September 9, 2003
Sept 9, 2003
Between the seams: Players left behind
By MICHAEL O'KEEFFE
NORTH MIAMI, Fla. — Tears spill down Juan Armenteros' cheeks as he talks about the years of racist insults, the sleepless nights on stiff bus seats when hotels wouldn't let him through their doors and the lunch counters that wouldn't give him a seat because of the color of his skin.
But as he leans back in his rocking chair, Armenteros hears the sound of a fastball rocketing off the sweet spot of his bat and a strike three popping in his catcher's mitt. He sees himself laughing with his teammates during the three years he spent with the Kansas City Monarchs and remembers the wisdom of his manager, Buck O'Neil. Armenteros, suffering from bladder cancer and shaky from chemotherapy, begins to weep.
"This conversation makes me feel young," says the Cuban-born Armenteros, 75, in the living room of his tidy North Miami home. "Oh, I love this game."
The only thing missing, Armenteros claims, was a shot at Major League Baseball, an opportunity he believes he never got because he is black. He joined the Monarchs in 1953, six years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line in 1947. But integration was a slow, labored process that took more than a decade to complete, and many black players were left out.
"We were denied opportunity," Armenteros says, "and that wasn't right."
Fifty years later, the seeds planted by Negro Leaguers like Armenteros have yielded huge dividends. Baseball has blossomed into an international game, largely fueled by the charisma of black and Latin players, from Willie Mays and Hank Aaron to Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum has become one of Kansas City's top attractions. Apparel companies sell millions of dollars' worth of jerseys and jackets inspired by the Negro Leagues, and manufacturers are predicting merchandise honoring the Monarchs, the Black Yankees, the Homestead Grays, and other long-defunct clubs will be the next big thing.
But many of the Negro Leaguers who nurtured the game in the African-American community during decades of baseball apartheid haven't received a dime, because most clubs didn't register names and logos with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, leaving them in the public domain, free for anyone to use. They're all senior citizens now, and many are in failing health, struggling to pay for medical care.
"They were screwed badly by baseball and society," says former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, who apologized to Negro League players at a Hall of Fame banquet and provided health benefits to some former Negro League players in 1992.
After years of being ignored, however, these players are finally being heard. A former Negro League pitcher, a U.S. senator and prominent civil-rights leaders have banded together to call attention to their plight, and are optimistic that help is on the way.
Bob "Peach-Head" Mitchell, Armenteros' former teammate on the Monarchs, has lobbied Major League Baseball to extend eligibility in the Negro League pension plan it established in 1997, and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has also asked commissioner Bud Selig to expand the plan.
Nelson is considering calling congressional hearings on the plight of Negro League players.
"We need to convince Major League Baseball that these players need a pension," Nelson says.
The NAACP approved a resolution supporting Mitchell's efforts at its convention in July, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson says his Rainbow/PUSH coalition has embraced the cause.
Forty-one men receive the $10,000-a-year pension, but Mitchell says the eligibility requirements — four years of service with the Negro Leagues and/or the Major Leagues, with careers beginning before 1948 — exclude 135 others.
MLB is reviewing Mitchell's request, according to executive vice president Rob Manfred. But Manfred says baseball already does far more than it really has to — it also provides health insurance for 34 Negro League players and spouses, and many others have received help from the Baseball Assistance Team, the MLB-funded charity for former players, coaches and umpires who are down on their luck.
"I understand Bob Mitchell wants us to help, and in a perfect world, we'd do it," Manfred says. "But we really did an extraordinary thing when we created this program. No other employer has created a pension program for people who did not even work for them."
Mitchell wants baseball to pay up to $60,000 in retroactive pension pay to dozens of Negro Leaguers with four years of service whose careers began after 1947, and then $10,000 annually. He also has asked for a lump sum — up to $25,000 — for players with three or fewer years in the Negro Leagues.
Mitchell estimates the total cost would be about $3 million to start the program and about $410,000 to maintain it, what he calls "chump change" for an industry with $3.6 billion in revenue in 2001.
But baseball officials are also worried about setting an expensive precedent. A Michigan law firm claiming to represent 1,100 former MLB players who did not qualify for pensions under old vesting rules says if baseball can pony up for Negro Leaguers, it should retroactively award benefits to their clients, too, or face a $1 billion lawsuit in October.
To complicate matters further, Mitchell's pitch is vehemently opposed by many Negro Leaguers who played before Robinson broke the color line. The crusade to expand pension eligibility has added new fuel to a fierce debate: Who has the right to call himself a Negro League player?
Many of those who played before 1947 say the Negro Leagues ended after the Negro National League folded in 1948.
Mitchell says he's encouraged by recent discussions with baseball. Selig, he says, always replies to his letters and promised to forward the matter to baseball's Park Avenue staff.
Mitchell finally heard from the New York office last year, when chief financial officer Jonathan Mariner called him and agreed to pay the players who do qualify for the pension monthly, instead of quarterly, a big difference for seniors on fixed incomes.
"I think Selig likes the concept. I think he wants to do more," Mitchell says.
For Juan Armenteros, who might not live long enough to reap the benefits of his teammate's work, recognition from Major League Baseball would mean everything.
"I know I was pretty good," he says, wiping the tears from his eyes. "I have a lot of feeling for this game. I enjoyed playing it so much."