Rozner: Left out in the cold … These retired players reveal shameful MLB tale

  • Doug Gladstone's "A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB & the Players' Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve" shines a light on living ex-players who didn't complete four years of service to qualify for a pension.

    Doug Gladstone's "A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB & the Players' Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve" shines a light on living ex-players who didn't complete four years of service to qualify for a pension. Courtesy of Doug Gladstone

  • Courtesy of Gene HiserFormer Cub Gene Hiser, a financial planner from Hoffman Estates who was with the Cubs from 1971-75 has done well for  himself. But it angers him some of his friends aren't as lucky.  "So many of them are really suffering and that money would really help them at the end of their lives."

    Courtesy of Gene HiserFormer Cub Gene Hiser, a financial planner from Hoffman Estates who was with the Cubs from 1971-75 has done well for himself. But it angers him some of his friends aren't as lucky. "So many of them are really suffering and that money would really help them at the end of their lives."

 
 
Updated 3/10/2019 8:45 AM

A little more than a year ago, Major League Baseball wrote a check to the Hall of Fame for $10 million.

It was a nice little donation to a wonderful museum that houses thousands upon thousands of inanimate objects.

 

For hundreds of living ex-players, however -- those who played before 1980 and didn't complete four years of service to qualify for a pension -- the $11.5 billion industry can't find a few extra dollars.

Not the commissioner. Not the players association. Not the current players.

Almost no one is interested in this story.

No one, that is, except author Doug Gladstone, who in 2010 wrote, "A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB & the Players' Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve."

As it stands today, there are 636 players who get a small amount of money based on a complicated formula, but no pension or health benefits are available to them because they had the misfortune of playing before 1980.

They can't bequeath this relatively tiny sum to their widows, and these "non-qualified retirement payments" only came to pass because of Gladstone's book and his dogged attempts to shed light on a revolting chapter in baseball history.

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So how did Gladstone -- a freelance writer -- stumble upon this story, one that has now consumed him for a decade?

"Very simple. It began with a Jimmy Qualls 40th anniversary piece I was writing," Gladstone said, referring to the former Cubs outfielder who broke up Tom Seaver's perfect game with a ninth-inning single in July 1969. "I said something innocuous like, 'Are you happy with your career?'

"He said, 'Yes. I just wish it was longer. I don't get a pension.'

"I was shocked. I assumed every major leaguer gets a pension. You can't right every wrong, but this seems like such an easy injustice to fix.

"But MLB won't do anything because they say it's the union's responsibility and the union won't lift a finger."

Old men are being evicted from their homes, dying penniless and without proper medical care, while the MLBPA's welfare and pension benefits fund is quite healthy and now valued at more than $3.5 billion.

Players association boss Tony Clark draws an MLB pension from his years as a player and currently collects $2.1 million a year as head of the union.

The 72 people who work for the union in New York -- Gladstone found in tax filings -- are paid a collective $16 million a year. That's an average salary of $222,000.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The minimum major league salary today is more than $500,000. The average player salary is $4.4 million. Bryce Harper ($330 million) and Manny Machado ($300 million) are doing rather well. The average team valuation is $1.6 billion. MLB has turned a profit of $500 million the last three years. Revenues are skyrocketing. And Bud Selig's last salary in 2014 was $22 million, so it's a reasonable guess that commissioner Rob Manfred is pulling down half that much.

But some of those who played for Selig when he was the Brewers' owner, and walked the picket lines for the current era of players, don't have cash on hand to pay for their own funerals. That's some of the 636 pre-1980 players who get a mere pittance from baseball.

There's another 200 pre-1980 guys who didn't reach 43 days of service. They get nothing.

For every quarter year of service, the 1947-1979 players -- who didn't reach four years of service time -- get $625, before taxes. The maximum is $10,000, though most receive only a fraction of that.

And these guys were compensated only after Gladstone's book was published nine years ago. They are also not covered under MLB's health care umbrella plan and are not permitted to buy in.

By contrast, anyone who played after 1979 is eligible for health coverage after one game day and eligible for a pension after 43 game days. The union did not make it retroactive when it made that deal in 1980, leaving behind the rest.

A current pension can be passed on to a loved one or designated recipient and a vested player today can earn a pension of as much as $220,000.

