Rozner: MLB hypocrisy leaves pioneers behind

  • Aaron Pointer lived through the Jim Crow laws while hitting .401 in North Carolina in 1961, but he receives no pension and says MLB doesn't care about him or the ex-players without benefits living in poverty.

    Aaron Pointer lived through the Jim Crow laws while hitting .401 in North Carolina in 1961, but he receives no pension and says MLB doesn't care about him or the ex-players without benefits living in poverty. Photo courtesy of Metro Parks Tacoma

 
 
Updated 4/19/2021 12:13 PM

Aaron Pointer has absolutely no doubt about baseball's strategy when it comes to the retired players without a pension.

"They are waiting for us all to die so that they don't have to hear from us, or be bothered by us anymore," said Pointer, who turned 79 Monday. "Major League Baseball does not care about us or our contributions to the game."

 

When Doug Gladstone published a book about these men 10 years ago, there were 874 of them. When I first started writing about them two years ago, there were 636. Today, there are 613, including Pointer.

One by one they die, many behind on their rent and medical bills, leaving to a spouse only more heartache, instead of a baseball pension.

"You have guys collecting $200,000 in a pension. We're not looking for that," Pointer explained during a long phone conversation. "Just something to recognize our contribution to the game, to help out a little bit.

"I know a lot of guys who filed for bankruptcy, have terrible medical situations, living in poverty. They can't get baseball health benefits. But the message is very clear to me. Baseball doesn't care at all."

There is no logic or morality behind MLB's position, or to the union's unconscionable choice to leave these players behind.

Those who played before 1980, and didn't complete four years of service, don't qualify for a pension and get no health benefits, in stark contrast to those who arrived in 1980. They qualify for benefits immediately.

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In what world does this make sense, this arbitrary abandonment of certain players?

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

There's another 200 pre-1980 guys who didn't reach 43 days of service. They receive nothing from MLB and no concern from union boss Tony Clark, himself a former player who will soon receive a healthy pension and today collects more than $2 million a year as union chief.

Anyone who played after 1979 is eligible for health coverage after one day, but these 613 men are on their own. They had the bad luck of missing out because the union didn't care enough to make it retroactive.

The union still doesn't care -- and the hypocrisy is staggering.

MLB and the union are as woke as can be these days, supporting partisan issues with actions, statements and donations, knowing which narratives will get massive media support.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

They take curtain calls like the worst of the grandstanding politicians, their rhetoric loud and clear when there's a headline to grab.

But when it comes to their own -- including minorities who survived horrific racism in the minor and major leagues -- MLB executives and union members are very quiet, with no time for a group they classify as insignificant.

When Clark was given the Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in 2016, he voiced tribute to those who paved the way for his success and wealth.

Those were words.

There are African-American ex-players who need more than words. There's great press in supporting current players who speak out on issues that matter to them.

There's no press in taking care of broken-down old men.

Aaron Pointer doesn't toss out "Jim Crow laws" to score cheap political points, like so many today. Aaron Pointer lived through those sickening and bigoted laws as a 19-year-old Black man playing for the Salisbury (N.C.) Braves of the South Atlantic League in 1961, when he couldn't eat at the same restaurants or stay at the same hotels as his white teammates.

Back of the bus. Separate bathrooms. The appalling words of those who hated him for his skin color. And, yes, there were many times when Pointer feared for his safety.

"It's disturbing to me that (Clark) doesn't care about what we went through, what we endured in the South, as if it's worth nothing," Pointer said. "For five months in Salisbury, I hardly left my room except to go to the ballpark. I wasn't welcome in a movie theater or a restaurant, and I never had a chance to have lunch with my teammates.

"I was the only Black player on that team most of the season, and I couldn't go anywhere. For that, not even a 'thank you' from (Clark). It's like us players from (before 1980) don't even exist.

"I know he doesn't care about me and he doesn't want to hear it. He's not going to talk about it or take my phone call. When you're guilty and you know you're guilty, and you have all those billions in their (pension benefits) fund and no explanation for why they won't take care of us, he'd rather not talk about it.

"It's just a damn shame. Some of these old guys are really suffering. We don't need hundreds of thousands. Just what's fair."

Remarkably, Pointer hit .401 in 1961, the last professional in the U.S. to hit .400. He could have sat out the last day of the season, but insisted on playing and went 2-for-3. He did it in near total isolation.

"It's not just Black guys from that era. My only white friend on that team was Tommy Murray," Pointer said. "Played 10 years in the minors. Never got called up. Never received anything. Died at 61 years old in 2003.

"Spent the prime years of his life being an example of what players should be, dedicated to the game as a guy always trying to get better and being good to people. He got absolutely nothing. Never a 'thank you.' Nothing.

"Lots of guys like that. Baseball doesn't care. The union doesn't care."

Pointer, who got a hit off Sandy Koufax, played parts of three seasons in the big leagues for Houston, hitting 2 home runs, one off the late Joe Nuxhall and the other off former White Sox and Cubs coach Sammy Ellis.

In Houston in 1963, he was for a night part of an all-rookie starting lineup that included Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, Jimmy Wynn and Jerry Grote.

He was traded to the Cubs in 1968 and in 1969 helped his Triple-A team win a league championship in Tacoma, but he never got back to the big leagues and retired from baseball after playing three years in Japan.

As a youngster in Oakland, he played basketball with and against the likes of Bill Russell, Frank Robinson, Curt Flood and his cousin, Paul Silas.

The son of a pastor, a high school class president, the older brother of The Pointer Sisters and for all these years a resident of Tacoma, Pointer spent three decades working for the Pierce County Parks & Recreation Department, coaching and teaching kids. Two years ago, he was awarded the Harold G. Moss Decades Award by the Tacoma NAACP.

He was the first Black referee in the Pac-10 and was eventually a head linesman in the NFL. While officiating a Raiders game in Los Angeles, he watched The Pointer Sisters sing the national anthem, something that still gives him the chills when the thinks of it.

It has been some extraordinary life -- overcoming fierce racism in a career filled with accomplishment, dedication and love -- but it would be a just a little bit better with a little bit of help from MLB and the players union, where there are so many wealthy people ignoring those who fought baseball's battles before 1980.

"We're not looking to retire in luxury, just an acknowledgment that we spent all that time trying to make the game better," Pointer said. "Many of these guys are so broke their wives can't pay for funerals. It would be nice to have something to pass on to your spouse."

Pointer met his wife, Leona, at the University of San Francisco, from which he received a basketball/baseball scholarship. Some 58 years and three children later, they are still married. His wife would not even receive the $1,200 a year -- before taxes -- he currently gets from baseball if he were to pass.

Those checks are a recent development. Far from a pension, it's hush money. As in, hush-up and go away.

"When the check first arrived a couple years ago, there was no explanation of what it was or why," Pointer said. "It was like a payoff. 'Here's a little money. Now, shut up and leave us alone.'

"There's no appreciation for what our generation did for the game. The very least they could do is what's right, but we're expendable. They don't care that we all fought to make the game better, got more kids playing the game and continued to grow the game in all the ways we were involved.

"While you have all those billions, what is the moral argument for excluding us because we missed out on the calendar? How do they sleep at night? How do any of them sleep at night?"

Like Bud Selig and Rob Manfred, Tony Clark probably sleeps well -- on giant piles of money.

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