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Portrait of a lonely baseball pioneer

A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood's Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports
By Brad Snyder
Viking, 472 pp., illustrated, $25.95

Curt Flood was an all- star baseball player who had 12 St. Louis Cardinals seasons under his belt. One morning after the 1969 campaign, he got a phone call telling him that he'd been traded to Philadelphia. He objected to being treated like property, and he filed a lawsuit against, among others, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

The case against baseball's "reserve clause" eventually wound its way to the US Supreme Court as Flood v. Kuhn. Flood lost , but the way in which Major League Baseball defended itself opened the gates to inevitable free agency. Within a few years, ballplayers started to reap the financial rewards that followed his struggle.

A struggle it was, and it cost Flood dearly. Flood was well paid for his day, and he could likely have played several more years, but the principle bothered him. He could be sold or traded from one club to the next without his consent, and that made him feel like a slave, albeit a well-paid one. Just a little over 20 years earlier, his fellow African -American and his hero, Jackie Robinson , had been the first to integrate Major League Baseball. Flood was a pioneer of another sort.

Flood experienced overt racism coming up in baseball, having to room in black boardinghouses and having his laundry done separately from that of his white teammates. It was never easy, but he became an all- star centerfielder. To pursue his lawsuit, he had to sacrifice, putting himself in economic straits. He had to demonstrate economic harm and thus could not accept other playing offers, or else render his case moot. The fledgling Players Association agreed to cover his legal bills, but his fellow ballplayers feared speaking out. Flood was more or less alone.

Author Brad Snyder quit his job as an attorney with a Washington firm to research and write this book, and his legal acumen shows. Snyder provides a sense of familiarity with the legal dramas that ebbed and flowed in the case. Snyder offers a much richer book than another on Flood that appeared earlier this year, Alex Belth's competent " Stepping Up. " Snyder provides a robust and poignant understanding of the turmoil that Flood suffered. He struggled with family estrangement and alcoholism, while hounded by creditors.

And the legal star to which he hitched his wagon -- former Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg -- was distracted and unprepared in court. The court eventually found against Flood, though Chief Justice Warren Burger characterized its finding as the "least undesirable course."

There was some personal redemption for Flood in later years, and there were enough honors and recognition that he enjoyed some peace before the discovery of the throat cancer that killed him at 59. Just the Christmas before, he had written friends, "I am in the process of living happily ever after."

Bill Nowlin is the author of "Day by Day With the Boston Red Sox."

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