Sam Jethroe is suing baseball for his survival.
The former Boston Braves outfielder needs a pension -- his house burned down and he is struggling to raise two grandchildren. His three major-league seasons are not enough to qualify, and his eight minor- and six Negro-league seasons do not count.
What counts is that Jethroe, 73, has decided to fight. The class-action lawsuit, filed March 30 in a federal court in Jethroe's hometown of Erie, Pa., charged Major League Baseball, the Players Association and the Pension Fund with fraud and conspiracy, in addition to civil rights, antitrust and trademark violations.
The lawsuit could affect an entire generation of former Negro-leaguers -- several of whom will be appearing at a baseball card show this weekend at Carrolltown Center Mall in Eldersburg -- who played briefly in the majors or the minors but never really made it past the color line.
"There was a quota system," said Stanley Glenn, a catcher who played six seasons with the Negro National League's Philadelphia Stars and three in the minors. "They were only letting so many [black players] in the big leagues, and it remained that way for a good 10 years."
Glenn has not joined Jethroe's lawsuit, nor has any other Negro-leaguer. Most do not give him much chance of winning. No trial date has been set.
"It looked like something should have been done about this a long time ago," said Wilmer Fields, a former Homestead Grays pitcher who later played with Toronto in the Triple-A International League. "I hope everybody gets it, but that's kind of thin."
For Jethroe, it is his last hope.
When his small house burned down last November, Jethroe said his wife and grandchildren went to live with relatives. Jethroe said he slept in a chair in the restaurant/bar he has owned since 1958. Located in what is now a high-crime section of Erie, the bar has not paid Jethroe's bills. "Business is rough now," Jethroe said, "it's real rough now."
Jethroe recently moved his family into an apartment subsidized by the local housing authority. He had to pay $330 for gas and electricity last month and owes another $391 by May 1. He and his wife, Elsie, have high blood pressure requiring medication that costs them $36 a month. They also must feed and clothe their two grandchildren, Elisha, 11, and Sam III, 15.
As the bills mount, the apartment becomes less affordable.
"Right now, I don't know how much longer I can pay," Jethroe said. "I just paid my first month."
Jethroe's plight moved John Puttock, a Pasadena, Calif., lawyer who met the former player last summer at a big-league game in Cleveland. Puttock and a lawyer from Pittsburgh, David H. Patterson, have taken on Jethroe's case on a pro bono basis; they want to get him a pension.
"Sam' still in 1950; they're still keeping him in the back of the bus," said Puttock, who added that, if granted, the pension could provide Jethroe with about $200 a month.
With slightly more than three years of major-league service, Jethroe is just short of qualifying. Players who retired before 1980 need four years to qualify for a pension. After 1980, the requirement is one day.
Jethroe, according to the lawsuit, has nothing to show for his 17 years in professional baseball because of the discrimination he faced even after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.
"All things being equal, he did not have as much opportunity to accumulate service time as a white player," said Marvin Miller, the former players union chief, who has agreed to testify at the trial. "He just had to be better."
Three years after Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey signed Robinson, he purchased Jethroe for $5,000 from the Negro American League's Cleveland Buckeyes. Jethroe, known as "Jet," stole 89 bases at Triple-A Montreal in 1949, but Rickey did not promote him.
According to Jules Tygiel's book, "Baseball's Great Experiment," Rickey said that five black players on the Dodgers would have been "too many." He sold Jethroe to the Boston Braves for $150,000 and several players.
With the Braves, Jethroe won the 1950 National League Rookie of the Year Award, batting .273 with 18 home runs, 58 RBIs and 35 stolen bases. After two more seasons in Boston and a two-game stint with Rickey's new team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, Jethroe spent his last six seasons in the minors.
Jethroe is not bitter about his sojourn in the major leagues.
"I loved the game of baseball," he said. "I've played ever since I was little bitty. I've done nothing but try to do good. That's all I thought about."
He did not think about the discrimination, which, aside from Rickey's admission, is hard to prove. No defendant is willing to accept blame.
Miller said the players association began in 1947 but was controlled by the owners until 1966. It did not have an established grievance procedure until 1968 and could not have fought for Jethroe.
Robert J. Stokes, the lawyer representing the Pension Fund, said his group cannot pay players such as Jethroe without an amendment to the pension agreement by the current players and the owners.
Recently embroiled in an eight-month labor dispute, the two parties have not discussed the issue of providing pensions to players such as Jethroe. Nor do they have to, according to a
1971 Supreme Court decision that said management does not have to negotiate with a union about former employees.
"We made Major League Baseball aware of Mr. Jethroe's difficulties," said Doyle Pryor, an assistant general counsel for the players association. "We don't represent him."
Any major-league team could get Jethroe a pension by hiring him for one day. Several blacks who never qualified for pensions have briefly appeared as players or coaches, such as Sandy Amoros with the Dodgers, Satchel Paige with the Braves and Minnie Minoso with the White Sox.
No team has done it for Jethroe, and help has come from other sources in dribs and drabs.
The Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), which aids destitute former ballplayers and their families, gave Jethroe money to buy new furniture. Last year, Major League Properties sent Jethroe and other member of the Negro League Baseball Players Association individual licensing checks for $319. He will receive a slightly larger licensing fee this year.
But it's not enough to fulfill his dream. Jethroe would like to make a down payment on a $50,000 house so his grandchildren will have a permanent place to live.
"It's hard for me, looking out for them," Jethroe said. "But I'm going to look out for them the best that I can."