At the end of the 1969 Major League Baseball season, the St. Louis Cardinals traded their all-star centerfielder, Curt Flood, to the Philadelphia Phillies. Refusing the trade and seeking his unconditional release, Flood filed a lawsuit suit in federal court accusing baseball owners of exercising a collusive labor restriction - the "reserve clause" - in violation of federal antitrust statues. Flood's lawsuit was heard by the Supreme Court in 1972, and even though he lost, many observers have credited his case with transforming sport into its present form as high-salaried spectacle; Curt Flood inspired "free agency." In January 1970, weeks after filing suit, Flood appeared on national television and described himself as a "well-paid slave." At the time, some observers saw this as a fair analogy to his working conditions, and others saw it as an indecorous, racially motivated attack on the national pastime. With the remark, Flood initiated a public discussion of sport's labor practices that threatened not only baseball's sacrosanct pastoral image, but also its status, established through Jackie Robinson, as a cultural referent of racial progress. In the context of contemporary anxieties regarding the disappearance of the black activist athlete, Curt Flood is commended by many contemporary critics for having fought a lonely battle against the sports establishment. This nostalgic impulse, I assert, contains a paradox: Flood is martyred as the hero who made athletes rich, but it is the wealth of black athletes that is often blamed for their tragic disengagement from politics. By refusing to sell-out, Flood seems to have created a generation of sell-outs.
This project investigates what many believe to be his only consistent source of support: the black press. In both Flood's historical moment and in the annals of public memory, Flood's blackness figures into his case prominently but ambivalently. As he is often remembered, Flood's racial experiences as a minor-leaguer in the south "sensitized" him to injustice which, in turn, motivated him to sacrifice his career in defense of a universal, "colorblind" principle. I argue that such a position overlooks the ways in which the protean appearance of Flood's racial identity helped the black press construct a liberal political imagination, one that is currently faced with a crisis of representation over the meaning of the activist-athlete. Unlike other athletes of his era taking principled stands on matters of racial justice, Curt Flood's challenge required the formation of an interracial coalition with white players. As such, the public discourse surrounding his case offered black newspapers the rhetorical resources necessary to elaborate the ostensibly universal premises of liberal integrationism. Consonant with the ways in which they awkwardly imagined their own institutional existence, black newspapers presented Flood as the black embodiment of a universal principle. In short, I argue that as sport and liberalism found convenient articulations in the black public sphere through Flood, the problem of race disappeared from view. Consequently, sport was preserved as a cultural space in which the success and wealth of black athletes indexed liberalism's progressive character.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. September 2010. Major: Communication Studies. Advisor: Kirt Wilson. 1 computer file (PDF); ii, 483 pages.
Baseball in the Black Public Sphere: Curt Flood and the disappearance of race..
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