- Curt Flood in the Media: Baseball, Race, and the Demise of the Activist-Athlete by Abraham Iqbal Khan
“I’m a well-paid slave, but nonetheless a slave,” said Curt Flood to Howard Cosell on January 3, 1970. Those controversial words sent shockwaves throughout American culture. Simultaneously vilified as an ungrateful athlete earning $90,000 annually and praised for his decision to assert control over his career, Flood, an all-star centerfielder with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1960s, was traded after the 1969 baseball season to the Philadelphia Phillies but refused to report to the team arguing that he was not legally required to do so against his will. Challenging baseball’s authority, Flood sued Major League Baseball on the grounds that the reserve clause, binding players in perpetuity to their teams unless they were traded or sold, was a violation of anti-trust laws and a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment prohibiting involuntary servitude. Abraham Iqbal Khan’s well-written Curt Flood in the Media is a “historical investigation of the public discourse and political culture” surrounding Flood. Flood’s legal case ultimately led to free agency and exorbitant salaries in baseball; however, Khan refocuses the discussion about Flood’s status as a pioneer to ask how the mainstream and black press portrayed Flood’s decision and the central position of race in these public-sphere discussions. Khan argues that Flood was not a “victim of a uniformly hostile press” as historically assumed; rather, he became the focal point for various competing advocacy groups.
Organized into six chapters, Khan’s book begins with an analysis of Flood as an athlete-activist. Situated in a context of social and cultural unrest and transition, Flood’s lawsuit came on the heels of the Civil Rights movement and at a time when some prominent African-American athletes were politically active, from Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, and Lew Alcindor to John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympic games. Khan suggests Flood is “implicated in producing the damaging allure of athletics” for black youth but ironically signals the end of the African-American athlete-activist. The problem, Khan submits, rests with society and culture that celebrate wealthy athletes. In chapter 2, Khan discusses Flood’s 1970 book The Way It Is and how Flood employs racial language about baseball owners and their treatment of players in order to convey the image of a baseball player as a “slave” bought and sold at will. With his close reading of Flood, Khan suggests that Flood’s slaves were not defined by racial identity, rather by their economic situation. Players were expected to assume a slave persona and perpetually express their gratitude to the owners. [End Page 547]
In chapter 3 Khan explores how the black press, “fundamentally shaped” by Jackie Robinson’s integration of baseball in the 1940s, overwhelmingly supported Flood yet denied the importance of race in Flood’s case. Discussing how the black press historically agitated for profound changes in society that would improve the lives of all people, Khan suggests that the black press, in their advocacy for Robinson and Flood, explicitly moved away from racial rhetoric in the black public sphere to present their liberal view of society. With its intriguing title “The Disappearance of Curt Flood’s Blackness” chapter 4 focuses on how the national sports media and black press portrayed Flood’s lawsuit. With great detail, Khan reveals how the New York Times and The Sporting News had begun portraying sports as ever-increasing, lucrative business even before Flood’s lawsuit. Transcending race, Flood’s lawsuit revealed the new reality of highly paid athletes and Flood, as a person, was placed in the middle of the century-long player/owner conflict.
“Race, Slavery, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete” and “Race and Memory in Sport’s Public Sphere” conclude the book. At just thirty years old, Flood was willing to sacrifice his career and risk the wrath of major league owners for a...