Tuesday, March 16, 2004
Federal Judge Rejects Former Ballplayers’ Suit Over Pensions
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
A civil rights action brought on behalf of more than 1,000 former players against Major League Baseball was rejected yesterday by U.S. District Judge Manuel Real of the Central District of California.
Following a brief hearing in his Los Angeles courtroom, Real granted a summary judgment sought by MLB, Commissioner Bud Selig, and the 30 major league clubs.
The ex-players, who played between 1947 and 1979, claim that MLB discriminates against them by not giving them pensions, while giving payments to a small number of players who played in the Negro Leagues, as they were called, before MLB integrated in 1948.
Real said the plaintiffs “certainly have a sympathetic claim” in moral terms, but that there was no violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The plaintiffs sought benefits for players who did not vest in the pension plan or qualify for medical benefits because they had less than the five years’ service credit originally required, or less than four years’ credit under a change that took effect in 1969.
When players went on strike in 1981, they emerged with a plan that requires only 43 days’ credit to qualify for a pension, and just one day of service to qualify for medical benefits. That change, however, only benefits those who played from 1980 on.
That violates Title VII, attorney Jason Rumsey of Woodland Hills’ DaCorsi & Palacios argued, because MLB has a separate program in which it makes payments to Negro League players if their aggregate service in the major leagues, plus their pre-1948 service in the Negro Leagues, totaled four years, including at least one day in the major leagues.
Real, however, sided with MLB lawyers, led by Howard Ganz of Proskauer Rose. MLB contends that the payments to the Negro League players are not comparable because they were in the nature of a gift, something the leagues felt they ought to do but which were not the product of a labor negotiation and which they were not legally obligated to provide.
Any inequity would be permissible under the Supreme Court’s most recent pronouncements on affirmative action, Real explained, saying baseball has the right to make up for past injustices even if that results in unequal treatment of similarly situated players.
MLB also argued that all of the claims were time-barred.
Rumsey suggested the ruling would be appealed.
“The bad guys won the first round,” he said outside the courtroom. “I think the judge punted. I don’t think that the judge really took into consideration the facts we presented.”
“It is a simple case of discrimination,” Rumsey added. “Baseball has provided payments to Negro League players who had not played long enough in the major leagues to vest for pension benefits. Yet, baseball provides the benefits to them anyway. They are not providing the same benefits to Caucasian players.”
Ganz suggested the former players were trying to piggyback on a decision involving the Negro League that had nothing to do with them.
“Baseball, 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. And for the plaintiffs here to try to capitalize upon that seems to me totally inappropriate.”
The lawsuit also included claims of battery and negligence. The players say Major League Baseball teams directed doctors and trainers to inject players with multiple cortisone shots to mask pain, without informing players of the danger.
Baseball successfully argued that those allegations are barred both by statutes of limitations and workers’ compensation laws.
Two of the players, Mike Colbern, a onetime All-American at Arizona State University who played with the Chicago White Sox in 1978 and 1979, and Robert Watkins, who was with the Houston Astros in 1969, spoke to reporters after the hearing and said they hoped there would be an appeal.
“There should be no statute of limitations on justice,” Watkins, who is African American, told the MetNews.
Colbern explained that there are 23 players in the Negro League program. Former Negro League players who do not qualify have complained that because baseball did not become fully integrated until well after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, their post-1947 time in the Negro Leagues should be counted.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has taken up the Negro Leaguers’ cause, suggesting he would seek legislation if baseball does not come up with an acceptable solution. The issue is not part of the lawsuit heard by Real, however.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company