Out In The Cold
"I know they could take care of us too... if they really wanted to.”
Yesterday on Twitter, the Major League Baseball Players Association celebrated a group of players who reached ten years of service time in the sport.
When a player reaches ten years of service, they become fully vested in the MLBPA pension, which guarantees a minimum of $68,000 a year for those who begin to draw at 45 years old and maximum of $220,000 a year for those who wait until they’re 62.
Comic book-inspired graphics were created for players like Paul Goldschmidt, Mike Trout, Jose Altuve, Buster Posey and a handful of others and the MLBPA has even labeled these players “Baseball X-Men” and “statistical superheroes.”
It’s the grandiose type of virtue signaling that has become prevalent in Major League Baseball and the MLBPA over the past few years.
Most will scroll past the graphics with little thought. Yesterday’s Twitter “celebration” of Baseball’s X-Men drew a handful of likes and retweets and some congratulations from players who were already in the club.
But there are some who see this type of back-patting and will get red-assed about it.
The reason being is that while the MLBPA likes to blare from the rooftops that they take care of their own, there’s a group of 600 elderly former Major League Baseball players that the MLBPA won’t even talk to.
You might say this group of players has fallen through the cracks when it comes to the MLBPA pension system, but the truth is that they have been pushed through the cracks and swept under the rug for years without being taken care of while the MLBPA basically sits around doing nothing but waiting for them to die.
The story is complex and has its intricacies for sure. Major League Baseball and the Players’ Union might have their own side of the story, but don’t expect them to break their Omerta anytime soon.
The abridged version of this tale is that during the labor strife of 1980, the Union and Major League Baseball agreed upon a change to the vesting requirements for a Major League Baseball pension. Prior to 1980, a player needed four years of service to be vested in the pension. The agreement in 1980 said that going forward, a player needed just one day of service to receive health benefits and just 43 days of service credit to receive a retirement allowance.
The problem driving this whole disagreement is that players who played between 1947-1980 who did not play four years to qualify for the pension were not grandfathered in or compensated based on the new terms of the agreement.
At the time, it just wasn’t an issue.
Players of that era didn’t play the game to be millionaires or retire with sweet pension deals. Baseball wasn’t the business then as it is now, not even close. The rules were that players needed four years of service, and that was just accepted by all at the time.
Things changed in 1997 when Major League Baseball justly decided to create a type of pension plan for 90 African American players who were not able to meet pension requirements due to their racial exclusion from the sport. Additionally, Major League Baseball rightly created a plan to financially compensate players who retired prior to 1947.
This would have been the perfect time to compensate the pocket of players who played between 1947-1980 but weren’t grandfathered in with the 1980 deal. But for the second time, they were left out in the cold with no compensation at all.
“At the time when I played, the rule was you had to have played for four years to get a pension, which we all understood,” said Dave DeBarr, a pitcher for the original Blue Jays of 1977 and a member of the Group of 600. “But they made changes to take care of the pre-1947 group and the Negro Leaguers. They gave them their pension even though they didn’t have their four years. I know they could take care of us too if they really wanted to.”
What has followed has been a 24-year battle that still bubbles behind the scenes to this day. In 2011, Major League Baseball decided to compensate this group of players, thanks largely to a public push by writer Douglas Gladstone and a group of former players. Even if it was a token gesture, it was still something Major League Baseball had no obligation to do.
The agreement was that anyone who played between 1947-1980 and had less than four years of service time would receive $625 per every 43 service dates on a Major League roster. The allotment was capped at $10,000 per year and at the time, it seemed like a victory for the group who had mostly resigned themselves to never seeing a dime.
“It’s a confounding situation and I don’t understand it at all. Here you have [Steve] Rogers and [Tony] 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.”
Once the initial excitement waned, the stink of the deal started to rise. None of the players could reach the $10,000 limit because if they did, they would have qualified for the vested pension. Players on the high end of service time receive a little more than $6,000 a year. One bit of trouble was that most of the players still alive didn’t approach the high end.
