In 1947, Jackie Robinson and Larry Dolby broke the color line into Major League Baseball.
Fifty years later, Major League Baseball granted limited benefits to about 70 of the former Negro League players who played in the majors. To receive the pension, the ballplayer must have made the major league or played four years in the Negro League prior to 1947.
Although MLB had no legal obligation to include former Negro League players, those players were granted a $10,000 yearly pension. A problem arose when 175 Negro players felt that they were unjustly excluded from receiving benefits. They claim that even after 1947, the majority of the Major League teams were still reluctant to sign Negro players.
The Boston Red Sox did not sign their first black ballplayer until 1959, 12 years later.
State Senator Bill Nelson, D-Tampa, is leading the charge against Major League Baseball. Several of the men who were denied pensions because they played solely in the Negro Leagues from 1948 to 1960, live in the Tampa Bay area.
Last year, they sought Nelson’s help, after trying for three years to convince MLB on their own. Nelson has had negotiations with MLB Commissioner Bud Selig on the matter.
Another major issue is the fact that the pension expires when the players die.
“The clock is ticking, and time is running out because the people are elderly and won’t be here a real long time,” Nelson said. “Every day the issue becomes more important because many of the players might not live to see their pensions become a reality.”
John Jordan (Buck) O’Neil, held Negro League batting titles in 1940 and 1946 and appeared in seven All-Star games as either a player or a manager. During his tenure as coach he is credited with sending more Negro League players to the major league than any other man in history.
“When Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947, many of the great veterans of the Negro League were already past their prime,” O’Neil said. “They were awarded the pension because they had been victims of segregation and after color barriers had been broken. There were many players white and black who just weren’t good enough to make the majors.”
“All of the Negro League players should be given the pension…it would just be the right thing to do.”
Kyle McNary, a Negro League historian who has dedicated much of his life to preserving and passing on the legacy of the Negro League, shares O’Neil’s sentiments.
“Major League Baseball is a billion dollar a year industry and it wouldn’t hurt them to extend the pension to rest of players who’ve been excluded.”
McNary is in process of filming “Pitch Black,” a movie chronicling the 1935 Bismarck team, integrated 12 years before Robinson played with the Brooklyn Dodgers.