Baseball's Orphans

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

And with that kind of power, the players could have at least a hope of settling a historic grievance, one that has simmered and bubbled in the bellies of some of the plaintiffs for 51 years. A grievance that has driven the lawsuits from the beginning.

In 1947, Jackie Robinson suited up in Dodgers blue and became the first black player to play in the major leagues. But 1947 was an important year in baseball for other reasons. That was the year the owners and the players set up a pension fund.

But that pension covered only current and future players. Everyone who finished his career before the first day of spring training in 1947 was left to fend for himself.

This arbitrary cutoff date was not the only inequity included in the original baseball pension plan. The owners -- with, it must be noted, the acquiescence of the players -- included retribution in the players' contract. A clause in the agreement specifically allowed the owners to punish players on the Pittsburgh Pirates -- Coscarart among them -- who took a strike vote in 1946. The agreement also denied pensions to players who rebelled against their paltry salaries and joined a well-funded, but short-lived, Mexican baseball league.

The clause denied these players a pension, forever -- even if they returned to the majors and played for years.

Baseball's economic orphans. They are for the most part hobbled old men, many of them with little in the way of savings, most having Social Security as a main source of income. There are 74 of these orphans -- people who helped create the foundation for what has become the multibillion-dollar industry known as Major League Baseball -- still alive.

There were 75, until Dolf Camilli died.

So far Major League Baseball is behaving according to a script written long ago. The owners' only response to the law-suits, and the demand for a retroactive pension extension, has been to fight back and fight sneaky.

Last year, the owners offered a stipend to pre-'47 players: $10,000 a year for life. There were some buts attached, of course. First, the money would evaporate once the player died, leaving widows with nothing. Second, the player had to sign a document pledging never to sue Major League Baseball -- ever, over anything.

"That's not a pension," yells Molly Camilli. "That's bullshit. Bud Selig [the interim baseball commissioner] is an asshole."

Molly is one pissed-off major league widow. It's hard to see that at first; she's all bird bone and gristle. But this gristle is tough as nails. And, frankly, she's a little scary. It's quite possible Dolf left behind a proxy scrapper who's going to be meaner and more determined than he would have been -- ever.

During a recent visit with me, Molly says her husband and others who played before baseball was a sport of millionaires "were treated like slaves." She quickly adds a half-whispered conspiratorial aside: "I wanted to say 'niggers,' but you have to be so careful these days."

Her anger floats freely, landing on former ballplayers and other subjects at random.

Molly on Joe DiMaggio: "At card shows he always wore the sunglasses and never smiled. That's his way. When Dolf died he didn't react. He's known for that."

Molly on famous Brooklyn Dodger, New York Giants, and Chicago Cubs manager Leo Durocher: "You know what kind of cookie he was. With the women you know. I was with him on a bus once and he leaned over and said, 'Hi dear.' He was such a woman chaser."

More dirt on Durocher: "Babe Ruth told Dolf that Leo stole his watch. You can print that. Durocher's dead; he can't sue."

And after noting, in her heavy German accent, that one of the poodles shares its birthday with Adolf Hitler, comes this comment on life under Der FYhrer: "Not bad at all. The schools were strict. We girls couldn't wear makeup or date boys. We had to wear uniforms and march around a lot.

"But at least I didn't get raped by some syphilitic mongoloid!"

So here's a fascinating element of the retired players' legal crusade: Molly Camilli -- a woman who uses the n-word and speaks blithely about life under a man who killed millions in the search of the master race -- has joined in common purpose with Blue Moon Odom, a former Oakland A's pitcher and a black man from Macon, Ga.

And actually, when the first of the current round of baseball cases went to trial in Oakland, and the plaintiffs' lawyers asked players to show up, for some reason the majority of those who made the effort were black: Bobby Bonds, Odom, Campy Campaneris, Dock Ellis (famous for throwing a no-hitter while on LSD, among other notable baseball feats), Kenny Landreaux, and others.

It was a powerful sight to see: an array of African-American ballplayers sitting in solidarity as the one and only plaintiff to take the stand, former Dodger and Pirate Pete Coscarart, a man who played his entire major league career in an all-white sport, slowly made his way to the witness box to tell the jury in his quiet, gravelly, old man's voice that he had trusted baseball to take care of his interests, pay him royalties, and baseball hadn't lived up to its end of the bargain.

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