money, big security, big pensions, big investments, big payoffs. The gold rush is on.”12
Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn gave a March 1970 interview to the Sporting News that was quoted extensively in an editorial about base-ball’s “chief concern.” Under the headline “We Believe…,” summarizing the position of the newspaper, editor and publisher C. C. Johnson Spink helped Kuhn lend voice to the establishment’s version of events: “Kuhn is facing some serious problems, but the most serious, he believes, is the damage being done to the game’s public image by the lack of rapport between the clubs and the players and between the players and the fans.” Against this backdrop, Flood’s case was reduced to a trivial annoyance: “‘These other things are important,’ [Kuhn] said, referring to Denny McLain’s troubles and Curt Flood’s suit to abolish the reserve clause, ‘but the image is more vital than the legal aspects.’” Spink expressed concern that baseball must “convince a new generation that the game is both ‘now’ and ‘relevant.’ It won’t be easy, especially if some of the people in the game keep blackening baseball’s eyes.”13 With Kuhn in command of baseball’s public image, Flood was simply another “black eye,” further evidence of the erosion of public confidence that Kuhn was charged with preventing.
Similarly, a February 1970 Sporting News article (published originally in the Los Angeles Times) presented both a diagnosis and cure as understood by Walter O’Malley, president of the Dodgers. The Times’s Ross Newhan cataloged O’Malley’s concerns, including his assertion that “what is needed in baseball is an ‘era of goodwill,’ a restoration of the rapport between owners and players rather than the negativism produced by Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association.”14 “Goodwill,” in Flood’s view, was a ruse that sustained the owners’ paternalism, particularly when they claimed that organized labor intervened in otherwise amicable management-player relations. O’Malley cited Flood’s case as expressive of the Players Association’s deleterious influence: “Formerly a practicing attorney, O’Malley said he did not care to participate in the judicial semantics of the Flood case. ‘I can only say that I’m disappointed in the methods he’s used. He’s created an aura of negativism that has harmed the image of the sport.’”15 In contrast to the kind of careful analysis issued by Koppett, O’Malley saw the details as mere “judicial semantics”—nonsense. The image of baseball was under assault from an interloper using unbecoming methods to chase false causes. O’Malley externalized the causes of “negativism,” reifying the image problem through a dismissal of baseball’s principled critics. Such statements may have been what led Koppett to call (p.97) the owners “obtuse”; one is left to wonder how labor might have protected the players from the predatory desires of ownership from behind closed doors. After all, O’Malley used the catastrophic possibilities of Flood’s case as an opportunity to reassert benevolence: “Selfishly, [the Dodgers] would benefit by removal of the reserve clause. Realistically, there would be such an imbalance that the game couldn’t exist.”16 In this common establishment view, only the sagacious selflessness of the owners sheltered baseball from destruction by shortsighted, carpetbagging union agitators.
With nostalgia and regret, the nation’s papers narrated the evolving relationship between money and professional sports, developments that were taken to be contrary to public enjoyment and in some cases detrimental to the health of society. Of course, this is precisely why Flood had regarded the owners and the press as cohorts; they worked together to elevate the primacy of the game’s public image beyond the point of constructive labor relations and, perhaps more important, humane labor standards. And just as obviously, this pattern urged the Players Association into existence as a useful public instrument; in private, nothing ever changed. Regardless of how forward-thinking observers such as Koppett may have regarded themselves in supporting Flood’s cause and authenticating new player demands, the underlying story of regret, a wistful goodbye to the golden era, blended Flood seamlessly into the fog of baseball’s preexisting war.
In January 1970, days after appearing on national television with Cosell, Flood was featured in an occasional New York Times column called “Man in the News.” Sportswriter George Vecsey’s profile appeared under a large photograph of Flood standing next to an oil portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., which Flood had painted for an Atlanta charity auction. Although the Times sensationalized the case in typical fashion with a headline that read “$90,000-a-Year Rebel: Curt Flood,” Vecsey offered a sympathetic, nearly tender portrayal. The image of Flood next to King presented a clear racial cue, however oblique. But much in the same way that the slave metaphor performed double duty in The Way It Is, the Times’s photo of Flood with his painting of King brought race into view so that it might be pushed out of focus. Vecsey’s column coped with Flood’s blackness but did so in a way that rendered its meaning unique to Flood’s individual experience and conscience. Vecsey depicted Flood as a kind of Renaissance man, contextualizing the rhetorical appearance of the slave. As Vecsey put it,
The wiry little center fielder was known to return to his apartment after a night game and take out his oil brushes and work until dawn. (p.98) The shoulder healed in due time, but the Cardinals never got him to change his hours.
This is the man who filed a suit yesterday against baseball and its so-called “reserve clause.” Flood had resented being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies last October, partly because he hated to leave “Cardinal-land,” as he calls St. Louis, but also because he felt he had put too much time into his profession to be shuttled around “like a slave.”
Out of this proud reaction, Flood is mounting one of the most serious challenges ever made on baseball’s control of its hired hands. Flood is in a more independent position than most players because of his future as an artist and his business interests in the United States and Denmark.17
In this characterization, Flood appears as a man equally committed to baseball and to his creative pursuits, thoughtful enough about both to remain loyal to a principled professional ethic, and successful enough at both to assert his independence with a steady and confident temperament. The slave was just Flood’s way of putting things.
