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Huntington Lawyer Seeks Benefits for Ex-Ballplayers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a year of heroic performances--when the most sacred record was utterly demolished, when fans returned to the ballparks and players became heroes again--baseball continues to disappoint John Puttock.

He still loves the game, but when he thinks of the money that the players, the owners and anyone connected to baseball are making, he talks about an industry that has lost its heart.

For the last four years, Puttock, a Huntington Beach attorney for a Japanese insurance company, has spent his nights and weekends fighting to gain pensions for about 150 elderly baseball players not covered by the major league’s lucrative plan.

They are former big leaguers and Negro League players, many in poor health and financial straits. They played when the average major league salary was at least a couple of zeros shy of the current $1.4 million a year and worked at gas stations or sold insurance in the off season to support their families.

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While others have tried to gain pensions for the older players in the past, no one has shoved the pension issue in the face of Major League Baseball and its union, the Major League Baseball Players Assn., like Puttock has.

Not only did Puttock file a lawsuit, using his connections with lawyers around the country, the old-timers filed seven other lawsuits to shake loose money from professional baseball.

He brought a couple of the players with him to stage quiet demonstrations outside Dodger Stadium last season and before the fourth game of the World Series in San Diego. He’s planning a golf tournament to raise money for the players in February through an organization he’s starting, the Forgotten Heroes Foundation.

While none of the former players have gotten what Puttock thinks they deserve, some retirees credit him with forcing baseball to acknowledge the disparity. Two years ago, after Puttock filed his first suit, baseball officials offered many of the old-timers payments of $10,000 a year, which most of them accepted.

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So he keeps on going.

It grates on him that baseball will pay a single player more for a season than it would take to provide for all of these men for a year. To pay 150 players even $20,000 annually would cost $3 million, about a third of what Mark McGwire makes.

While they say they sympathize with the old-timers’ plight, the owners and the union insist that the men are not entitled to additional money because they played before the pension plan was created.

“We’re trying to do the right thing” with the $10,000 payments, said Rich Levin, a spokesman for the commissioner. “It’s an old saying, no good deed goes unpunished.”

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Puttock’s efforts have earned him no friends among the people who run baseball. They ignore him or disparage him as a publicity seeker.

“What did he do? Give you a self-serving press release?” Donald Fehr, executive director of the players association, said when asked about Puttock.

None of that bothers the lawyer. “Sometimes you have to cause trouble to get something done,” he said. “Jackie Robinson was something of a troublemaker. If you try to be deferential to everybody, you can never change anybody.”

An Introduction to Players’ Plight

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Puttock’s first lesson in baseball pensions came when he traveled to Cleveland in 1994 with a friend, former Dodger pitcher Don Newcombe.

Newcombe introduced him to Sam Jethroe. Like Newcombe, Jethroe had played in the Negro Leagues before Jackie Robinson integrated the majors in 1947. Jethroe related his financial woes and health problems. He had diabetes and his house had burned down. He was supporting his junior high school-aged granddaughter and had spent time on welfare.

Don’t you get a pension? Newcombe asked. Jethroe said he didn’t. Puttock overheard and said he’d look into it when he got back home.

“It was one of those projects that should take a week,” Puttock said, “and it’s taken four years.”

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Since then, Puttock, 49, with the squat build of the high school catcher he once was, has become more than a lawyer to these players.

When Jethroe’s grandson died, Puttock used money his family was saving for a trip to Japan and flew to Pennsylvania to comfort the former ballplayer. He bought Jethroe’s granddaughter a computer, and he flew Jethroe and his two granddaughters to California and paid for their hotel and a trip to Disneyland. “John has been real wonderful to me,” Jethroe said. “I could never have asked for a better person.”

What motivates Puttock is a sense of justice, his friends say. He’s working on the pensions for free. “There’s something that drives him to do something for people with his knowledge of the law because he thinks they’ve been done wrong,” Newcombe said. “I don’t think John really cares who or what the subject is as long as he can help right that wrong.”

Puttock jokes that he spends so much time talking to the players that the phone company will own his house soon. To try to better understand the situation, he’s read about 35 books on baseball, many of them two or three times, ranging from biographies to analyses of the business end.

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Says his wife, Erika, whose main interest in baseball is watching their two sons play Little League: “Sometimes we don’t have time to talk. But he has to do what he has to do, because somebody has to do this job.”

An Evolving, Uneven Pension Plan

Since it was established in 1947, the baseball pension plan often has been a contentious issue between players and owners, even leading to a 1972 strike.

The plan, once funded by the All Star Game and the World Series, is paid for by the owners and covers players, managers, coaches, trainers and assistant trainers.

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Over the years, the payments have gotten larger and the vesting period has gotten shorter. Those in the game today are vested after just one day. Anyone who played before 1980 must have four years of service.

A player with five years’ experience receives $25,200 a year at age 55. The top pension of $112,221 a year kicks in at age 62 for someone with 10 years in the majors. If a player dies, his wife continues to receive the pension.

But players who retired before the plan’s inception in 1947 receive nothing, and neither do Negro League players.

“What ought to happen is they should pay these guys what they would have gotten if they had not stolen their retirement,” Puttock said. “That’s what it is, theft.”

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Legal Action Yields Disappointing Results

When he returned home to Huntington Beach from Cleveland in 1994, Puttock found that Jethroe had played three years and seven days in the big leagues. His six years in the Negro Leagues didn’t count. Jethroe needed less than a year to qualify for the pension.

