Player’s Advocate: Gary Neibauer
"I tell everyone that I am still tied for the record for the lowest career ERA in the postseason, 0.00."
On January 25, 2015, Rob Manfred began his term as Commissioner of Major League Baseball by writing a letter to the fans. In it, he spoke of baseball being a generational sport and vowed to “honor the game’s history.”
If ignoring the plight of over 600 elderly former Major League players, many with health issues, is Manfred’s way of honoring the past and promoting baseball among the generations, consider him true to his word.
Former Braves and Phillies righty Gary Neibauer joins us for a special Spitballin’ not just to talk about his career, but also to bring light to the fact that there are hundreds of former Major Leaguers who are in need and are being shunned by the sport.
Neibauer pitched in 75 games over five seasons, even logging an inning of relief for the Braves in the 1969 NLCS against the Mets. Today, he is 75 years old with two artificial hips and Type-2 diabetes.
Neibauer still stays active. When he spoke to BallNine, he had just finished working out. When asked how his hips held up, Neibauer cracked, “They’re artificial, I don’t feel them anymore. I can do anything I want except run, which is fine because I’ve run enough in my life.”
Many former players are not as lucky as Neibauer. They battle serious health problems, bankruptcy and the emotional toll of being ignored by baseball’s millionaires. For many, the proudest moment of their lives is playing in the Major Leagues.
It makes it hurt that much more that Manfred, the Major League Baseball Players Association and nearly everyone else has turned their back on them.
The situation has its complexities and a great in-depth examination of the plight of these former Major Leaguers can be found in Douglas Gladstone’s book, A Bitter Cup of Coffee; How MLB & The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve.
The gist of the issue is that the players who played between 1947-1980 who accrued less than four years of service time receive a pittance from Major League Baseball, rather than a proper pension that can be bequeathed to a beneficiary.
Players who debuted after 1980 only need one day of service time to receive health insurance coverage and just 43 days of service to receive a pension.
Players in Neibauer’s shoes receive an annual stipend based on their service time. After taxes, most players receive anywhere from a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars and in one final kick in the ass, they cannot continue to have the stipend paid to a beneficiary when they pass away.
In 2019, Major League Baseball generated $10.7 BILLION in revenue. The fact that there is a single living MLB alumnus who must worry about health coverage or financial security is, in a word, disgusting.
Neibauer has sat across the table from Manfred. He has met with Tony Clark and Steve Rogers of the MLBPA. He has been fighting for this cause for a long time, not just for himself, but for the hundreds of former players who laid the groundwork for today’s game and deserve the security.
Manfred and others have served Neibauer and some of his contemporaries a shit sandwich, but you’d never be able to tell when he’s talking about his time in the Majors.
Let’s go Spitballin’ with Gary Neibauer, he has an important message and incredible memories from his time in the game.
“I don’t have any respect for Tony Clark. I have no respect for Manfred either. It’s just fascinating the amount of money that baseball has in its kitty that they can’t take care of their own players.”
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Neibauer. I am happy that you’re willing to share your message with us at BallNine. But first, let’s talk about your career. Where did you develop your love for baseball?
I was born in Billings, Montana and lived two blocks away from historic Cobb Field. They had a Rookie Ball team there and I can remember my mom and dad walking to the field to watch the games. It was one of those classic old wooden stadiums and just really fun to go to.
I remember the rainy days we’d go under the wooden stands to stay dry, but the rain would come through the cracks anyway. I remember a little about the games, but what stands out to me is that I remember that when the outfielders would come in to hit, they would leave their gloves out in the field. I still remember that as a kid. I saw the old Yankee Gil McDougald play for them in 1948 too, so I always rooted for him.
It’s amazing how vivid memories like that stick with us for decades. You played in the minors from 1966-1968 and I looked up some of your teammates. You were teammates with some great baseball minds like Bobby Cox, Cito Gaston, Dusty Baker, Walt Hriniak and Tom House just on one team. What was that like?
It probably means more to me now looking back at it. When I was playing, I didn’t get the full grasp of the magnitude of what was going on at the time. I actually signed between my junior and senior year of college in 1966. I went back to school in 1967 because it was during the Vietnam War and if you weren’t in school, you got drafted.
In ’66 I was going to go to Yakima for Rookie Ball, but I got a phone call from Paul Richards, the General Manager, and he said they wanted their top ten pitching prospects in AA. I reported and worked out for ten days there. They must have liked how I threw because Richards and Clint Courtney kept me there.
