Old Timers Take A Swing At Baseball

Disgruntled players from the past are suing over royalties and griping about pensions

You've been here, heard this before: baseball players calling owners money-grubbing leeches. Owners saying ballplayers don't deserve a dime more than they're getting. Outsiders being called upon to arbitrate.

What's different this time is that most of these players haven't rounded third since love beads were in style. At issue: a dispute over royalty payments that could pit a who's who of retired players against team owners in court. At stake: millions of dollars that the ex-players say they're owed for lending names and likenesses to an array of items, from scorebooks to videotapes.

Five ex-big leaguers--Pete Coscarart, Bernie Carbo, Frank Crosetti, Ken Landreaux, and Milt Pappas--got the ball rolling last year when they filed suit on behalf of players who signed a royalty agreement with Major League Baseball Properties, the licensing arm of Major League Baseball. In April, the lawsuit was certified as a class action, meaning all 400-odd players who signed the deal can collectively oppose baseball in court.

Lawyers for the former players accuse MLB Properties of a variety of sins, such as shorting the royalties pool by excluding a number of rich licensing deals. As proof of MLB's cheating heart, they cite paltry payments to players: Coscarart's share in 1995 was $170.

Attorneys for the owners say the sums may be piddling but reflect flagging interest in the old players, not greed. "[MLB] Properties established this program to help players without a great deal of fame link up with players who are better known--where at least some revenue could be split among them. That has been done and done fairly," says MLB lawyer Martin R. Glick.

At times, the bitterness of former players extends well beyond MLB. "My name has been used in three movies, and I got absolutely nothing for it," says Pappas, a pitcher from 1957 to 1973 and now a building-supply salesman near Chicago. "No royalty check. No thank you. Not even a `Go to hell.' All we want is a little fairness."

Says another plaintiff, ex-pitcher Jim Bouton, author of the baseball classic Ball Four: "I have the lowest possible expectations of Major League Baseball. They pay big salaries to the current players because they have to. The old guys never forced them to do anything. Maybe that will change now."

In all, ex-players have filed three different lawsuits over royalties--and that's just one of the flashpoints. Besides royalty disputes, several ex-players have taken baseball to court over a pension system they say unfairly excludes them--and ignores the contributions of those who built the game into an entertainment colossus.

So far, MLB owners have ignored most calls to extend pension benefits. They haven't budged for players whose careers ended before the pension plan began in 1947. They've also turned a deaf ear to at least two cases in which former players claim that they would have qualified for pensions if their careers had not been interrupted by World War II.

NO CHANCE. Pressure from Negro League veterans has moved the owners--a little. Black players, excluded from the major leagues until 1947, had no chance to earn retirement benefits. Earlier in this year of Jackie Robinson, owners announced a plan offering pensions to those with one year of Negro League service before 1948 or four years combined in the major leagues and the Negro League. Annual benefits range from $7,500 to $10,000.

Even that gesture has been controversial. Some Negro Leaguers complain that they have been asked to sign waivers barring them from filing lawsuits against MLB before being told details of the plan. An MLB spokesperson acknowledges that a comprehensive version of the plan has not been circulated but says players have been advised that they can call MLB if they have questions. "Basically, Negro League players have been asked to give up their rights...in return for some unknown pension," says John Puttock, a Huntington Beach (Calif.) lawyer who advises several of the players. Many ex-Negro Leaguers have voiced concern about what's missing from the pension plan: survivors' benefits. "They've decided to cover the Negro Leaguers with $800 a month. When they're not here anymore, that's it," says Puttock.

It isn't only team owners whom old- timers fault for forgetting them. Today's players also come in for heavy criticism. Retired players especially covet the cushy retirements awaiting players of the '90s. Under the current system, major leaguers need only play a quarter of a season to receive a pension. A full pension, earned after at least 10 years in the major leagues, is about $113,000 a year. "The ballplayers are money-hungry, just like the owners," said Coscarart, 83, a two-time All-Star and member of the fabled 1941 Brooklyn Dodgers. "In my day, you were lucky you had a job."

PUBLICITY RIGHTS. Last year, intellectual- property attorney Ronald S. Katz of San Francisco filed suits on behalf of the 400-odd players who signed the pooled royalty agreement. Players covered by the agreement granted MLB Properties a nonexclusive right to strike deals for the use of their names, signatures, and photos. Under the deal, players agreed that royalties earned would be thrown into a pot and shared equally. Excluded are 40 Hall of Famers, who earn five times what others do. Katz also filed "right of publicity" suits on behalf of two other groups: players who played in the major leagues before 1947 and those who played in the majors after 1947 but are not members of the pooled royalty group.

Plaintiffs in the pre-1947 lawsuit-- Coscarart and Crosetti among them--allege that MLB, MLB Properties, and other defendants have used their names and images without permission. Standard player contracts before 1947 did not require players to give away their publicity rights, says Katz. After 1947, players generally signed them away. But a lawsuit brought by Al Gionfriddo on behalf of post-1947 major leaguers alleges that those rights reverted to them when their playing days ended. Those rights belong to the clubs, counter MLB's lawyers.

"These are salt-of-the-earth guys who, when they played, made five or six thousand dollars [a year]," says Katz. But not all of Katz's clients fit that humble profile. Of those who signed the pooled-royalty deal and are listed as plaintiffs, many are now front-office execs. And at least four are managers--Houston's Larry Dierker, Colorado's Don Baylor, Baltimore's Davey Johnson, and Milwaukee's Phil Garner. Because the case is a class action, all may opt out--and a number are expected to do so. "At some point," says Bouton, "the people who are working for teams will be called aside and it will be explained, `Your prospects for future employment are very dim if you pursue this lawsuit."'