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NEW JERSEY— In the past few years, former Negro League baseball players have been honored with congressional declarations, invited to throw ceremonial first pitches at major league games and asked to hold autograph-signing sessions. And replica Negro League jerseys are in fashion, selling in sporting goods stores alongside the uniform tops and caps of today’s stars.
But the former Negro League players — one as old as 101 — say that while they are glad for the newfound attention and the applause, they are also getting very old, becoming sick and many of them, and their wives, are dying poor. They get little or no revenue from the merchandise sales or from a museum that honors them.
Most of the living former players are not eligible for a $10,000 Negro League pension that has been offered by Major League Baseball since 1997.
“You have to put this in perspective; these players, many of them were playing baseball in the prime of their lives,” said Larry Lester, a co-director of a three-year research project on Negro League baseball sponsored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. “When they turned 65, there was no money available for them except a minuscule Social Security check. Many of them live in destitution.
“I’ve been in their homes, I’ve seen how they live. Generally speaking, they’re a proud group of men and they don’t want any handouts, but they could use some help.”
Professional baseball was segregated until 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. But the last team to integrate, the Boston Red Sox, did not do so until 1959. In 1953, half of the 16 teams denied black players the opportunity to earn a major league salary and the pension that went with it, leaving open the question of whether anyone should be responsible for their financial well-being now.
An undisclosed number of former Negro Leaguers and their families have gotten help from the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), an MLB-funded charity that helps former players, umpires, coaches and scouts.
Geraldine Day, 64, the widow of Hall of Famer Leon Day, struggles to pay for clothing and her many prescriptions, and she could not afford to have her car repaired when it broke down this summer.
Her daughter, Sarah, also struggles with her health; she and her son, Leon Day Newkirk, have slept in the living room of Geraldine’s two-bedroom apartment in Arbutus, Md., for more than a year.
Geraldine’s husband died in 1995, six days after being voted into Cooperstown. There is no pension plan that covers widows of Negro Leaguers but the retired forklift operator gets $625 per month and her rent paid by BAT. To get the money, she had to apply and document her financial problems, something many former players are reluctant to do. Others said they have never heard of the charity.
“If [Leon Day] had a different job, I could draw that pension.
But he played baseball all his years — that’s why I worked until I couldn’t work no more,” said Geraldine Day. If she got a pension, “the first thing I would do is get some nice clothes — ladylike clothes, you know? I would like to have some nice shoes. I would pay off all the old debts we have and the new ones I had to get on top of the old ones for the clothes I do get.
I would just live comfortable.”
Benjamin “Billy” Felder, who said he played from 1945 to ’48 with the Philadelphia Stars, Newark Eagles and Indianapolis Clowns, struggles to pay for his year-old hospital bills from a heart attack, can’t cover his prescription costs and lives in a house owned by his brother. Felder can’t pay for the repairs on his 1990 GMC Jimmy that would let him stop borrowing his brother’s minivan.
Today he keeps his pills in a leather case in his kitchen in Seminole, Fla., eight prescriptions in all, more than he can afford. There are heart pills, ulcer pills, blood pressure pills. And that’s not to mention the eye drops for his blurred vision and the insulin he injects for his diabetes.
“I’m just hoping something will happen and I’ll be able to get some kind of help,” Felder, 76, said.
Several ex-players have pleaded for an expansion of the Major League pension plan, arguing that their only hope originates from an industry with revenues in excess of $3.5 billion in 2001. Sen.
Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said he has tried in vain for two years to land a meeting with Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig, and is considering calling for congressional hearings on the matter.
The NAACP passed a resolution supporting the pension-plan expansion at its annual convention last month in Miami Beach.
Selig said through a spokesman yesterday that he would be open to meeting with Nelson when their schedules allow it. Selig declined to comment on Nelson’s arguments, saying he is not interested in getting into a public debate regarding the pensions. Baseball officials argue that they already are doing more than they are required to do.
“There is no other employer anywhere — I defy you to find another — that voluntarily provides pensions or health insurance to people who never worked for them,” said Robert Manfred, MLB’s executive vice president for labor relations and human relations and its point man on the pension issue.