“I played nine years professionally, including a cup of coffee with the Blue Jays in 1977. I also played a good nine or ten years just to prepare for that,” said DeBarr. “All I get is a stipend of $500 a year for that and that’s not even guaranteed. They could take that away if they really wanted to.”
Jerry Tabb, a member of the Oakland A’s who was also the 1971 College World Series Most Outstanding Player as a freshman, originally was happy with the settlement–he received about $2,500 a year for playing in 75 games over three seasons–but that quickly wore off.
“At first, I thought it was better than what I was getting before,” said Tabb. “Then later when I learned that some of the other groups were getting more than that plus health insurance, some of whom never even made the Major Leagues, I didn’t think that was fair.”
In addition, there was no health coverage included and, in one final kick in the ass, when a player passes away, the stipend dies with them. They cannot bequeath their payment to a loved one the way players with a proper pension could.
Right now, there are about 600 players still alive who fall into this category. That’s down from 874 from just a decade ago and around 1,200 from 1980. All they are asking for is that each of them receive the maximum $10,000 annual payment and be able to leave it to a beneficiary for a negotiated period of time when they pass away. That aligns them with the pre-1947 group and the Negro League group.
That’s it. They’re simply asking for the remaining players in the group have their annual payments increased to $10,000 to match the other groups who were left out for all of those years.
This group is not asking for the moon. The Washington Nationals spent over $8,000 on sunflower seeds just for Spring Training in 2019. The amount of money that passes through the sport is obscene and incomprehensible. Money isn’t the issue. The players’ welfare and benefits fund is worth over $4.5 billion.
If Major League Baseball and the MLBPA want to be greedy about it, put it on the fans. In 2019, 68.5 million fans walked through the gates at ballparks across America. Put a miniscule tax on the tickets to have the fans create a fund for the players if they really want. Most fans wouldn’t mind giving a damn nickel or dime per ticket if it’s going to help former players in need.
It’s not about the money though.
“Would we like them all to be retroactively be restored to full pension coverage? Obviously, but that will break the game,” Gladstone told BallNine. Just do the math. If you got called up by the Mets this season for the first time and rode the pine from August 15 to October 1, that’s 43 game days. At 62, you’re gonna get $3,589.”
Gladstone continued, “Let’s say they retroactively restored 40 payments of $3,589 to make up for the past 40 years where these players haven’t been getting their pension. Multiply that by 600. It’s a ridiculous number. We don’t want that. All these guys want is $10,000 to match the pre-1947 group and the Negro League group. Neither one of those groups paid into the pension or the MLBPA. In the grand scheme of baseball, in the grand economy of baseball, it’s a drop in the bucket.”
It has turned into a fight between ego and principle and unfortunately, it’s a group of aging and mostly unhealthy former Major Leaguers who are the ones suffering.
“I am on a fixed income with Social Security, but I have enough money to pay the bills. There are others worse off” said DeBarr. “Anything extra from Major League Baseball would help me do other things like travel more. It might sound selfish, but once you retire, you don’t want to just sit and do nothing. For me though, if I got a pension it would be more about being accepted. It would make it seem like, ‘OK, they accepted me as a Major League ballplayer.’”
Another insult to the Group of 600 is that Major League Baseball has been incredibly generous in their community and charity endeavors. They have very visible in-season days and generate funds for Prostate Cancer and Breast Cancer. They have donated millions of dollars to Urban Youth Development programs and Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities. The Major League Baseball Community page lists 17 different charities for convenient ways to support or donate to these causes, which range from ALS to Stand Up To Cancer to the Jackie Robinson and Cal Ripken Jr. Foundations.
Gladstone points out that Major League Baseball donated $10 million to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 2017 when the museum was holding a drive to raise $30 million.
“If Major League Baseball can give the National Baseball Hall of Fame $10 million, then it certainly can give these real-life retirees money too,” said Gladstone. “Again, not saying they shouldn’t have done that. It’s great they did. But these are plaques, balls and relics and the museum that holds them. We’re talking about real-life retirees here.”
