Negro leaguers talk survival

August 14, 1994|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,Sun Staff Writer

The major-league players want arbitration after two years instead of three and free agency after five years instead of six. The owners want revenue sharing and a salary cap.

The 175 living Negro leaguers just want to survive.

That's what 10 members of the Negro League Ballplayers Association (NLBPA) discussed yesterday at the Lord Baltimore Radisson Plaza -- survival.

Most of them are in their 70s and 80s. They do not have major-league pensions. And they cannot relate to the issues surrounding the 1994 baseball strike.

"The owners are making billions of dollars, and the players are making millions of dollars," said Russell Awkard, an outfielder with the New York Cubans in 1940 and 1941. "I really wouldn't take sides with either group."

The only side they have taken is with each other.

They all have suffered the same indignities -- meager salaries, long bus rides, segregation -- that prevented most of them from playing in the major leagues. The hardships have made them stronger.

"They were able to survive going through the things that they went through during the days when they played ball because that was their thing, survival," said Max Manning, who pitched for the Newark Eagles. "And we did it in the most terrible conditions that you could ever think of. And we enjoyed doing it, because we enjoyed each other."

Now they are trying to keep each other alive. Seven Negro leaguers died last year. Many others need help. Fast.

"We cannot wait any longer," said new NLBPA president Wilmer Fields, who was a third baseman and pitcher for the Homestead Grays. "We're almost desperate for somebody to help us."

Help began last year when Major League Baseball provided all Negro leaguers with health insurance.

"If it were not for that, a lot of these guys would be in terrible shape," Manning said.

The health benefits saved Baltimore's Leon Day, a former Newark Eagles pitcher and among the best known of the living Negro leaguers. Day needed prostate surgery last year. The insurance came just in time.

"I would have been still paying out money," said Day, 77. "If it wasn't for the major leagues, I don't know what I would have done."

But health insurance has not improved the day-to-day quality of most of their lives. That's the job of the NLBPA, which for the past three years has been mismanaged by outsiders. The players took over the organization yesterday and ousted its former president, James Jackson, the brother of Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, who admitted borrowing $35,000 under the organization's name.

Fields, who was elected president based on ballots sent to Negro leaguers, is trying to turn the organization around. He is arranging a meeting with National League president Leonard Coleman so the NLBPA can receive its share of the revenue that Major League Properties promised the group from the sale of Negro leagues memorabilia.

The NLBPA also is exploring ways to make more money through autograph appearances. Stanley Glenn, a catcher for the Philadelphia Stars, said the strike will increase interest in their appearances.

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