As a left-handed pitcher for the Indianapolis Clowns, Raydell “Bo” Maddix says he pitched against Willie Mays, hung out with Ernie Banks and barnstormed with Jackie Robinson. He says he played four seasons, taking 21 months off to fight in the Korean War. Now 74, he gets by on a monthly income of about $820 from Social Security and a small retirement plan from an employer. His wife’s pension is less than $700 a month. He said he would use any financial assistance on rent, groceries and his blood pressure medication; he’d also like to buy a pickup truck to “haul me some cans, do some yard work, make a little extra money.”
“They could give us a little something,” Maddix said of Major League Baseball. “They could give us something to last the rest of our lives with the baseballs they throw away.
. . . Just give the old Negro Leaguers a shot in the arm. It don’t make me angry. It just makes me disappointed, because I know they could afford to do this and it wouldn’t even be a drop in the bucket.”
Former players with a minimum four years of Negro League and/or Major League Baseball service qualify for the MLB pension, and they had to begin playing in the Negro Leagues by 1947. But documenting when and where someone played in the Negro Leagues can be difficult because records are hard to find.
Herbert “Briefcase” Simpson bounced around a variety of Negro League and other professional barnstorming teams in the 1940s and 1950s, including, he said, a few games with the Birmingham Black Barons and Homestead Grays in the early 1940s, three seasons (1949-51) with the Chicago American Giants and three years with the independent Albuquerque Dukes of the West Texas-New Mexico League. His baseball career was interrupted during World War II, when he served 21/2 years in the Army in Europe.
Now 82 and living in New Orleans, Simpson said he does not understand exactly why he does not qualify for a pension.
“If I could get [some assistance] I would appreciate it very much. I sure could use it,” Simpson said. “I guess they have someone ahead of us. Maybe someone forgot to put our names down or something. You never can tell.”
If Simpson’s story is true — if, in fact, he played a few games for the Black Barons or Grays in the early 1940s and three years with the American Giants — he would qualify for the pension.
In some cases, players are rummaging through 60 years of memories when they try to verify their service. Walter “Buddy” Williams, 89, who built his home in Silver Spring in 1946, said he played exclusively for the Newark Eagles from 1937 to ’40.
But two Negro League encyclopedias state that he played for the Eagles and two other teams from 1937 to ’39.
Different groups have different opinions on the number of living Negro Leaguers. Lester’s database, which includes Negro League teams and black barnstorming teams and is culled from box scores and newspaper clippings, puts the figure at approximately 280.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which counts players through 1960, says it’s about 200. And the Negro League Baseball Players Association, whose members must have played for at least three years prior to 1950, says it’s about 45.
What is certain, however, is that with documentation scarce, especially in the 1950s, determining the details of careers that were often nomadic is a challenge.
Last December, using names and addresses provided by Lester and former Negro Leaguer Bob “Peach-Head” Mitchell, MLB sent more than 20 letters to former players explaining the pension’s qualification requirements and asking anyone who believed they qualified to submit documentation. Jonathan Mariner, MLB’s senior vice president and chief financial officer, said “six or eight” former players were added to the pension plan and given pension money retroactive to 1997, when the program began.
One of the greatest points of contention is that baseball chose 1947 as the latest start date of an eligible player’s career.
Mariner said that as many as 50 former players meet the tenure requirement but began their careers after 1947; Mitchell said the number is closer to 30.
Nelson and Mitchell have petitioned baseball to provide financial aid to all former Negro League players through 1957, regardless of tenure, with more money going to the longer-tenured players.
But in a January 2002 letter to Nelson, Selig argued “that in 1947, when Jackie Robinson made his historic walk to the batter’s box, the days of segregation in Major League Baseball were officially over.”
It’s an argument Nelson emphatically rejects. >
“Major League Baseball said the league was integrated [in 1947], but in fact it was not, it was not fully integrated until 1959,” Nelson said. “I would say that this is a matter of redressing wrongs due to racial segregation, and Major League Baseball is in a very good position to make right those past wrongs.”