A year ago, members of all 30 front offices banded together to donate to groups including the Equal Justice Initiative, Campaign Zero and the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which is outstanding. That took a concerted effort from Theo Epstein to rally all 30 Heads of Baseball Operations to do so. Good on Theo for showing that initiative.
Where is the current MLB player or front office person rallying to support these retirees? People from the outside are willing to stand up for these folks, how come nobody from the inside will?
And how about the hypocrisy in all of this? We see promo after promo and read interviews about fighting for what’s right among different ethnic or social groups. Again, great. But where is the help for those who fall into those groups that Major League Baseball and the MLBPA say they support? The Group of 600 might not fall under the causes Major League Baseball and the MLBPA like to virtue signal about, but you’d figure they’d like to take care of their own to make them feel like they belong, and that’s part of the issue too.
Some of the Group of 600 have expressed that while they are among the small group to ever achieve that dream of playing in the Major Leagues, they don’t feel like they belong because the sport will not acknowledge them.
They see millions upon millions of dollars roll through the sport. They see other groups compensated. They see the millions Major League Baseball generously donates to so many charities every year. There are so many ways to figure out how to meet the wishes of this group that the only logical reason it isn’t happening is that it has become personal.
When you consider the ages of some of the former players, some of the financial hardships and some of the extensive medical issues they deal with, it’s pretty disgusting that there is no desire by anyone to even have further conversation on this subject.
“I always said that baseball didn’t take care of their own,” said DeBarr. “The only group that does is BAT, the Baseball Assistance Team. They’re a great organization and they’re the only ones that care about us.”
Not Major League Baseball and Rob Manfred, not the MLBPA, not current players and, in what some consider the ultimate insult, not even their former teammates who have power to change things.
“I sent a letter to the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association last year,” said Tabb. “I wanted to get out of the Association. I didn’t want anything to do with Major League Baseball anymore.”
There is no legal obligation for any of those people to do anything. There was no legal obligation for Major League Baseball and the MLBPA to put the 2011 agreement in place. Right now, the argument is about ethical and moral obligation. It’s determining whether the MLBPA wants to actually do something to help former player in need or are they just content with celebrating their millionaires who reach ten years of service for the purpose of making themselves look good.
As with anyone who likes to promote their own virtue signaling, don’t hold out hope that this group is going to do anything that will move the needle for those who could really use it.
“I’d imagine that this is a closed case,” said Tabb. “Even if there was a lot of publicity about this, and Doug Gladstone did a great job generating publicity for us with his book, but at this point, I don’t think Major League Baseball cares about us anymore.
It’s a bad look for Major League Baseball and the MLBPA. We’re in a time where every marginalized group in the sport is being advocated for, except the Group of 600. People are fighting for increased pay and better conditions for minor leaguers. Major League Baseball, the MLBPA and fans financially and socially support a tremendous amount of community groups based on race or socioeconomic status. People are pushing for an increase in scholarships and better conditions for college baseball players. There is increased awareness for women in baseball and support for programs that encourage that.
Again, all great ventures and baseball should be celebrated for supporting all of that. They, along with the MLBPA have been very charitable. But you’d be hard pressed to find anyone advocating for the Group of 600 that Major League Baseball and the MLBPA refuses to engage with besides Gladstone and some other writers periodically.
The Major League Baseball Players Association and Major League Baseball have buried their heads in the sand on this one and they likely won’t take it out until the last player from the Group of 600 dies. And when they do, they won’t have anything financial to pass on to their loved ones from being part of the exclusive club of being a Major League Baseball player.
Here are some key parties and events that have gotten us to this point.
This number is decreasing quickly. This is the approximate total number of players alive who had at least 43 Major League Baseball service days between 1947-1980 and were not grandfathered in to the 1980 pension amendment. They receive an annual stipend of $625 per 43 days of service up to $10,000 with no health benefits. Their stipends cannot be left to a loved one when they pass away. They are asking for all 615 players to receive $10,000 annually with the right to leave their stipend to a loved one for a negotiated period of time after their death.