As Vecsey came to terms with Flood’s blackness, he considered the way that racism may have influenced the development of Flood’s base-ball career: “While playing in the Carolina and [South Atlantic] leagues in 1956–57, he encountered southern bigotry, living in a Negro college dormitory and often going hungry after night games because there was no place that would serve him. But, he has recalled that the experience made him play better, in an inspired rage.” A generation later, Lomax would call this “black rage,” but for Vecsey in 1970, Flood’s “rage” inspired his individual success. So, in 1958, “the little man proved he belonged with the Cardinals.” When asked about the King painting, Flood told Vecsey, “This is one of the rare instances where I integrated my feelings about the subject. This is more expressive because there’s more of me in it.”18 Bigotry made Flood play baseball better, and thinking about King made Flood paint better (or at least more expressively). In the end, Flood emerged from Vecsey’s profile as thoughtful, intelligent, and sensitive, as someone who knew how to properly channel the anger of racialized experiences into an acute professional instinct. As an international businessman, world-class ballplayer, and portrait artist who held King close to his heart, Flood was ultimately a remarkable individual—well qualified, in the eyes of the New York Times, to be a “man in the news.”
(p.99) Vecsey’s article, published just as the slave metaphor began to appear in the sports press, helped to initiate Flood into public discussion. As the story took shape, other similar profiles would appear, in, among others, such nationally circulating publications as Sport and Newsweek.19 Generally speaking, these articles, even when parroting the owners’ concerns about the destruction of baseball, constructed a persona for Flood similar to the one in the Times. The result was a kind of professionalization of Flood as an insightful and principled individual, as a newsmaker, as a bona fide public citizen. To be sure, this depiction would not always hold up. The detractors would have their say, and cynics would moan about the loss of baseball’s innocence, but Flood possessed a business professional’s ethos. After all, Flood never got anything for free. He excelled at his job despite long odds, was rewarded as such, claimed roots in the St. Louis community, dwelled creatively on King, and fairly felt punished for having done every-thing right. Is this, some supporters wondered, how you treat a pro? Just as Flood had expressed passionately in The Way It Is, the whole business was an insult to a dignified man of substance.
In the black press, Flood found a similar advocate in Bill Nunn Jr., the sports desk editor of the Pittsburgh Courier. Like other black newspapers, the Courier had covered Flood’s case from its initial moments, the most notable being the January television appearance in which Cosell had quoted Flood’s salary to a nationwide audience. In May 1970, a few weeks before Flood’s federal trial would begin, Nunn asked Cosell’s rhetorical question: “Why would a man want to rebel against a contract that could have meant $90,000 in salary and fringe benefits for the year 1970?” The question set Flood’s rebellion against his contract, not against baseball, and the answer sounded much like the one that appeared in the Times: “To understand that you would have to know Curt Flood the man as well as Curt Flood the ballplayer.”20 Such characterizations attempted to offset and reverse the confounding aspects of the “well-paid slave.” The unusual size of the salary he refused made him neither spoiled or ungrateful but instead dramatized the depth of his character and demonstrated the sincerity of his personal and individual sacrifice.
Moreover, Flood had earned Nunn’s endorsement by virtue of the player’s commitment to the Cardinals, and his keen sensitivity was indicated in the persona that contextualized that commitment: Flood was a serious businessman. “As a major league star Flood had always been a manager’s dream. Day in and day out Curt performed his duty with class. He had a keen desire to win. He never shirked his duties. He could be counted (p.100) on when the chips were down. Curt Flood, in other words, came to play. Off the playing field, there is another side to Flood. Soft spoken, articulate and a smooth dresser, he could easily be taken for a 9 to 5 business man on Wall Street. A successful businessman we might add. Curt Flood is also a sensitive man. He’s sensitive to the problems that surround us everyday. He’s sensitive to the cast in which he wants to mold his life.”21 Nunn’s sketch evoked sporting clichés of team play that might have been (and still are) applied to any number of pro athletes: Flood was a classy guy, Flood was dependable, Flood came to play, Flood wanted to win, and so forth. Even further, however, as Nunn emphasized in triplicate, the same Flood who put the team first possessed a rare personal sensitivity. Similar to Vecsey’s Renaissance man, Nunn’s Flood was profiled through the individualism and individuality of his character.
Unlike Vecsey, however, Nunn did not explicitly account for Flood’s racial identity. Instead, Nunn simply offered an iteration of the slave metaphor linked to Flood’s personal sensitivity and individual impulse to rebellion. Flood was not someone to take mistreatment lightly, Nunn insisted: “Instead of accepting the news that he was no longer a Cardinal in good graces, Flood rebelled.” Nunn saw the figure of the slave as appearing out of Flood’s emotional reaction as a comparison befitting his bitterness over the insult:”One day he was a Cardinal. The next day he had been peddled down the river. Slaves, Curt felt with bitterness, were treated the same way. He decided to fight.”22 Among Flood’s supporters, profiles such as Vecsey’s and Nunn’s cooperatively stitched a persona that countered Broeg’s infantilizing portrait of an impetuous ballplayer in a fancy suit pouting over a trivial and manufactured injustice. Having performed his professional duties in baseball with class and pride, Flood operated as an exemplar of the kind of self-determination that could be achieved through the offices of vocational excellence and individual talent. Baseball had, in essence, punished him for his success, and Flood, as a sensitive man, was remarkable for his refusal to stand for it.
