Detroit — John Nelson, who joined the Detroit Tigers as a teen-aged bat boy in 1979 and eventually became their visiting clubhouse manager, is suing the ballclub over racial and age discrimination.
Nelson, who identifies as African American, was 58 at the time of his firing in October 2021. He filed a lawsuit in federal court in Detroit on Monday, seeking unspecified damages for lost wages.
“He loved his job,” said Nick Roumel, Nelson’s Ann Arbor-based attorney. “He was devastated.”
The Tigers and parent company Olympia Entertainment didn’t immediately return multiple messages seeking comment Monday afternoon.
In the lawsuit, Nelson claims to have received almost universally positive job reviews in his time as the visiting clubhouse manager — a job title with a wide-ranging description, based largely on the whims, large and small, of millionaire athletes. The exceptions, according to the lawsuit, came in 2017 and 2018, after a survey that was sent out to other teams around Major League Baseball returned results that described the Tigers’ facilities and services as having “deficiencies.”
“But it was also recognized that much of the criticism was beyond his control,” the lawsuit said, “that it was based on substandard facilities that the Tigers afforded to visiting teams compared to other ballparks.” Asked by The Detroit News for a copy of the MLB survey, or to provide details on what the MLB survey considered substandard, Roumel said he was not going to release that “at this time.”
The lawsuit stated that the issues had been rectified by Nelson’s 2019 job review, which was delivered early in 2020. The lawsuit stated there were no formal job reviews for Nelson for 2020 and 2021, two COVID years.
Nelson was summoned to Comerica Park on Oct. 11, 2021, and fired by assistant general manager Sam Menzin. According to the lawsuit, Menzin said Nelson’s firing was based on the MLB survey results. According to the lawsuit, Menzin said it was a “difficult conversation to have.”
“Mr. Nelson had no reason to believe that his job was in jeopardy,” the lawsuit stated.
Nelson was replaced for the 2022 season by Dan Ross, who is White and spent several years being supervised by Nelson. Last week, the Tigers announced that Ross would become the home clubhouse manager for 2023, and longtime home clubhouse manager Jim Schmakel would move to the visiting clubhouse.
According to the nine-page lawsuit, Nelson was the only clubhouse manager of color in Major League Baseball before he was fired. The lawsuit alleges the Tigers ran afoul of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which covers race and age discrimination.
In the lawsuit, Nelson was said to have witnessed “racial animus” within the Tigers’ organization during his long tenure, including witnessing a White Tigers coach call a Black Tigers bat boy a “spider monkey.” Tigers pitching coach Chris Bosio was fired in 2018 for using the term “spider monkey.” Bosio said he was referring to a nickname he had for a White Tigers pitcher, but other witnesses said he was referring to a Black clubhouse attendant.
That employee, Derrell Coleman II, sued the Tigers in 2019, for racial discrimination. Coleman, 22 at the time, claimed “a culture of racism was tolerated by the upper echelons of management.”
When that lawsuit was filed in 2019, the Tigers said: “We strongly refute the allegations against our organization made in Thursday’s filing. We hold all of our personnel to the highest standards of personal conduct both on and off the field, and we have a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate behavior and workplace harassment.”
The resolution of that 2019 lawsuit, which was filed in Wayne County Third Circuit Court, is unknown; the lawsuit no longer can be found in court databases.
Nelson, who lives in Harrison Township, first joined the Tigers as a bat boy in 1979. He enlisted in the Air Force in 1984, using his 30-day leave to help the Tigers at spring training in Lakeland, Florida. He eventually rejoined the Tigers full-time, working for the ball club for 33 years.