Wednesday, August 3, 2011


"How large is the price, how endless the nagging pain that must be paid for a personal assertion against the familiar ways of the world... that most of us lack the strength to pay."-- Irving Howe

No fan who writes a web log about professional sports does so unless the emotional reward exceeds the compensation money can supply. I include myself in this company. Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and to a lesser extent, the NBA, at their most competitive, arouse in me a visceral passion the world outside of fiction rarely can satisfy. Still, my love for the Game has rarely migrated backstage to embrace any particular sentiment for its players.

This isn't to say that I haven't admired or respected or celebrated a select few for their dedication to their craft; or for the rigor of their discipline; or for the grace and beauty their performances consistently exhibit, or for their capacity-- in moments when the odds, the elements, age or injury, or dwindling talent conspire against them-- nonetheless to muster reservoirs of mettle, desire, ingenuity, and resilience and to defy the clock, to overcome the score, to foil an opponent, to silence the critics and to transcend the seeming limits of the body's strength and the spirit's endurance and to wring victory from defeat by sheer force of will.

Muhammad Ali, Dan Marino, Bernard King, Reggie Jackson, David Cone, Bernie Williams, to name just a few, have inspired me in their triumphs--- and, on occasion, notwithstanding their defeats-- to believe that every once and a while, if only for brief and fleeting moments, that in spite of genetic endowment, ingrained character, adverse conditions and mortal flesh, we actually can guide our destinies and triumph over circumstance.

Yet I wouldn't consider any of these men "heroes" of mine either. I don't idolize professional athletes individually or collectively. Their personal lives don't especially interest me. Their money and celebrity don't infatuate me. My awe, respect, and gratitude for them doesn't differ materially, in fact, from the sentiment awakened by an especially vivid fictional character a gifted and incandescent actor has animated on stage. The performance stirs me, not the actor in costume or the man inside the uniform.

This may explain why the widespread idea that professional athletes should act as role models and uphold some irreproachable standard of rectitude and decorum, few among us actually observe, because little children look up to them always has struck me as rank hypocrisy-- at best, a gross abdication of responsibility, and at worst, a perverse rationalization for it. If children idolize athletes or aspire to emulate them, then the fault, dear Brutus, lies with us.
For we have failed then as adults to propagate moral values more lofty and eternal than fame, wealth, and status and have failed as a country to throw up, for emulation, heroic examples beyond those who embody our religion of success. Power no less than impotence abhors a vacuum. In a void, a child will venerate the idol nearest at hand.

Excellence alone, after all, does not a hero make.

To paraphrase the author Albert Murray, a hero is the representative man who pits himself against the inhuman-- atrocity, injustice, brute nature. Yet half the reason the boxing ring, the gridiron, the parquet, or the Diamond exert their hold on our imagination is because through their concrete color-blind rules, their professional impartial judges, their tangible, quantifiable, and immediate reward of merit they enclose a Platonic arena from which the bugaboos upon which the hero forges his sword have been banished. When men in uniform fan across the field, it evokes in our imagination, to quote Joseph O'Neill in Netherland, an arena of perfect justice.

Along the way, the professional athlete certainly invites failure and defeat; he certainly contends with the elements; and on occasion, he even risks bodily harm. The hero however confronts ostracism, vengeance, infamy and death. This is because he doesn't merely confront danger; the hero seeks it. And he welcomes its mortal antagonism because in the sacrifice he incurs to contest it, he honors a value higher than his financial security, his social status, his personal reputation, or even his life. For by doing so, Murray tells us, he magnifies "the glory of courage, the power of endurance, [and] the splendor of self-sacrifice... [P]romising young men... do not become heroes by simply keeping their police records clean and their grade point averages high enough to qualify them for status jobs and good addresses inside the castle walls" Or, one might add, nor do they merely rack up home run totals high enough to enter Halls of Fame.

