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When Ralph Branca—yes, the same guy who gave up the homer to Bobby Thomson—first broke into the major leagues in 1944 as a flamethrowing 18-year-old off the NYU campus, he was paid $400 a month. At the time, he thought he had landed on easy street. Today, Branca, 61, is a successful insurance executive in White Plains, N.Y., and the president of the Baseball Alumni Team (B.A.T.), which was formed in 1986 as a financial assistance project for needy former major league players and umpires.
Big contracts and a strong pension plan became integral parts of the game in the 1970s, but there was little left over for players from previous generations. Baseball's pension program—as good as that in any industry—has provided only limited coverage for many of the old heroes. Those whose playing days ended before the 1947 season were shut out altogether.
For years the commissioner's office, the players' union and the owners knew that many players from the $400-a-month era were not living on easy street. Stories regularly came through the baseball grapevine about proud men barely able to pay their rent or cover their medical expenses. A few were given help, but there was no formal mechanism for assistance. For their part, the former players couldn't get themselves organized. In recent years, they splintered into several groups, each with its own agenda for trying to get a little piece of the rich new pie.
But in late 1985, commissioner Peter Ueberroth, realizing that baseball was facing a potential decrease in television revenues, sought an infusion of corporate cash. In addition to creating greater financial stability for the game, Ueberroth's efforts also had an unexpected benefit: They were the genesis of B.A.T.
Borrowing a stratagem he had used as president of the financially successful Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Ueberroth invited companies to become official sponsors of Major League Baseball. The plan was for companies to put up $5 million in licensing fees, promotional efforts, advertising and appropriate product contributions. In return, they could use their official sponsor status to promote their products, just as Olympic sponsors had done.
Ueberroth's idea worked. In 1986, five companies—Arby's, Fuji Photo Film, IBM, Chevrolet and The Equitable Life Assurance—contributed an estimated $25 million to baseball in the form of promotional programs and direct assistance to teams. This year, USA Today replaced Arby's.
One of the important parts of Ueberroth's plan—and the one that provided the inspiration for B.A.T.—required each sponsoring company to make a charitable contribution to organizations of particular interest to the baseball community. So in early 1986, executives from The Equitable, along with representatives from the commissioner's office, held a brainstorming session and came up with the idea of sponsoring an old-timers' series—26 games, one in each major league park. The two- to four-inning exhibitions would feature many of baseball's greatest names and be played before regularly scheduled games. The kicker would be that The Equitable would donate $10,000 per game to an emergency assistance fund for needy former players, with smaller amounts contributed by other firms.
Before the plan could be implemented, two problems had to be overcome. The first was getting all 26 owners to agree to host an Equitable Old-Timers Game. Some teams, like the Dodgers, Yankees and Mets, already had their own old-timers' games. Other teams, like the Mariners, didn't have enough famous old-timers to hold such a game. But with a bit of 11th-hour persuasion by Ueberroth, every team agreed to participate in the series, which began last season. The Dodgers, for instance, held their usual old timers' game and fielded two teams of former Dodgers, under the banner of The Equitable. The Mariners added players to their team from an All-Star team put together by Equitable.
"It may be the only time in history that all 26 owners have agreed on something," said Ueberroth. "It was hard for them not to. The series benefits the owners, the fans, the ex-players."
As part of its commitment, The Equitable volunteered to make the arrangements for the games, including lining up the players, paying appearance fees (as much as $1,000 per player) and providing travel and hotel expenses. The players were guaranteed first-class treatment. More than 800 players have participated in the 52 games so far.