Baseball's Orphans

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

One day Puttock's phone rang with the answer. The Bounding Basque was on the line.

Sportswriters dubbed Pete Coscarart the Bounding Basque because of his ethnicity and the fleet way he occupied his second base position. They said he was perhaps the best infielder in the National League, second only to Joe Gordon of the Yankees.

Coscarart could have been a remembered ballplayer but for two reasons: First, he couldn't hit worth a damn ("I had a problem with my stick"). Also, at one point in his career, Coscarart did something that caused the owners of Major League Baseball to single him out for revenge.

In 1946, a labor organizer approached a bunch of Pittsburgh Pirates -- Coscarart included -- and asked them to form a union. They did; they even took a strike vote. They missed getting the necessary majority by two votes, as Coscarart remembers.

Shortly after the aborted attempt to strike, Coscarart and other union supporters were sent down to the minors. The next year, the owners set up a pension for the players and withheld it from anyone who wasn't on a major league team as of the last day of '46 or the the first day of '47. Coscarart and the others who had been sent down to the minors were, of course, screwed. Coscarart never made it back up to the big leagues. He ended his career playing in pain (his Achilles' tendon was a mess) for the Sacramento Saloons, a triple-a farm team.

By the time he called Puttock, Coscarart's health was fading. He'd had two heart attacks, and he didn't know how much longer he'd live. Most of all, Coscarart wanted to take care of his wife before he passed away.

Puttock told Coscarart it was impossible to sue over the pension. Almost as an aside, however, Coscarart complained about a program he had joined that was run by Major League Baseball. The program, Coscarart said, wasn't paying him what he thought it would.

Coscarart's questions focused Puttock's attention on the Former Player Program, a merchandising effort controlled by Major League Baseball Properties Inc. In 1990, MLBP sent letters to former ballplayers, asking them to sign away ownership rights to their images. In those letters, Major League Baseball Properties offered to act as the agent for the ex-players. As such, Properties would sell licenses to companies that wanted to merchandise memorabilia incorporating the photographic images of the ballplayers. In turn, the players were to receive a cut of the royalties.

Coscarart was upset because he had received less than $200 in the first year after he signed with MLBP.

On further investigation, Puttock says, he discovered that the Former Player Program paid players royalties on the licensing of still photo images -- but kept all the money it made from licensing the film and video images of players.

"Now why," he thought, "should baseball keep entirely for itself the most lucrative aspect of its marketing operations? And," he thought, "isn't this illegal?"

Having already lost Sam Jethroe's pension case, Puttock decided to reinvent himself as a strategist and consultant -- an eminence grise -- and leave the litigating to others. In 1995, he began recruiting big law firms to handle player cases.

So far, he's spurred two suits in Los Angeles -- on behalf of former Brooklyn Dodgers third baseman Jim "Junior" Gilliam and the widow of the late Carl "Skoonj" Furillo, a Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder -- alleging misuse of the players' images. Four suits in the Bay Area -- two in Alameda County and two in San Francisco -- also allege image misuse, as does one case in New York. And two unique actions in Florida allege that former players Max Lanier, a former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, and former Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder Louis Olmo were unlawfully denied pensions because they played in the Mexican League.

So far, only the Alameda County case centering on the Former Player Program has gone to a jury. It was a huge disappointment for the players. "We won but in a way we lost," says Blue Moon Odom.

To gain much leverage over baseball owners, the players have to hope that legal rulings made in the Alameda County case are not replicated in the other lawsuits scattered across the nation.

In the Alameda County case, Superior Court Judge Demetrios Agretelis decided that members of the Former Player Program had no rights to film and video sales involving the images of ballplayers, because the contract covering those sales was struck five years before the FPP was formed.

The players' appeal of Agretelis' ruling is pending. And if film and video images are allowed into the Oakland suit, the potential damages, if breach of contract is proven, could be staggering. Films and videos of former ballplayers -- greatest World Series moments, greatest home runs videos, and so on -- are the most significant moneymakers for Major League Baseball Properties Inc. and its licensees and memorabilia companies.

After Agretelis eliminated the big ticket items from contention during the trial, though, the players' lawyers started swinging for the bleachers. Alleging fraud and cover-up, venality, greed, and avarice of the first order, the players' lawyers said that Major League Baseball purposefully hid millions of dollars of profits from the players. In settlement talks, the lawyers would not move down from a $104 million figure.

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