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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Bill Tosheff: NBA Co-Rookie of the Year and Tireless Advocate for the "Pre-1965ers" (Part I)

Bill Tosheff's life story reads like an improbable movie script: four sport star in high school, member of a B-17 bomber crew in World War II, baseball and basketball teammate of future baseball Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn while both did military service in Alaska, captain of Indiana University's 19-3 basketball team in 1951, member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, NBA co-Rookie of the Year in 1951-52 and minor league baseball pitcher who rubbed shoulders with Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway. Those accomplishments and experiences are special but for the past two decades Tosheff has been involved in a project that is even more meaningful because it has enabled him to increase the quality of life of many of the players who laid the foundation for the modern NBA: Tosheff has been a relentless advocate fighting for the pension rights of retired NBA players, particularly the players who were arbitrarily excluded from the league's pension program because their careers ended prior to 1965. Tosheff has spent more than $150,000 of his own money and devoted countless hours to writing letters, making calls and testifying before Congress in order to cajole, shame and persuade the NBA to do what it should have done in the first place of its own volition: set aside a comparatively small amount of money to help out the pioneers who literally created the league and made it possible for today's commissioner, league executives, coaches and players to become fabulously wealthy. Tosheff never minced words or backed down and he repeatedly has said that the NBA delayed dealing with this issue for a simple, ghoulish reason: "Death cures a lot of things." Tosheff was originally fighting for the rights of about 85 players; more than half of the members of that group are now deceased. In 2007, Tosheff's efforts paid off when the NBA finally expanded its pension program to include the "Pre-1965ers."

Tosheff is currently battling to get official recognition for the NBA's first five Rookies of the Year (Paul Hoffman in 1948, Howie Shannon in 1949, Alex Groza in 1950, Paul Arizin in 1951 and Bill Tosheff/Mel Hutchins in 1952). The league stubbornly insists that the Rookie of the Year award was not formally "sanctioned" until 1953, but Tosheff has documentation proving that he and the other early Rookie of the Year winners were recognized as such during that time and should be included in the Official NBA Guide.

This year, the NBA made a gesture of reconciliation toward Tosheff by inviting him and several guests (including family members and some of the other "Pre-1965ers") to an expenses-paid trip to All-Star Weekend in Phoenix. The league provided a suite at U.S. Airways Center for Tosheff and his group to watch the All-Star Game. I met Tosheff for the first time at this year's
Legends Brunch and he invited me to watch the game with him from his suite. We talked a bit about his playing career and his long battle for the rights of the "Pre-1965ers" and I told him that I wanted to arrange an interview so that we could discuss these subjects at greater length. I spoke with Tosheff recently and learned more about his life, his multi-sport career and his advocacy for the "Pre-1965ers":

Fighting for the Rights of the "Pre-1965ers"

Friedman: "Since 1988, you have worked tirelessly and at great personal expense to help out the NBA players who retired prior to 1965, so that they can get the pension benefits that they deserve. Describe how you became involved in that project and what has happened in the past 20-21 years that you have been engaged in this fight; where did you start, what exactly have you obtained from the NBA as a result of your efforts and what more would you still like to see the NBA do?"

Tosheff: "In 1987, I found out that there was an organization called the NBA Old Timers Association, headed up by Gene Conley, Bob Cousy, Red Holzman, Paul Arizin, George Senesky and Paul Hoffman. These guys were urging David Stern, who was in his fourth year as NBA Commissioner, to provide a pension (for players who retired prior to the inception of the NBA pension plan in 1965). In early 1988, David Stern told those guys not to go to the media for moral support and to put a moratorium on what they were doing. They agreed; they never let anybody throughout the rest of the country know what they were doing but if you look at the rest of the guys (in that original group)--which I have, 106 of them--there are 11 Hall of Famers in there. Around March (1988), they wrote a letter to Stern--Paul Hoffman sent the letter--saying that they had honored his request to put a moratorium on their efforts. Russ Granik responded to that letter and said that the NBA was working on something and that something would happen. Sure enough, in September 1988, 106 players were brought into the pension plan but what they (the NBA Old Timers Association) asked for--and I've got this documented--was $100 per month for every year that they played based on a minimum of five years of playing time. The NBA pension plan that started in 1965 only required three years of playing time to qualify, so by going up to five years they knocked out the three and four year guys and I objected to that. When I found out what happened, I put myself on a mission to see if I could straighten it out.

