Former baseball players lose bid for pensions, benefits

Updated: March 16, 2004, 4:15 AM ET

LOS ANGELES -- A federal judge knocked down a lawsuit that sought pension and medical benefits for a group of former major league players who claimed they were shortchanged by the league because they are white.

U.S. District Judge Manuel Real's decision Monday was a victory for the league, which argued that the former players were essentially looking for a handout they didn't deserve.

The proposed class-action lawsuit -- filed last year against commissioner Bud Selig, the league and its 30 teams -- stemmed from baseball's decision in 1997 to grant a $10,000 annual pension to some former black players who played in the Negro Leagues and for major league teams, even though they were never vested under the former requirements.

The lawsuit argued that the former players -- nearly all white -- are entitled to the same benefits as their counterparts in the Negro Leagues.

The principal plaintiffs were former New York Mets starting shortstop Richard Moran; Ernie Fazio, the first player signed by the Houston Astros franchise; and former Chicago White Sox player Mike Colbern. More than 1,000 other players were proposed members of the class.

Real said the players have a "sympathetic" case and suggested baseball officials could look at it. The judge, however, granted baseball's motion for a summary judgment, in effect agreeing with the commissioner's position.

"There was no employment discrimination here," said Howard Ganz, baseball's lawyer, adding that the lawsuit falls "in the category of no good deed goes unpunished."

"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," Ganz said. "And for the plaintiffs here to try to capitalize upon that seems to me totally inappropriate."

In legal papers, baseball argued that the payments and medical coverage provided for former Negro League players "were not tied to any MLB employment relationship ... but rather were conferred as charitable donations." The league also said the players waited too long to raise legal objections.

"The bad guys won the first round," said Jason Rumsey, a lawyer for the players. "I don't think that the judge really took into consideration the facts we presented."

The lawsuit also alleged battery, negligence, racial discrimination and conspiracy.

After 1981's 50-day strike, the vesting requirements for medical benefits were reduced from four years of major league service to one day. For pension benefits, the requirement was lowered from four years to 43 days.

The change excluded players who played before 1980, including the 1,053 members of the proposed class-action lawsuit.

The battery and negligence allegations were related to claims that baseball teams directed doctors and trainers to inject players with multiple cortisone shots to mask pain, without informing players of the danger. The conspiracy allegation claimed owners conspired to fund the pension and medical benefits for the former Negro Leagues players knowing that white players who had played similar lengths had not received those benefits.

Colbern, 48, a mortgage broker who played for the Chicago White Sox in 1978 and 1979, said he hoped the case would be appealed.

"They are responsible in our case, too," Colbern said of pensions and medical benefits.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index

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