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 Stepping up to the plate

Attorney went to bat for former ballplayers

By Beth Anne Eckerle
Legal News

Baseball hasn’t always been a level playing field.

In the days of staggering multi-million-dollar salaries for a growing number of baseball’s greats, Livonia attorney Jim Acho has seen the other side of the fence. Old-timers who were the thrill of their day were paid pennies on the dollar compared to their modern-day counterparts. Many of these men were denied pensions and medical care and left destitute after their playing days were over.

In the early 2000s, Acho set out to change that by filing a class action lawsuit on behalf of 1,100 former Major League Baseball players in an effort to win them certain benefits and pensions enjoyed by players today.

While he was ultimately successful in getting them some compensation, it was not the award he sought based on the damages. However, the experience of seeing the other side of baseball’s glitz and glam makes for an interesting story that Acho is often asked to tell on national sports radio show interviews where he is a frequent guest. Acho, who teaches sports law at Madonna University in Livonia, appears to discuss topical sports law issues.  

“I felt they were wronged, plain and simple,” says Acho, who works out of Cummings, McClorey, Davis and Acho’s Livonia office. “You have players making millions and millions of dollars today with incredible pensions and benefits packages, and that’s great for them — no one begrudges them that. But the guys I represented tell a different story. I have visited multiple former baseball and football players who were left homeless or borderline homeless. I remember one former Tigers player and coach who couldn’t afford cable to watch the team he used to play for and coach. I took the guy out for a steak — he hadn’t eaten meat in a month.

“I visited another guy who led the Houston Oilers in interceptions two straight years and he was living in his car. It’s criminal. These guys should not be living like that. These players had their bodies beat up and then discarded without medical coverage. They can’t hold jobs, they can’t support themselves and their families. All that is coming to light now.”

Class-action against the MLB

Acho first got his taste of rubbing elbows with the sports world when he sold cars for Mel Farr in Detroit in the early 1990s. His supervisor was former Detroit Lions player Lem Barney, who was a teammate of Farr’s during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. As Acho grew disenchanted with the business after a few years, he started thinking about heading to law school to follow in his father’s footsteps. 

“Lem told me, ‘If you go to law school and become a lawyer, I’ll be your first client.’ And he lived up to that — I’ve been representing him for 14 years now,” said Acho. 

As their friendship continued, Barney started taking Acho to NFL retiree golf outings and dinners and parties with others well known in the sports world. 

Barney recalled meeting Acho and recognizing his talent. 

“Jim was a top salesman and he was starting school at Cooley when we met,” Barney said. “He had a brilliant career ahead of him as a lawyer.”

Through the course of professional connections like Barney, Acho connected with retired baseball players, including Bo Belinsky, a former southpaw for the Los Angeles Angels and Philadelphia Phillies.

“Bo introduced me to some retired baseball players and they asked me — and Lem had vouched for me with these guys — if I’d be interested in taking on Major League Baseball for them,” recalled Acho, who said about 20 percent of his firm’s practice is dedicated to sports law. 

“They did not receive medical or pension benefits, even though they all had played long enough under the amended vesting requirement. One thing led to another and it ended up being the largest class-action suit against the MLB, with 1,100 (members) involved.”

The class represented by Acho played from 1947 until 1980, the year a new collective bargaining agreement was reached with the MLB’s players’ union. Up until 1980, players needed to have four full seasons under their belt in order to receive pension and medical benefits. The new agreement required 40 games and was not made retroactive to cover those former players, leaving them without benefits as they aged and retired. 

The case began in 2003 with the lawsuit filing in Los Angeles trial court where it was dismissed; the judge ruled the statute of limitations had long since run out, but “he added on the record that we were in the moral right and that the MLB should continue to negotiate with us in good faith,” Acho recalled. 

Arguing “continuing violation” to fight the statute of limitations ruling, Acho and the players took their case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals; once again, however, they were unsuccessful and the appellate judge upheld the trial court judge’s opinion. 

“The court again also indicated that the MLB should do the right thing,” he said. 

Al Moran was one of those involved in the suit, and he has praise for the efforts of Acho to hit a home run for the former players. Moran played shortstop for the New York Mets from 1963-64 among other career highlights in the Major League.

“I was the representative of the Midwest, getting guys signed up to join this suit,” said Moran, of Farmington Hills. “Back in those days, you needed four years to qualify for a pension and then it just changed. I played for three-and-a-half years, so I was right on that edge. Jim was the catalyst behind everything, he was the guy who got it started and pulled us all together.”

Resolution: A silver lining

As years passed after the suit’s dismissal, the MLB eventually did offer a contribution to the players involved; that group numbered about 800 by 2011 as many had passed away. That year, the MLB agreed to pay the remaining group of players up to $10,000 per year as a “charitable donation,” Acho noted, “and they agreed to possibly continue the payments into the future. They didn’t have to do that; we lost. They weren’t required to do anything, so at least they did something out of the kindness of their hearts and for that I’m grateful.”