This approach probably represented the best argumentative strategy for addressing the rhetoric of gratitude that Lomax, Early, and Leonard identify as racist. Why, many advocates asked, should Flood be grateful for what he had rightfully earned? Early is certainly correct to insist that the owners’ paternalistic tenor and line of reasoning seemed to emerge from the same discursive well that produced the racist rhetorical question, “What do you people want?”23 In this instance, however, determining that the argument from gratitude was “racist” in the way that Early intends (p.101) depends on a puzzling counterfactual. Had the reserve clause’s first “serious challenger” been white, would baseball owners have responded differently? Would a white player have faced the accusation that he was ungrateful for what baseball bosses had benevolently provided? Such questions are hard to answer, but such a thorny scenario becomes even more difficult to address in a rhetorical context that consigns race’s meaning to Flood’s individuality. National publications such as the Times and the Sporting News accounted for Flood’s blackness by rendering it a private concern, and the black press followed a similar theme in avoiding any positive elaboration of its meaning. Depictions such as Nunn’s individuated Flood at the same time that they conferred an intrinsically raceless professional identity: Flood’s blackness was left to speak for itself as the black press highlighted the valor in his path to individual success. Together, the Times, the Sporting News, and black newspapers professionalized Flood’s ethos and privatized his blackness, removing race from both public debate and the modes of identification into which Flood could be inserted. Questions of freedom and dignity were imagined to be universal as the case developed in the news, erasing blackness from the image of the slave and encouraging forms of collective identity better fit for public discussion. Race was part of Flood, not part of the Flood debate. But if you were curious to know how anyone could turn all that money down? Well, for that, you would have to know Curt Flood the man.
Unlike the awkward character of the fight for racial inclusion, which was replete with internal tension, Flood’s case inverted the logic that often strained to establish forms of black identity fit for racial inclusion. Flood offered the black press the means by which it might formulate and defend the upwardly mobile aspirations of the black professional class in the context of shared national interests. From black journalists’ perspective, the details of Flood’s particularity—his blackness and his wealth—dissolved into an encompassing bourgeois imaginary. Flood’s $90,000 salary became neither a marker of baseball’s inevitable collapse nor a factor that alienated him from average folks. Instead, everyone’s interests seemed to converge quite nicely.
The Chicago Defender’s Doc Young managed the problem of Flood’s extreme wealth by imbuing Flood’s principle with a notion of freedom premised on Flood’s earnings as an employee: “Flood’s salary is irrelevant. The Cardinals paid Flood $90,000 only because he was an outstanding fielder. Flood earned the money. It was no gift.” In fact, insisted Young, Flood’s freedom fight had baseball’s interests in mind:”What he is fighting is a clause in (p.102) baseball law which ties a player to the club with whom he signs initially and permits the club to sell or trade him, at will, regardless of his feelings about the matter. He is seeking, in a broad sense, more freedom for the professional athlete. He is not attempting to wreck organized baseball, nor does he object necessarily to joining the Philadelphia Phillies.”24 The assertion that Flood did not object to Philadelphia was slightly inaccurate: Flood had called Philadelphia “the nation’s northernmost southern city”—meaning, of course, that he expected to experience racism there.25 Young’s point (supported by this inaccuracy) was that the size of Flood’s salary bore no relation to the abstract principle for which he stood. “Chaos and destruction” were not Flood’s goals: What mattered most, since he had earned his money fairly, was that he be treated fairly according to professional standards.
Similarly, the March 1970 issue of Ebony magazine featured a full-page, full-color photograph of Flood next to a full-page editorial headlined, “Found—An ‘Abe Lincoln’ of Baseball.” Ebony asked its readers to consider a hypothetical scenario:
Imagine yourself with a great talent for doing plumbing and, at the age of 17 or 18, signing a contract with a plumbing firm for a bonus of $1000 and the chance to work at perhaps $100 a week. Three years later you are one of the best plumbers in the business and your contract holder has raised your pay to $500 a week. But you feel that you are worth $1000 a week and, in fact, a number of other plumbing firms would gladly pay you what you want or even more. Then you find you cannot leave your job—your contract is for life. You cannot change jobs when you wish but your contract holder has the right to sell your contract to another plumbing company in another state without consulting you and—if you want to continue as a plumber—you have to go no matter how much the move might inconvenience you. In addition, no matter what price a contract is sold for, you will not realize a penny for the sale.
Comparing this situation to the circumstances in which baseball players found themselves, Ebony asserted that baseball was “able to enslave its players in plush fetters.” Baseball players, the magazine pointed out, “are still bought and sold like property.” But, said the editors, “This year, before the long, long season is over, there just might be some changes made. It just might be that baseball’s long needed ‘Abe Lincoln’ has finally shown up in the person of Curtis Charles Flood.”26 Ebony’s analogy incorporated Flood’s (p.103) impressive salary into an imaginary labor subject and offered Flood as Lincoln’s negative racial instance. Lincoln, of course, was a white hero who set black persons free; Flood, Ebony hoped, was a black man who would set his white colleagues free. Concretizing the principle in the figure of the plumber, Ebony abstracted Flood’s labor identity and disconnected blackness from the figure of the slave.
The suggestive interplay of racial identities at work in Ebony’s argument underscores the way in which black press accounts of Flood managed his blackness in public address. After the Supreme Court ruled against Flood in 1972, Baltimore Afro-American sports columnist Sam Lacy made this interplay explicit:”Generally overlooked in the comments of both sides following last week’s 5–3 ruling…is the fact that a young black man from the ghetto voluntarily committed suicide so that his teammates—the majority of whom are white—might have a better life…. He assailed the [reserve clause] as an instrument which denied him the civil right of controlling his own destiny.” Lacy’s column, which reads like an epitaph, emphasized the racial interchangeability—or universality—of Flood’s “sacrifice”: “The challenge was in the nature of a suit against baseball which was designed to free not only himself, but all his fellow athletes as well…. Yet, while any benefits derived from his action would be shared by all his colleagues, a loss would be suffered by him alone…. That is the supreme sacrifice.”27 Lacy’s complaint turned out to be too true. An early version of free agency was incorporated into Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement when an independent arbitrator released two white players, Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith, from their contracts.
