By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
Former Brooklyn Dodger Dolf Camilli's toy poodles are up on the couch again, running back and forth and barking their little brains out at everyone and everything that passes the Camilli residence in San Mateo.
A little old lady carrying her mail: Yap! Yap! Yap!
An old man going for a stroll: Yap! Yap! Yap!
A neighbor walking his dog: Poodles berserk.
Dolf's widow, 72-year-old Molly Camilli, has had a heck of a time controlling the poodles since Dolf died on Oct. 21, 1997, at age 90. The dogs belonged to the former Dodgers first baseman, and they responded pretty much only to him. "Now they have the run of the place," she says.
The poodle demolition derby has taken a toll on the house, and, Molly says, she can't handle the cost of repairing the damage on her fixed income, composed of Social Security and the interest from a few investments. To illustrate her dilemma, Molly throws off a blanket that had been draped over the back of her couch and reveals serious poodle erosion: The damn dogs have chewed through the fabric, past the stuffing, and all the way to the wood. She wants to buy a new couch.
But her phosphate futures went in the toilet recently; she has no disposable income.
So she's suing Major League Baseball.
More precisely, Molly Camilli is representing her husband's estate in two lawsuits he and hundreds of other retired ballplayers have filed against baseball and its marketing and licensing agent, Major League Baseball Properties Inc., and associated companies that traffic in baseball memorabilia.
Those two suits, filed in Alameda County Superior Court, and two others in San Francisco are part of a larger legal crusade brought against baseball by former players. So far, nine coordinated civil cases have been filed across the country.
The plaintiffs in these suits range from modern-era Bay Area heroes like Reggie Jackson, John "Blue Moon" Odom, and Dagoberto "Campy" Campaneris -- all members of the Oakland Athletics minidynasty of the 1970s -- to old-timers and unknowns: Camilli, Pete Coscarart, and Frenchy Bordagaray, all Brooklyn Dodgers ("Bums," if you prefer) from the 1930s and '40s.
In state and federal courts in Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Orlando, Fla., legends and lesser-knowns allege that baseball has unlawfully used their images without asking permission or properly compensating them -- all while making millions for the owners of baseball franchises and the companies licensed to use ballplayer images.
The former players are upset over a variety of enterprises: MCI television commercials; the Ken Burns documentary series on baseball, which ran on public television but also spawned a cottage industry of related marketing efforts; gimmicks that promote Target stores; baseball cards; books about baseball; game programs; and even baseball statistical books listing numerical records (and more esoteric information, including the little-known fact that Camilli was the National League Most Valuable Player in 1941, the year the Dodgers won the pennant for the first time in 21 years but lost the World Series as the result of a fluke play).
The first case to reach trial was a class-action suit filed in Alameda County Superior Court on behalf of 384 former big-leaguers, including everyone from lead plaintiff Pete Coscarart, an obscure second baseman with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates, to legendary Giants center fielder Willie Mays. The jury found that Major League Baseball Properties did breach its contracts with the players for a merchandising and royalties program.
But the players were awarded just $84,000 to split among themselves.
Compared to what they wanted, and compared to all that they alleged -- a veritable baseball Watergate of fraud, deceit, and cover-up -- the monetary scope of the victory was infinitesimal. Coscarart, for example, will receive only $2 he would have not otherwise received.
A pretrial ruling severely limited the potential damages in the case. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Demetrios Agretelis -- who, by the way, is a big baseball fan -- excluded film and video products marketed through a Major League Baseball license from the case.
Agretelis' ruling is on appeal; if it is overturned, the players still could be awarded millions of dollars.
But even if the monetary award is not increased, the victory is still important, says Ron Katz, the lead attorney representing the ballplayers.
"It's like the Titanic," he says, sitting confidently behind his desk on the 33rd floor of the Embarcadero 4 office tower. "Baseball has hit an iceberg, and it's only a matter of hours now before she sinks."
Katz, of course, is an advocate who is being paid not to be impartial. But he has a point. For the first time in U.S. history, Major League Baseball has been hauled before a jury, made to stipulate to its existence as a legal entity, put on trial -- and defeated.
If the players rack up more victories in court, they could find themselves with leverage they could have never imagined when many of them played the game -- that is, when baseball was a patriarchal court, the owners were nobility, and the players were paid peanuts and treated like serfs.
And with that kind of power, the players could have at least a hope of settling a historic grievance, one that has simmered and bubbled in the bellies of some of the plaintiffs for 51 years. A grievance that has driven the lawsuits from the beginning.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson suited up in Dodgers blue and became the first black player to play in the major leagues. But 1947 was an important year in baseball for other reasons. That was the year the owners and the players set up a pension fund.
