Books: May-June 2007

June 1, 2007

 

<i>A Well-Paid Slave</i>: Curt Flood's Fight for Free Agency in Professional SportsA Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood's Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports

By Brad Snyder '94. Viking, 2006. 480 pages. $25.95.

Heroes are always more interesting when presented as fully formed people. Jackie Robinson's first season in the majors, sixty years ago, must have taken an unimaginable toll on him, and that's the problem—it's still nearly unimaginable.

We know Robinson kept his promise to Branch Rickey and didn't fight back against verbal and physical assaults during the 1947 season. We know Kentucky-born Pee Wee Reese put a sheltering arm around Robinson on the field in Cincinnati during an especially hot and difficult day. We know Robinson was exceptionally brave and a damn fine ballplayer, considering baseball was his third-best sport. But while his story has been the stuff of legend for two or three generations now, we don't really know Jackie Robinson, the man. Maybe now that Brad Snyder has finished his meticulously researched and spellbinding biography of Curt Flood, he should consider doing something about that.

If you don't immediately grasp Curt Flood's significance, or why he's worthy of the treatment he receives in Snyder's A Well-Paid Slave, welcome to the club. I've worked in and around baseball for twenty-two years, and while I was aware of Flood as a vaguely tragic figure whose lawsuit against the reserve clause destroyed his career but paved the way for Alex Rodriguez to make $252 million, I'd never taken the time to learn the details.

In the mid- to late 1960s, with Mickey Mantle crippled by bad knees and Willie Mays winding down, Curt Flood was baseball's best centerfielder. He helped the St. Louis Cardinals win three pennants and a World Series in the decade, earning seven Gold Gloves for his defense.

Flood was on the cusp of his first $100,000-a-year deal, which would have put him among the game's elite earners in those antiquated times. But after twelve seasons, the Cardinals sensed correctly that the thirty-one-year-old was past his prime, so with barely a farewell they traded him to Philadelphia in December of 1969. The Cardinals thought it was just business as usual. But they didn't know Curt Flood.

Flood was by nature and heritage a fighter. His mother, Laura, had battled racism in DeRidder, Louisiana, as far back as 1915. Slapped by a white sales clerk in a lumber mill's company store, Laura fought back, and to avoid retribution, she and her family fled to Oakland, California.

Curtis, the youngest of her five children, loved baseball, and he was talented enough to earn a contract from the Cincinnati Reds. Playing in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia in 1956 and '57, Flood got a bitter taste of what Robinson had experienced. "One of my first and enduring memories," he said of his time in High Point-Thomasville, "is of a large, loud cracker who installed himself and his four little boys in a front-row box and started yelling 'black bastard' at me."

Flood was playing winter ball in Venezuela—1958 was to be his rookie year in the big leagues—when he found out that rather than field the majors' first all-black outfield, the Reds had dealt him to St. Louis. Humiliated and angry, he vowed he would never let himself be traded again.

But thanks to a 1922 Supreme Court ruling (written by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., no less), Flood didn't have much recourse. Here's where Snyder, a lawyer, really stands out, bringing to life the characters and decisions that have unjustly maintained Major League Baseball's antitrust exemption. Alone among major sports, baseball is not considered to be interstate commerce (try and wrap your mind around that one), and for more than 100 years a byproduct of this legal monopoly was something called the reserve clause. Essentially it stipulated that a player was bound to his contract for life, with no prospect of free agency and no ability to determine his own professional fate.

Flood was deeply influenced not just by his own experiences but by the civil-rights movement. He was a prominent supporter of the NAACP, he had spoken at rallies in Mississippi alongside Medgar Evers, and, as Snyder discovered, he was among the many thousands of Americans in those days who came under surveillance by the FBI. In California, Flood fought and won in court against a racist landlord who had tried to prevent him from moving into a house he'd rented. So his reaction at being packed off to Philly, the Siberia of the National League at the time, was to just say no. "A Well-Paid Slave," he told Howard Cosell, "is nonetheless a slave."