No, before any professional baseball player can lay claim to the hero's mantle, he has to have risked and sacrificed for a cause greater than himself and to have suffered the revilement and decimation begotten because of it. He has to have endured the tragic fate of Curt Flood. Indeed, as HBO's documentary "The Curious Case of Curt Flood" portrays him and his sacrificial battle with Major League Baseball-- a portrait that never shrinks from the smoldering pride and stubborn defiance and frequently improvident excess that underwrote its protagonist's reckless courage and flawed nobility-- its creators have identified in Curtis Charles Flood a consummate America hero and man truly deserving of a Hall of Fame.

For those of you unacquainted with Flood's biography or his story's significance in baseball history, I summarize.

On October 7, 1969, a mere year removed from the St. Louis Cardinals' second consecutive National League pennant-- honors which owed a great deal to their star center-fielder-- the franchise traded the 31 year old, 3-time all-star outfielder to the Philadelphia Phillies. Rumors of the Cardinals' intent to trade the fleet outfielder had circulated throughout the season. And Flood swore if it came to fruition, he'd defy it and refuse to go. Good to his word, Flood never reported to Phillies' camp. But rather than concede the immutable unfairness of a system that denied a man any say in where he played even after his 11+ years of service to it and merely retire with his reputation and equanimity secure, Flood chose instead to fight City Hall.

Contesting his trade, in January 1970, Flood filed suit against Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Major League Baseball, and all the League's then 24 clubs. In it, the former Cardinal contested the League's then existing "reserve clause" regime -- so-called because every player's contract contained a provision in which his team "reserved" the right to renew their players' contract indefinitely and at whatever salary the club chose-- as an illegal restraint of trade under the Sherman anti-trust Act; an unconstitutional violation of the 13th Amendment's prohibition of involuntary servitude according to the 13th Amendment; and unlawful breach of any number of Civil Rights Acts. Flood v. Kuhn essentially asked the Court to repeal baseball's anti-trust exemption, to annul the reserve clause in every player's contract, and to grant Flood and derivatively, all players, the right to free agency. The player's union financed the suit with this very motive. And its President, Marvin Miller, in fact, warned its lead plaintiff before he initiated the action the grave risk he assumed. At best, he could win a Pyrrhic victory. The Court would award him a right in principle, no team then would choose to exercise in practice. Triumph might introduce free agency to baseball from which fellow and future players could profit. However, Flood, himself, would remain a free-agent forever.

Heads, Major League Baseball wins; tails, Flood loses. Seldom have men risked so much to gain so little.

In March 1970, Flood lost his petition for a preliminary injunction. In August, he lost his claim for a permanent injunction and for damages. Two years later, Flood lost on appeal at the Supreme Court. In between, he lost his physical skills and mental stamina, his capacity to focus and his will to play; as a brief, halfhearted, and abortive attempt at a comeback with the Washington Senators in 1971 ended in anguish.

13 games into the 1971, his career came to an abrupt and fateful ending. At the age of 33, Curt Flood had played his last inning in professional baseball.

Now, as any fan of the game knows, teams deal players all the time, uprooting them from their homes and sending them to work half-way across the country. Most of the time, abstract numbers and competitive need propel the transaction. And sure, a baseball player insulated from America's tortured racial history might have perceived his trade as nothing more sordid than business as usual: the Cardinals suffered from lack of power; the Phillies, lack of speed. The Cardinals coveted Phillies' first-baseman Dick Allen's thirty-plus home runs. The Phillies, on the other hand, desired Flood's defensive prowess, plate discipline, and proficiency at generating runs through his speed. However, in this instance, critical elements beyond the players' complementary skills-- indeed beyond the field entirely-- drove the Flood-Allen transaction.