I did a couple things since then. One, I researched and found 10 retired players who never even knew that they qualified for an NBA pension under the five year rule. That totaled up to about $850,000 and I asked myself why neither the NBA nor the Players Association had looked into this before. One thing led to another after that. Then I started contacting the three and four year veterans and I gained the specific power of attorney to represent them and try to get them included in the NBA pension plan; I had about 85 members in my group. As the years went on, I had a Congressional hearing in 1998, the media has been good to me--I've been on every major television show, including Good Morning America, World News Tonight, CNN, Catherine Crier, Fox, ESPN, you name it--so I kept pushing and pushing and pushing, like a one man gang. I formed a 501c3 non-profit called 'The Pre-1965 NBA Players Association.' There were three others involved with this: Don Barksdale, Frank 'Apples' Kudelka and Kevin O'Shea. Kevin and I used to meet together in San Francisco, talk about what we could do and try to contact people like Bill Bradley, etc. Finally, those three people died and I was left running the whole show. I put together a board of directors and I started making more moves, writing more articles and doing more interviews.

Finally, in the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement the NBA and the Players Association agreed to bring our guys in. So, now you have three groups of players who are vested in the pension plan: the first group is the original post-1965 players; their money was raised from $385 per month for every year played to $500 per month for every year played. The second group is the pre-1965 guys who called themselves the NBA Old Timers, the Bob Cousy-Gene Conley group (i.e., the players who played at least five years in the NBA and retired before 1965). They started with $100 per month for each year played, then they got $200 per month for each year played and now they get another $100 to make it $300 per month for each year played. I was able to come in now with my group, the three and four year players, who are now getting $300 per month for each year played. I played three years, so I get $900 per month in my case. Four year guys are getting $1200 per month. There was a 24 month gap between 2005 until the first checks were issued in 2007, so the NBA paid what they called a 'catch up check' to my three and four year guys. The three year guys got a check for around $21,400, while the four year guys got a check for around $29,500. So, that was a good boost.

I still feel that my guys should be retroactively paid all the way back to 1988, when the NBA brought in the Bob Cousy-Gene Conley Old Timers group. That's basically it."

Friedman: "So, you've gotten benefits for the three and four year players going forward but what you would now like to see is for the NBA to compensate those players for that gap from 1988 until 2005, when the five year retirees were receiving pensions but the three and four year players were not."

Tosheff: "That's right, but they're not going to respond very much to that. Let me tell you something. You have to understand that from the original 85 guys I had (in 1988) to the time the first checks were issued 45 died. Today, I've got about 29 or 30 left, so nature alone is solving the problem for the NBA and the Players Association: guys are dying. Now, one of the things I was able to do was if a player from my group died after 1988 but his wife is still living the wife gets 50% of what the player's pension would have been, so they are getting some money."

Friedman: "So at this point you don't think that you are going to get anything more from the NBA but at least you have gotten the pension money for those players going forward."

Tosheff: "That's correct but if you can bring up the issue about making retroactive payments to 1988 then maybe someone will jump on that."

Friedman: "When I interviewed Len Elmore several years ago, I said something to him that I later found out you had been saying as well, namely that if the NBA and the Players Association would equally contribute to a pool of money totaling, say, $5 million, then they could solve this whole thing easily and that money would be a drop in the bucket compared to the league's total revenue; with a tiny percentage of their total revenue they could take care of all of these veteran ballplayers without even blinking an eye. I wrote that article a few years ago but even with the economy the way it is now, the NBA and the Players Association could put together $5 million--if the whole league and the whole Players Association pledged that money collectively, they would not be seriously hurting afterward--and it would make such a huge difference to these retired players who are 70 or 80 years old" (Note: due to the ravages of natural attrition in the years since I spoke with Elmore, now it would not even take $5 million to provide assistance to the retired players who need/deserve better pension benefits and/or more medical care).