An unattributed opinion piece in the New York Amsterdam News understood Flood’s situation in similar terms, putting an explicitly color-blind spin on employment freedom in baseball. “The reserve clause is Willie Mays, $165,000. Bob Gibson and Robert [sic] Clemente, $150,000 each. Frank Robinson, $140,000. Ferguson Jenkins and Willie McCovey $125,000 each and Billy Williams $115,000.” In listing baseball’s highest-paid players, the newspaper insisted that the reserve clause did not curtail the salaries of the players but instead “curtailed the free movement of players. It stopped them from taking the highest bid which is the American way. It stopped free enterprise.”27 Race and class were bracketed together as the Amsterdam News made its pitch. Worry not, it seemed to say, black players are profiting from baseball, so it is not that baseball is racist; rather, the problem is that baseball is obstructing everyone’s path toward wealth. The operational telos in this defense of Flood was the fair play of equal antagonists on a field of (p.104) free enterprise, a process expressed under the ostensibly inclusive sign of the “American way.”
This narrative of free American enterprise precipitated a rhetorical shift, whereby Flood’s specific identity as a wealthy ballplayer was replaced in political and economic terms with more identifiable forms of labor, including those that in another context might not have found common cause with a person making $90,000. The plumber metaphor was popular among Flood’s public advocates perhaps not just because it worked as an illustrative analogue relative to baseball’s economic structure but also because its mode of illustration was defined by the way in which the problem of socioeconomic class could be resolved: Rich baseball players could be represented as sharing the interests of the working class.28 The Pitts-burgh Courier similarly compared Flood to an auto worker:
Look at the situation for example, or even more so, this analogous stupor. Imagine an auto mechanic employed by General Motors whose salary is determined by annual review. On Jan. 1, he is offered a new contract for the new year at a salary of $1,000 less than he received the previous year.
The mechanic is not allowed to offer his services to Chrysler or Ford. If he quits, he may not work at his trade for any employer. If he has not signed by Feb. 1, GM is entitled to tell him: “Sign now for what we’ve offered or go dig ditches, Buddy.”
Major league baseball players, of course, are rewarded more handsomely for their services than are auto mechanics. But their career expectancies are far shorter. The tiny minority of players who get to the big leagues only last for an average of four years.
The real point is that the professional athlete is the only civilian in America who cannot bargain for his service with any employer he chooses. He is the only American who does not work in a free market economy.29
In addition to the face value of the analogy, the Courier offered an analysis of the career window for baseball players, resolving the problem of Flood’s high salary by both comparing his aggregate earnings to that of the auto mechanic and pointing out that the average baseball player did not earn what Flood did. Unlike auto workers, these Americans—baseball players—were unfairly prohibited from availing themselves of the general labor market.
(p.105) In the Philadelphia Tribune, Bayard Rustin pointed out that Flood’s lawsuit was significant not because of Flood’s identity as a baseball player but because of his identity as an employee working to expand the rights of others: “All of the points of contention in Flood’s suit may not, at first, seem relevant to baseball as a sport. But it is also an enterprise and a profession, and Flood, in addition to being a player, is an employee. His suit, therefore, represents an attempt to expand the rights of a specific group of employees who are now at the mercy of their employers.”30 In the Baltimore Afro-American, Lacy explicitly compared baseball to “any other job” despite Flood’s high pay: “On any other job, although he doesn’t get paid nearly as well, the worker does his best or gets fired…. If he is dissatisfied with conditions on the job, he quits and goes elsewhere.”31 Both Rustin’s and Lacy’s arguments relied on the premise that Flood’s principle consisted in a group identity dissociated from the facts of his race and the size of his salary.
Nunn emphasized Flood’s career sacrifice in an analysis of his salary:
By fighting the structure upon which baseball says it exists, Curt could be through as a player. There is no certainty how long his case will be allowed to drag on in the courts. It could be months or it could be years. At age 32 any years Flood gives away are being done at a terrific sacrifice. As a player Flood has made over $20,000 only during the last six years. While his salary has expanded tremendously during that time so have his taxes. It has been estimated from one source that over his first nine years in professional baseball Flood had averaged $11,500 a season. At that time he was rated as one of the top players in the game. That is why I believe Flood should be commended for the battle he is waging. He isn’t doing it for personal gain. He’s fighting for something he believes in. Few men are willing to pick up the sword of battle under such circumstances.32
Nunn’s analysis presented a catalog of factors mitigating against the criticism that Flood was too well paid to complain: Flood was an aging player, his salary increases had come only recently, his taxes had also increased, and he was underpaid while an established star. Instead of merely dismissing the salary debate, Nunn engaged in it directly, refuting Broeg’s sanctimonious accusation that Flood’s real interest was “principal, not principle.”
Black newspapers’ basic rhetorical strategy in covering Flood’s case between 1970 and 1972 was to assert a sequence of transpositions that exchanged Flood’s particularity for forms of collective identity that (p.106) reflected the press’s political interests and self-imagination. When addressing Flood’s blackness in public, journalists did so to show that he was the inverted racial image of Lincoln or that he was a poor black kid from “the ghetto” fighting for rich white athletes’ freedom. Of course, Flood was a wealthy baseball player, but as Ebony, the Courier, and the Amsterdam News attempted to show, he might as well have been a common laborer. All at once, black newspapers rebutted the contention that Flood was stalling for a bigger contract, moved the reserve clause debate back to the abstract ground of principle, and redoubled their rhetorical investment in both baseball and the American way. For this reason, Flood’s case was ideally suited for black press uptake and advocacy. As a public subject, he could be emptied of the racial particularity that problematized the struggle for inclusion, and his labor identity could be abstracted in a way that demonstrated the consonance between black politics and the national interest.
