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Saturday Sports: James Wiseman, Junior Johnson


It's time for sports.


SIMON: The best player in basketball just dropped out - ahead of midterms. The last American hero leaves the track. And $324 million to throw a baseball. Is this a great country or what? NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman joins us. Tom, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Oh, hi. Just hi? Not season's greetings, not love from your family to my family?

GOLDMAN: All of that is implied in hi.

SIMON: All right. Hi. In any event - all right, we've got to get through this. James Wiseman from Memphis, may be the best player in college basketball, withdrew from the university because of what we call eligibility issues. It's becoming a trend, isn't it?

GOLDMAN: You know, Scott, right now, three U.S. players who are projected as top picks in next June's NBA draft, they will not go the normal route via college. Wiseman, as you mentioned, just withdrew to prepare for the draft. Two other 18-year-olds, R.J. Hampton, LaMelo Ball, they're playing professionally in the Australian-New Zealand NBL, the National Basketball League. They're both injured, but they have been playing well.

And, you know, if they do all go early in the draft, there's a good chance this inspires other young men coming out of high school to bypass college and try other options that help get their professional hoops career started.

SIMON: Yeah. Gerrit Cole signed a nine-year contract with the New York Yankees that's about worth the same amount of money as Belgium. And in the press conference that followed, he cited Curt Flood - you almost have to explain who he was - who wrote a very famous Christmas Eve letter to Major League Baseball how many years ago?

GOLDMAN: 50 years ago this coming Tuesday, Christmas Eve. He sent that letter to then commissioner Bowie Kuhn, challenging baseball's reserve clause, which tied a player to the team that signed him, and that team could trade the player or cut him. And the player had no say. And Flood had just learned he'd been traded to Philadelphia after a dozen years with St. Louis. And he said this in the letter - after 12 years in the major leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought or sold irrespective of my wishes.

Flood sued Major League Baseball. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where he lost. But he started the momentum toward free agency, which baseball players finally were granted in 1976. So, Scott, kudos to Gerrit Cole for recognizing Flood and former baseball union leader Marvin Miller. Both men were integral in the fight for players rights and the right for Gerrit Cole to own Belgium.

SIMON: (Laughter) Yes. And we should note, I mean, Curt Flood died at the age of 59. He actually became a talented portrait painter - never reaped the financial benefits he brought to so many others.

Junior Johnson, the moonshiner who became the definitive stock car hero, died yesterday. He was 88 - lionized by Tom Wolfe in that 1965 Esquire feature that became a book. I really liked him.

GOLDMAN: Yeah. Hard to beat his story, huh? Started running moonshine in North Carolina as a teenager, learned how to drive fast on the back roads outrunning the authorities, the revenuers. And then he learned racing on dirt tracks. He went on to become a star in NASCAR as a driver and a team owner.

You know, they finally - he finally did go to prison for making untaxed whiskey, but he was pardoned by President Reagan in 1986. One of the first inducted in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Quite a character and quite a loss for NASCAR.

SIMON: Yeah. NPR's Tom Goldman, happy Holidays, my friend. Thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: You too, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.