Tosheff: "You mentioned Len Elmore. I never saw any evidence that the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) tried to help us, with the exception of a couple letters written by Oscar Robertson--who was in our corner--and maybe Mel Davis, who got aced out as the executive director and was replaced by Elmore. Elmore keeps saying that they helped us to get our pensions. No they didn't. I don't know what their role was in getting our pensions; I really don't."

Friedman: "You mentioned to me when we spoke in Phoenix that you don't think that Len Elmore helped you guys at all."

Tosheff: "I don't think so. Well, he doesn't even have a job anymore (with the NBRPA), so what does that tell you?"

Friedman: "Well, if he was helping before I guess he can't help now is what that says."

Tosheff: "That's right."

Four Sport Star Focuses on Basketball, Baseball

Long before Tosheff's commendable battle to help out the "Pre-1965ers," he had many interesting experiences as a multi-sport star who also served in World War II aboard a B-17 bomber.

Friedman: "You were a four sport star in high school (baseball, basketball, football, track & field). Which sport did you most enjoy playing and which sport were you the best at?"

Tosheff: "I think I was pretty good at football, playing quarterback and left halfback. In Gary, Indiana--a steel town--we played every sport known to man and that kept us active. In the summer time, some of us got jobs in steel mills. We were just big sports guys."

Friedman: "Did you have one particular sport that was your favorite at that time?"

Tosheff: "I liked football."

Friedman: "What memory stands out the most for you about playing for (University of Indiana basketball coach) Branch McCracken?"

Tosheff: "First of all, Bill Garrett was the first black player to be introduced into the Big Ten. He was my roommate on the road. That was not publicized that much at all and we did not have any problems with racial situations with the exception of one time in St. Louis and then one time when TCU came up and played us and we killed them by 25 points; they were a little bit mouthy. In my senior year (1951) we were 19-3 and the tallest guy on the ball club was a guy who was 6-4 who never played much. We pressed for 40 minutes a ball game man to man and we shot 125 times a game, shot about 25-26% from the field and still scored anywhere from 65 to 85 points. We were good free throw shooters. I happened to set many free throw percentage records in the Big Ten, so when it came down to the line and I got the ball and was fouled I put some points on the board."

Friedman: "You mentioned something about field goal percentage, so I am going to jump ahead to a question that I was going to save for later. When I look at the stats from the early 1950s--particularly in the NBA--I notice that the field goal percentages were much lower but the free throw percentages were pretty good; your career free throw percentage in the NBA was close to .800. Why were the field goal percentages so much lower during that era?"

Tosheff: "As an outside shooter from anywhere from 25 to 35 feet out, if I hit one out of three I was doing my job basically in that scoring aspect but my main job was to get the ball to the big guys. So, the outside shot was basically a threat and if you hit one, fine. I would go on runs of four or five in a row, so it all depends on how the cookie crumbled at that time. My free throws were always good. I ranked in the top ten in the NBA in my first two years, at over .800. I even topped Bob Cousy (in free throw percentage in the 1951-52 season). Try that one! I used to shoot 400 every day. I practiced free throws like crazy."

Friedman: "I noticed that even the inside players in that era had relatively low field goal percentages. Not until Wilt Chamberlain came along did a player make even half of his shots."

Tosheff: "That's true but you have to remember that there was no slam dunking (in games) during that era. Slam dunking picks up your shooting percentages. Today, they are slam dunking all over the place. If we could drive to the basket or run fast breaks, that was one way of scoring, of course, but the game was slower--much slower. We didn't have a 24 second shot clock, so you could milk the (game) clock all that you wanted. It was a much slower game and I think that is one of the reasons that the shooting percentages were lower."

Note: Just to be clear, the NBA never banned the dunk, unlike the NCAA, which outlawed dunking from 1967-76. However, in the NBA's early days, dunking was considered to be a move that showed up the opponent and, in those rough and tumble days, leaving your feet was an invitation to be undercut. As we discussed later in this interview, most of the players during that era were capable of dunking and did so in practices but dunking did not become a common sight in NBA games until Chamberlain entered the NBA in 1959-60.