As events began to unfold publicly in late 1969 and early 1970, much of the country’s sports press attended to the details of his case carefully and thoughtfully. In particular, the St. Louis–based Sporting News followed the case diligently, and though it would be an overstatement to call the Sporting News unconditional in support of Flood’s cause, this national paper advocated Flood conscientiously within a news frame that put Flood in relation to ongoing labor disputes between baseball owners and players. The Sporting News and other advocates, such as Koppett, moderated Flood’s appeal to principle by offering suggestions for reserve clause “modification” and “improvement.” As they observed the modernization of sport’s economic structure, they defended some adjustment of the reserve clause as an essential and inevitable reform. This position implicitly accepted the owners’ contention that abolition of the reserve clause would cause irreparable damage to the game. News coverage of the case repeatedly emphasized that reserve clause alteration would be enough to mollify Flood and the Players Association, thereby saving baseball’s basic economic structure.
At the time Flood filed suit, baseball’s players and management had already discussed the reserve clause. Most of the conversation had been unproductive, but it had allowed each side to offer something in the way of a public position in the newspapers rather quickly. The main disagreement by January 1970 centered on a common negotiation dilemma: The owners said that the players had not offered any plausible alternatives to the reserve system, and the players said that the owners had refused to take seriously any recommendations. In an editorial following reports that Flood had filed suit, the Sporting News summarized the situation:
Commissioner Kuhn says major league club owners feel the players have failed to offer any acceptable changes in what most baseball men consider the heart of their administrative apparatus. It should be emphasized that the players have never demanded complete freedom to negotiate with any employer. They are asking for modification of the reserve clause. The Major League Players Association contends the owners foster the impression that the reserve clause is an all-or nothing device: Change it one iota and all is chaos. The owners have not, the Association claims, offered a single counter-proposal to any idea the players have broached. The players have suggested, the owners have rejected, and there the matter apparently stands.
In the context of this standoff, the Sporting News offered a few underdeveloped ideas, including a variation on the contract system in the National Football League, but also expressed grave concern (keeping oddly in theme with all the talk about plumbing) about what might happen if matters were allowed to proceed in the court system: “While baseball is saying no to these proposals, the courts might well rip out the whole plumbing system, not merely divert a bit of the flow in the players’ direction.”33
The Sporting News generally expressed sympathy for Flood’s case but attempted to push the issue away from the courts and toward collective bargaining. Wondering “what would happen if baseball granted Flood free-agent status,” the Sporting News wrote that a court decision “could prove devastating if the reserve clause were knocked out completely, which the courts might very well do.” Nevertheless, “the players want the reserve clause modified, not torpedoed,” and “Flood says he’ll drop his suit if the reserve clause is altered to the satisfaction of the Major League Players’ Association.” Instead of the courts, the Sporting News suggested “some genuine bargaining now between players and owners over possible revisions which both sides could live with.”34 But the problem with moving the reserve clause dispute to labor negotiations was that owners used Flood’s case as a reason to further stall meaningful debate. The Sporting News reported at the end of January 1970 that Cincinnati Reds president Francis Dale took the Players Association decision to support Flood’s case to mean that the players had lost interest in negotiation: The head of the Players Association, Marvin Miller, “asked whether he should keep bargaining or did the players want to support Flood’s action. They voted to back Flood. So, this would infer they’re taking the reserve clause off the bargaining table. How can we negotiate anything that’s in the courts?”35 Dale’s rhetorical question (p.108) indicated the owners’ willingness to play chicken with the players in court as they heralded the specter of baseball’s collapse.
The national sports press nevertheless continued to insist that Flood had no interest in the game’s destruction and that “Flood is on record to the effect that any negotiated modification to the reserve system, satisfactory to the Players Association, will lead him to abandon his antitrust suit.”36 Furthermore, reporters seemed firmly to take Flood’s side. A May 1970 New York Times editorial that appeared about a week before the first federal court trial affirmed all of Flood’s essential points in the antitrust suit, noting that “there is no question that baseball today is big business” and that “the interlocking system of player contracts and club rules may well come within the jurisdiction of Federal anti-trust and various civil rights laws.” At the end of the editorial, the Times fully advocated a change to the reserve clause: “Some modification of the reserve clause—which Hank Greenberg, who was both a player and a club owner, testified is ‘obsolete, antiquated and definitely needs change’—is in order.”37
The Times’s Koppett, whose columns also often appeared in the Sporting News, was perhaps Flood’s most consistent supporter throughout the various stages of his challenge. Koppett’s position embraced the inevitability of baseball’s changes and maintained that since neither the owners nor the players were foolishly self-destructive, the two sides were likely to figure things out in a way that would benefit everyone. Taking the long view, Koppett asserted that “despite the alarming and fearful cries of the baseball establishment, it is inconceivable that all concerned are so lacking in ingenuity and common sense that they will fail to work out appropriate arrangements.” Believing that the situation would balance out satisfactorily in the end and that ownership was expressing unfounded alarmism, Koppett asserted “plain facts”: “Baseball, like everything else, changes all the time and always has. And for each change, some response re-establishes a suitable equilibrium.”38 After learning about a year later that the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to hear Flood’s case, Koppett reiterated his beliefs that the owners were wrong about “chaos” and that changes to the reserve clause were Flood’s only real demand: “It is highly unlikely that chaos will result from any decision. A victory for Flood will only begin the process of working out new contractual arrangements between club owners and athletes, and these new arrangements will be arrived at gradually. The suit itself argues for modification of restrictions on free movement of players from club to club.”39 By the time the Court had ruled against Flood, (p.109) Koppett credited Flood with having forced the kind of collective bargaining both sides had known all along would be necessary:
As it is, the terms of a modified reserve system must be hammered out across the table, and the players can get as much modification as they are willing to fight for.