That’s great you mentioned Clint Courtney! He is an underrated baseball character and revered among the BallNine family. We’ve heard the stories of him catching in games without a chest protector because it was too hot and picking fights with Billy Martin. How was he to play for?
He was Paul Richards’ right-hand man. He was a character for sure. We called him “Scrap Iron” or “Scraps.” I still remember this clear as day. I was pitching to Clint in the visitors’ bullpen in Austin; he was catching my bullpen. Richards came and stood in the left-handed batter’s box. I had this pitch that was like a hard curve ball, like a swerve curve ball and I threw it really hard.
Courtney said in his drawl, “Hey, throw that thing you throw.” I threw it as hard as I could and it was a strike, but Courtney missed it. He didn’t even touch it and it damn near broke Paul Richards’ knee. I still swear that one pitch was the reason I stayed in AA and didn’t go back down.
Courtney was a good old Louisiana boy and hard worker. He was real tough and just a good guy. He was a piece of work, but I liked him a lot.
I want to ask about another minor league teammate of yours for a short time, Luis Tiant. Mr. Tiant and his son Dan are frequent guests on our Roundhouse videocast.
I’ll be darned! Well, it was 1971 and I was in AAA Richmond for a while. The Braves signed Luis Tiant when he was making his way back from an injury. One thing I can still remember is he had somebody in Cuba sending him Cuban cigars. They were the best damned cigars I ever had.
I am not surprised by any of that. You got called up as a rookie in 1969 with the Braves and got your start on a great team with legendary players. You even came in relief in Game 2 of the 1969 NLCS against the Mets. What are your memories of your rookie year?
I always had that dream to play in the Majors and in ’69 I made the team out of Spring Training. I got to play with Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro, Clete Boyer, Ralph Garr, Orlando Cepeda, Rico Carty and all those guys. I really feel fortunate to be able to say that I played with those guys. It was a dream come true; it really was.
The playoffs were a surreal situation. Of course, that was the year of the Miracle Mets. It was a best of three series and the first two games were in Atlanta. They pounded Niekro in Game 1 and had [Jerry] Koosman pitching Game 2.
They beat us pretty good again Game 2 and I got to pitch the ninth. I faced four batters because Al Weis got on by error, but I got the next three guys out. I tell everyone that I am still tied for the record for the lowest career ERA in the postseason, 0.00.
You stayed in the league for four more seasons and faced so many incredible hitters. Guys like Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks and Willie Stargell. What can you say about the players you pitched against in the National League at the time?
My God, you look at the guys who played in that era. I think it’s the heyday for big-name guys. Pete Rose gave me a hard time, but the guy who just killed me was Willie McCovey. Honest to God, I don’t think I ever got him out. I can remember way back when pitching in Candlestick Park, which was my least favorite park in the world.
Davey Johnson was playing second base and McCovey was up. I just dreaded facing the damned guy. He hit a rocket grounder, but right at Davey Johnson. I thought, “Great, I finally got him out.” Well, he hit the ball so damned hard it knocked the glove right off Davey’s hand and he got a hit anyway.
Before we get into the pension issue, do you have a memory besides your debut or first career win that stands out to you?
In 1969, we were playing the Cubs at Wrigley Field and Ken Holtzman threw a no-hitter against us. It was one of those days where the wind was blowing in and Hank Aaron hit two balls that would have been long gone on any other day. Billy Williams was battling the ivy out there in left and came down with both of them.
Phil Niekro pitched for us and did great too. Tommie Aaron pinch hit for him in the top of eighth and I got to come in to pitch the bottom of the eighth. So, I got to say that I pitched in a no-hitter in Wrigley Field.
That’s an awesome claim to be able to make! I don’t mean to turn the conversation sour, but I wanted to ask you about your fight for a pension for you and hundreds of other former players. Can you start out by summarizing the heart of the issue for our readers?
I’m not sure how to say it judiciously, but it’s just a real question mark why we find ourselves in this situation. Why this group of players have been left out in the cold is just baffling to me. Nobody seems to get it.
Basically, if you played before 1980 and didn’t have four years of service time, you didn’t get a pension. So now, there’s something in place where we get $625 for every 43 games we played in the Majors. It’s capped at $10,000, but nobody gets near that because if you did, you’d have the years you need to be in the full MLB pension. There’s about 600 of us in this situation.