But that pension covered only current and future players. Everyone who finished his career before the first day of spring training in 1947 was left to fend for himself.
This arbitrary cutoff date was not the only inequity included in the original baseball pension plan. The owners -- with, it must be noted, the acquiescence of the players -- included retribution in the players' contract. A clause in the agreement specifically allowed the owners to punish players on the Pittsburgh Pirates -- Coscarart among them -- who took a strike vote in 1946. The agreement also denied pensions to players who rebelled against their paltry salaries and joined a well-funded, but short-lived, Mexican baseball league.
The clause denied these players a pension, forever -- even if they returned to the majors and played for years.
Baseball's economic orphans. They are for the most part hobbled old men, many of them with little in the way of savings, most having Social Security as a main source of income. There are 74 of these orphans -- people who helped create the foundation for what has become the multibillion-dollar industry known as Major League Baseball -- still alive.
There were 75, until Dolf Camilli died.
So far Major League Baseball is behaving according to a script written long ago. The owners' only response to the law-suits, and the demand for a retroactive pension extension, has been to fight back and fight sneaky.
Last year, the owners offered a stipend to pre-'47 players: $10,000 a year for life. There were some buts attached, of course. First, the money would evaporate once the player died, leaving widows with nothing. Second, the player had to sign a document pledging never to sue Major League Baseball -- ever, over anything.
"That's not a pension," yells Molly Camilli. "That's bullshit. Bud Selig [the interim baseball commissioner] is an asshole."
Molly is one pissed-off major league widow. It's hard to see that at first; she's all bird bone and gristle. But this gristle is tough as nails. And, frankly, she's a little scary. It's quite possible Dolf left behind a proxy scrapper who's going to be meaner and more determined than he would have been -- ever.
During a recent visit with me, Molly says her husband and others who played before baseball was a sport of millionaires "were treated like slaves." She quickly adds a half-whispered conspiratorial aside: "I wanted to say 'niggers,' but you have to be so careful these days."
Her anger floats freely, landing on former ballplayers and other subjects at random.
Molly on Joe DiMaggio: "At card shows he always wore the sunglasses and never smiled. That's his way. When Dolf died he didn't react. He's known for that."
Molly on famous Brooklyn Dodger, New York Giants, and Chicago Cubs manager Leo Durocher: "You know what kind of cookie he was. With the women you know. I was with him on a bus once and he leaned over and said, 'Hi dear.' He was such a woman chaser."
More dirt on Durocher: "Babe Ruth told Dolf that Leo stole his watch. You can print that. Durocher's dead; he can't sue."
And after noting, in her heavy German accent, that one of the poodles shares its birthday with Adolf Hitler, comes this comment on life under Der FYhrer: "Not bad at all. The schools were strict. We girls couldn't wear makeup or date boys. We had to wear uniforms and march around a lot.
"But at least I didn't get raped by some syphilitic mongoloid!"
So here's a fascinating element of the retired players' legal crusade: Molly Camilli -- a woman who uses the n-word and speaks blithely about life under a man who killed millions in the search of the master race -- has joined in common purpose with Blue Moon Odom, a former Oakland A's pitcher and a black man from Macon, Ga.
And actually, when the first of the current round of baseball cases went to trial in Oakland, and the plaintiffs' lawyers asked players to show up, for some reason the majority of those who made the effort were black: Bobby Bonds, Odom, Campy Campaneris, Dock Ellis (famous for throwing a no-hitter while on LSD, among other notable baseball feats), Kenny Landreaux, and others.
It was a powerful sight to see: an array of African-American ballplayers sitting in solidarity as the one and only plaintiff to take the stand, former Dodger and Pirate Pete Coscarart, a man who played his entire major league career in an all-white sport, slowly made his way to the witness box to tell the jury in his quiet, gravelly, old man's voice that he had trusted baseball to take care of his interests, pay him royalties, and baseball hadn't lived up to its end of the bargain.
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.
"You pretend like you are slicing an apple, not peeling it," he says, demonstrating a slicing, and then a peeling motion.
Meanwhile, Giants owner Peter Magowan's kids are running around in too-cute little uniforms signed by all the players, grabbing balls like apples out of the bucket next to the dugout. Willie Mays cruises the clubhouse buffet. Orlando Cepeda cracks wise with some of the Latin American players.
And Stan Javier, the Giants' right fielder, is in the dugout, thinking about the past.
When I ask him about the pension crusade, his thoughts turn to his father, Julian Javier, a second baseman with the St. Louis Cardinals during the '60s and '70s. What would his retirement have been like without a pension?