But even this is possible only because Flood’s case was pursued. Until Flood raised the issues, the club owners flatly refused to consider any kind of modification. They offered to bargain only in an attempt to get the case dropped. Then, in arguing the case before the Supreme Court they adopted the defense that the reserve system was really a matter of compulsory collective bargaining and therefore not an anti-trust matter at all. They can’t retreat from that position now. They must bargain. But it was the Flood case that moved them into that position.40
Occasionally and in passing, the national sports press would mention the matter of “human rights” or would point out that Flood thought of him-self as a slave. But the overriding and persistent approach for Flood’s advocates in venues such as the New York Times and the Sporting News was to place Flood’s case into the context of a preexisting player/owner conflict. For these outlets, the image of baseball’s chaotic implosion was merely a productive illusion the owners used to defend their negotiating ground, and the business about slavery was a similarly useful counter-ruse. Cooler heads, these journalists figured, would prevail. The essence of their advocacy took the form of repeatedly emphasizing the necessity of modifying the reserve clause, an approach that made Flood the figure who might frighten the owners out of their obstinacy. In this view, Flood hastened (or at least helped to realize) the inevitable.
The black press adopted a similar emphasis on pragmatic reform. In late December 1969 and early January 1970, a United Press International (UPI) article that appeared in a variety of black newspapers, including the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Baltimore Afro-American, effectively announced the beginning of the Flood debate. The article, built on quotations from Miller, Joe Torre, and the infamously provocative Jim Bouton, essentially reported on the proceedings of the Players Association meeting in Puerto Rico. Though the UPI warned that Flood’s suit might “strike at the very heart of organized baseball,” it quoted Miller’s (p.110) understanding of Flood’s motivations: “Curt felt he had the rights of any other citizen. He has nothing against Philadelphia as a city or a team, but saw no basis for being confined to a limited market.” But asserting the “rights of any other citizen” seemed to entail a recognition of the reserve clause’s constitutive importance to baseball:”Miller, Torre, and Bouton emphasized that the players were not attempting to create chaos in organized baseball by simply out-lawing the reserve clause but wanted certain changes in it.” More directly, the UPI promised that Bouton was speaking about “certain modifications [that] would retain the structure of baseball but at the same time enable players to have negotiating privileges which they now do not have.”41 And days after Flood and Miller appeared with Cosell, the Philadelphia Tribune quoted Flood as saying, “I cannot be bought. I have too much integrity for that.” The statement was a rejoinder to the possibility of a financial settlement to drop the suit, but the paper emphasized that “it is doubtful that Flood will go beyond the goals of the Players Association” and that “Miller will be happy to get [an] option clause [similar to that in the National Football League] for major league players. He would settle for less as a start.”42 Later in January, after the details of the lawsuit began to circulate widely, the Afro-American printed another UPI article explaining that Flood had the support of at least one white player, Baltimore Oriole third baseman Brooks Robinson. Above all, the story of his endorsement operated as a pledge that Flood would not ruin baseball: “Major League players don’t want destruction of the reserve clause, only modification of the rule, veteran Baltimore third baseman Brooks Robinson said…. The All-Star Oriole infielder…said elimination was not the intention of the club representatives who voted support of Curt Flood’s suit challenging the controversial reserve clause.”43
The reports and UPI articles about Flood that appeared in the black press in early 1970 consistently offered reassurances that although Flood’s cause was principled and righteous, a fair recalibration of the reserve system would be sufficient to mute the threat posed to baseball by the lawsuit. Affirming Flood’s status as an employee or worker entailed an appreciative recognition of the basic economic architecture of sport. Defining Flood’s principle in terms as various as the American way, “free enterprise,” and the “free market economy” and asserting a collective labor subject on whose behalf Flood was fighting, black newspapers simultaneously cri-tiqued baseball ownership and inscribed the game itself with institutional legitimacy. In rhetorical strokes that shadowed the logic of liberal inclusion, baseball was characterized as a path of opportunity obstructed by (p.111) recalcitrant gatekeepers. However, this argument offered little rejoinder to the gatekeepers’ alarmist claim that abolition of the reserve clause would devastate baseball’s economic foundation. Relative to this position, the rhetorical problem for Flood’s advocates in the black press turned on the choice between Flood’s “rights” and the collapse of the institution they venerated—unless the terms of the debate could be shifted. Thus, constructs such as the American way, free enterprise, and the free market brought with them the basic vocabulary of reform, expressed variously as modification, alteration, adjustment, or improvement. In any case, abolition became terministic anathema to those in black newspapers voicing support for Flood.
