Baseball's Orphans

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

Pete Coscarart is 84 years old. Dolf Camilli was 90 years old when he died. Max Lanier, another pensionless player, is 82 years old.

Assuming each of the pensionless players lives another five years, the total cost would be $12.9 million under the $35,000-a-year plan, $18.5 million under the $50,000 plan, and $31.5 million under the Scrooge redemption plan.

One billion dollars; 74 players; $31.5 million over the next five years.
Over the next four years, the San Francisco Giants will pay Barry Bonds $40 million.

Although the money involved is absolute peanuts in terms of Major League Baseball finances, if you think extending the pension could be a simple matter, you must know very little about baseball labor politics and the history of owner-player relations.

The first hitch in the dream of a pen-sion for pre-'47 players resides in federal labor law.

The old-timers are not represented by the players union. Therefore, they are not a legitimate, legally recognized bargaining unit. If the players wanted to negotiate extending the pension, the owners could quite justifiably refuse, and the union would have no recourse, no leverage.

Right now, the owners pay more than $60 million into the players' pension fund each year. The players pay nothing. So why would the owners contribute more into a pension fund that is already one of the most generous in the country?

On a perfect spring training afternoon, as Jim Poole struggles on the mound against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Kevin O'Brien, a voluble Irishman and minority owner of the Giants, sits in Radio Booth A at Scottsdale Stadium, right behind home plate, eating a hot dog with the works and commenting on three subjects:

1) The tendency of Giants president and majority owner Peter Magowan to act like an "old lady" (the reason O'Brien hasn't talked to him in exactly one year),

2) Poole's inability to find the proper release point for his pitches, and
3) What is surely one of the great visual delights of spring training, comely young women in revealing halter tops. "Would you look at the breasts on her," O'Brien says.

Heads turn. Looks of recognition pass between the men in the booth.
Indeed, Mr. O'Brien knows of what he exclaims.
As the object of interest passes from view, I bring up the subject of the pension campaign, the lawsuits, and the ultimate goal of making the old-timers whole. O'Brien, who is vice president and general manager of KTVU Channel 2, one of the limited partners with minority interest in the Giants, doesn't hesitate to give a full and honest opinion.

He points out the booth window. "See those young kids out there, those millionaires down there? That's who should pay. They are sucking the owners dry. All the clubs but two, the Yankees and the Rockies, are losing money and those kids down there are making millions. They ought to pool 2 percent of their salaries and take care of those old guys. That's who should be held responsible."

With that, he pops the last bite of hot dog down his throat and slaps his hands together a few times, as if to say: Any more questions?

There are none.
O'Brien may be wrong about Poole's release point. But his players-must-pay argument has a strong appeal. Shouldn't it be time for the players to kick in?

Marvin Miller thinks that idea to be preposterous.
And one must accord Miller's opinion some respect. No one in history has done more to define labor relations in baseball than Miller, who served as executive director of the Players Association from 1962 until 1982. For those 20 years, Miller, a brilliant and careful strategist, outmaneuvered the owners at every turn, forever redefining the game in 1976 when he brought a case to mediation that led to a decision that players could be "free agents."

So be sure of this: If you are an owner of a baseball franchise, Marvin Miller is a cloven-hoofed child-eater. If you are a player, he has wings of gossamer.

Miller says he's heard the player-pay pension argument before, not from owners but from sportswriters. "They are silly people in the main on this issue," Miller says. "The idea that current players are responsible for the pensions of players they have never met, that's like saying all the current sportswriters at the New York Times and other big daily papers are responsible for paying for better pensions for the sportswriters who wrote in the '30s and '40s. That's just ridiculous, and they realize it when you put it to them in those terms.

"Surely, the sportswriters of the '30s didn't have it nearly as good as the ones today. Well, does that make it the responsibility of today's sportswriters to pay for better pensions for the old guys? No."

And there it is, all anyone needs for a perfect impasse -- two sides with compelling arguments, and huge amounts of distrust and dislike for one another.

So what would it take to break this stalemate?
Miller thinks the lawsuits might just be the thing.

The legal crusade to win a pension for the pre-'47 players began four years ago during a trip to Cleveland for a Negro League testimonial.

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