Baseball's Orphans

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

The juxtaposition of races and generations did not escape Odom's attention.
"What really inspires me about this thing, what really got me, is I never knew Pete [Coscarart], so it just goes to show you how baseball players are a family," Odom says, sitting over coffee at a hotel near his home in Fountain Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles. "And Pete was back in the olden days, when ballplayers would go out there and call blacks niggers.

"Now I'm in there and supporting Pete like a big brother. But I have a lot of respect for him. I will do anything I can legally to benefit him. I just took such a liking to the guy. It showed a lot of balls, what he did. I was a hard-nosed pitcher in my day, and what that man did took a lot of guts. It just has made me smile ear to ear."

Although it's not immediately obvious, Pete Coscarart, Dolf Camilli, and the other players who trod the diamond when blacks were segregated to the Negro Leagues do have a bond with the black players of the 1960s and 1970s: the belief that they gave better than they got, that they helped build the national pastime and have very little to show for it.

After he left baseball in 1975 -- only one year before the dawn of free agency and skyrocketing salaries -- Odom looked in his wallet and found nothing. A pitcher with three World Series rings, Odom never made more than $75,000 a year in the big leagues, and when he quit the game, he had to draw unemployment or take demeaning jobs to make ends meet.

He drove a truck delivering plastic containers for less than $5 an hour. He was a Xerox repairman for six years. His darkest hour came in 1980 when his mother died and he didn't have the money to fly back to Georgia for her funeral. He had to borrow the cost of a plane ticket from a friend.

"I swore to God, I'd never let that happen to me ever again," he says.
Today, he drives a rust-tinged Grand Prix with torn upholstery and lives in a modest apartment in a modest suburb of Los Angeles. For the last several years, he has made a reasonable living by running a house-painting service. But last year, he bumped into his pal Kenny Landreaux during former major league outfielder Jay Johnstone's golf tournament in Fountain Valley. Landreaux told him about the lawsuits, and how he believed Major League Baseball had been cheating retired players by selling their images and not paying them.

Odom signed up for the crusade.
Odom admits he was in it for money, at first, but now insists the dispute has become personal. Now, he's even wondering if Charlie O. Finley, the pugnacious, publicity-mad former owner of the Athletics, paid him what he was worth. If you know anything about the relationship between Finley and Odom, you know how significant such a shift in attitude is.

Finley paid special attention to Odom. To sign the 18-year-old high school no-hitter specialist, Finley went to Macon and put on a spread for the Odoms' entire neighborhood. Finley gave Odom his nickname -- one of many Finley promotional antics, including a mule mascot named Charlie O., mustaches on all players, and a Hot Pants Day at the ballpark -- but the naming was a sign of special affection, all the same.

Finley treated Blue Moon like a son, and the simple country boy with the hot temper treated Finley like a father. Especially because Finley's $75,000-a-year salary allowed Johnny Lee Odom to take care of his poor, single mother.

Back then, Odom says, you didn't think about all the money owners made off television rights. You were 19 or 20 years old, and all you wanted to do was play ball. But Odom is 54 now, and he's thinking more and more about whether he was treated as well as he should have been.

"I think Major League Baseball is showing its true colors," he says. "How they feel and operate is coming into the light. Now, people who you thought were nice, the dark side is coming out to show how selfish they are."

"By all means we should fight to the end for these old guys. I got mine," he adds. "I'm going to do all my fighting for someone else now."

Odom's newfound fondness for Pete Coscarart and the other pensionless plaintiffs (Odom has a pension) signifies a generational comradeship of sorts, stretching from the 1930s to the 1970s. If it holds together, the combination could prove a powerful force in the battle to extract a pension for the pre-'47 players.

To ensure success in that battle, however, an additional generational leap has to be made -- to today's young players, who have million-dollar salaries and a pension that is almost to die for.

It's an archetypal spring training day in Scottsdale, Ariz. The sun's finally out and burning necks after a few dismal, drizzling days.

Game time's an hour away, and soon the beer vendors will be competing again. Barry Bonds stands in the batting cage thwacking balls into center field. Orel Hershiser is at the right field side of the diamond, signing autographs for a knot of fans pressed against the railing. And famed New Yorker baseball scribe Roger Angell is holding court by the Giants dugout, discussing the art of pitching a slider with lesser writers.

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