The compromising impulse of the black press raises questions about the moral force implied behind the assertion of Flood’s principle and demonstrates the extent to which the owners’ catastrophic spectacle deter-mined the rhetorical choices of Flood’s public advocates. With “chaos” and “collapse” looming in the background, many opinion columnists in black newspapers found themselves conceding the owners’ anxieties. When news of Flood’s suit began to spread among players in early 1970, the Chicago Defender registered the dissent of Minnesota Twins star Harmon Killebrew, who warned, “This is just the way baseball is. There has to be control. With-out control there would be no baseball.”44 And, a March 1972 Amsterdam News piece worried that a Supreme Court decision in Flood’s favor might deal a deathblow to all of the major professional sports: “The Supreme Court may not give a decision and then again they may rule the reserve clause a slave master. Then again, if the Supreme Court rules against the reserve clause it may lead to the end of the major sports like football, base-ball, and basketball as we see it today.”45
The Chicago Defender’s Young backed both Flood and baseball owners on the way to making the case for modification of the reserve clause. “Base-ball, to be sure, has a legitimate argument, “Young proclaimed. “Owners and teams are entitled to some protection for their investment. “With almost the same dehumanizing vocabulary Flood had identified in The Way It Is, Young parroted the owners’ anxieties: “Total abolishment of the reserve clause very well may cause some chaos in the game, with the richer clubs grabbing off the best players.” The solution, then, consisted in an observation from “Chet Walker, player representative of the Chicago Bulls, [who] admitted that there is need for some sort of legal tie between player and club when he said, ‘I don’t think the reserve clause should be abolished. It should be modified so as not to bind a player to one team for his entire life.’”46 Like the Amsterdam News, Young suggested that the effects on baseball could ripple (p.112) outward in a way that threatened other sports. Young regarded players as “investments” that the owners had the right to protect. Moreover, Young used the owners’ favored term, chaos, to describe the results Flood’s victory might produce. In the end, the quotation from Walker balanced the argument back in Flood’s favor: the reserve system ought to be modified. Young and others supported Flood, in essence, through an argumentative retreat: If the reserve clause were adjusted to meet reasonable standards of professional respect, baseball’s error could be resolved and the game could go on.
At its core, however, the modification compromise indexed the flexibility of Flood’s “basic principle of human life” not just relative to its moral force but also in terms of its applied scope in public address. The call for modification rather than abolition of the reserve clause revealed cracks in the commitment to principle opened by the need to preserve the progressive legitimacy of baseball’s institutional existence, which in turn involved stretching Flood’s principle past his individual interests to fit it over the collective interests of professional baseball players as a group. In the Philadelphia Tribune, Rustin illustrated this maneuver:
Over 80 years ago John Montgomery Ward, a star outfielder with the New York Giants, called the reserve clause a form of “slavery.” The term is still appropriate. Flood was traded to the Phillies last October after twelve successful years with the Cardinals. The years of work he put into his profession, his desire to remain in St. Louis, his well being as an employee were all irrelevant beside the wish of some top management official to send him somewhere else. He was being treated, as Flood appropriately put it, “Like a slave.” Out of a sense of violated rights, he is mounting a campaign which in the end may benefit not only himself but all of his colleagues.47
Echoing Young’s point about professional “equity,” Rustin enacted the tropological elasticity of slavery. Ward was a nineteenth-century baseball player who became disgruntled with the “reserve rule’s” effects on the innocence of the “pastime” and thus attempted to start a “players’ league” that would operate according to the model of a cooperative.48 Rustin’s reference to Ward, a white player, removed the facts of Flood’s racial identity from the basic structure of the slavery argument. Moreover, by locating the consequences of the reserve clause in the violation of Flood’s professional “rights,” Rustin preserved baseball’s ground and observed Flood’s potential to protect the interests of a labor class broadly construed. Baseball treated (p.113) its players like slaves, implied Rustin, but not in an exercise of racial prejudice; instead, encouraged by a system rigged to enable their abuses, owners and management treated employees like possessions. Flood’s importance, then, lay in his potential to set his colleagues free.
The national sports press and black newspapers pursued routine coverage of Flood’s case in rhetorically congruent ways. The New York Times and the Sporting News fit Flood within the broader unfolding of baseball’s labor relations events, apprehending his lawsuit as the latest and maybe even most formidable indicator of the Players Association’s accumulating influence. Change was inevitable, these writers said, and each side had over-stated the situation. The Times and the Sporting News offered the inevitability of a negotiated compromise in place of either side’s extremist rhetoric; they replaced both the owners’ consequentialist dystopia and Flood’s deontic appeal to slavery with the pragmatism of adjustment and reform. The black press narrated events similarly, accepting and promoting the reformist dimension of Flood’s challenge with a vested symbolic interest in the protection of baseball. “Modification” operated to domesticate the racial hubris of Flood’s slavery argument. The black press’s interpretive charity extended to the recognition that Flood’s lawsuit was a matter of principle behind which Flood stood conscientiously but ended at the concession that baseball owners might have been onto something with “chaos.” In elaborating a principle that resided ultimately in Flood’s professional identity—in the unique labor subjectivity of the ballplayer—the black newspapers that covered his case regularly urged a path of sensible reform. Players were recognized “investments,” whether black or white, “slavery” was printed in quotation marks, and the racial symbolism of slavery was safely neutralized by the practical wisdom of compromise. For the Times and the Sporting News, Flood symbolized change already under way; for the black press, Flood was a worthy agent of institutional amelioration. In any case, the owners were purveyors of a false choice, and Flood was no mortal threat. Flood was right, and baseball would flourish.
Ultimately, Curt Flood lost in court. Despite the apocalyptic rhetoric employed by both Flood and the owners, the games in fact went on. In at least this sense, Koppett was right to suspect both sides of engaging in self-indulgent rhetorical brinkmanship. In the spring of 1973, owners locked the players out of camp for about a week before agreeing, among other things, (p.114) to salary arbitration and to the “ten and five rule,” which gave players the right to veto trades provided they had ten years of Major League service and at least five years with a particular team.49 In March of that year, the Baltimore Afro-American announced that the agreement “gave everyone remotely connected with sports cause to breathe relief.” The Afro’s editorial, however, focused not on a rhetorical exhale but on Flood, to whom “the players owe a debt of gratitude” and “who, after only two years, is virtually forgotten.” Under the headline “Curt Flood Pointed Way” on page 2 of the paper, the editors wrote,
Curt Flood turned his back on $95,000-a-year—and a career estimated at a quarter-million dollars—in order to battle singlehandedly against the reserve restriction that impales a player to the whim of a club which holds his contract.
