O ver a thousand men who played big league
baseball before 1980 won’t be getting any
pension or medical benefits from former management, a federal judge ruled in a little-publicized hearing last month.
Before 1980, a big leaguer who did not complete four years of service was not vested for pension or benefits. As part of the agreement ending the 1981 players’ strike, the rules were changed allowing a player to become vested in medical benefits after one day’s play, and be vested for pension after 43 days.
The players who missed the cut kept their mouths shut until 1997.
What brought the players’ push for a class action suit was rooted in major league baseball’s decision that year to begin paying some Negro League players a $10,000-a-year pension, even though they were not vested under the former requirements.
The mostly white ballplayers from the pre-strike era decided to seek a class action suit, which federal judge Manuel Real struck down last month, even as he admitted the former players had “a sympathetic case.” He even suggested league officials take another look at their stance on this issue.
The 1,053 former players seeking the class action status argued they were entitled to the same benefits as their counterparts in the Negro League. Baseball brass argued the players were looking for a handout they didn’t deserve.
“There was no employment discrimination here,” baseball’s lawyer Howard Ganz said after the ruling. He characterized the lawsuit as falling into the category of “no good deed goes unpunished.”
“Baseball,” he said, “in an effort to at least repair some of the actions or inactions of many decades before, decided to do something that would be beneficial for those who played in the Negro League and had been excluded from major league baseball … For the plaintiffs here to try to capitalize upon that seems to me totally inappropriate.”
In legal papers, the league argued that pension and medical coverage for the former Negro League players “were not tied to any MLB (major league baseball) employment relationship … but rather were conferred as charitable donations.”
Charity begins at home. Baseball, like any other business, has an obligation to shoot straight and make a profit. It’s laudable to give to charity, but it should also look after the workers who helped keep it the national pastime.
The number of players affected by this will continue to dwindle as time takes its toll. They’re not asking for reparations, but some financial assistance in their old age. Baseball should do the right thing and help them out, as it did their brothers in the Negro League.