It would cost about $2.75 million — between $50,000 and $60,000 in retroactive pension pay for each player — to add the 50 players who started after 1947 and played four years, and another $500,000 annually, or the price of a utility infielder, to support them all for one year.
Mitchell proposes one-time payments, based on service time, for players with fewer than four years. According to his list of players, that could cost up to $3 million. That would cover the players who left the Negro Leagues with three or fewer years of service for the promise of higher pay in Canada or Latin America. Others failed to meet the service requirement because they served in World War II or the Korean War or began playing in major league farm systems.
“It’s a meager amount of money that has to be paid to settle the thing once and for all,” Mitchell said.
Major League Baseball is open to changing the parameters of the Negro League pension plan, but the four-year requirement will not change, because it is consistent with the regular pension plan for pre-1947 MLB players, said Mariner, who has spoken often with Nelson.
Other than BAT and the MLB pension program, there are few sources of financial aid for Negro Leaguers.
Merchandise with Negro League names and logos attracts buyers who were born decades after baseball was integrated. But other than a few scattered memorabilia shows, players get nothing from sales, partly because most team names and logos are in the public domain. The families of some of the most prominent Negro Leaguers, such as the deceased Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, have licensed the players’ names and likenesses in an attempt to capture some of the market for Negro Leagues merchandise.
The size of the market, however, is difficult to estimate.
“It’s such an unsupervised, unregulated area that it’s difficult to put a figure on it because we just don’t know,” said Mike May, director of communications for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. “There are too many unstructured sales going on.”
The NLBPA, a locally based non-profit group that organizes fundraisers and appearances for ex-players, recently entered into several licensing agreements to sell merchandise bearing the NLBPA logo.
Association leaders hope to bring in more revenue that can be distributed to members and widows in need, although they complain that they continue to be undermined by unlicensed merchandise dealers.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which opened in 1991 in Kansas City, signed a licensing deal with Major League Baseball Properties in 1993 stipulating that 50 percent of its MLB Properties merchandise sales would be distributed to former players.
Many players say the MLB Properties checks were so small that they were insulting, not even worth cashing.
As of the first quarter of 2002, MLB Properties stopped issuing the checks altogether because the licensing deal didn’t generate enough revenue, said a baseball spokesman. MLB Properties is exploring ways to generate future royalties for former players, said Ethan Orlinsky, senior vice president and general counsel for MLB Properties.
The Negro Leagues museum also has contracts with 24 companies to make a variety of collectibles and apparel, the money from which goes to the museum’s operating costs. And with the museum taking in more than $1 million in yearly revenue, according to its most recent available tax filings, some of the players see it as an organization that has abandoned them.
“We don’t get a damned cent of it,” said Wilmer Fields of Manassas, the president of the NLBPA who played for the Homestead Grays. “They sell merchandise hand over fist, and we get nothing. Nothing.”
Don Motley, executive director of the museum, said the museum’s sole purpose is to “preserve, research and disseminate the history of African American baseball.” Besides, he said, the museum has enough difficulty just “keeping our doors open.” Merchandise revenues from its gift shop, he said, are negligible.
“Our job is not to take care of the ballplayers,” Motley said. “You look at any museum; their job is to preserve the history.”
Said Bob Kendrick, the museum’s director of marketing: “Believe me, the museum is very sensitive to the financial situation of all those players, but the museum should not have to bear the burden of funding. It’s difficult for us, because we understand that there are a number of these players who are struggling, but it’s just too difficult a situation for us to get into a disbursement of revenue. We would never satisfy everyone, even if we had the resources, which obviously we don’t.”
Ernest Burke, who said he played for the Baltimore Elite Giants from 1946 to ’48, said current major leaguers, whose minimum salary is $300,000 with a $16,200 annual lifetime pension for each year of service, should bear some financial responsibility.
“We’d be living on easy street, the widows and everybody,” Burke said. “Just 1 percent of your salary, just 1 percent.
That goes through [the players'] heads like they’ve got a hole in it.”