R.I.P. to Mike Colbern, a former All-American at Arizona State University who had a brief career in the majors with the White Sox. He also became one of the key figures in a lawsuit against Major League Baseball concerning pension for ballplayers. The Arizona Republic reported that he died recently at the age of 63. A specific date or a cause of death has not been reported.
Colbern had an account on the newspaper archive website Newspapers.com and “clipped” many of his accomplishments. The photos I’m using here and the games and stories I’ll mention are the ones he saved. So this is how he would want to be remembered, I hope.
Mike Colbern was born on April 19, 1966 in Santa Monica, Calif. His father, Jack Colbern, was a minor-leaguer who once stole 44 bases for Vancouver in 1938. Mike attended high school at Hawthorne High School in California. In his senior year, the catcher-pitcher-outfielder batted .456 and had an 8-2 record. He was named MVP in the Ocean League and was drafted in the 5th Round of the 1973 Amateur Draft by the Kansas City Royals.
Colbern chose to attend ASU instead, and his value rose even higher. Playing from 1974-76, Colbern hit for a .352 average and was a first team All-American as a junior in 1976, along with teammates Floyd Bannister and Ken Landreaux. He hit .361 with 11 home runs and 78 RBIs that season. The White Sox drafted him in the Second Round of the 1976 Draft.
Colbern progressed through the minors pretty rapidly. After a brief appearance in the Gulf Coast League in 1976, he jumped to the AA Knoxville Sox in 1977. He hit .285 and homered 11 times. He started 1978 in AAA Iowa and slashed .283/.339/.470 in 75 games, and the Sox brought him to the majors in July.
In 48 games, Colbern made a good impression, hitting .270 with 2 home runs and 20 RBIs. Two of those runs came in a 5-run 10th inning on September 15 against Seattle. Colbern hit a bases-loaded single off Enrique Romo to help push the Sox to an extra-inning win.
Colbern started 1979 in AAA once more but was called back to the majors in July. In one of his first games back on July 5, he found himself catching former Iowa teammate Guy Hoffman as he faced the Indians Cliff Johnson with 2 outs in the 9th inning.
“Colbern came out and said, ‘This guy doesn’t like curveballs very much,’ Hoffman told the Chicago Tribune. So I gave him three curveballs. If we’d gotten behind, we’d have had to have another meeting.”
Johnson flew out to left to end the game in a 5-4 win for the Sox. Along with his pitching advice, Colbern drove in a run with a double to put the Sox up 3-2.
Colbern batted .241 in 32 games. Over parts of two seasons, Colbern played in 80 games, slashed .259/.279/.348 and had 2 home runs and 28 RBIs. He was one game shy of earning an MLB pension under the rules at the time. He never got it.
In April 1980, Colbern, back with AAA Iowa, was hit on the wrist with a pitch from Springfield’s Chris Davis. Judging by Colbern’s notes, that pitch broke his wrist, though it was never officially diagnosed as such. Between decreased production due to his untreated wrist and the fact that the Sox signed Carlton Fisk, Colbern’s catching days in Chicago were over. He played until 1982 in the Sox and Braves organizations, but he never hit as well as he had in his first few seasons, and he never broke 100 games played in a season
On January 4, 1985, Colbern happened to be at the scene of an auto accident on I-10. A woman, Lorraine Crawley, was bleeding to death before he applied first aid and summoned help. She survived, thanks to his help. “I think everybody, at one time or another, dreams about saving someone’s life,” he said to the Republic. “You see it in the movies all the time… but when you save someone’s life, it means more than you’ll ever know.”
Colbern tried a couple of comebacks to get that one last game that would qualify him for a pension. He’d tried with the California Angels in the mid-’80s and was a late Spring Training cut. By 1986, he was working as an adult probation officer for Maricopa County, Arizona, and no teams were interested in the 31-year-old, even though he was still in playing shape.
The next few years showed a happy-go-lucky side to Colbern. At ASU alumni games, he was welcomed as a clown prince, coaching first base while wearing a garbage can uniform or setting up a picnic lunch in the first-base coach’s box. Or he’d catch at MLB alumni games and horse around with Gaylord Perry. He was working as a mortgage broker, and things seemed fine. The public didn’t really catch on to his private struggles until much later.
By 2011, the newspaper articles described just how rough his post-baseball life had been. At one point, he had been homeless and slept in the parking lot of a Tempe convenience store. He was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder in 1997. He suffered a stroke in 2000. He had undergone 14 surgeries. He was living off of social security and disability benefits and had been helped by the Baseball Assistance Team, a group that helps former players in need of aid..
Colbern was one of the lead plaintiffs in a 2003 class-action lawsuit against Major League Baseball. The suit touched on two issues. First, it alleged that MLB had injected players with cortisone and other drugs without their consent in order to keep them playing through injuries. Colbern, for his part, alleged that the amount of Butazolidin he was given led to a lifetime of stomach problems.
The other, more controversial part of the lawsuit sought pension and medical benefits for a group of more than 1,000 players who, due to their service time and the years in which they played, were ineligible for those benefits. It’s an injustice, as many players like Colbern found themselves dealing with life-long illnesses and injuries from their baseball careers, but they received no help from MLB because they happened to have played between 1949 and 1979 with fewer than four years of service time.
However, the lawsuit was filed under the grounds of racial discrimination, stemming from MLB’s 1997 decision to give pension payments to Negro League players who never had the chance to play in the majors. The majority of those 1,000+ players in the suit were Caucasian. Regardless of the validity of those claims, a lawsuit alleging that the overwhelmingly white Major League Baseball had discriminated against white ballplayers, using Negro Leaguers as an example of preferential treatment, is really, really bad optics.
U.S. District Judge Manuel Real said the player’s case was “sympathetic” and suggested that baseball look into this issue, but he ultimately sided against the players. MLB’s lawyer Howard Ganz took a final opportunity to stick it to the players like Colbern, claiming their lawsuit was in the category of “no good deed goes unpunished” and that they were trying to “capitalize” on baseball’s actions.
MLB Commissioner Bud Selig announced in 2011 that the 900 or so players who were living would receive payments of up to $10,000 in each of the next two years. Colbern received two payments of $1,850.