Baseball's Orphans

Why are 74 old-timers -- players who helped create the multibillion-dollar business called Major League Baseball -- still without pensions?

Former Brooklyn Dodger Dolf Camilli's toy poodles are up on the couch again, running back and forth and barking their little brains out at everyone and everything that passes the Camilli residence in San Mateo.

A little old lady carrying her mail: Yap! Yap! Yap!
An old man going for a stroll: Yap! Yap! Yap!
A neighbor walking his dog: Poodles berserk.

Dolf's widow, 72-year-old Molly Camilli, has had a heck of a time controlling the poodles since Dolf died on Oct. 21, 1997, at age 90. The dogs belonged to the former Dodgers first baseman, and they responded pretty much only to him. "Now they have the run of the place," she says.

The poodle demolition derby has taken a toll on the house, and, Molly says, she can't handle the cost of repairing the damage on her fixed income, composed of Social Security and the interest from a few investments. To illustrate her dilemma, Molly throws off a blanket that had been draped over the back of her couch and reveals serious poodle erosion: The damn dogs have chewed through the fabric, past the stuffing, and all the way to the wood. She wants to buy a new couch.

But her phosphate futures went in the toilet recently; she has no disposable income.

So she's suing Major League Baseball.

More precisely, Molly Camilli is representing her husband's estate in two lawsuits he and hundreds of other retired ballplayers have filed against baseball and its marketing and licensing agent, Major League Baseball Properties Inc., and associated companies that traffic in baseball memorabilia.

Those two suits, filed in Alameda County Superior Court, and two others in San Francisco are part of a larger legal crusade brought against baseball by former players. So far, nine coordinated civil cases have been filed across the country.

The plaintiffs in these suits range from modern-era Bay Area heroes like Reggie Jackson, John "Blue Moon" Odom, and Dagoberto "Campy" Campaneris -- all members of the Oakland Athletics minidynasty of the 1970s -- to old-timers and unknowns: Camilli, Pete Coscarart, and Frenchy Bordagaray, all Brooklyn Dodgers ("Bums," if you prefer) from the 1930s and '40s.

In state and federal courts in Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Orlando, Fla., legends and lesser-knowns allege that baseball has unlawfully used their images without asking permission or properly compensating them -- all while making millions for the owners of baseball franchises and the companies licensed to use ballplayer images.

The former players are upset over a variety of enterprises: MCI television commercials; the Ken Burns documentary series on baseball, which ran on public television but also spawned a cottage industry of related marketing efforts; gimmicks that promote Target stores; baseball cards; books about baseball; game programs; and even baseball statistical books listing numerical records (and more esoteric information, including the little-known fact that Camilli was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1941, the year the Dodgers won the pennant for the first time in 21 years but lost the World Series as the result of a fluke play).

The first case to reach trial was a class-action suit filed in Alameda County Superior Court on behalf of 384 former big-leaguers, including everyone from lead plaintiff Pete Coscarart, an obscure second baseman with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates, to legendary Giants center fielder Willie Mays. The jury found that Major League Baseball Properties did breach its contracts with the players for a merchandising and royalties program.

But the players were awarded just $84,000 to split among themselves.
Compared to what they wanted, and compared to all that they alleged -- a veritable baseball Watergate of fraud, deceit, and cover-up -- the monetary scope of the victory was infinitesimal. Coscarart, for example, will receive only $2 he would have not otherwise received.

A pretrial ruling severely limited the potential damages in the case. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Demetrios Agretelis -- who, by the way, is a big baseball fan -- excluded film and video products marketed through a Major League Baseball license from the case.

Agretelis' ruling is on appeal; if it is overturned, the players still could be awarded millions of dollars.

But even if the monetary award is not increased, the victory is still important, says Ron Katz, the lead attorney representing the ballplayers.

"It's like the Titanic," he says, sitting confidently behind his desk on the 33rd floor of the Embarcadero 4 office tower. "Baseball has hit an iceberg, and it's only a matter of hours now before she sinks."

Katz, of course, is an advocate who is being paid not to be impartial. But he has a point. For the first time in U.S. history, Major League Baseball has been hauled before a jury, made to stipulate to its existence as a legal entity, put on trial -- and defeated.

If the players rack up more victories in court, they could find themselves with leverage they could have never imagined when many of them played the game -- that is, when baseball was a patriarchal court, the owners were nobility, and the players were paid peanuts and treated like serfs.

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