In the essay, "Curt Flood, Gratitude, and the Image of Baseball" collected in his recent book "A Level Playing Field," Professor Gerald Early explains. Both Flood and Allen had developed the reputation of being "problem players". Worse still, at a time when baseball still expected the black athlete to repay his sufferance with grace, humility, and gratitude, both were black "problem players". Richie Allen, a tense, brooding, withdrawn man, had earned the stigma by antagonizing his teammates and alienating Philadelphia's white-working class fan base through fights, unexplained absences, and self-inflicted injury. (The first-baseman, notoriously, cut the tendons in his hand by putting his hand through his car's headlight.) In St. Louis, on the other hand, fans and teammates alike adored and respected the gregarious and urbane Flood. Bob Gibson, in fact, appears in interviews throughout HBO's documentary and exudes the affection and admiration he must have felt for Flood in recalling their time together. [**]

Cardinals' management, it seems, shared Gibson's affection initially. Then, however, the organization's prize center-fielder chose to criticize his team's trade of Orlando Cepeda for a first-baseman named Joe Torre. This also happened to follow a petty and gratuitous speech team owner, August Busch Jr., delivered during Spring Training about thankless ballplayers earning high salaries and incurring no risks. After which, his center-field hand, evidently, compounded his trespasses by committing baseball's cardinal sin. Flood dared to suggest that perhaps owning a monopoly in St. Louis baseball franchises might expose its proprietor to something less than the perilous vulnerability an independent business owner or pioneering entrepreneur risks. And in doing so, he violated, what Early calls, baseball's reigning ethic of gratitude-- the dogma that the game's players (its blacks especially) owe a debt of thanks to its owners and fans, as if professional athletics were a privilege its industry vouchsafes rather than a status the athlete earns.

Early writes,

"The professional baseball industry [this includes all the yahoo sportswriters it co-opts] fosters the expectation of gratitude by mythologizing the game...propagandizing it as a symbol of American democratic values.... thus masterfully and subtly turning the public against any player who does not express that he feels blessed to be playing it."

In 1976, the odious reserve clause regime did topple however. In the Messersmith-McNally case, a labor arbitrator discerned the fundamental injustice the Supreme Court had allowed sentimentality to obscure and awarded the two players free agency. From there, the marketplace swamped the old regime and Versailles crumbled soon afterward. Approximately one hundred years after its founding, America's pastime finally accepted the principle of free labor.

And so, two years later, writer Richard Reeves decided to interview the man who'd dealt the foundation its first blow. But free agency's lonely standard-bearer had suffered for his cause in the intervening years and had no desire to revisit the battlefield. His joust with the windmills had left him battered, broken, and desolate and had stripped him to a shell of the man he once was. As it turned out, the scaffolding that he'd dislodged eventually had fallen, but in the interim, fragments of debris had landed on top of him.

When Reeves finally caught up to him, Flood had begged him to withdraw. "Please, please...don't bring it all up again. Please. Do you know what I've been through? Do you know what it means to go against the grain of the country? Your neighbors hate you. Do you know what it's like to be called the little black son of a bitch who tried to destroy baseball, the American Pastime?"

Flood's "Battle Royal" had cost him first a career. Then turning him into an outcast and sending him into a European exile, it cost him his home, his moorings and his standing. Then, saddled with rage and resentment, wandering for a decade in search of the solace of anonymity and oblivion, it cost him self-possession and peace of mind. Until finally, home again, robbed of sanity and financial security; choking on the bile that comes of bitterness swallowed and anguish stifled, the injustice that he'd gambled everything to rectify eroded his defenses, deformed his character, cost him his health and claimed his life. The man whose implacable voice Baseball could not throttle, throat cancer silenced. Curtis Charles Flood died a largely forgotten man at age 59.

To its credit, HBO has resurrected Flood's story and brought him the recognition and vindication he has long deserved. Still, it bears asking the question: does the institution responsible for destroying this man honor and revere him for his courage and perseverance or exalt and cherish him his sacrifice? Who grieves the loss of free agency's John the Baptist. The $30 million a year superstar Flood enabled? The membership of the Player's Association he empowered? The $7 billion a year corporate industry known as Baseball Inc. that now reaps titanic profits from the very free agency-- through the Hollywood star system free agency wrought--- Curt Flood once espoused and Major League Baseball, in all its myopic atavism, battled so ruthlessly to defeat?