Sure, Javier says, he'd be willing to support a pension extension to help the pre-'47 players. For fairness' sake. Besides, Javier says, he doesn't think the players' image can take another knock.
"We already have a bad enough image as it is," Javier says. "We wouldn't be here with what we have today if it weren't for those guys."
Giants backup catcher Brent Mayne squirms for some time on the wet dugout bench before smiling in resignation and agreeing to an interview about the pension crusade and the lawsuits. Mayne's a mellow fellow, a surfer from Southern California who knows more about great wave-riders of the past than baseball legends. He listens dutifully as I explain the lawsuits and their indirect connections to pensions for the old-timers.
"I'm just initially hearing this, so I don't have a lot of information, and I can't give a lot. My heart says help. Who wouldn't? But uninformed it would be hard to give a conclusive ..."
Suddenly Mayne stops himself and blurts out, "Geez, I sound like the president." And a day or two later, Mayne says he thinks providing pensions to the pre-'47 players is a good idea that he'd support. In a whisper of amazement, the $225,000-a-year catcher says, "Man. There's just so much money in baseball."
Brian Johnson, the Giants' starting catcher, knows as little as Mayne does about the pension fight and the lawsuits. But like Javier, he quickly thinks his way to the core of the moral argument for extending the pension. "I would definitely support those guys who played before us, to be appreciative in that kind of way in terms of a pension. They did give the game a positive image."
Then Johnson starts thinking about the politics of generosity.
"It would be good for the owners to be involved. Joint ventures are always good. There's plenty of money to go around."
Jim Poole, a Giants pitcher and representative of the players union on the team, stands by his locker, suiting up. Team owner Peter Magowan makes a beeline for him, shakes his hand in a hail-fellow-well-met kind of way, and breezes out of the locker room.
"Right now we are concentrating on building a better relationship with the owners," Poole says when I ask him about old-timer pensions. It's not for Magowan's benefit that he says this; the owner is obviously out of earshot. Poole is just being honest; he's heard the pension extension issue discussed at Players Association meetings, but only in passing. "It hasn't gotten a lot of attention. We've been concentrating on our contract."
He can't say if he's for it or not. He'd need to see how much it would cost. One thing's for sure, though, he says. It would take an agreement between the owners and the players to make it happen, regardless of cost.
What Poole says is worth what 10 Stan Javiers say about pensions for the old players. Poole is a union rep, and the union is all-powerful in determining what most players believe.
And Poole is right to be cautious.
Pensions are complicated organisms. The people who run the baseball pension have to make sure the fund is capable of making payment to nearly 2,000 retired players each year at varying rates (depending on their salaries and years of service) while handling the financial arrangements needed to pay the pensions of current players, once they retire. Projecting these costs, and making sure the money is there to meet them, is a complicated business and not given to carefree disbursements of money.
That said, there's more than $1 billion in the players' pension fund, and 74 pensionless players who have four or more years in the majors. (The four-year service cutoff is important to the old-timers. They don't want a handout; they just want what they believe they earned. The original pension, set up in 1947, required you to have at least four years of service under your belt.)
The math goes this way:
To provide a modest, $35,000-a-year pension for all the eligible pre-'47 players would cost $2.6 million a year. A generous $50,000 pension for players with four years or more of service would cost $3.7 million annually. And if the players and the owners by some miracle were overcome with a Scrooge-like transformation and decided to give the old-timers an $85,000-a-year pension, a little something to make up for all the years of penury, it would cost $6.3 million annually.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
For years now, he's lived in a trailer home. He's sad, poor, and angry. He sold all the mementos of his baseball days -- gloves, trophies, jerseys, and two World Series rings -- to make ends meet.
He is tortured by the irony of events: If he and his cohorts hadn't joined the Mexican League, the baseball pension might not have been started for years or decades.
"I think us going to Mexico helped with the pension," Lanier says. "You didn't really hear about it until after that. Didn't help me though."
At first, Lanier tried to appeal to reason and a sense of justice. He got the same results as Bob Locker: flowery words and empty promises.
In a recent interview, Lanier reads from a letter Interim Commissioner Bud Selig sent him. The letter is dated Feb. 3, 1997:
Max, I appreciate hearing from you. I assure you you will be in the group who will receive a pension. I remember your career very well. I was a great fan in those days. I was sorry to hear that this injustice had taken place. You are deserving of a pension, and I am embarrassed that all parties have neglected people like you, who made baseball the great dream that it is. Please write me if you have any problem, but I am sure you will be taken care of under the pension plan. It was nice to hear from you ....
Of course, Selig's words were only that.
Lanier never got a pension. He wrote four to five more times to Selig without a result before he gave up.
So now he's suing Major League Baseball.