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Gone, but Not Forgotten : Former Baseball Players in Financial Straits Get Help Quietly From Association

July 12, 1986|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Times Staff Writer

This is a story about an organization that does its best work in the shadows. Its ultimate wish is to never make a newspaper headline or the 6 o'clock news. It has no advertising department or public relations man. The dirty word around here is controversy, a dagger it has slipped and dodged for more than 60 years now.

You wouldn't recognize the boss on the street, and he wouldn't have it any other way. Yet he has a famous phone and address book in his office that reporters would kill for.

Every morning of the workweek, Chuck Stevens slips quietly into a small Garden Grove office that occupies only him and his secretary.

For 25 years, Stevens has worked for the Association of Professional Ball Players of America.

You've probably never heard of him or it.

Good. That means Stevens has done his job.

"We maintain a low profile," Stevens said. "My concern is that we maintain the dignity of our service."

You would have no need to concern yourself with the APBPA unless you were a baseball player in trouble. You might be young or old, a Hall of Famer or a guy who never made it out of the bush leagues. Batting averages don't count here.

A few years ago, a rookie in the Florida State League was paralyzed in an auto accident on his way home from a game. The APBPA quietly sent along a check to help pay some bills.

The organization is helping another former big leaguer who's well into his 80s.

"His only crime is that he outlived his savings," Stevens said. "We want him to live in dignity. We want to let him know that baseball hasn't forgotten him."

In a day of million-dollar contracts, it might be hard to imagine baseball players needing help. But many, Stevens said, forget the ones who aren't making the big money and won't start collecting their pension until age 45.

"What does he do in the meantime if he's been injured or there has been an illness?" Stevens asked. "Or maybe he's just had some lousy luck."

And, of course, there was a time when ballplayers made as much as bus drivers. The APBPA is there for them, too.

The organization was formed in 1924 by 12 active major leaguers. The idea to help struggling ballplayers came over a few beers in a Los Angeles bar.

Today, there are 1,000 members in the APBPA, though Stevens, the secretary-treasurer, is the only salaried employee.

In 62 years of service, the APBPA has spent $3 million on ballplayers burdened by unusual hardship.

The organization is funded by donations. Each player in the major leagues donates $25 a year to the APBPA, players in Triple-A pay $7 and other minor leaguers donate $5 each.

Each owner matches the amount his team has paid.

Stevens said several major league managers and players make private donations of considerable amounts. Stevens, of course, won't name names. Anonymity is a precious word in the organization.

Recently, when longtime United Press International sports columnist Milton Richmond died, his family asked that donations be sent to the APBPA.

You need only sit in Stevens' office a few minutes to know how the system works. Ten minutes into a recent interview, he received two phone calls concerning the death that morning of a former big-league player and coach, Harry (Peanuts) Lowrey. Now, Lowrey was well off financially and didn't need the help of the APBPA, but it served to illustrate Stevens' vast network of sources.

"Our network works beautifully," Stevens said. "Our emissaries around the world are ballplayers."

About five years ago, Stevens got word of an old ballplayer who was dying of cancer in Upstate New York. The player was about to be evicted from his home because he owed two years' back taxes.

"We paid off the bill," Stevens said. "He was going to have the choice of dying in his house and not out on the street."

Though the organization deals in compassion, getting help isn't as easy as it sounds.

First of all, the APBPA will not help needy players who have been linked with drugs.

In Fountain Valley, just a few miles from the organization's offices, a former big-league pitcher is struggling. John (Blue Moon) Odom, who spent 12 years in the major leagues, has been out of work for more than a year after being arrested at work for allegedly selling one gram of cocaine to a co-worker. Odom's trial is scheduled for later this month, but a year of unemployment has left him in bad financial shape.

"We're not helping him," Stevens said frankly of Odom.

Stevens said his organization will not budge from its anti-drug stance.

"We've had two pleas of help coming from drug-related cases," he said. "Both of them admitted they were on it and came to us. But we couldn't help."

And though the organization prides itself on changing little in 62 years, modern times have necessitated some amendments.

"Our philosophy has changed only because of the drug problem," Stevens said. "We didn't know what that meant until 10 years ago. It's never been our intent to keep a guy juiced up."

Actually, each case that comes before the APBPA is closely scrutinized, and an appropriation of funds can be made only after approval of its board of directors.

Included among the directors are Sparky Anderson, Don Drysdale, Whitey Herzog, Tom Lasorda, Bob Lemon, Gene Mauch, Stan Musial, Tom Seaver, Willie Stargell and Ted Williams.

Stevens, who basically runs the show, played 21 years of professional baseball, including three years in the big leagues with the St. Louis Browns. He was offered the job 25 years ago and has consumed it with a passion ever since.

He knows there might come a day when the APBPA will outlive its need to serve the major league player. But he doesn't think it will mean the end of the organization.

"Down the road, the modern-day player will not need the attention that was needed in the past," Stevens said. "But I don't think that will weaken the position. I can't think of anyone in the major leagues who will ever forget the minor league guy who's struggling."

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