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Spring Training and Curt Flood

Spring training arrives with lots of baggage and an ample supply of hope that can sometimes seem outsized for just a game.

But baseball can be like that. It allows for the coexistence of the individual and the team like no other sport in my opinion.

Because of that, I would argue its story is much larger than what happens on a field. It is a story of empires, the rise of cities, the strength of diversity and the power of a single person.

I grew up a fan of the game at a very volatile time when baseball’s public eye began to encompass what happened off the field.

I read many of the books of the era — Bob Gibson’s “From Ghetto to Glory” — Jim Bouton’s incendiary “Ball Four” and Tony Conigliaro’s “Seeing It Through.”

Conigliaro’s story was pretty simple but compelling. I found out about the book when it was excerpted in Sports Illustrated in 1970 complete with a picture of Conigliaro on the cover in his Red Sox uniform with his left eye and eye socket swollen shut and purple from where he had been nearly killed by a fastball.

In what was then a baseball-centric culture, any 11 year old boy would have immediately understood at an entry level what had happened to Conigliaro. It was an entry to a world of broader implications beyond the destructive nature of a fastball.

He didn’t include tips on how to avoid getting hit or axioms about how you just dust yourself off and get right back up there. He wrote about what was in his soul — something any ball player of good or even non existent abilities possessed and therefore could relate to.

Reading it 40 years later, it is still hard to read but even harder to put down.

That and the other books of the day were much different than the books I had started with in which Ruth and Gehrig and the Gas House Gang were gods on a pedestal from other gods.

But the later books were also confirmation that baseball is more than what happens on the field.

I was reminded of that several years ago while roaming through the Central Library and coming across “The Way It Is” the 1971 autobiography of Curt Flood. One of the few baseball books of the era that I missed.

Flood was the recently traded centerfielder for the Washington Senators when he wrote the book. He had been traded by the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies and had contested the trade in a history making moment.

Flood wrote a letter to then MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn the day before Christmas 1969.

“After twelve years in the Major Leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes,” he wrote. “I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the sovereign States.”

The National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. has a photocopy of the historic letter in the processed collection within its research library.

That’s according to an email from research associate Freddy Berowski.

The moment was the beginning of the end of a system in which players had no control over their professional careers which made the sport millions of dollars but left them with no share of the gate and no control of their destiny in a game played by young men who could be and were easily discarded at the first sign of injury or age or both.

The letter ended Flood’s career in its prime. He said later that he did it for himself, denying any altruistic motive. But he must have considered that the baseball establishment might exact a heavy price beyond ending his career before he put the stamp on the letter and mailed it.

It’s a price he continues to pay even in death.

Flood’s struggle has been frequently mentioned by other players during and after the era he played in as they have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Carlton Fisk thanked Flood for “his sacrifice, and it was a big one, the biggest,” on the day he was inducted in Cooperstown.

So did Frank Robinson, Dave Winfield, Orlando Cepeda and Eddie Murray.

In some cases, Flood was among those in the audience as they were inducted.

Flood is in the timeline of major league baseball just as surely as Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson.

Historians at the Hall of Fame library will almost certainly be looking for Flood’s original letter when they begin processing Bowie Kuhn’s papers in the summer of 2012.

It’s hard to imagine it won’t have a prominent place in the Hall of Fame. It’s harder still to imagine that it would have that place and the man who wrote it wouldn’t have a place there.

It’s time for baseball on a formal level to acknowledge what the rest of us have known for some time — the sport is about more than what happens on the field.

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