Gladstone is the writer of A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and The Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve. He has been fiercely advocating for this group since 2008 when he learned of the plight of these players while interviewing former Cub Jimmy Qualls about a different story. Qualls is among the group of 600 and is most famous for breaking up Tom Seaver’s perfect game in the ninth inning on July 9, 1969. Gladstone has been in contact with everyone from Rob Manfred to Marvin Miller and many others in the baseball world as he continues his fight.
Member of the Class of 2020 Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Served as Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966-1982. One of the towering figures in American Labor Unions, Miller, along with Curt Flood, and others are largely responsible for turning the MLBPA unto perhaps the strongest Union in the country. Miller negotiated the 1980 deal that excluded non-vested players who played between 1947-1980. In Gladstone’s book, A Bitter Cup of Coffee, Miller admitted that overlooking those players was a mistake. Miller passed away in 2012.
The Negro League Group
A group of 90 African American players who were not able accrue four years of service time for an MLB pension because they were excluded from the sport due to their race. In a 1997 agreement, Major League Baseball reached a landmark decision to compensate these players with an annual stipend. To qualify, players had to have either four years of service in the Negro Leagues or a combined four years of service in the Negro Leagues and Major Leagues. This group included Buck O’Neil and Sam Jethroe among others. Recipients receive $10,000 annually.
The pre-1947 Group
A group of former Major League Baseball players who played before a Major League Baseball pension system was put in place. After the Negro League decision, Major League Baseball reached an agreement in which they would receive annual payments of $10,000.
Tony Clark and Steve Rogers
Clark is the current President of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association and Rogers is a Special Assistant for Player Benefits with the MLBPA. Clark and Rogers are seen as the two biggest obstacles for the Group of 600 being able to see an increase in payment. When Clark was elected as the first former player to be the President of the MLBPA, there was hope that having him in place would help their cause.
If compensation was to be collectively bargained for, the MLBPA would have to introduce it into negotiations with Major League Baseball. They can also negotiate this separately with Major League Baseball instead of waiting to get it in the next collective bargaining agreement. A former All-Star pitcher, Rogers was an MLB Player Rep during the 1980 agreement that left out the Group of 600. Clark and Rogers were in the room when the agreement was made with the Group of 600 in 2011.
Served as the Executive Director of the MLBPA from 2009-2013. Was instrumental in securing the initial deal between the MLBPA and Group of 600, which at the time was not something anyone thought would happen. Many people, including former Braves pitcher, advocate and member of the Group of 600, Gary Neibauer, believe there would be more hope for a deal if Weiner was still alive. Weiner passed away in 2013 at the age of 51 of a brain tumor.
The 2003 Lawsuit
In 2003, the group of retirees brought a lawsuit against Major League Baseball, Bud Selig and all 30 teams claiming that excluding them was a violation of their Civil Rights. The lawsuit also alleged battery, negligence, racial discrimination, and conspiracy. The battery and negligence stemmed from the way team doctors and trainers treated all players from 1950-1980 and specified overuse of cortisone shots without informing players of the dangers. The suit alleged that led to many of the medical problems these players faced later in life.
The lawsuit was unsuccessful in 2003 then was rejected yesterday by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006.
“The lawsuit was ridiculous because I could name persons of color right now, African Americans, Cubans, Venezuelans, Mexicans, who are part of the Group of 600. Gary Neibauer still believes that lawsuit weighs on Manfred,” said Gladstone.
Rob Manfred, Bud Selig and the 2011 Meeting
The current and former Commissioners of Baseball, both were involved in developing the current plan in place for the Group of 600. They were part of a group representing both sides who met in 2011. Michael Weiner, the Executive Director of the MLBPA prior to Tony Clark, pulled Rob Manfred out of the room during the meeting and the two came up with the agreement that is currently in place. Key figures from the Group of 600 who were in the room at the time were former players Eddie Robinson, David Clyde, Gary Neibauer among others.