Enlisting the support of Marvin Miller, the executive director of the nascent MLB Players Association, Flood elected to take on the baseball establishment. Snyder takes us inside the judicial process for dramatic testimony from a wide range of characters, including Jackie Robinson himself. Hobbled by the side effects of advanced diabetes, half-blind, and prematurely gray, Robinson appeared in a federal courtroom in New York's Foley Square—the dramatic highlight of the book. In prophetic and sometimes bitter tones, Robinson doesn't just advocate free agency, he forecasts its advent. "Unless there is a change in the reserve clause," he testified, "it is going to lead to a serious strike."

Snyder's account of the Supreme Court's machinations and ultimate ruling against Flood rivals the scenes in Bob Woodward's The Brethren. And the story of what happens to Flood, mentally and physically, is right out of The Lost Weekend. Flood lost in court, but it was the loss of his baseball career that brought out his worst qualities for a time. He was profligate, a womanizer, and often profoundly drunk. After gaining renown as an amateur artist, he passed off the work of others as his own. But with the help of his third wife, Judy, he pulled out of his spiral and even found ways to reconnect with baseball before his death from throat cancer in 1997.

Flood's case focused national attention on MLB's restrictive rules. By 1976, under Miller's leadership and in the aftermath of two work stoppages, the union succeeded in modifying the reserve clause. Today, Flood's old teammates sound justifiably embarrassed that they let him go through his ordeal alone. Not one Cardinals player spoke out on his behalf, or even showed up in court to support him. Says Joe Torre: "I can't give you a good reason why we weren't there."

Unlike Curt Flood, they couldn't muster the courage to stand up for themselves. Sometimes that's all it takes to make a man a hero.

The Foundation: A Great American Secret

The Foundation: A Great American Secret
By Joel L. Fleishman. Public Affairs, 2006. 280 pages. $27.95.

There are some 68,000 foundations in America, holding assets of half a trillion dollars and making grants of more than $30 billion a year. It is this diverse, unruly, and growing universe that Joel Fleishman defines and describes in The Foundation: A Great American Secret. Fleishman, a Duke professor of law and public-policy studies, knows whereof he speaks. He has been a foundation executive, a trustee, and a phenomenally successful grant seeker. He organizes a faculty seminar through Duke's Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy that brings foundation leaders to campus to discuss how foundations develop their visions and measure their impact. Fleishman is a keen observer of the philanthropic scene and a careful analyst of the trends and foibles of this "secret" sector.

It is important to note that Fleishman confines his work to the very large foundations that engage in what he calls "instrumental giving." Instrumental giving seeks to achieve particular social aims. Expressive giving, on the other hand, simply "expresses" the foundation's approval of or loyalty to an institution, without necessarily seeking to change it. His universe is, then, narrowed to the 2 percent of foundations that control 70 percent of all the assets. His aim is to examine those foundations that have achieved high impact.

Why secret? Why does the public know so little about this large and powerful segment of our society? Fleishman finds the chief ailments of foundations to be lack of accountability and lack of transparency—"foundations are not, in effect, accountable to anyone," he concludes. They are required to file annual tax returns and to give away a mandated percentage of their assets each year, but there is no "authority" that monitors what they fund. And they do not publish descriptions of their failures. Indeed, only a tiny fraction even print an annual report.

How do foundations achieve high impact? What are the barriers? How can they do better? These are his chief concerns. Fleishman and his staff have analyzed 100 case studies, but twelve are included in the book. Thus, there is empirical evidence for the conclusions that discipline, boundaries, and persistence are key ingredients. There is a chapter with the ominous title "How Foundations Fail." There is also good information on new trends in philanthropy; for instance, the old "stock picker" model gives way to "venture" philanthropy, where foundations join grantees in "doing" the projects, not just funding them. There is also a strong recommendation for foundations to self-regulate by becoming more open about their decision-making processes and their failures. He suggests a new system of oversight for all nonprofits, not just foundations. He suggests that the IRS or a new government agency might tackle this unwieldy task.

Yet despite the cautions and caveats, Fleishman is adamantly in favor of foundations. His book, largely written in the first person, reads like a companionable essay, written by an affectionate observer. It is a valiant attempt to bring the "great American secret" into the light of a bright new day.