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THE INSIDE TRACK | COMMENTARY

Baseball Pension Strategy: Wait Out the Old-Timers

June 15, 1997|HAL BOCK | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Baseball is waiting out its old-timers, probably hoping they'll just go away.

These guys may have been underestimated, though. They are a community of tough, old men who played more than a half-century ago, before endorsements, before pensions, before almost anything except the games. They have watched baseball turn into a gold mine for the players and the owners, but not for them. And now they want their share.

So they sued, claiming they are entitled to some of the profits from the use of their images, which has helped make the sport popular. The very real possibility is that one day in the next year or so, a jury will be asked to hear the complaints.

"Major league baseball has never faced a jury trial," said San Francisco-based lawyer Ron Katz, who is representing the old-timers. He sounds like he'd enjoy seeing how a court would deal with the sport.

When the old-timers filed the suits, the first defense was an argument that there is no such legal entity as major league baseball and so it could not be sued, which should be fascinating news to George Steinbrenner's army of lawyers. It took a year to resolve that legal issue.

"A year is not a trivial amount of time in the life of a 90-year-old,"Katz said.

Then there was the issue of exactly what role Bud Selig occupies in this nonlegal entity. He was identified as acting commissioner by the litigants but baseball prefers to call him chairman of the ruling executive council. Semantics. Sorting through that took time, too, and time is a precious commodity for Katz and his clients. "These are old men," the lawyer said. "Every week, we may lose some of them."

When the pension plan began, players needed four years of major league service to qualify. Now, it's one day. Sam Jethroe, a late arrival because he happens to be black, lasted three full years and two games of a fourth season in the majors. Baseball said no pension for him.

But the game is not without compassion. As part of its Jackie Robinson golden anniversary celebration, baseball made a small gesture to old Negro League players, like Jethroe, notifying them that it was establishing a benefit plan for them. To learn if they were eligible, the players were required to answer a questionnaire and sign a release that frees baseball from "any and all claims that may have ever existed concerning or related to the player's prior service."

And that's just to find out if they are eligible.

The pre-1947 players have no pension rights because baseball had no pension plan when they played. The statute of limitations has long since passed so there are no legal rights for the old-timers. "It is a moral issue and an ethical issue," Katz said.

The legal issue is in the right of publicity. Pre-1947 contracts did not mention the matter. Post-1947 contracts require players to surrender some of those rights. Katz' constituency surrendered nothing and has received nothing.

"Baseball has used images of these players in pictures and films without permission or compensation," Katz said. "The Ken Burns film was filled with them. There was a promotion by the Dodgers and Target stores that offered a card set of all the old Dodgers. Nobody asked their permission."

Five old players--Dolph Camilli, Frank Crosetti, Al Gionfriddo, Pete Coscarart and Cy Block--sued over the publicity issue.

In an accompanying suit, now certified as a class action, Crosetti and Coscarart were joined by more recent retirees Bernie Carbo, Kenny Landreaux and Milt Pappas. They're suing baseball over a royalty program that was supposed to generate income for retired players any time their images are sold. The proceeds have amounted to less than $200 per player per year, a sum Katz and his clients wonder about.

There has been discussion of settlements, but Katz believes they will wind up in court. The suits are making their way through the legal system, moving ever so slowly.

So Coscarart, 82 and recovering from a second heart attack, plays golf and waits. And so does Camilli, who just turned 90. The actions are pending, and so are they.

"It takes time to resolve these issues," Katz said.

And baseball has always had plenty of time.

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