Neibauer told BallNine, “In the meeting in 2011, 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.”
The MLBPA and Current Player Reps
The Major League Baseball Players Association have the ball in their court. It is on them to initiate any progress in this area. Current active player labor representatives from most teams have been contacted frequently, mostly by Gladstone, about this situation, only to have his pleas ignored. To this day, Tony Clark, the President of the Major League Players Association, has not said a single public word regarding the Group of 600.
“I don’t have any respect for Tony Clark,” said Neibauer. “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.”
What They’re Saying
BallNine interviewed multiple people who are either in the Group of 600 or support their cause. Here are some of the points they make.
“I was never gonna make it in a big time city newsroom with The Washington Post or New York Times, but I always agree with the mission of journalism and to get the facts out there so people can make a judgement of their own. The late Dave Anderson from the New York Times actually broke this story back in 2000, but nobody is stepping into Anderson’s footsteps and carrying the mantle for these players.” – Douglas Gladstone, author of A Bitter Cup of Coffee.
“Not many people get to make the Major Leagues or even sign a contract. If you get there, you should be recognized. We had to fight just to get this little stipend. I think if we got what we deserved, it would be a sign saying that if you make it to the Major Leagues, you are going to be taken care of.” – Dennis DeBarr, pitcher, Toronto Blue Jays.
“It’s a confounding situation and I don’t understand it at all. Here you have [Steve] Rogers and [Tony] 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.” – Gary Neibauer, pitcher, Atlanta Braves.
“I wish they would help us out with our medical problems. There are a lot of guys who are really bad off that should be taken care of, but they’re not. I am lucky to have good insurance, but there are a lot who don’t.” – Jerry Tabb, Oakland A’s first baseman.
The Final Word
There’s a lot to be angry about when it comes to the 600 former Major League Baseball players who fall into this group. From the perspective of Major League Baseball and the MLBPA, they already did compensate them when they didn’t have to. In their eyes, they probably see that as already having played their part. Would Major League Baseball and the MLBPA be more open to discussion if the lawsuit never happened? Possibly, but at this point it is all conjecture.
The retirees who have been left out in the cold have some familiar names in their group. David Clyde was once billed as the “next Sandy Koufax.” He was rushed to the Major Leagues at 18 years old shortly after becoming the top overall pick in the 1973 draft ahead of Dave Winfield and Robin Yount. George “The Stork” Theodore has a solid place in the fabric of Mets history and is among the group.
Dave Stenhouse was a two-time All-Star for the Washington Senators is being shunned by Major League Baseball as part of this group but his son, Mike Stenhouse, who played for the Expos, Twins and Red Sox is in the MLB pension system.
Aaron Pointer’s career bridged the Houston Colt .45s change over from to the Houston Astros is also a member of the group. You may know him as a former NFL Head Linesman or the first African American football official to work in the PAC-10. You may also know him as the brother to the Grammy Award winning Pointer Sisters.
Hell, you probably have seen Harold Reynolds on damn near every national baseball telecast you could think of in recent years. Did you know his brother Don Reynolds is among the Group of 600? Did you even know he had a brother who played Major League Baseball? Why hasn’t Harold used his platform to advocate for these gentlemen?
The list goes on and as you unpeel layers of the onion, it gets more and more frustrating on so many levels. All people could do is continue to bring attention to this situation and hope that cooler heads and common sense one day prevail. Maybe one day the MLBPA is able to take a step back, remove personal animosity and address the situation positively. It would make quite a feel-good story if they ever did. God knows the sport needs it. As the Group of 600 waits out in the cold for that to happen, time is running out real quick.
Douglas Gladstone has been advocating for the Group of 600 for nearly two decades. He’s seen as one of the driving forces who helped the group get a small annual stipend from Major League Baseball. His book A Bitter Cup of Coffee goes into much more detail on the topic and includes many more individual stories.