So while everyone's getting rich and there is so much cash to go around, the pre-1980 players are essentially ignored.

Pick a number. Let's say, for the sake of argument, $10,000. It's a small number, relative to current baseball wealth.

It would cost $6.36 million a year to give 636 retired players -- who have no pension or health benefits -- $10,000, and then allow them to pass it along as a death benefit to their widows.

Most of them are elderly and in poor health, so it's not like MLB would have to worry about it for very long.

The players association did not respond to a request for comment on whether the PA has any intention of trying to help these men.

But former Cub Gene Hiser, a financial planner from Hoffman Estates who was with the Cubs from 1971-75, has lots to say. Hiser has done well for himself, so receiving a small amount from baseball does not affect his life.

"There's a lot of guys, a lot of my friends, who are not in that position because of injuries or because they couldn't work," said the 70-year-old Hiser. "What makes me angry is I didn't even know about the 1980 ruling, where everyone is vested from Day 1 if they played after 1979.

"You don't have to be there four years, but before that guys had to have four years to get vested. I didn't know all that until (Cubs teammate) Carmen Fanzone told me.

"I mean, you have to be kidding me.

"The kicker is most of these guys in that period are guys who went out on strike so the current players could get big bucks. Time lost to a strike are days you don't get back, and maybe 100 of those guys would have four years (and a pension) if not for that.

"And there's guys who fought during the wars and didn't get that time back.

"This pension plan is overfunded. They have billions. That's great. That's a good thing. But $10,000 to each guy, that's not going to hurt the pension at all and some of the guys have really gone downhill.

"So many of them are really suffering and that money would really help them at the end of their lives."

Gladstone has written about dozens of players with heartbreaking tales, including 96-year-old George Yankowski, who was a catcher for the White Sox in 1949.

Originally signed by Connie Mack, he played for the Phillies in 1942 and enlisted in the Army that October. He fought in Europe and earned a Bronze Star for his participation in the 40-day Battle of the Bulge.

He gets $2,500 from MLB, before taxes, never mind the years he lost to World War II. When Yankowski got his first check eight years ago, he told Gladstone he used it for long-overdue dental work.

Here's where we remind you these players are not allowed to buy into the players association health insurance plan, which is hardly your average American health plan.

Don Eddy, who pitched for the White Sox in 1970-71, died in October. His widow, Bernadette, not only lost the $1,250 that Don was receiving, but Bernadette told Gladstone that when she called to see if she could keep the money, the commissioner's office told her she couldn't keep even a prorated amount, though her husband was alive for more than nine months in 2018.

Heartless as they are, they told her to send it back. All of it.

Selig bought the Brewers for $10 million in 1970 and sold the club for $223 million in 2005, but several of the players from the pre-1980 era who played for Selig are destitute.

Among those who have no pension but toiled in Milwaukee for Selig -- thought to be worth $400 million -- are Bob Coluccio, who also had a brief stint with the 1977 South Side Hitmen.

Coluccio was 35 games shy of a pension when he retired from baseball due to a family illness, which prevented him from returning to the game.

ESPN reported that Selig -- who wrestled the commissioner's job away from Fay Vincent in a 1992 coup -- gets an annual salary of $6 million in retirement, along with all the best health benefits.

One man who played for him in Milwaukee is 77-year-old Louisiana native Bernie Smith, a former college teammate of Lou Brock. Smith hitchhiked 400 miles to a minor league tryout and played eight years in the minors for the Mets, where he encountered racism at nearly every stop.

He was an outfielder for Selig's Brewers in 1970-1971. He has no pension.

While commissioner, Selig collected in the neighborhood of $200 million.

The stories go on and on and on. Gladstone has told many of them and has recently updated his book, for all the good it will do convincing Major League Baseball to discover a heart or consider those who came before them.

No one begrudges anything to those earning a great living today, and if the MLBPA pension wasn't so healthy, there would probably be no complaints.

But these men and their families were abandoned in 1980 and everyone involved should be embarrassed to hear that those who went out on strike for today's players, and those who nearly froze to death fighting a war while giving up their careers, are now in such dire straits.

Baseball doesn't care. And it should be ashamed.

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