Where in Cooperstown's stands a monument for the man who spearheaded the end of the indentured servitude to which baseball's owners clung as though not only the game itself but their very livelihoods depended on it? Where shines a bust to the genuine hero who "struck out against injustice... and whose tiny ripple of hope... had swept away a mighty wall of oppression and resistance;" whose act spawned a revolution in a pastime steeped in its own hidebound prejudices and romantic nostalgia and liberated it from its own worst intractable, self-defeating proclivities? In all baseball's vain, self-aggrandizing, and meretricious rhetoric about heroes and legends, where does it hallow the memory of Curtis Charles Flood?

Nowhere. And notwithstanding HBO's arresting and much-needed documentary about him, America's pastime isn't likely to fete him anytime soon. For Curt Flood's biography belongs to the counter-myth of baseball. It is the story of ruthlessness and brutality and greed baseball doesn't like to acknowledge and the nation doesn't wish to hear. It's the story of Josh Gibson, Donnie Moore, Charlie Shoemaker, Doug Ault, Brian Powell, and most recently, Hideki Irabu: these are the men the game used up, discarded, and then disposed of; men it as good as killed or literally left to die. Their tragedies people the real-life grotesque of depression, suicide, alcoholism, failure, and ignominy that is flip side to baseball's certified mythology about heroes, legends, fame, glory and the American Dream.

And here lies Curtis Charles Flood's greatest significance. For as much he may epitomize the doomed innocent in a racial parable or signify the tormented athlete in a sports anti-myth, Curt Flood figures ultimately as the noble martyr and paladin in a grand American Tragedy.

He personifies the great national tradition of implacable resistance and vehement dissent running from Roger Williams through Patrick Henry and Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King. The Citizen so exercised by injustice, so intolerant of oppression, so immune to the Bitch Goddess' allure that he will court failure, risking wealth, career, power, prestige, reputation, standing, family, love, and if necessary, life itself in behalf of a cause-- in behalf of, for Americans, the cause. It is the cause for which religious dissidents, venturesome settlers, dissolute colonials and incorrigible revolutionaries defied the power and might of the greatest empire on earth to secure an elementary human principle and from it, to spawn a new kind of a nation-- one without ancestral monarchs, inherited classes, or an established church and where its citizen controlled his fate, above all, through the inviolate right to sell his labor and to own its fruits.

By another name we call it the cause of freedom. And to introduce it into one of the new nation's oldest institutions no less than a hundred years after its organized birth, the St. Louis Cardinals' center-fielder invested and lost everything -- career, livelihood, status, family, equanimity, health and life.

Yet a game which doesn't salute the heroic sacrifice of Curtis Charles Flood accordingly or commemorate his brave struggle or mourn his tragic legacy or establish a place for his daring gallant failure alongside the anodyne successes celebrated in its Hall of Fame isn't deserving of its national mantle: The so-called "American pastime" is just another name.


**In fact, anyone who wants to witness an example the fundamental distinction between a champion athlete and a genuine hero need only compare respectively the savvy and artful accommodation Gibson admits he negotiated with the status quo and the self-destructive, bullheaded confrontation with it Gibson ascribes to Flood. Gibson's enigmatic personality and calculated tact seem to mine a survival strategy belonging to a very different tradition in his people's history. One to which Ralph Ellison memorably voiced it in the Invisible Man's father's death-bed confession: "Live with your head in the lion's mouth... overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, and agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open." In this, Gibson acts as Daniel to Curt Flood's Samson.

[1] We saw this expectation resurface recently in the clamor about whether Derek Jeter "owed" it to the fans to appear in the 2011 All-Star game. Expecting as much from Jeter is the equivalent of Anheuser-Busch demanding that its CFO play in the beer industry's (not even the company's, mind you) annual exhibition softball game during his summer's single four-day weekend.

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