Baseball's Orphans

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

The fraud allegations may or may not be true. It's clear, however, that the evidence presented at trial did not convincingly support the claims, and in the end, the jury seized on some minor accounting errors and honest disagreements over royalty allotment to give the players a measly $84,000 to split among the 384 of them.

Putting the Mexican League suits aside, the remaining old-timer cases will turn on a novel question of law: Who owns a baseball player's image when it is used for a commercial purpose?

Major League Baseball's attorneys say team owners own the images of that team's players, and are free to exploit those images commercially -- without permission and without paying the player.

Baseball's avuncular attorney in the Bay Area suits, Marty Glick, says the images gathered while the players played the game "are the fruits of their labor" and belong to the owners.

Ron Katz, the players' attorney, disagrees, saying the players' rights of publicity -- their ownership of their own images -- is absolute.

The players who played after 1947 signed away the rights to the commercial use of their images while they played the game professionally. But beginning the day they retired, Katz says, ownership of the images reverted to the players. As for the pre-'47 players, they never signed anything regarding publicity rights. So every use of their images has been illegal.

"They've been ripping these guys off for decades," Katz says.
All this will get hashed out in court. But if Katz is right, the amount of money owed players is almost beyond comprehension.

Few have done more for baseball than Max Lanier. And few have so little to show for it.

The 82-year-old Lanier, a St. Louis Cardinals pitcher most of his career, is one of the pensionless players who was purposefully denied a nest egg by Major League Baseball.

It happened this way: In 1946 a bunch of players, tired of subpar wages, fled south to Mexico, where tycoon Jorge Pasquel was promising big bucks for people who would help create big dreams -- a Mexican professional baseball league. Lanier, Mickey Owen (who's remembered, more than anything else, for dropping a game-ending strike ball in the 1941 World Series and dashing the championship hopes of Brooklyn fans, who had waited 21 years to get in the series), Fred Martin and Lou Klein of the St. Louis Cardinals were among those who took the offer.

For their rebelliousness, these players were banned from baseball for five years.

The Mexican League rebellion, which happened at roughly the same time that Coscarart and his fellow Pirates were trying to form a union, scared the hell out of the owners of Major League Baseball franchises. A pension was offered and accepted as the olive branch of baseball labor peace.

But with peace came revenge. The owners wanted to punish the Mexican exiles and strike-minded Pirates. The players, to their undying shame, went along. "The real villains of that piece were the players," says Marvin Miller.

The end-of-'46, start-of-'47 clause of baseball's initial pension agreement effectively ended the hope of a pension for Lanier and any other Mexican League player. The Mexican Leaguers had been banned; they could not possibly have played in the major leagues in the 1946-47 time frame. Therefore, by the terms of the pension agreement, they could never receive a pension -- no matter how long they played in the major leagues before or after the '46-'47 cutoff date.

The ban on Mexican Leaguers was eventually reduced to three years, and Lanier was back in the majors by 1949, pitching for his old St. Louis Cardinals team. He ended his career in 1954, bouncing that year between the Cards and the New York Giants. All told, he spent 14 years as a major leaguer, six of them after the pension was installed.

But he would never receive a dime in pension payments.
After his playing days were over, Lanier trained the next generation of players, coaching and managing in the minor leagues all over the country, from South Carolina to the Midwest for the next 18 years. He retired in 1972, after giving 34 years of his life to the pursuit of baseball, and moved to Florida.

Without a pension, he had to mow lawns to make ends meet. He did some work as a fishing guide, but that was seasonal. His wife worked as a secretary at a country club. But mainly, it was the lawn mowing that kept them intact.

"I had 10 to 12 lawns I took care of," Lanier says from his Dunnellon, Fla., home.

Lanier lives from Social Security check to Social Security check these days. His health is failing rapidly. Two heart attacks and a stroke he suffered four years ago have taken their toll. He had all his teeth taken out recently, and even that relatively minor surgical act put him in the hospital for three days with an irregular heartbeat. His medical bills are paid in the main by Medicare. His monthly income is exactly $1,300 -- all of it Social Security sent to him or his wife. He has to shell out $308 of that each month just to make sure he gets the supplemental insurance he needs to augment Medicare.

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