Flood went all the way to the Supreme Court, with no Marvin Millers, no threat of strike, no nothing. He lost, but it must be acknowledged that the battle they were forced into by him had a distinct softening effect on the owners.
It is true that the Players’ Association supplied the money for Curt’s suit, but that means little. It is like the boxing promoter who furnished the gloves for two guys to fight to fill his pockets.
Besides, of what value is martyrdom?50
Such ultimately was Flood’s early legacy. Even the Afro, which through Lacy had categorically supported Flood, strained to remember him through baseball’s labor haze, assailing the error of the reserve clause. In this view, Flood’s importance rested on his status as a martyr to a compromise—he had a “softening effect”—even if the case had destroyed him personally. Echoing Koppett’s assertion in the days after the Court ruling, the Afro insisted that baseball players benefited from the negotiating position in which Flood had put them.
The Baltimore Afro-American no doubt perceptively noted the value of martyrdom to Flood but failed to recognize the value of Flood’s martyrdom to the public claims of the black bourgeoisie. Flood helped the black press record three achievements: First, supporting Flood meant supporting a black player whose blackness could be relegated to the margins of the cause, thereby enacting the political rhetoric of color-blind justice with rare effectiveness. Having prudently inserted the meaning and significance of Flood’s racial identity into the limited confines of his individual (p.115) consciousness, black newspapers fit Flood into a mode of representation that was explicitly nonracial. Speaking in a rhetoric consistent with that found in outlets such as the New York Times and the Sporting News, they removed the question of race from serious public debate. Nevertheless, the black press, marked by its blackness and accustomed to fighting injustice, still found ways to advocate Flood’s cause with demonstrable principled intent. Second, then, Flood’s circumstances were abstracted not relative to a collective black subject but instead relative to a universal labor subject with righteous claims to free enterprise, the free market, and the American way. All at once, black newspapers rebutted the bellicose accusation that Flood was acting greedily and identified his circumstances as representative of an upwardly mobile black middle class. The plumber and the auto mechanic, as Flood analogues, were crucial to this process, since they collapsed the differences internal to blackness in a transpositional movement toward universality and redoubled the black civic commitment to a shared—that is, integrated—national interest. Third, once professionalized and emptied of racial and class-inflected meaning, the principle for which Flood stood and the slavery metaphor, both of which contained embryonic threads linking freedom to race, labor, and human rights, became subject to the political discourse and logic of liberalism. The value of “principle” was cashed out in terms of institutional reform, and “slavery” was exposed as a mere expression, a dramatization, or a regrettable rhetorical gambit essential to pushing the two sides closer toward acceptable reform. In essence, black newspapers had it both ways: They advocated Flood in a persuasive defense of universal justice and simultaneously fought to protect an institution—baseball—with nearly unmatched symbolic importance to liberalism’s progress narrative. All things considered, Flood served elegantly as a protagonist. He was a black man fighting for the right cause against the right establishment, and through it all, his blackness could be made to disappear.
(1) . Lomax, “Curt Flood,” 61, 62. Lomax’s essay is an exceptionally loyal retelling of Flood’s The Way It Is and thus offers little nuance relative to the notion of sensitivity as it would be elaborated in both black newspapers and the national sports press. (p.191)
(8) . This point anchored the “gratitude” rhetoric that many observers, including Lomax, Leonard, and Early, take to be the rhetorical signature of a racist discourse.
(9) . Koppett, “Flood’s Suit”; Koppett, “Baseball Chiefs.” The full text of the Cronin-Feeney statement was also published via the United Press International by a number of black newspapers, including the Chicago Defender (“Cronin, Feeney”). The congressional committee in question was assembled by U.S. Representative Emmanuel Celler in 1951, about twenty years before Flood’s “attack.”
(26) . “Found—An ‘Abe Lincoln’ of Baseball,” 110.
(27) . “Vida, Curt May Change Baseball Reserve Clause.”
(28) . Perhaps these advocates took their metaphor from Flood, who made this comparison in The Way It Is (15). It is also possible that Flood borrowed this metaphor from his coverage in the press. In either case, the effect is the same: to resolve the tension between compensation and oppression through a comparison to baseball players and working-class forms of labor.
(33) . “On a Collision Course.”
(34) . “Genuine Bargaining Only Solution.”
(37) . “Batter Up in Court.”
(41) . “Flood Might Sue”; “Players to Back Curt Flood.”
(42) . “Flood Will Stick to His Guns.”
(43) . “Brooks Robinson Backs Curt Flood.”
(44) . “Killebrew Hits Flood Court Suit.”
(45) . “Vida, Curt May Change Baseball Reserve Clause.”
(48) . For an insightful discussion of Ward, as well as a brief history of the attempted Players’ League, which had dissolved by 1890, see Zimbalist, Baseball and Billions, 4–6. Ward’s challenge to an early version of the National League’s reserve clause proved successful in the New York Supreme Court, but by the time his legal victory was achieved, the Players’ League had dissolved due to insolvency. See also Di Salvatore, Clever Base-Ballist.
(49) . This agreement to arbitration led to Peter Seitz, the owners’ appointed arbitrator, releasing Messersmith and McNally from their contracts in 1975. See Miller, Whole Different Ballgame, chap. 13, 238–53. As far as the owners were concerned, the damage had been done; nevertheless, Seitz was promptly fired. For an account of Seitz’s firing, see Miller, Whole Different Ballgame, 250–51.
(50) . “Curt Flood Pointed Way.”