Whether or not the payments are still being made to all of the players isn’t clear; Acho said he’s heard mixed stories from some of the players who are and are not receiving the payments.

“It wasn’t what we were looking for, but it was a small victory,” Acho said. 

Said Barney, who remains close friends with Acho and who followed the MLB case: “You’ve got so many guys who had given their lives, talents and efforts to the game. The league wanted to write them off, but Jim was a very big influence in handling that case and getting the old timers some payments.”

For those players still receiving the donations, it has helped alleviate some of the financial pressures they’ve faced since retiring from baseball. 

“Those guys back then made very little money and people don’t really understand that,” Acho explained. “Today in the Tigers association they’ve got guys making $20 million but these guys made about $5,000 a year on average. With the guys I represented, $7,000 was a decent contract in 1965; today, that’s equivalent to about $50,000. Can you imagine someone playing in the Majors for that?”

The case also helped to raise awareness of the treatment of former professional athletes, who after their careers are ended are often assumed to be living the high-life in mansions with pricey toys.

“A lot of the dirty underbelly of professional sports has been revealed in recent years,” Acho said. “I learned more about it because of some of the retired Lions I was around, and they would tell me about it. But it was not until I got really involved did I see the extent of the damage and the distress.”

Because Medicare doesn’t begin until a person is 62, and many professional players wrap their careers in their early 40s, that leaves many years without a steady income, plus injuries such as concussions that can hinder their efforts to find a job in the “real world.”

In the years following the MLB suit, Acho began representing NFL retirees who were seeking improved medical and pension benefits, though not in a class-action status. Some of his current NFL clients include Lamar Woodley with the Oakland Raiders and Larry Foote with the Arizona Cardinals. Both Woodley and Foote starred at the University of Michigan, playing under then Wolverine coach Lloyd Carr.

“I’m not an agent,” he clarified, “I handle their legal affairs.”

Barney said Acho has represented him on numerous occasions and he knows the lawyer to be generous in the community and with his legal expertise. 

“When I first met him, I could see the genuine love he has in his heart. He came from a great family and he’s just a terrific guy and lawyer. He does what’s best for people so that it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Additionally, his work in sports has led to Acho representing a number of actors, writers and singers. Acho once negotiated a deal with Hollywood producer Penny Marshall and was Hall of Fame broadcaster Pat Summerall’s attorney at the time he passed away. Acho also currently represents Hall of Fame broadcaster Frank Beckmann of WJR, Kevin Wheeler of ESPN Radio, and Terry Foster of 97.1 “The Ticket” and The Detroit News. He has also represented several best-selling authors and screenwriters.

The MLB class-action suit also generated the interest of a New York-based writer, Doug Gladstone, who penned a book on the matter called “A Bitter Cup of Coffee,” which chronicled the case beginning-to-end. 

“The case was covered in most major newspapers in the country and so it generated a lot of interest,” Acho said. 

During his work on the case, Acho was buoyed by the support of many, he said, such as Joe Namath, “guys I grew up watching on TV who were telling me, ‘I wanted to let you know that I’m pulling for you.’ And that support meant a lot.”

Also meaning a lot to Acho are the numerous mementos that players and former clients have passed on to him. 

“I’ve been given some really great gifts. A lot of times, these guys will express their gratitude in the form of gifts, like an old jersey or a helmet,” Acho said, noting one very special piece in his collection is one of Lem Barney’s helmets from the 1960s. “They’re all very nice — they all came from the heart and from gratitude.”

With thousands of hours put into the case, Moran said he doubts Acho’s firm made much if anything off the case against the MLB. “He’s a very generous person and we all appreciated it. He’s well known in this area and everybody really respects him,” said Moran. “Us former Major Leaguers appreciate what the Achos and their firm did for us.”

“Jim is a part of our family,” added Barney. “He’s a legal genius and both Jacci (Barney’s wife) and I love him dearly.”

Bio Box

Jim Acho, 43, in a nutshell

• Born and raised in Detroit; moved to Farmington Hills in 1976. 

• Attended Detroit Catholic Central High School.

• Graduated from St. Francis College in Fort Wayne, Ind. in 1993, where he was a walk-on and co-captain of the men’s basketball team. (He also held the school’s single-game assist record for a period of time.)

• Graduated from Cooley Law School, Lansing, in 2000, the same year he passed the bar.

• Joined Cummings, McClorey, Davis & Acho in 1999 as a law clerk (his dad, Ron, is one of the firm’s founders).

• Married to Shari Acho, associate athletic director for the University of Michigan, and dad to Meghan, 10.

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