Puttock wrote the union and baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, and he didn’t start out gently. His letter threatened a lawsuit if they didn’t provide pensions for the Negro Leaguers who had played in the big leagues.

Puttock never heard from Selig, but a union lawyer told him the players were about to strike, and bargaining for the Negro League players was not among their priorities.

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So Puttock sued Major League Baseball in 1995.

But he also went against the advice of one of his heroes, Marvin Miller, who turned the Major League Baseball Players Assn. into the powerful force it is today.

He sued the union.

Puttock admits that was a mistake, losing him the potential support of the group that might have led to a better deal for the men he represented.

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“I kept saying, ‘Who are your allies going to be?’ ” said Miller, who was retired by then. “If you sue everyone in sight, you’re walking out on the end of a limb. It sure enough got people at the players association angry.”

A federal judge dismissed Jethroe’s lawsuit in 1996, saying the statute of limitations had expired.

But Puttock’s involvement was far from over. He began to hear from two other groups of players not covered by the pension, the pre-1947 white players and another group who had jumped to the Mexican League.

Few of them were big names. They are men like Pete Coscarart, now 85, who lives in Escondido and has sold the memorabilia from his eight-year career to support himself and his wife. He is Mr. Pete to Puttock’s two sons, and his wife made a scrapbook of the infielder’s career for the lawyer.

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Coscarart’s peak salary as a player was $9,000 a year, and he worked at a Texaco station in the off season. “I turned in one uniform for another,” he said.

Max Lanier, who played for the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Giants, was another player. He and his wife, who has cancer and is hooked up to an oxygen tank, live on $1,300 a month in Social Security. “About every day there’s something we need,” he said. “I had to get my new teeth. I had to get two hearing aids. I’ve almost had to live at the poverty level the last 15 years.”

Lanier was one of about 20 players left out of the pension because they played in the Mexican League. Decades before free agency allowed players to go to the highest bidder, they were tied to one team forever, until they were traded, sold or released.

When Lanier and other major leaguers jumped to the new league in Mexico in 1946 for huge raises, they threatened that monopoly.

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The new league folded a few months later, and the players were banned from the majors for five years. They were reinstated two years later after one of them sued.

But when the owners set up the pension, they drew up a condition that left the Mexican League players out in the cold. In order to receive pension credit for previous years, a player needed to be on a major league team the last day of 1946 or the first day of 1947, which was impossible for the Mexican Leaguers.

In a letter to Lanier in February 1997, just as Puttock was preparing his appeal of the Jethroe case, baseball Commissioner Selig agreed that the old-timers should receive a pension. “I am terribly sorry that this injustice has taken place,” he wrote. “You are deserving of a pension and I’m embarrassed that all parties have neglected people like you who really made baseball the great game it is.

“It was good to hear from you and I hope you and your wife’s health will improve and that we can make a financial contribution toward that end.”

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As Puttock worked on the Jethroe appeal, Major League Baseball offered most of the old-timers a deal. It wasn’t a pension, even Major League Baseball says, but it would pay the players $10,000 a year, about what the average player today makes per game. Eighty-five white players who had four years of service and 60 players with four years combined in the Negro Leagues and the major leagues took the deal.

But there were strings attached. Just to find out if they were eligible, the players had to sign an agreement never to sue Major League Baseball over anything.

Major League Baseball says Puttock’s efforts had nothing to do with the decision to make the payments, but the timing is hard to ignore. “He started the whole thing,” Coscarart said.

Puttock wanted to appeal the Jethroe case, but Major League Baseball wouldn’t pay the former ballplayer the $10,000 unless the suit was dropped. He decided Jethroe needed the money too badly, and had even given him $2,500 to replace the first quarterly payment.

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“I personally would have rather lost the case in the Supreme Court than accept what we eventually agreed to accept,” Puttock said. “On the other hand, I’m working against time.”

Puttock wasn’t the only person who didn’t want to accept the deal.

“The offer itself--especially to individuals who are living on borrowed time--is a humiliation which befits Third World people used to slavery!” Dolph Camilli, the former Dodger who retired in 1945 after playing 12 years, wrote Lanier. “The absolute disregard of even a small degree of compassion is appalling.”

He died three months later, in October 1997, at age 90.

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After Settlement, a Different Tactic

With his wings clipped on suing for pensions, Puttock decided in 1996 to try another legal tactic. He persuaded a San Francisco attorney who specializes in intellectual property cases to sue Major League Baseball for royalties for retired players who are featured in photos, video games, video tapes and the like.

The attorney, Ron Katz, filed four suits involving some old- timers who hadn’t taken baseball’s deal as well as more recently retired players who receive pensions.

The only case to come to trial so far was filed on behalf of 384 former players. A jury ruled this year they were owed $85,000, just $220 each. The judge threw out the counts involving video rights, where the big money is, but Katz is appealing.

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Within the last year, two Mexican League players--Luis Olmo, another former Brooklyn Dodger, and Lanier--have settled their suits against baseball for what sources said was $30,000 each. Because of their suits, neither were offered the $10,000 deal. Both used attorneys Puttock recommended.

Before settling in September, Lanier called Puttock for advice.

Much as he hated to, Puttock told Lanier to take the money because of his bad health and advanced age. “I still haven’t given up putting pressure on these guys to put Max into the major league pension,” he said. “Just because he settled his case doesn’t mean they can forget him. This is just a down payment.”


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