Marvin Miller represented the players when we played, and a lot of us were in that group in 1972 that participated in the walkout/strike. It had never occurred in professional athletics before. It was very instrumental in making the Players’ Association what it is today. Now, Tony Clark, Steve Rogers and the Players Association won’t even talk to us.
Had they been receptive to conversations in the past?
I was actually at a meeting in the Major League Baseball offices. It was me, Eddie Robinson, Craig Skok and David Clyde representing this special group. Dan Foster from the MLBPAA was there and Rob Manfred represented Major League Baseball. The head of the MLBPA Michael Weiner was there too and so was Steve Rogers, who I don’t have a single good thing to say about.
We talked about what was going on at the time and there had been a lawsuit that would take too long to discuss the details of. In the meeting, Manfred said that the lawsuit cost him over a million dollars to defend, and it probably did. What I should have done was stood up and yelled, “Who gives a shit about a million dollars? You’ve got guys making that and can’t even hit .210. Don’t tell me about a million dollars.”
Nobody's mad at Junior, but Tony Clark and Manfred... that's a different story.
It’s just unbelievable that those guys you mentioned could be so callous. With Manfred, I can’t say I’m surprised. How did the rest of the meeting go?
Michael Weiner asked Manfred to go out in the hallway with him and that’s where they came up with this stipend we receive today. If it wasn’t for Michael Weiner, that would have never happened. My opinion of the whole thing is that if Michael Weiner was still alive today, we would be part of the regular pension or there would have been something else done for us in that regard.
After Michael Weiner died, Tony Clark became the first former player to be named head of the Players’ Union. I can’t believe he wouldn’t take up your cause the same way Weiner seemed to be doing.
I don’t have any respect for Tony Clark. I have no respect for Manfred either. It’s just fascinating the amount of money that baseball has in its kitty that they can’t take care of their own players. They give millions and millions of dollars away to charities, which is great and they should keep that up, but why not try to take care of us? This is supposed to be a Player’s Association and now they won’t even speak to us.
This is just an infuriating situation and I wish you had someone in your corner that could make a difference.
Even [Dan] Foster’s group, the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, doesn’t want to step up for us, even though that’s what the organization is supposed to do. He knows damned good and well that Manfred doesn’t like us. He knows if he tried to say something on our behalf, he’s gonna get flushed. He wouldn’t have a seat at the table and be able to participate in some things.
The Phillies' Lowell Palmer - shown here in all his Topps glory - is one of the many players not in the MLB pension system.
So, essentially, you’re stuck. Do you see there being any chance moving forward with the current people in their positions, or would it take a change there in order to move forward?
That’s a good question and I wouldn’t even know how to answer that. And going back to the Alumni Association with Eddie Robinson, Skok and me, they kicked us off the Board because we pissed them off. So, we have no access now.
I still belong to the Association though and there’s a definite reason for that. It costs me $30 a year to join and they send me a check every year for $50 for promotional income. So, I think that’s the best investment I ever made.
At least you have that $20 over them in principle. We’re working on a longer piece about this for a future article on BallNine with input from some of the players who are affected, and we hope to open some eyes to this situation. Are there any final thoughts you’d like to leave our readers with?
You’re on the right track. If you read Doug Gladstone’s book, Bitter Cup of Coffee, it fills in a lot of the blanks. It’s great and he lays it all out chronologically. It’s a confounding situation and I don’t understand it at all. Here you have Rogers and Clark, former players, and they don’t want to have anything to do with us.
Granted, we have gotten under their skin, but you know what? They’re big boys. They should be able to handle that kind of shit. They should be able to help us out, and they don’t. Money shouldn’t be an issue here, but it is. It’s also about pride too.
It’s a sad scenario. We all played the game that we absolutely loved and that’s why we are involved in it. Unfortunately, some didn’t make the money that they do today. It’s unfortunate that although we laid the groundwork for some phenomenal financial success for the players and owners, they have just completely turned their back on us.
There are a lot of things in life that are not fair. This is one of them.
I don’t understand it.
BallNine is producing a longer piece that examines the plight of over 600 former Major Leaguers who have been left out of the pension system. The retired players are asking for $10,000 per year for each former Major Leaguer who is not vested in the pension system and the opportunity to bequeath that to a beneficiary for a period of time after their passing. That’s it. For a detailed account of the plight of these Major Leaguers, you can read Douglas Gladstone’s book, A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and the Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve.