Baseball's Orphans

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

A Dodgers fan and Huntington Beach lawyer named John Puttock was accompanying a friend, Don Newcombe, one of the first black players in baseball and a Dodgers pitcher most of his career, to the event. There, Puttock met Sam Jethroe, a former teammate (and roommate) of Newcombe in the Negro League.

Jethroe went on the play in the majors, post-Jackie Robinson, but he didn't stay there long enough to earn his way into a pension. When Puttock met him, Jethroe was broke and desperate.

Newcombe, or "Newk" as he was known, asked Puttock if he could do something for Jethroe.

Puttock filed suit against Major League Baseball for denying Jethroe a pension. But the suit was thrown out of court. (Later Major League Baseball offered all the Negro League players who missed the pension a $10,000-a-year payment for life; Jethroe took the offer.)

Still, Puttock began hunting for a way to sue over the pension for all pre-'47 players. He sued the Players Association. That too was thrown out of court. And it turned out to be a strategic blunder. The union, a potentially powerful ally, now views Puttock as its adversary. Besides, Puttock quickly learned, the pension cutoff date was absolutely, rock-solid legal.

So he began looking around for political leverage, something to force Major League Baseball into a bargaining posture.

Eventually, he began talking to Bob Locker, a retired pitcher with a wicked sinking slider and a well-developed sense of responsibility.

Bob Locker's interest in the pensionless players of yesteryear also began at an old-timers event. In 1990, Locker, a former member of the Chicago White Sox and Oakland Athletics, took a trip to Florida for an old-timers' game. There, he ran into some pre-'47 players who were in desperate need. Locker had done well for himself in retirement, making enough money in real estate to buy a beautiful home with a pool off affluent Happy Valley Road in Lafayette. Seeing the old guys in such bad shape set Locker into action.

He wrote to the presidents of both the National and American leagues. He wrote to the baseball commissioner. He even wrote to then President George Bush. He called up the Society for American Baseball Research in Cleveland, Ohio, and got a bead on how many of the pre-'47 players were still alive. He did some math, and even though there were many more of the players alive then, Locker determined that it would not take very much money to create a pension for them. He figured once he told the players and the owners about the situation, they'd do something.

"I felt like I was going to get: 'Well, gosh of course we'll just do it,' " Locker says.

After all, hadn't basketball and football already struck retroactive pensions for their old-timers?

No one replied. Locker showed up one day at the commissioner's office, and a former owner who worked there told him he'd look into things. So Locker went away. And nothing happened.

"Sometimes you just get lip service," Locker says.
Disappointed, Locker returned to selling real estate.
Four years later, the year Puttock met Jethroe, Locker became energized again. This time it was the baseball strike, a player walkout caused by the owners' insistence on a salary cap, that got him going.

"I said to myself, 'What a wonderful opportunity. They are having these hearings in Congress about the antitrust exemption. There's a lot of politics; a lot of power.' "

(By Supreme Court decision, baseball owners, unlike other business owners, are allowed to coordinate their activities, such as labor negotiations. They even share revenues, a practice that would be seen as an illegal impediment to competition in almost any other industry.)

Again, Locker wrote the presidents of both leagues and the commissioner. Again, no reply.

He called his old A's teammate, third baseman Sal Bando, by then the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, and Bando facilitated a phone call with Bud Selig, the Brewers owner who has served as interim baseball commissioner since 1993 because owners have been unable to agree on a permanent replacement for former Commissioner Fay Vincent. Selig listened, and did absolutely nothing.

Locker called Jim Bunning, a former Tiger, Philly, and Pirate pitcher and 16-year veteran of the big leagues. Bunning was a potentially powerful ally. He was serving in Congress representing a district from Kentucky, and he could apply pressure from the inside. He could use the antitrust hearings as an entry point. Bunning listened.

"Nothing much happened after that," Locker says, his typically garrulous demeanor winding down into a somber tone of disappointed reflection. (Bunning did not respond to requests for comment.)

A short time after his second and last attempt to extend the pension, Locker was chatting with sportswriter Jerome Holtzman of the Chicago Times and Holtzman told Locker that making the baseball establishment take care of its own, making it do the humane and generous thing, takes more than one man. It might just take an army of men.

Or lawyers.

Puttock talked with Locker in 1994; the conversation was enlightening. The lawyer knew he would have to find the leverage Locker had lacked. Where to find the right club to beat some sense of fairness into baseball?

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