WASHINGTON - The 1997 baseball season marks the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and entering the major leagues. In honor of this milestone, the owners of Major League Baseball agreed to set up a separate pension plan for nearly 90 former players from the Negro Leagues.
Even though many Negro League players spent some time in the majors, they didn't play enough to qualify for the Major League Baseball pension benefits.
"Baseball has to recognize its past as well as its present," said Major League Baseball chief labor negotiator Randy Levine. "As we go into the 50th year recognizing Jackie Robinson, we need to recognize the pioneers who have done so much for baseball, and give them solace in their later years."
The new separate, non-qualified plan is expected to give each player $7,500 to $10,000 annually for life. According to the new plan, each player will receive the same amount in an annual lump sum; the exact amount should be determined in the next few weeks. Total cost for baseball team owners is expected to be $10 million to $12 million, or around $350,000 each. So far, the Major League Players Association, the players' union, has not said whether it would participate in contributing to the plan.
The plan would cover African-American players who either played four years in the Negro Leagues or a combination of four years in the Negro Leagues and the major leagues. Mr. Levine said about 30 to 40 players qualify for the first category and about 40 to 50 players qualify for the second.
The current players pension plan, which started in 1947, stipulated that players who retired before 1980 needed to play in the major leagues for at least four years. (After 1980, players only needed to be on a major league team roster for one day to qualify). Owners are still considering whether to include non-African-American players who retired before 1947, when the first plan originally was set up. Mr. Levine said spouses and other beneficiaries will not be eligible for benefits.
John Puttock, an attorney representing Sam Jethroe - who, with Jackie Robinson and Marvin Williams, was one of the first to try out for the Boston Braves - said that excluding spouses and other beneficiaries is unacceptable.
"That's why we're still fighting," Mr. Puttock said. "If (the owners) are going to be fair, they should include these people."
In addition to marking Mr. Robinson's anniversary, the move to create a new plan for the players also was sparked by the lawsuit filed last year by Mr. Jethroe, who played for the Boston Braves in 1950-'52, and the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1954. Although he was sometimes only on call, Mr. Jethroe technically was on the major league roster for a little more than three years. The lawsuit was dismissed in U.S. District Court in Erie, Pa., in October, but Mr. Puttock said the suit is what got negotiations going.
Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., also helped push the effort forward. In an interview, Ms. Moseley-Braun said she wanted to help Mr. Jethroe, who is from Illinois. She worked with owners to help develop the plan, and plans to continue working with the players union to get them to "participate as much as the owners."
"The owners stepped up to the plate to correct an injustice," she said.
The first African-American league, called the Negro National League, was founded in 1920 and lasted for 10 years. In 1937, two regional leagues, the Negro National League and Negro American League - consisting of six teams each - were established on the East and West coasts.
For some players like Mr. Jethroe, playing baseball was a means to support his family. "In those days there was no such thing as a 'free agent,' and I had no choice but to agree to whatever terms the club gave me," Mr. Jethroe said in the affidavit in his lawsuit.
Mr. Puttock said that when Mr. Jethroe started playing with the Braves in 1950, the rookie could not negotiate salary or benefits. Even though Mr. Jethroe was the first African-American player for the Boston Braves and was named rookie of the year in 1950 - with one of the highest stolen base counts in the majors - negotiations for benefits was not even a consideration.
"The owners would threaten to fire them if they even tried to negotiate," Mr. Puttock said. "I really believe (the Negro Leagues players) were basically slaves."