Constable: Some old Cubs stiffed on big MLB pensions
During the 1970s, when the Chicago Cubs played only day games at Wrigley Field, infielder Carmen Fanzone made his nightly pilgrimages into the hot spots of Chicago's night life on Rush Street.
"I could be at the ballpark during the day and play my trumpet at night," says Fanzone, who says those Cubs' day games helped him balance his careers as a professional musician and a baseball player. "I got the chance to hang out at jazz clubs on Rush Street. I was an excuse for a lot of my teammates. They'd say they were going out to see me play, but I'd never see them."
Except for outfielder Gene Hiser, Fanzone's roommate on road trips.
The Cubs first-round draft pick in 1970, Hiser played with the Cubs for parts of five seasons, now works as a financial adviser with LPL Financial in Hoffman Estates and remains a close friend with Fanzone, who lives in Los Angeles. In addition to developing an appreciation for jazz, Hiser shares an underappreciated status with Fanzone when it comes to their pension from Major League Baseball. The pair and other players whose careers ended before 1980 receive just a fraction of the payments awarded players with shorter careers who came after them, and, in some cases, before them.
"I want these guys to get the redress they deserve," says Douglas J. Gladstone, a New York author who has been advocating for those players since he wrote the 2010 book "A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and the Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve." Because some of those players have died since the book came out, Gladstone now figures the number is closer to 500. "These men are being penalized for playing in the majors at the wrong time," Gladstone says.
With a walkout looming in 1980, the league and players' union reached an agreement that players would be eligible for lifetime health care benefits after one day in the Major Leagues, and qualify for a pension after 43 days. Fanzone, now 75, who appeared in 237 games across five years, and Hiser, now 68, who appeared in 206 games during his five years with the Cubs, fall short under the old rules for qualifying.
Instead of receiving a pension of about $36,000 a year, which can be passed on to a survivor, and the chance to buy the health care plan, Hiser and Fanzone receive no health care benefits and an annuity, which ends when they die, of a little more than $5,000 a year after taxes.
It's not as if baseball doesn't have the money to take care of those 500 or so players who would qualify for a pension if the 1980 guidelines were extended to cover them. A $10 billion-a-year business, baseball now has a minimum annual salary of $535,000, which will jump another $10,000 next year, and the average Major Leaguer makes $4.47 million a year.
Modern players with 43 days on an MLB roster qualify for annual pensions of between $35,000 and $215,000, depending on how long they played and the age they start collecting.
"It's the most over-funded pension plan in the world," Hiser says of the players' union plan.
Ironically, Hiser has led financial seminars for players with the Cubs and White Sox, and he sells a Pro Athlete Life Income Plan through his work with Corporate & Endowment Solutions.
Former pitcher Buzz Capra, 69, who also lives in Hoffman Estates and plays in celebrity charity golf tournaments organized by his friend Hiser, remembers the day he qualified for the MLB pension.
"I was very happy. At least, I knew I was locked in," says Capra, who had a longer career as a minor league pitching coach and now works with the Elite Sports Training Center in St. Charles. He says union leaders should give pensions to Hiser, Fanzone and their peers.
"I think they should go back and pick those guys up," says Capra, aware that the union did change the rules to allow payments to men who played before the union formed in 1947, as well as special payments to players in the Negro Leagues, who were denied a chance to earn an MLB pension. "It's not like they don't have any money."
Starting at the minimum salary of $16,500 and making $32,500 in his final season with the Cubs, Fanzone, who played the national anthem on his trumpet while in uniform before a 1972 Father's Day game at Wrigley Field, made his living as a horn player after baseball. He played a couple of years with the Baja Marimba Band, went on the road with Lou Rawls, and played trumpet and flugelhorm for many live performances and on albums, including a few recorded by his jazz singer wife, Sue Raney.
Fanzone remains an assistant to the president of the American Federation of Musicians Local 47 in Hollywood, from which he does draw a pension. He's comfortable telling stories about getting batting tips from baseball legend Ted Williams and a quick horn lesson from Doc Severinsen, the leader of "The Tonight Show" band for 30 years.
Hiser, who served in the Army and National Guard during his baseball career, had stints in the offseason working for an insurance company, selling cars in Libertyville and managing Herman's World of Sporting Goods at the new Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg.
For all their success after baseball, the buddies still consider themselves ballplayers.
Fanzone, who made his MLB debut at age 28 after a long minor league career, tells about making two errors on the first ball hit to him as a third baseman for the Boston Red Sox and hearing a fan grumble, "We waited seven years for this?"
But he also hit a home run in his very first at-bat as a Cub and hit two homers when he started in place of Ron Santo during a nationally televised Game of the Week.
Hiser, who won a national championship as a soccer player in college, had several highlight-reel catches in the outfield. And he also remembers his only big-league home run, a monster blast onto Sheffield Avenue in a 1973 game against a promising right-hander for the New York Mets.
"He's too polite to mention it," Capra says. "But he deserves that pension for hitting a homer off me."