Friedman: "I understand that you served on a B-17 bomber during World War II. How long were you in the military and where did you do your service?"

Tosheff: "When I was 16 and a half, I went to Chicago and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force--unbeknownst to my parents. The reason why everybody was going to Canada from the United States was we were in the war with Japan but not with Germany. A lot of guys were going to Canada (and then going to Europe) to fly with the British. So, I passed my physical in Chicago, lied a little bit about my age and passed the mental exam but about a month later the FBI came to my home and told my parents that I couldn't go because the law had changed and you had to be a bona fide resident of Canada for 10 years before you could join the Canadian Air Force. So, that knocked that out, so then at 17 I joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and had to go to Chicago every Tuesday and Thursday for drills and all of that stuff. I was able to graduate high school in 1944 and then I went right into the military and went into basic training down in Biloxi, Mississippi. We all went through the regular rudiments of a ground force guy--how to shoot a carbine, (how to use) all of the different types of equipment, bivouacking, marching and all of that kind of stuff. The military had a glut of pilots at that time, so they sent me to gunnery school in Arizona. They put me on a B-17 and I was the upper tier, top tier gunner. Later on, I attained a status called OLT--on the line training. I could start doing some flying in different types of aircraft. I finally got to jump in the seat of a B-17 but I got over to Germany very near the end of the war and did not see much action but at least I got over there. I spent about one and a half months over there and then came back, so I had a year left.

I had the choice of going to the South Pacific or Alaska. I picked Alaska, so I traded my mosquito netting for a parka and boots. That turned out to be a good deal for me. I was in the Aleutian Islands, a place called Omnak way down near the end, and they found out that I could play a little ball so I came back to Anchorage and played baseball. My catcher in baseball was a guy who became a Hall of Famer for the Phillies, Richie Ashburn (who switched to outfielder in the Major Leagues to reduce the strain on his knees). We were both on the same basketball team. We won about 100 games and we never lost; he was a pretty good basketball player. After I got discharged in 1946, I came back to Indiana and had a chance to sign with the Cubs for $1500 but I didn't do that. I was wooed by Wisconsin to play basketball and baseball but I didn't do that."

Friedman: "Wait, why didn't you sign with the Cubs?"

Tosheff: "I just wasn't ready to get into it. I wanted my education. Pappy Waldorf had just become the coach at California and wanted me to play quarterback for him. I met him in Chicago and we talked but I decided not to do that. So I hopped a train, went to Indiana (University) as an unknown and from that point on things fell in place."

Friedman: "Wasn't $1500 a pretty substantial amount of money at that time?"

Tosheff: "Yeah, it wasn't bad but it really wasn't about the money. I didn't care about the money."

Friedman: "When your parents found out that you had tried to join the Royal Canadian Air Force when you were only 16, what did they say about that? What was their reaction to you running off to join the Air Force and go to war?"

Tosheff: "My dad came from Europe, along with my mother. My real mother died when I was 13. He remarried a Yugoslavian lady who was very, very good to me. He was shocked: 'Why the hell do you want to go over there and get killed?' That was just the way that I felt. See, I already knew how to fly. I used to work at a little airport in Gary, a little grass airstrip where I flew Piper J-3 Cubs. One time I went there at about six in the morning, fired one up and took off and taught myself how to take off and land. I did it two or three times and put it back in place. The guy showed up to open the business and never knew that I did it. So I taught myself how to fly."

Part II will look at Tosheff's ongoing fight to gain official recognition for the NBA's early Rookies of the Year, his minor league baseball experiences in Cuba with Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro and what Tosheff thinks of the modern NBA game.

Further reading about Bill Tosheff and the "Pre-1965 Players":

Transcript of 1998 Congressional Hearing About Pension Fairness for NBA Pioneers

The Plight of the Pre-Pension Players

For years, about 85 elderly ex-players have been fighting to get NBA pensions. The response from the league and the union: Drop dead. Half of them have (June 28, 2005 Salon.com article by King Kaufman)

Give This Man an Assist (July 20, 2005 Boston Globe article by Peter May)

XNBA (official website for the "Pre-1965 Players")

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:25 AM

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