March 10, 2004

NLBPA President, Mr. Wilmer Fields is quoted in the following article.

March 10, 2004

Selig expected to settle dispute over Negro League pensions


South Florida Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - (KRT) - Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig will propose a settlement to an ongoing dispute over retirement compensation for former Negro League players, according to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

The announcement came after Selig met with the Tallahassee Democrat Wednesday morning and promised the proposal within a month. Nelson has been pushing baseball officials for three years to pay retirement money to Negro League players.

Major League Baseball spokesman Matt Gould said baseball officials "are still discussing the entire situation with the senator. I can confirm (Selig) did have the discussion as the Senator said during the hearing. They will continue to have discussions."

Gould said baseball officials would not discuss specifics.

Nelson said he got involved in the issue in 2001 after receiving a letter from Bob Mitchell, who pitched for the Kansas City Monarchs from 1954 to 1957 and has led the compensation fight. Nelson met with a number of Negro League players and contacted Selig on their behalf.

"He wasn't going to respond directly to me," Nelson said. "But there was a direct opportunity in a public setting, a hearing on baseball and steroids, and he was kind enough to come in early this morning.

For Mitchell, 71, the news was the result of seven years' work.

"Well ... it's about time," he said. "The ray of hope has gotten much, much brighter."

The proposal, if enacted, would affect about 120 surviving former Negro League players, many of them now living in Florida, who never played major league baseball. They were left out of a 1997 expansion of baseball's pension plan, which gave a $10,000 annual benefit to 85 other former Negro Leaguers for playing at least some time in the majors after 1947.

That year Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the color barrier of the 20th century. Until then, black baseball players were banned from playing in the major leagues since their ouster in the late 1880s. However, baseball was not totally integrated until 1959 when the Boston Red Sox became the last team to field a black player, Pumpsie Green.

Selig warned that several obstacles could prevent a full resolution of the issue, including a pending reverse discrimination suit by former white players who did not qualify for benefits under the 1997 pension expansion.

Other former Negro League players were cautiously optimistic. Former Indianapolis Clowns pitcher Jim Colzie, 83, who lives in Miami, said, "I hope it comes through. It's been going on a long time. They always say they will do something for the Negro League players but then nothing happens. But if Commissioner Selig is involved this time, they might do something."

Wilmer Fields of the Negro League Baseball Players Association said he would wait to see what the commissioner proposed. Fields, who lives in Virginia, played for the Homestead Grays, a team that once included Baseball Hall of Fame players and Negro League legends Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell.

Nelson said he has intensely pressured baseball officials on the matter because the Negro Leaguers are dying. In 1997 when baseball decided to include black players who had some major league time, there were 175 Negro leaguers who were not covered by the agreement. Last year, 22 died.

The plan comes too late for Juan Armenteros. The Cuban native lived in Miami until his death in October. He was a catcher for the Kansas City Monarchs and caught for Mitchell in 1955 and 1956.

"That's so sad. He was always hoping it would happen," said Armenteros' wife, Virginia. "He worked on it for a long time and he was hopeful. He kept saying `Something is going to happen.' I guess there's nothing for widows."

Under Mitchell's proposal, widows would not receive benefits. However, Mitchell, a native of West Palm Beach who lives in Tampa, has asked that a percentage of the money Negro Leaguers be pooled and shared as a one-time payment for 11 widows whose baseball-playing husbands died since 1997.

Mitchell said he asked baseball officials to give surviving players with at least four years of service by 1960 an annual benefit of $10,000, plus back pay to 1997. Players with less service would receive one-time payouts depending on how many years they played.

However, Selig is free to devise his own proposal.

© 2004 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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